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Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes

Democracies and Authoritarian Regimes (1st edn)

Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Natasha Lindstaedt, and Erica Frantz
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p. 25513. The Rise of Populism and Its Impact on Democracylocked

p. 25513. The Rise of Populism and Its Impact on Democracylocked

  • Andrea Kendall-Taylor, Andrea Kendall-TaylorDirector of the Transatlantic Security Program, Center for a New American Security
  • Natasha LindstaedtNatasha LindstaedtProfessor of Government, University of Essex
  •  and Erica FrantzErica FrantzAssistant Professor, Michigan State University


This chapter studies the rise of populism and its impact on democracy. Populism is an ideology that separates society into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’. Moreover, populism makes moral distinction between these groups; it seeks to valorise and legitimize the people while denigrating the elite. The chapter then describes the key attributes of populist leaders and their supporters. Although not inherently anti-democratic, populism does run counter to the liberal democratic ideal that emphasizes the protection of rights. Populists look to place the needs of the majority or native group ahead of individual liberties and needs. Finally, the chapter considers the underlying drivers of the rise of contemporary populism. These drivers fall into three broad categories: economic, including globalization and the economic stasis and inequality that has occurred along with it; the declining importance of political parties; and a cultural backlash against progressive values.

Populism is not new. Although there has been a substantial uptick in support for populist parties and leaders in recent years, populism has long been a feature of democratic politics. Since Roman times, almost every type of government holding competitive elections has experienced some form of populism (Mounk, 2014). From Tiberius and Gaius Gracchus in the Roman Republic, to the Jacobins in Paris in the late eighteenth century, the United States People’s Party in the late nineteenth century, and the Latin American populists from the 1930s until recently—populist movements have dotted the globe, featuring ambitious politicians who mobilize the masses in opposition to an establishment they depict as corrupt or self-serving. By the mid-twentieth century, populism had become commonplace.

But then, during an extended period of economic growth in the aftermath of World War II to the late 1970s, most Western democracies managed to push populism to the fringes of politics. On the right, populists occasionally featured in local or regional governments, but inevitably failed to gain traction in national elections. On the left, the countercultural protest movements of the 1960s and 1970s challenged the status quo but did not secure institutional representation until they subdued their more radical elements. As political scientists Seymour Martin Lipset and Stein Rokkan (1967) famously observed, during the post-war years the party structures of North America and Western Europe were ‘frozen’ to an unprecedented degree. Between 1960 and 1990, Western democratic parties barely changed (Mounk, 2014).

Beginning in the 1990s, however, populist parties re-emerged on the political scene and their support has steadily grown. Since that time, populist movements in Europe and the United States have uprooted traditional party structures and forced ideas long regarded as extremist or unsavoury onto the political agenda. Brexit, the election of Donald Trump, and Marine Le Pen’s appearance in the runoff of the French presidential p. 256elections in 2017 underscore just how pronounced the rise of populism has been. Even beyond the United Kingdom, the United States, and France, populist parties and their leaders have surged. The average vote share of populist parties in national and European parliamentary elections has more than doubled since the 1960s, from around 5.1 per cent to 13.2 per cent; their share of seats has tripled from 3.8 per cent to 12.8 per cent (Inglehart and Norris, 2016). The rapid rise of these parties led José Manuel Barroso (head of the European Commission from 2004 to 2014) to state in 2012 that his number one concern was the rise of populist movements in Europe (Stavrakakis and Katsambekis, 2014).

Since 2012, populist parties have shown few signs of cresting. In Germany, the radical-right populist party Alternative for Germany entered the Bundestag (the German parliament) in the 2017 federal election as the third largest party—outperforming the expectations of many political observers. In Italy, as well, the far-right League party and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement entered into a coalition and formed a new government in Italy in 2018. As of early 2019, far-right parties had a presence in twenty-three out of twenty-eight European parliaments.

Many political commentators have sounded the alarm bell about populism’s rise and asserted that it poses a threat to liberal democracy. But is this true? This question is important to understand given that the forces driving populism have not abated. A number of deep structural changes—the declining importance of political parties, rising inequality, and values and identity changes, all of which we discuss in this chapter—have transformed how people interact with their governments and reduced governments’ abilities to satisfy their citizens. Given the likely staying power of populist parties and movements, scholars, policymakers, and political actors must learn to address and manage the challenges that populism poses for the foreseeable future.

In this chapter we address these issues. In the first section, we define populism and describe the key attributes of populist leaders and their supporters. We then discuss the relationship between populism and democracy. We conclude the chapter by discussing the key drivers of contemporary populism.

What is populism?

Populism is difficult to define because it encompasses such a broad range of actors and ideas (Bale, 2012; Mudde, 2007). The term ‘populist’ has been used to characterize leaders and movements as varied as Juan Perón in Argentina, Marine Le Pen and the National Front in France, and the Syriza party in Greece. Scholars and political observers have argued that the expansive application of the term has rendered the concept of populism almost meaningless, such that it is too ambiguous to tell us anything useful about politics. So what is populism? How can a single concept encapsulate such different movements, leaders, parties, and governments with such radically divergent characteristics? In this section we define the core characteristics of populism, as well as the specific contours of the right-wing and left-wing variants of the phenomenon. We also discuss the traits of populist leaders and their supporters.p. 257

Populist ideology

Populism is chameleonic—it appears differently in different times and places (Taggart, 2000). Despite its variation, populist movements share several fundamental characteristics. At its core, populism is an ideology that separates society into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’ (Mudde, 2004). Moreover, populism makes moral distinction between these groups; it seeks to valorize and legitimize the people while denigrating the elite (Stanley, 2008). While all populist movements leverage this polarizing, anti-establishment framework, there is little consensus across movements about who constitutes ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’. The definitions of these groups and the values they embrace differ depending on the characteristics of the power structures they seek to overturn. Where political elite culture is characterized by a commitment to liberal values of individualism, multiculturalism, and internationalism, for example, populism is likely to be shaped by its resistance to these ideas (Canovan, 1999 p. 3–4). In other words, definitions of these groups (the pure people and the corrupt elite) should be thought of as empty vessels, filled in differently by different actors (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2013). See further Box 13.1.

