🔮 How early insights about populism have stood the test of time

The more populism has evolved and the more we have learned about this supposedly elusive and contested concept, the more we recognise that the early insights we gained about the phenomenon have stood the test of time. These early lessons already pointed to the importance of credible change agency, ambiguity, and territoriality as crucial features for populism's success. Yet, Reinhard Heinisch argues that their role is still not fully understood

In their excellent opening blog post in this series, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti point to persistent myths about populism. But it is not only the myths that have endured. Remarkably, certain early fundamental insights have also stood the test of time, and the following aspects have survived as conceptual cornerstones.

There is the obvious…

There is, of course, the obvious maxim that all populism is people-centred but that ‘the people’ remain an abstraction. And there is also populism’s moral dimension. In all its forms, ‘the people’ require saving, thus serving a moral purpose of legitimising the populists’ call to action. Likewise, there is antagonism between ‘the people’ and ‘the others’ and, more generally, the populists’ bifurcated view of the political.

And the not-so-obvious…

Credible change agency

From Ernesto Laclau to Takis Pappas, populism has been primarily about the populist leaders. These charismatic personalities reshape and reconstitute the polity, making populism an inexorable part of the power game in national politics. Yet, empirical scholarship has always struggled with the concept of the charismatic leader.

First, leadership and charisma are two concepts that are hard to pin down empirically. Second, as Duncan McDonnell and others demonstrate, perceptions of the leader's charisma – even among their coterie – vary considerably between parties. To be sure, populist party organisation and ‘winning formulas’ matter.

Yet, it is hard to dismiss leadership as a central feature in populist political success. Populism needs a face and a voice; without this, it rarely achieves a transformative impact. The Tea Party undoubtedly had some success, but the arrival of Trump was a game changer. Alternative für Deutschland is a significant factor in German politics, no doubt. But one shudders to think what it might become if it had a truly galvanising national leader.

If populists truly promise to act in the present in ways that make the future more like the past, they must appear credible as agents of change

Perhaps the most important lesson should be to view these figures less as charismatic Führers, and more as credible change agents. We should see them as individuals capable of converting non-political capital (economic, cultural, communicative, etc) into political capital. More generally, we should see that they can mobilise all available resources to oppose (political) elites and challenge the formal and informal rules of the political system.

If populists truly promise to act in the present in ways that make the future more like the past, they must appear credible as agents of change. So it is primarily their capacity to achieve that kind of credibility, and more generally, strong emotional and communicative rapport, that makes the difference between, say, a Sarah Palin and a Donald Trump. This ability deserves more attention in research.


Another feature of populism is its ambiguity. Two decades ago, Laclau characterised ‘the people’ in populism as an 'empty signifier'. Since then, scholarship has emphasised the 'loose' character of populist concepts, as Peter Wiles noted in Gellner and Ionescu's well-known 1969 study.

The construction of the people’s enemies is another case in point. The populist world is populated by images of bogeymen. These can take the form of sweeping categorisations such as ‘the (arrogant, corrupt, sinister) elites’, ‘the (dangerous) other’, ‘the (deep) state’, ‘the political class’, ‘the establishment’, and ‘the system’. Or, they can be specific groupings such as bureaucrats, bankers, immigrants, politicians, journalists, scientists, intellectuals, and many others. Such conceptual ambiguity has enabled populists to be equivocal on many issues, to take contradictory positions, and adapt effectively to changing contexts.

The populist world is populated by disparate bogeymen. These range from 'sinister elites' to ‘the establishment’, to immigrants, journalists and intellectuals

Paul Taggart referred to this as the 'chamaeleonic' quality of populism. Populists can simultaneously and effectively claim that women's emancipation is threatened by Islam, and attack feminism as an elitist concept that perverts traditions and undermines families. Despite their political twists and turns, successful populists from Jörg Haider (Austria) to Trump manage to appear compelling to their followers, even when they take inherently ambivalent positions or make a radical change in direction. They credibly accuse the central state of overreaching, while demanding more government services. They attack the EU for doing too much and too little, or abandon anticlericalism in favour of a promise to defend European Christianity against Islam.

Why populists so often get away with ambiguity while other politicians do not has yet to be fully understood.


Populism has always had a spatial dimension, even though the exact borders of ‘the heartland’ remain elusive. There are territorial boundaries that distinguish one's own group from the others. This has advantages and disadvantages for populism.

On the one hand, it allows populists to appeal to an idealised community to which people are drawn. As Zygmunt Bauman put it, ‘the people’ feel safe where it is crystal clear who belongs and who does not. On the other hand, since the concept deals with such abstractions and ambiguities, populism has a hard time going transnational.

Populism’s spatial dependence and local hues tend to curb its power internationally. This causes populists to act more as a spoiler than coordinated players on the international stage

Yes, to be sure, populism is a global phenomenon. And, yes, there are arrangements of mutual interest between populists in the international arena. Nonetheless, populism’s spatial dependence and local hues tend to curb its power internationally. This causes populists to act more as a spoiler than coordinated players on the international stage. Regardless of the mechanisms populism employs – performance, communication style, or activation of latent ideas – populists' rootedness in a given spatial context matters. But in order to better understand this relationship, more research is necessary.

In short, the more populism scholarship has changed over time, and the more we have learned, the more we value certain fundamental insights that we gained early on but have not yet fully explored.

Third 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 Reinhard Heinisch
Reinhard Heinisch
Chair of Comparative Austrian Politics, Department Chair, Department of Political Science, University of Salzburg

Reinhard's main research centres on comparative populism, political parties, and democracy.

His research has appeared in journals such as the European Journal of Political Research, Journal of Common Market Studies, Party Politics, West European Politics, and Democratization.

Recent book publications include The People and the Nation: Populism and Ethno-Territorial Politics (Routledge 2019).

The People and the Nation Populism and Ethno-Territorial Politics in Europe Edited By Reinhard Heinisch, Emanuele Massetti, Oscar Mazzoleni

Funded projects have included an EU Horizon 2020 project on populism and a current project on conspiracy thinking and political behaviour.


He tweets @reinhardheinis1

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