🔮 How populism fails to respect the people

We often hear that populist parties offer recognition and make people feel better about themselves. This sounds very innocent. So why does populism often turn into a threat to a pluralist and respectful democracy? Christian F. Rostbøll argues that it is exactly because of the way populism recognises the people

Recognition is a basic human need, and this need often motivates political struggles. We all care deeply about how others view and treat us. Moreover, struggles for recognition have been central to progress toward inclusion and democracy. However, demands for recognition are not always democratic demands. Some forms of recognition of the people undermine rather than promote democracy.

Esteem versus respect

Recognition can be about esteem or about respect. To see why populist struggles for recognition threaten democracy, we must distinguish between the two.

The desire for esteem is a desire for approval, appreciation, and admiration. I esteem someone by positively appraising their abilities, character, or identity. Esteem is about the opinion that we have of others and is expressed in praise.

Respect, meanwhile, does not concern the opinion we have of others, but how we treat them. I respect someone by treating them in the way that is appropriate to their standing. Respect is about acknowledging one’s obligations to other persons and is expressed in action.

Esteem and respect are both things that people desire and that politicians and governments can supply. The existing literature on populism tends to treat esteem and respect as one, but they have important differences in their democratic implications.

Esteem creates hierarchies

Esteem compares people and draws distinctions between them. It creates hierarchies between 'better' and 'worse' groups. When populist leaders praise hard-working families, a particular cultural group, or those from a specific geographical location, they recognise one group as better than others.

There is nothing democratically wrong about praising some things more highly than others. The threat to democracy arises when what the political leader esteems as the best or true determines who is included in 'the people'. When populist leaders recognise the people, they do not do so by respecting citizens' standing as equals. Instead, they do it by praising certain types of people, thus creating hierarchies.

Esteem is conditional and homogenising

When a government provides popular recognition through esteem, this creates pressure to conform to common standards. Governmental recognition becomes conditional on meeting certain standards. The populist government does not recognise those who fail to meet these standards as 'the people'.

A society having standards is not the democratic problem. The problem arises when people can only achieve recognition as a member of 'the people' if they meet these standards – and if the standards require them to conform to a specific way of life.

When populist leaders praise, for example, hard-working (heterosexual) families, they make this the standard for belonging to the people

When populist leaders praise the Christian way of life and/or hard-working (heterosexual) families, they make these standards for belonging to the people. So, the way populism recognises the people makes it conditional on meeting certain – exclusionary – standards. This is the threat populism poses to a pluralist democracy.

The central idea of a respectful democracy, by contrast, is that one’s membership of the people is not conditional on esteem, and that one is free to choose one’s own way of life.

Esteem is incompatible with respect for disagreement

Populist leaders see themselves as the only legitimate representative of the people. They often claim to be the people, as when Hugo Chávez said, 'I am the people,' or when Donald Trump said, 'I am your voice'. When they do so, they provide a form of identification recognition to some people.

The implication of this way of speaking is that 'the people' has only one voice. Clearly, some people feel recognised – seen, heard, and appreciated – by the populist leader who identifies with them. But what about the other people, those who cannot identify with the leader?

According to the recognition model of the populist, those who disagree with them cannot belong to the people.

The populist leader might lift one group, but they do so in a way that puts others down. By claiming to be and speak in the name of 'the people,' they cannot respect any form of disagreement. According to the recognition model of the populist, those who disagree cannot belong to the people.

As a result, the way populism recognises the people comes into conflict with the democratic ideal of equal respect. A respectful democracy requires inclusion of people with whom we profoundly disagree. Populism cannot offer this.

Respect for superiority or equality

If recognition of the people takes the form of public esteem, this can have inegalitarian, exclusionary, and anti-pluralist consequences. However, populist recognition is not only a matter of esteem. It can also take the form of respect.

Studies show that support for populism often is rooted in a feeling of status threat. Some people feel that economic and cultural developments in their society threaten the standing they used to have. The greatest support for right-wing populism comes not from the worst-off groups in society, but from people who have some level of status, and fear losing it.

The kind of respect expected and demanded by some supporters of populism is respect for superior standing

The sociological concept of 'status' does not distinguish between social esteem and respect, but here, let us focus on respect. Remember, respect is a matter of treating others in a way that is appropriate to their standing. We can respect people's standing as a superior or as an equal.

A respectful democracy requires us to treat others as equals. However, the kind of respect expected and demanded by some supporters of populism is respect for superior standing. Supporters of populism tend to be people who belong to groups with historically superior standing, such as male, white, and Christian. Gender equality, anti-racism, and multiculturalism threaten this superior standing.

These developments create struggles over respect. Thus, the solution is not just to understand recognition of the people as a question of respect rather than esteem, but also to ensure that respect is for everyone as equals.

34 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 Christian F. Rostbøll
Christian F. Rostbøll
Professor of Political Theory, Department of Political Science, University of Copenhagen

Christian holds a PhD from Columbia University.

His main research interests are democratic theory and populism, theories of respect and recognition, and Immanuel Kant’s moral and political philosophy.

He has published numerous articles on political and democratic theory.

Democratic Respect: Populism, Resentment, and the Struggle for Recognition

Democratic Respect: Populism, Resentment, and the Struggle for Recognition
Cambridge University Press, 2023

Compromise and Disagreement in Contemporary Political Theory
Edited By Christian Rostboll, Theresa Scavenius

Compromise and Disagreement in Contemporary Political Theory
Edited with Theresa Scavenius, Routledge, 2018

Deliberative Freedom
Deliberative Democracy as Critical Theory
By Christian F. Rostboll

Deliberative Freedom: Deliberative Democracy as Critical Theory
SUNY Press, 2008

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