Box 13.1: Populism as a ‘thin ideology’

Numerous scholars have characterized populism as a ‘thin ideology’, one that is unable to offer complex arguments and often varies based on the perceptions and needs of different societies (Freeden, 1998; Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2013; Stanley, 2008). Populism, for example, seeks to displace the political establishment, but does not offer specific ideas about what should replace it. ‘Thick ideologies’, in contrast, provide a holistic view of how politics, the economy, and society should be ordered. Because populism is amorphous and lacks the depth of other ideologies, populist leaders often draw on and pair their political platforms with elements of ‘thick’ ideologies. Populism, therefore, frequently appears in combination with the following ‘thick’ ideologies (Pauwels, 2011, p. 99):

Nationalism: Nationalism advocates that the nation is the legitimate source of power and should govern itself free from external interference. It focuses on maintaining a national identity based on shared characteristics of culture, language, race, religion, and common ancestry. Nationalism cultivates a sense of belonging and membership that taps into people’s emotions. In terms of domestic policy, nationalism is exclusive and seeks to promote and defend the interests of the majority, including against immigrant minorities and out of touch elite. In terms of foreign policies, nationalists espouse policies that put the nation first at the expense of relationships with other countries, such as advocating economic nationalism and protectionism or closing borders to immigration. Nationalism, therefore, is opposed to foreign rule by members of other nations, as in colonial empires, as well as to rulers who disregard the perspectives and needs of the majority (Wimmer, 2019).

Socialism: Socialism advocates greater public/collective ownership and operation of the social means of production for the common good (Martin, 1911). Socialism is sometimes presented as an alternative to capitalism, where the means of production are privately held. Socialism aims to minimize inequalities through public control of industry and social services.p. 259

Fascism: Fascism is associated most closely with Europe between the world wars when movements bearing this name took power in Italy and Germany and wreaked havoc in many other European countries. Although fascists differed from country to country, they shared a virulent opposition to democracy and liberalism, as well as a deep suspicion of capitalism. They also believed that the nation—often defined in religious or racial terms—represented the most important source of identity. Fascist leaders, therefore, promised a revolution that would replace liberal democracy with a new type of political order devoted to nurturing a unified and purified nation under the guidance of a powerful leader (Berman, 2016).

Another core characteristic of populism is a belief that politics should be an expression of ‘the general will’ of the people (Mudde, 2004). Populism, therefore, assumes that a singular popular will exists, can be articulated, and should be privileged over the preferences of the elite. Contemporary European populists, for example, profess to serve the ‘ordinary people’ whose opinions they view as being overridden by elites, corrupt politicians, and vocal minorities (Canovan, 1999). Many European populists believe that free and fair elections do not sufficiently constitute representative democracy because the main parties do not provide individuals with a real choice (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2013). Populists, therefore, aim to bypass the ‘corrupt elite’ and give a voice to the ‘silent majority’. Seen in this light, populism centres on the belief that democratic institutions cannot express the true will of the people and advocates for a more pure form of democratic governance (Seligson, 2007).

Beyond these core characteristics, however, the concept of populism remains fairly indistinct. Scholars, therefore, have sought to provide additional clarity by articulating what populism is not. The concepts of elitism and pluralism are especially useful in this regard because they are essentially opposites of populism (Kaltwasser and Taggart, 2016; Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2012. Elitism is the belief that politics will be most constructive and beneficial for society when policies reflect the ideas of the elite, a select group of people with certain intrinsic qualities, high intellect, special skills, and/or experience. According to this perspective, the elite should be afforded greater influence and authority than ‘the people’. Pluralism denies the homogeneity of both populism and elitism, seeing society as a heterogeneous collection of groups and individuals with often fundamentally different views and wishes (Mudde, 2004). Populism rejects both these perspectives, seeing politics as the expression of a homogenous general will of the people.

Although we have identified the characteristics common to all forms of populism, there are also important distinctions that differentiate its variants. Populism is typically separated into two subtypes, left-wing and right-wing. These subtypes differ on a number of dimensions, but particularly in terms of their level of inclusivity and in the way they define ‘the people’. Left-wing populism tends to be more inclusive, demanding that politics be opened up to groups that have been discriminated against and whose voices have not been taken into account by the establishment, such as the poor. Left-wing populists, therefore, often define the people in terms of class (the downtrodden). They are frequently associated with movements that seek to build broad bases of mass support, often through their provision of material incentives, such as expansionary economic p. 258policies and the extension of social benefits. Left-wing populism has historically been most common in Latin America and includes leaders such as Juan Perón in Argentina and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela.

Contemporary left-wing populist movements have maintained their focus on socio-economic issues, particularly growing economic inequality, declining social mobility, and stagnating living standards. But left-wing populists have also emphasized additional social issues such as government and corporate corruption. In the United States, for example, the Occupy Wall Street movement rallied its supporters around the idea of the ‘99 per cent’ of people struggling under the thumb of the elite one per cent. In Europe, left-wing populist movements, including Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos, seek to defend the traditional welfare state and reject austerity measures the EU imposed in the wake of the euro crisis. Even in Latin America today, scholars view corruption as the most likely mobilizer of future populist movements (O’Neil, 2016). See further Box 13.2.

Box 13.2: Populism in Latin America

In the 1930s and 1940s, populism emerged in Latin America in response to political, socio-economic, and cultural exclusion. Populist leaders such as Juan Perón in Argentina and Getúlio Vargas in Brazil tapped into the mounting frustrations of ordinary citizens who had grown tired of their treatment under the system. Although many Latin American governments tried to combine liberal-inspired constitutions and elections with strong, highly personalized leadership, years of rapid urbanization and industrialization delegitimized the model.

