🔮 Debunking myths about populism in power

'Populism' and 'power' have an uneasy relationship. Key texts reveal three assumptions about populism's 'fate' in power: first, it becomes mainstream; second, it turns authoritarian; third, it fails / succeeds to implement policies. Giorgos Venizelos argues we must look beyond populism's content or outcomes, and turn instead to populism's function of constructing collective identities through discursive / affective performativity

Myth 1

Populism in power is impossible

Commonly seen as an outsider or challenger, populism was, until recently, expected to ‘fail’ in government. Many arguments in the literature reveal this assumption of 'failure'. Populist parties are supposed to be neither durable nor sustainable in government. They succeed in opposition and campaigns, but in government, are quickly absorbed by institutions, turn mainstream, and become conventional parties. Such arguments rest on an understanding of populism purely as a challenger actor and an episodic phenomenon. These arguments, however, betray a eurocentric bias by overlooking the long tradition of populist governance in Latin America (Peronism, Chávez, Lula etc.) and, more recently, Southern Europe (SYRIZA) and the US (Trump).

Myth 2

Populism in power turns authoritarian

A second assumption in the literature is that populism in power is synonymous with authoritarianism: populists colonise the state, intimidate or imprison political enemies, attack minorities, erode human rights and, through corrupt practices, pose a major threat to liberal institutions and the constitutional order, turning their countries into outright autocracies. This brings to mind authoritarian nationalist conservatives like Viktor Orbán and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan.

However, two questions arise here. First, are these politicians indeed populist? From a discourse-theoretical perspective, ‘the people’ is not just a word-reference, but an empty signifier hosting multiple and even antagonistic identities in temporal solidarity. In many cases in which authoritarian nationalists are labelled populist, ‘the people’ does not constitute such an open category. On the contrary, ‘the people’ appears as a fixed and predetermined category drawing from mythical narratives. This aligns more with theories of nationalism than populism, where ‘the people’ functions more as an element of nationalist discourse than an organising principle of populist discourse. Then, in purely authoritarian regimes, ‘the people’ doesn't even exist because strongmen do whatever they want. Lastly, some authoritarian leaders might have been populist before, but no longer. Yet, the label persists, hindering an understanding of the transformations of a given political actor.

Some authoritarian leaders might have been populist before, but no longer. Yet, the label persists, hindering our understanding of their transformations

A second question is whether the supposedly authoritarian character of populism in government holds true for all populists. A comparative overview would quickly highlight that democratic, egalitarian and liberally-oriented populists (SYRIZA, for example) do not constitute a major threat to liberal democracy. On the contrary, they might enhance dimensions of liberal democracy that the dominance of technocracy and the post-political consensus repress.

Myth 3

Populism in power is about policy

A third approach studies populists in government through their ability to implement policy and their pre-electoral promises. On the one hand, the literature tends to frame populists in power as incapable of establishing their alternative vision. However, is it just populists who fall short of promises? Of course not. If that were the case, we could claim that around 90% of politicians are populists. Nevertheless, framing populism as unrealistic campaigning leads us to associate it with ‘lies’, ‘manipulation’, and ‘demagogy’.

On the other hand, studies show that populists in government can implement legislation close to their core values. What's the problem with policy-oriented approaches? While empirically investigating policy implementation by populists is useful, it says little about populism per se. Policy doesn't define populism, but its accompanying ideology. The focus on policy relates to the ‘thick ideology’ and not the ‘thin’ that defines populism (i.e. ‘the people’ vs. ‘the elite’). As such, it doesn’t inform us about the transformations of populism, but of its ‘host’ ideology. We should study whether populists in government successfully implement policy, but this doesn't necessarily show whether they remain populist in power.

Policy doesn't define populism, it defines its accompanying ideology

If the analysis of populists in government is concerned principally with policy, we can uncritically reproduce dichotomies of ‘responsible’ and ‘irresponsible’, ‘capable’ and ‘incapable’, ‘normal’ and ‘exceptional’. Populists are often placed on the latter side. However, like populists, non-populists and anti-populists can also fail or succeed in implementing policy.


There is, supposedly, a consensus on the definition of populism. Why isn't there a consensus on its trajectory into power? The obvious answer is that different populist phenomena follow different paths as a result of factors like (inter)national political and economic events, restrictions, politicians' capabilities, and luck, as well as political resistance. These factors are external to populism. Besides empirical factors, there are theoretical ones, too. Dominant discourses about populism persistently associate it with demagogy, authoritarianism, and the far right. They view populism suspiciously, framing it as abnormal and the number-one enemy of democracy. Anti-populism has long generated alarmism about populism's rise to power.

Populism in power: discourse, performativity, identification

To theorise populism in power, we need to rethink the notion of populism. If populism focuses on people-centrism and anti-elitism, why define populism in power based on outcomes (authoritarianism, co-optation) or contents (policy)? It might be useful to return to the operational definition of populism.

From a discursive and socio-cultural perspective, people-centrism and anti-elitism involve a performance that transgresses elitist political and cultural norms through words, symbols, bodily choreographies, music, etc. Populist performativity constructs collective identifications, such as 'the people', through affective interpellation.

Studying the antagonism that pits those at ‘the bottom’ versus those ‘at the top’ redirects one’s focus towards populism's mobilisational function when in power

Thus, when studying populism in government, we should ask whether the antagonism that pits those at ‘the bottom’ versus those at 'the top’ is still present, mobilising socially and electorally. While this might not be the only way to study populism in power, it certainly redirects one’s focus towards a core dimension of populism: its mobilisational function.

This approach underlines that populism is not a dichotomous category that can be either possible or not possible in power. That it either succeeds or fails. Rather, populism (in government, as in opposition) is dynamic and changes (in terms of degrees of intensity and qualitative transformations, for example) depending on time and space. Disentangling populism’s form and function from its contents and outcomes also highlights that consequences for democracy and society might be associated mostly with the ideology that comes with populism, and not with populism itself.

No.79 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Giorgos Venizelos
Giorgos Venizelos
Fellow in Political Polarisation, Democracy Institute, Central European University

Giorgos' research is situated at the intersections of comparative politics, political communication and contemporary political theory.

His research interests include populist/anti-populist polarisation in the age of post-truth, populism in power, collective identity and political discourse.

He has published in journals including Political Studies, Critical Sociology, Constellations and Representation.

He co-convenes the Populism Specialist Group of the UK Political Studies Association.




Populism in Power: Discourse and Performativity in SYRIZA and Donald Trump

Populism in Power: Discourse and Performativity in SYRIZA and Donald Trump
Routledge, 2023

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