Beginning in the early 2000s, populists re-emerged as a reaction to neo-liberalism and rising corruption. Populist leaders such as Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Rafael Correa in Ecuador appealed to citizens using a dualistic and antagonistic discourse, pitting the people against the elites, the West, and globalization. In contrast to their predecessors, these populist leaders spurred on citizen revolutions through elections, rather than just through mass rallies or violence. All three enjoyed relatively high levels of support at various times during their presidencies and sustained themselves in power by winning elections. All three also sought to roll back democratic norms and practices. Correa stepped down in 2017 and the government that succeeded him eased the restrictions his administration had imposed on the media and civil society. At the time of writing, however, Morales remains in power in Bolivia, as does Chávez’s successor, Nicolas Maduro in Venezuela.

As this chapter will discuss, many scholars see populism as creating challenges for democracy. A number of populist-fuelled leaders, including Chávez, Morales, and Correa, have weakened democratic institutions in ways that paved the way for democratic backsliding (Levitsky and Loxton, 2013; Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2012). But not all scholars of Latin American politics agree with this assessment. Ernesto Laclau (1977), for example, argued that populism is a process of political discourse that leads to the construction of popular political identities. Though society is split into two camps, he argues that populism enables citizens to challenge the inequities of the old order. Other scholars have noted that left-wing populism, or progressive populism, is vital to challenging more exclusive and inequitable forms of rule (Stavrakakis, 2017). Torbjörn Tännsjö (1992) calls populism the purest form of democracy.p. 260

Some scholars have taken a more nuanced perspective, suggesting that populism can be beneficial under certain circumstances. In particular, scholars have argued that left-wing populism can be helpful to democracy, but only when its leaders are not in power. They posit that when populists are the challengers, populism can strengthen democracy. These scholars cite instances in Latin America in which populist supporters have taken to the streets to protest political exclusion and corruption (De la Torre, 2016). When populist leaders are in office, in contrast, their influence on democracy can often be negative, as the examples of Correa, Morales, and Chávez underscore.

Like their leftist counterparts, right-wing populism also seeks to capitalize on public disenchantment and anxieties, and appeal to the common man. Right-wing populism, however, is exclusive in nature and advocates policies that protect the ‘in group’ at the expense of non-native groups, such as immigrants and ethnic minorities. Right-wing populists, therefore, have a cultural conception of ‘the people’ (i.e. the people as a nation). Right-wing populists portray ‘outsiders’ as threatening exclusive national cultures and local traditions and they reject notions of individual and social equality for these marginalized groups. Ideas of exclusion also carry over into economic policies. Whereas left-wing populists emphasize development and the creation of economic conditions that benefit ‘the people’, today’s right-wing populists focus on protecting the economic rights of ‘the people’, which they consider increasingly threatened by outside forces (notably immigrants) (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2013). Right-wing populism has been more common in Europe and includes leaders such as Geert Wilders and his Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, Viktor Orbán and his Fidesz party in Hungary, and Marine Le Pen and her National Front party in France (see further Box 13.3).

Box 13.3: Who are the right-wing populist parties in Europe?

Support for populist parties in Europe has steadily grown since the 1990s. As we discuss in this chapter, recent economic hardship, the challenge of migration, and the apparent political failures of established parties have fuelled populism’s rise. But despite the surge of popular support, it is important to remember that European populism has far deeper roots. One of the first parties to establish a doctrine of differentialist racism—or the idea that different cultures are not compatible and should not coexist within a nation—was the National Front in France, which was led by Jean-Marie Le Pen and formed in 1972. The party espoused a version of French nationalism that played on people’s fears that Europeans faced extinction due to migration and low population growth rates. The National Front rose to prominence in the wake of mass immigration and growing unemployment by promising to return France to the mono-cultural glory of its past. The party gained national attention by 1984 and by 2002 Le Pen was the first National Front candidate to compete in the second round of the national presidential election. Though the National Front has never won a majority in the legislature, it received 13 per cent of the votes in the 2017 parliamentary election.p. 261

Here we review some of the major right-wing populist parties in Europe.

Western Europe

The Swiss People’s Party (SVP) gained attention in the 1990s when it started to make impressive electoral gains in local and national elections. Its popularity was rooted in cultural intolerance, citing Islam as an obstacle to integration and proclaiming that multi-culturalism could not work. The party originally catered to farmers in rural areas, but under the leadership of Christoph Blocher changed its strategy to focus on defence of Swiss values and attacking European integration. It has been one of the dominant parties in Swiss politics and won a plurality of the votes in the 2015 elections. Austria has also seen the right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) gain popularity, winning 20 per cent of the vote in the 2013 election. In Germany, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party (founded in 2013) won 4.7 per cent of the votes in the 2013 federal election and 12.6 per cent of the vote in the 2017 federal election. That year it secured ninety-four seats in the Bundestag, making it the third largest party.

Eastern Europe

In Eastern Europe, a number of right-wing populist parties have emerged and gained popularity. In the post-communist era in Hungary, Fidesz gained followers by increasing its anti-elitist, anti-immigration sentiment and emphasizing the importance of being an ethnic Hungarian. Concurrently, the Hungarian right has argued in the defense of national values while portraying the left as socialist, internationalist, and cosmopolitan. Elections became increasingly polarizing onwards, campaigns became much dirtier and more negative, and ordinary citizens felt the need to take sides in every realm of life (Palonen, 2009). More worrisome is the success of neo-fascist party Jobbik (an anti-Semitic and anti-Roma party), which has pushed the ruling Fidesz party even further to the right, spurring anti-migration policies. As Fidesz leader Viktor Orbán has eroded Hungarian democracy, he has increased cooperation with authoritarian governments, including Russia and China (Ostrow, 2014, p. 41). There are similar concerns about the democratic direction of Poland under the ruling Law and Justice Party which gained power in 2015, winning over half of the seats in both houses. Like their neighbours in Western Europe, the Fidesz and Law and Justice parties are increasingly Eurosceptic, particularly regarding European Union migration policy.


Scandinavia has surprisingly seen the rise of far-right populist parties as well. The Progress Party of Norway formed a coalition with the Conservative Party in 2017 and holds 29 of 169 seats. The Swedish Democrats in Sweden won 62 out of 349 seats in 2018, becoming the third largest party in Sweden. The Finns Party or True Finns Party in Finland was part of the ruling coalition until members defected from the coalition in 2017. The Danish People’s Party in Denmark gained 20 per cent of the votes in the 2015 election, its best showing to date. Many of these parties have gained support by focusing on issues of immigration and tackling challenges from immigration from Muslim countries in particular. In the 1980s, the Danish People’s Party gained attention for wanting to make Denmark a Muslim-free zone.

Populist leaders

Our discussion so far has defined populism as a set of ideas. Numerous scholars, however, have argued that populism is best understood as a political strategy and focus on the characteristics of political leaders and their methods of winning and exercising power.p. 262 Weyland (2001), for example, defines populism as a ‘political strategy through which a personalistic leader seeks or exercises government power based on direct, unmediated, un-institutionalized support from large numbers of mostly unorganized followers’ (p. 14). Although scholars disagree about whether charismatic leadership and the ability to establish direct links with voters merely facilitate or actually define populism (Mudde, 2004), a discussion of these dynamics is useful for further elaborating the phenomenon.

Charisma tends to be (although is not always) an important characteristic of populist leaders (Roberts, 2007). Charisma is important because it enables populist leaders to create unusually strong connections to their followers. Paul Taggart (2000), for example, asserts that populism ‘requires the most extraordinary individuals to lead the most ordinary of people’ (p. 1). The highly personalized nature of populist leaders has led critics of populism to characterize populists as demagogues. They are frequently accused of opportunistically playing on popular emotions, making unrealistic promises to the people, and stoking an atmosphere of enmity and distrust toward the elite (Stanley, 2008).

In addition to charisma, populist leaders pursue a number of tactics designed to facilitate their direct connections with the ‘common man’ and legitimize their claims of speaking for ‘the people’. Populist leaders seek to portray themselves as political outsiders with few links to the political establishment. In Latin America, leaders such as Alberto Fujimori of Peru, Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, and Lucio Gutiérrez in Ecuador never held elected office before winning the presidency. In many cases, however, populist leaders are not outsiders, but instead are individuals well connected to sections of the economic and political elite (Mudde, 2004). In the United States, for example, President Trump was a part of the economic elite before running for office. Nonetheless, he championed himself as a Washington D.C. outsider, demonized the corrupt establishment, and promoted theories that the system was ‘rigged’ against him.

Populist leaders also seek to connect directly with the people. For this reason, populists are commonly portrayed as speaking from balconies and moving their supporters with impassioned speeches (Taggart, 2000). Radio and television have often been used as a means of establishing direct and unmediated access to domestic audiences. Hugo Chávez, for example, previously connected with his supporters through a weekly chat show, called ‘Aló Presidente’, where he told stories, delivered long monologues, sang songs, and announced the nationalization of companies (Wallis, 2012). With the advent of social media, populist leaders have a platform to reach an even larger number of supporters (Bartlett, 2014; Waisbord and Amado, 2017). For example, Argentina’s Cristina Fernández de Kirchner and Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, regularly used Twitter. Social media offers a direct linkage to the people, helping populist leaders circumvent the traditional media and spread their messages directly (Engesser et al., 2017). In many instances the mainstream media, in turn, pick up the headline-grabbing tweets or other direct populist appeals, enabling populist parties and leaders to control the political narratives in their political systems.

In addition to direct appeals to the people, the content of populist rhetoric is also notable. Populists use emotional and direct language, including short, simple slogans that are directed at the ‘gut feelings’ of the people (Canovan, 1999; Inglehart and Norris, 2017; Taggart, 2000; Tarchi, 2002). Right-wing populists, in particular, appeal to xenophobia, p. 263if not overt racism to build support (Betz, 1993). Populists seek to offer simple solutions to complex problems that appeal to common sense. They advocate for transparency and denounce backroom deals, complicated procedures, and technicalities that only experts understand (Canovan, 1999). Many European populists, for example, have capitalized on mounting ‘Euroscepticism’, or public criticism of the European Union, stemming in part from a belief that it is overly bureaucratic and removed from the voters. Populists claim that professional politicians seek excessively complex solutions to mask their efforts to line their own pockets, while populists instead look to find simple, direct solutions to the problems of ordinary people (Canovan, 1999).

Finally, populist leaders circumvent parties and other forms of institutional mediation to further facilitate their direct, personal ties to voters (Barr, 2009; Roberts, 2007). Elections, plebiscites, mass demonstrations, and opinion polls are crucial instruments with which populist leaders mobilize and demonstrate their broad appeal. Populist chief executives regularly invoke mass support to boost their influence and justify their actions (Weyland, 2001). Hungarian Prime Minister Orbán, for example, regularly points to his ‘two-thirds revolution’—a reference to his party’s 2010 electoral victory giving Fidesz two-thirds of the seats in parliament—as providing him with a mandate to enact his controversial reforms. Similarly, Chávez repeatedly claimed that Venezuela was the most democratic country in the world because he was constantly winning elections, and his rule was based on the ‘will of the people’.

Populist supporters

While populist leaders have developed a number of tactics to help them win and maintain power, who are the individuals who support today’s populists? What factors motivate voters to support these parties? Are there characteristics that are common across the voter bases of different populist parties? Answering these questions can help inform policy responses to populism’s rise.

First and foremost, populist supporters tend to be dissatisfied with the functioning of democracy and feel they have been left behind and neglected by the establishment. According to Cas Mudde (2004), today’s populist revolution is composed of ‘hard-working, slightly conservative, law-abiding citizen[s], who, in silence but with growing anger, see [their] world being “perverted” by progressives, criminals, and aliens’ (p. 557). Contemporary populist supporters, however, differ from those of past periods because they do not necessarily want to participate in politics in the ways that earlier populist movements envisioned. Rather than pursuing change through grassroots participation, today’s populist supporter is looking for leadership. They want politicians who know the people and develop and implement policies that are in line with their preferences without having to take part in that process (Mudde, 2004).

Aside from their desire for strong, decisive leadership, contemporary populist supporters share several demographic traits. Today’s supporters for right-wing populist in particular tend to be older, male, less educated, more religious, and members of the ethnic majority (Inglehart and Norris, 2017). Some studies suggest that education, in particular, p. 264is an important factor. Less educated individuals are more likely to see multicultural societies as a threat to their way of life and therefore more likely to support populist parties and leaders than are more educated voters (Lubbers, 2001; Lubbers et al., 2002; Warwick, 1998). In the United States, counties with the lowest education levels supported Trump while counties with higher education levels favoured Hilary Clinton. According to the Pew Research Center, 67 per cent of people without a college degree voted for Trump, while 28 per cent voted for Clinton—the largest education vote gap since 1980 (Friesen, 2016). It is important to note, however, that some studies of populism in Western Europe do not find support for the effect of education on support for populism. Teun Pauwels (2014) has shown, for example, that in Belgium, Germany, and the Netherlands education does not affect voter support for populism. Similarly, the relationship between education and support for left-wing populism is also inconclusive and some studies show that education exerts a positive effect on radical left voting. Generally speaking, in the case of left-wing populist movements, education levels tend to vary, as exemplified by the range of individuals supporting Spain’s Podemos (Ramiro and Gomez, 2017).

Age also appears to be a particularly important predictor of populist support, with younger and older voters proving more likely to vote for populist parties than other generations (Inglehart and Norris, 2016). Although some studies argue that the effect of age on support for populism is best described as being U-shaped, other studies have found that support for populism is highest just among the older generations (Inglehart and Norris, 2016). It is notable, however, that in the French presidential election in 2017, the right-wing populist candidate Marine Le Pen received more support from young voters than any other age group. Approximately 45 per cent of 18- to 24-year-olds voted for Le Pen in the first round, compared to 20 per cent of voters over 65 (Kentish, 2017).

Perhaps surprisingly, economic factors are a less useful indicator of likely support for contemporary populist parties and leaders. At first blush, this appears inconsistent with widely held assertions that support for populism has been highest among the ‘losers of globalization’. While such economic explanations are compelling at a macro-level, there is very little evidence that these factors actually drive individual voter choices. Instead, today’s populist supporters tend to be small proprietors or self-employed workers rather than low-waged unskilled workers (Inglehart and Norris, 2017). Though unemployment is often linked to populist voting, empirical analysis by Inglehart and Pippa Norris (2017) finds that the effects of these economic factors on voting preferences are mixed and inconsistent in statistical models. Studies of left-wing populist movements also find that economic factors are poor predictors of backing for left-wing populists. Although poor voters constitute an important base of support for left-wing populists, such leaders have built diverse alliances, including among the urban classes (Roberts, 2003). In actuality, a number of populist leaders, such as Mario Vargas Llosa in Peru and Joaquín Lavín in Chile, received more votes from the more affluent sectors of society (Weyland, 2001). Likewise, in Venezuela, Chávez’s rhetoric targeted the lower classes, but he also attracted substantial support from the middle classes by pursuing distributional policies that benefited these groups, such as lowering utility prices (Lupu, 2010).

Rather than voting based on economic issues, contemporary populist supporters tend to be most motivated by issues that cut across the economic left–right spectrum, p. 265such as the punishments of crimes, the restriction of immigration and asylum, and limiting the reach of the European Union (Ivarsflaten, 2005; Skocpol and Williamson, 2016). The empirical analysis by Inglehart and Norris (2017), for example, underscores the importance of cultural values for populist voters. They find that populist voters are not necessarily focused on the economy, but instead are best characterized by their anti-immigrant attitudes, mistrust of global and national governance, and support for authoritarian values. Such voters may want to feel part of a tribe that shares their identity and attitudes. In sum, most scholarly research suggests that the contemporary populist supporter cares most about cultural rather than economic issues.

It is important to note that although there appear to be factors that are common to voter bases across different populist parties, some research is ceptical that such generalizations can be drawn. Matthijs Roodduijn (2018), for example, examined the electorates of fifteen prototypical populist parties from eleven Western European countries and found little evidence of any unifying characteristics across different kinds of populist parties. Instead, he argues that ‘the’ populist voter does not exist.

Populism and democracy

Populism is not inherently anti-democratic. In some ways, it may be viewed as a corrective to the failures of democracy (Kaltwasser, 2012; Taggart, 2002). Populist parties and leaders see themselves as giving voice to popular grievances and advocating for issues that large portions of the population care about but that governments, mainstream parties, and media have ignored (Canovan, 1999). In the United States, The People’s Party of the late 1800s helped usher in many progressive reforms, such as the income tax and corporate regulation, which made the United States a more humane society in the twentieth century (Kazin, 2016). Moreover, populism’s (especially the left-wing variant’s) approach to governing—mobilizing the public and using referendums and other popular initiatives—may be viewed as a more direct, participatory, and inclusive form of democracy, giving voice to new social groups and traditionally excluded sectors of society (Kaltwasser, 2013; Kazin, 1995).

Although not inherently anti-democratic, populism does run counter to the liberal democratic ideal that emphasizes the protection of rights. Problems arise when there are parts of the population that hold different views from the majority (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2017). Populists look to place the needs of the majority or native group ahead of individual liberties and needs. They often advocate restrictions, especially on minorities, that limit individual rights in the name of reinforcing norms or national security. Populist perspectives on politics, therefore, often place them at odds with democracy.

The tension between populism and democracy is most pronounced once populists get into power (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2017). The tactics that contemporary populist parties pursue to achieve their agendas can undermine democratic norms and practices. Today’s populist parties, for example, extol the virtues of strong and decisive leadership, share a disdain for established institutions, and express deep distrust of perceived experts p. 266and elites. Moreover, the centrality of populist leaders and their direct rapport with the ‘common man’ transform them into something akin to infallible sovereigns, in that their decisions are unquestionable because they represent the people’s will (Arditi, 2014).

Although views that populism poses a threat to democracy are widely held, the causal mechanisms linking populism to democratic decline remain poorly understood. In the remainder of this section we identify three ways that populism can undermine democracy.

Probably the greatest threat that populism poses to democracy arises from the relationship between populism and democratic institutions, such as parties, legislatures, and the media. Populists object to the idea that established, elite-run institutions should protect individual rights or constrain the general will of the people. The core message of populism is that the elite is corrupt and does not speak for the masses. Presidential candidates who win on the basis of such appeals, therefore, claim a mandate to reshape the political system and seek to dismantle the established institutions that might hinder their ability to deliver on their electoral promises (Levitsky and Loxton, 2013).

For one, populist movements empower charismatic leaders who promise to break with the political establishment and turn politics into a more personal experience (Canovan, 1999 p. 14). When populists seek to bypass traditional party structures, it can have a corrosive effect on democracy. As we discussed in Chapter 12, parties play a crucial function in democracies (Diamond and Gunther, 2001). Parties provide critical information about what candidates stand for, structure electoral choice, and frame policy alternatives. Parties help solve collective action problems by facilitating coordination and mobilizing public participation in the political process. Parties also serve as a bridge between executives and legislatures and help recruit and socialize political leaders (Randall and Svåsand, 2002).

In addition to undermining political parties, populist tactics have the potential to weaken other crucial institutions, such as independent judiciaries, free press, and civil society (Levitsky and Loxton, 2013). In more openly confrontational cases, populists might actually deliberately seek to weaken these institutions if they obstruct implementation of their policy agenda. Populist leaders maintain that once ‘the people’ have spoken, nothing should constrain the realization of their will. Their distrust for institutional procedures and the intricacies of the legislative process might give way to a discretional adherence to the rule of law that slips all too easily into authoritarian practices (Arditi, 2004). Populists can get away with undemocratic behaviour if their actions are perceived as representing the will of the people (Arditi, 2004).

Beyond weakening democratic institutions, the second way that populism can erode democracy is through its fostering of political polarization. Populism promotes antagonism between ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’. The political struggle is conceived as a zero-sum game in which the gains of one collective identity are only possible with a loss of benefits of the other (Kaltwasser, 2013). This fragmentation becomes especially pronounced when populists harness other ideologies, such as nationalism, which can synchronize this competition with ethnic divisions. These cleavages, in turn, can p. 267cause political stalemate and dysfunction, which can undermine democracy by creating an excuse for incumbents to take undemocratic actions to overcome the paralysis. Similarly, political stalemate and dysfunction can further enhance public disenchantment with the performance of democratic institutions. Moreover, Latin America’s experience with populism has shown that even when populists leave office, their noxious legacies linger. Moderate successors struggle to build trust in polarized societies. As the gaps between social groups widen, it becomes harder to forge compromises, the lifeblood of democracy (O’Neil, 2016).

Finally, populist leaders may use referenda to extend term limits. Term-limit extensions have become increasingly common in the post-Cold War period, including in democratic settings (Baturo, 2014). The removal of terms limits runs counter to democratic norms in a number of important ways. Key among them is the fact that removing term limits can convince the public that there are no institutional mechanisms to remove a leader from office, raising the risk that the opposition will resort to supporting non-democratic means to remove populist leaders. In Thailand, for example, Thaksin was a populist who won elections largely due to public support among rural voters. The Thai middle class realized he could not be beaten in an election and abandoned their democratic commitments. Thaksin was ousted in a coup in 2006 (as was his sister Yingluck in 2014).

The drivers of populism

The rise of contemporary populism is not a temporary crisis. Rather the spread of today’s populism stems from a number of long-term dynamics that have changed how people interact with their governments and reduced governments’ abilities to satisfy their citizens. In this section we discuss the underlying drivers of the rise of contemporary populism. These drivers fall into three broad categories: economic, including globalization and the economic stasis and inequality that has occurred along with it; the declining importance of political parties; and a cultural backlash against progressive values. These categories are in many ways intertwined and have all contributed to populism’s rise to varying degrees in different environments.

Economic insecurity and rising inequality

Many political observers point to the 2007–08 global financial crisis and subsequent Eurozone crisis as catapulting populist parties and leaders into power in the United States and Europe. In the United States, households lost trillions in wealth as a result of the global financial crisis. In Europe, unemployment during the Eurozone crisis in countries such as Greece and Spain rose to 20 per cent and above. Populists exploited widespread citizen discontent and public perceptions that a ‘greedy elite’ caused what became the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression. In other words, many political commentators have suggested that recent economic crises created the conditions that allowed populism to take root.p. 268

While the global financial and Eurozone crises certainly contributed to populism’s momentum, most scholars view the rise of populism as stemming from more fundamental economic changes. In particular, the typical citizen’s living standard has declined in recent decades (Piketty and Saez, 2014; Mounk, 2014). This decline stands in stark contrast to the historical pattern since the start of the Industrial Revolution during which, except for brief moments of extreme crisis, the average citizen of a Western democracy enjoyed a higher standard of living than his or her parents. Instead, in most developed democracies today, median incomes have remained stagnant or declined over the past twenty-five years (Piketty and Saez, 2014). In the United States, for example, the Census Bureau reported a lower median household income in 2012 than in 1989. Similarly, in the United Kingdom, the average British worker has experienced a 10 per cent decrease in real wages since 2007 (OECD, 2017).

Concurrent with stagnating or declining real incomes for most people in the West, the real incomes of the wealthy are rising—a trend that has been accelerating since 1960 (Piketty and Saez, 2014). In the United States, for example, the top 10 per cent of the population accumulated half of all national income in 2012, compared to about 35 per cent of national income in 1960. And the trend is not confined to the United States: the share of overall income going to the one per cent has risen sharply in countries across the globe. In other words, the gains from globalization, technological advancements, and the rising mobility of capital and labour have been unevenly distributed. Moreover, the forces of globalization are changing the structure of Western economies in ways that create both winners and losers (Minkenberg and Perrineau, 2007). In the United States, for example, manufacturing and agriculture employed one in three workers just after World War II. Today, those sectors employ only one in eight (Thompson, 2012).

Stagnating living standards and rising inequality have contributed to a loss in citizens’ perceived security (Beck, 1999; Giddens, 1990; Hacker, 2006).1 Not only do average citizens make less money today relative to a generation ago, they are also a lot less certain about their future. Many individuals, therefore, have come to view the political establishment as failing to serve their interests. Moreover, academic research suggests that individual perceptions of declining security are conducive to in-group solidarity, conformity to group norms, and rejection of outsiders. Socially disadvantaged groups are most prone to blame ethnic minorities and migrant populations for deteriorating conditions, loss of manufacturing jobs, and inadequate welfare services (Betz and Meret, 2009). When threatened, individuals are likely to seek strong, decisive leaders to protect them from what are perceived as dangerous outsiders threatening jobs and benefits (Inglehart and Norris, 2016). In these ways, large-scale forces, such as technological innovation, demographic changes, and economic globalization have created fertile ground for populism’s growth.p. 269

Declining importance of political parties

The rise of contemporary populism is also a result of a long-term, gradual decline in voters’ attachment to traditional political parties and their perception of the waning importance these institutions play in the political process. This decline in political party attachment can be seen as a de-alignment. The post-industrial revolution, in particular, led to fundamental changes in European societies in the 1960s that weakened ties between individuals and communities. Because these ties historically played an important role in determining voters’ attachment to political parties, their erosion promoted a decline in partisanship (Mair, 1984). For the centre-left, deindustrialization reduced the number of industrial workers who comprised its traditional electoral base. Social individualization also eroded the mass membership of traditional collective organizations, social networks, and mass movements that mobilized working class support for these parties (Keating 2013; Inglehart and Norris, 2017). On the right, a steep decline in religious observance and church attendance also diminished the support base of the centre-right. Along with weakening ties between individuals and their communities, the rising prominence of supranational institutions like the European Union eroded the importance of political parties. These structural changes reduced transparency in decision-making and empowered the executive branch to the detriment of parliaments, which in turn eroded the representative function of parties (Kriesi, 2014).

As their traditional constituencies shrank, many established political parties sought to maintain their vote share by broadening their electoral appeals. These parties, therefore, began to drift toward the ideological centre, particularly on economic policies, reducing the substantive differences between them. In the 1960s, for example, the difference between the left and the right was stark, with the left seeking to nationalize entire industries and the right seeking to minimize the role of government in the economy. Today, the differences are far less pronounced. Even beyond economics, political parties have become less distinct on a broad swath of issues. In Europe since the late 1980s, for example, Mudde (2016) asserts that mainstream parties increasingly converged on a new elite consensus—a common agenda that called for integration through the European Union, multi-ethnic societies, and neoliberal economic reforms.

Rising education levels and the spread of media technology have also reduced voters’ perceptions of the importance of political parties, creating opportunities for more direct, personalist appeals to voters. With more political information available to a more educated electorate, citizens have become more self-sufficient in politics (Dalton, 1984; Inglehart, 1990; Mudde, 2004; Kriesi, 2014). The Internet and social media, for example, have assumed many of the informational functions that political parties used to play. Party leaders can now communicate directly with the public via the media and no longer need the party apparatus to get their messages to their constituencies (Kriesi, 2014). Moreover, changes in the media’s coverage of politics, including persistent coverage of corruption scandals and other sensationalist stories, have made citizens more sceptical of political parties and the broader political establishment (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2017).

Voters’ detachment from traditional political parties and the convergence of political parties in ideological or policy terms has enabled populism to gain traction (Kriesi, 2014). p. 270In Latin America, weak parties have been unable to mediate between citizens and the state. Populist leaders like Chávez in Venezuela and Fujimori in Peru emerged at a time when parties had ossified, and the mood was filled with dissatisfaction. Most parties in Latin America were not effective in incorporating the popular sectors. Only 21.9 per cent of the public in Latin America expressed confidence in political parties and 16 per cent claimed to be ‘close’ or ‘somewhat close’ to a party organization (Payne et al., 2002). Populist leaders have seized upon these openings created by the institutional vacuum and rising frustration to make direct connections with the population (Levitsky and Way, 2013).

Years of centrist policies in the United States and Europe also alienated large chunks of the population, leaving many voters to look for alternatives to the established parties. In the United States, support for third party movements has grown, as highlighted by Ross Perot’s presidential candidacy in 1992 and 1996 and the Tea Party’s explosion onto the political scene in 2009. Similarly, in France, voters were so dissatisfied with their traditional political options that none of the country’s established parties made it to the run-off of the presidential election in 2017.

In sum, the decline of the importance and role of political parties in today’s political environment has been a key driver of populism.

Values and identity challenges

In conjunction with declining living standards, rising inequality, and the demise of class-based parties, citizens in Western democracies have also had to deal with new challenges to their values and national identities. The post-industrial revolution precipitated not only a decline in partisanship, but also rising affluence that led citizens in Western societies to expand their interests. As more people grew up with secure economic and political conditions, they became less concerned with immediate needs and changed their priorities to focus more heavily on quality of life (Inglehart, 1971). A broad range of new parties emerged on the political scene in the 1960s and 1970s advocating for progressive social change, such as the Greens and Libertarian parties in countries such as Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium, Austria, Sweden, and Switzerland. Their party platforms no longer focused on social class and economic redistribution but were heavily based on post-materialist values such as tolerance of multi-cultural diversity, protection of minority rights, freedom of expression, secularism, racial and gender equality, flexible and fluid gender roles, and environmental protection.

This transformation of Western political culture, however, triggered a backlash—a ‘silent counter-revolution’, or a negative reaction among those citizens who felt threatened by the predominance of this new set of values (Ignazi, 1992). As discussed in the previous section, older, less educated, male citizens tend to more strongly support populist parties. This is in large part because these groups cling most strongly to traditional values and are most likely to view cultural change as threatening their livelihood and well-being. Particularly in contexts where the pace of value change is rapid, these citizens can become out of step with the changing culture, generating anger, resentment, and a sense of loss.

Immigration, in particular, has accelerated the pace of value change in Western democracies (Zakaria, 2016). In recent decades, Western societies have experienced a p. 271significant uptick in their influxes of foreigners. In 2015, there were around 250 million international migrants and 65 million forcibly displaced people worldwide. This stands in stark contrast to the vast majority of human history, when people were far less mobile. Europe has received the largest share of immigrants, approximately 76 million, and has therefore experienced the greatest backlash against their arrival. Large immigration flows from low-income countries with different cultures and religions stimulated a reaction in which much of the working class moved to the right, in defence of traditional values (Werts et al., 2013).


Many political observers have argued that Europe’s populist surge has crested. They point to the defeat of Marie La Pen and the Nationalist Front in France’s presidential elections in March 2017, Geert Wilders’s and his Party for Freedom’s (PVV) disappointing performance in legislative elections in the Netherlands in 2017, and even the less than expected gains in European parliamentary elections in 2019 as evidence that populism is losing steam. These perspectives, however, overlook populism’s deep historical sources and underestimate the durability of today’s populist appeals. Although Le Pen lost the presidential election, The National Front had its best electoral showing in France’s political history. Moreover, Le Pen’s support was especially strong among France’s young voters suggesting that her positions on key policy questions are likely to resonate in the years to come. Likewise, in Germany, the radical-right populist party Alternative for Germany entered the German parliament as the third largest party—outperforming the expectations of many political observers.

The forces fuelling populism are not going away anytime soon. If anything, economic underperformance, disillusion with corruption, and dissatisfaction with government performance will continue to fan the flames of populism across the globe. A renewed wave of migration into Europe and even technological change brought by advances in artificial intelligence (AI) and automation that create new winners and losers could add fuel to these trends. That is why populism and the potential threat it poses to democratic development today should not be underestimated. In the next chapter we build on our discussion of populism and provide an in-depth examination of patterns in democratic breakdown.

Key Questions


Populist leaders often claim that populism is democratic. What is the case for populism being good for democracy, and what is the rebuttal? What challenges does populism create for liberal democracy?


What are the factors driving populism? What explains the Brexit vote and the election of Donald Trump in the United States? Why have populist movements gained attention in Europe?p. 272


What are the differences between left-wing and right-wing populist groups?


How would you characterize the populist voter? What is the typical populist voter looking for? Has the typical populist voter of today changed from the past?


Populism is described as having a thin ideology. Is that true? Have populist movements had any effect on policy?


In what ways have populist parties affected mainstream parties?


If a leader is well liked, does that make him or her populist? What distinguishes popularity from populism?

Further Reading

  • Albertazzi, D. and McDonnell, D. eds., 2007. Twenty-first Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy. Springer.
  • Twenty-first Century Populism is an edited volume of the phenomenon of populism in Western Europe, and looks at the conditions that facilitate its emergence in different European countries such as France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Austria. The book also examines how much populism has affected mainstream politics.

  • Mudde, C. and Kaltwasser, C.R., 2017. Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford University Press.
  • Populism provides the reader with a short overview of how to best understand populism. The book illustrates the power of the ideology and how it polarizes society. The book offers insight into the attraction of populist leaders such as Silvio Berlusconi, Jean-Marie le Pen, Juan Perón, and Hugo Chávez.

  • Mudde, C. and Kaltwasser, C.R., 2012. Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or Corrective for Democracy? Cambridge University Press.
  • Populism in Europe analyses the experience of populism in Europe and the Americas and argues that populism can threaten democracy, but in certain circumstances has helped democracy. The book points out the similarities between right- and left-wing populism and demonstrates how both forms of populism challenge liberal democracy.

  • Müller, J.W., 2017. What is Populism? Penguin UK.
  • As the title suggests, What is Populism? provides a clear explanation of how to define and understand populism. The book argues that populism is actually a rejection of pluralism and could end up creating an authoritarian state that excludes individuals that don’t fit into their ideal of who are proper citizens.


    • 1 While it is true that rising inequality is leading to angst and frustration, whether or not populism rises in countries that are unequal is not conclusive. Populism has risen in countries that are unequal, but also in countries with high equality, such as in Sweden, Norway, Finland, and Denmark. The key factor, therefore, may not be levels of inequality, but perceptions of inequality and the government’s ability to respond to these inequalities that matter most.