đź”® Myth: populism is a recent phenomenon

Populism is a chronic condition rather than a recent phenomenon, writes Kirk Hawkins. When we recognise the historical roots of populism, we can manage this challenge to liberal democracy

In their foundational post in this series, Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti identify three myths in current understandings of populism:

  • Populism is associated with specific issue positions
  • Populism is either left or right wing
  • Populists lie outside the mainstream

Another myth is that populism is a recent phenomenon.

In journalists’ and academics’ zeal to understand (and condemn) the populisms of the moment — and as an extension of other myths, such as the idea that populism is uniquely connected to certain flavours of the left and right — we often limit populism to the present, or perhaps to a recent historical period.

In journalists’ and academics’ zeal to understand (and condemn) the populisms of the moment, we often limit populism to the present

For example, contemporary scholars of populism in Europe and North America often speak about populism as if it came into existence with the emergence of the modern radical right or radical left. Others suggest that populism first appeared with the 1890s Populist Party in America and the 1870s Narodnik Movement in Russia. In Latin America, academics frequently limit populism’s beginnings to the inception of mass-based democracy during the Great Depression. By linking populism to a particular party family or set of causal circumstances, these scholars affirm that populism only came into existence at that special moment in time, and not before.

Earlier beginnings

However, recent research (and work by earlier historians) shows that populism generally has earlier beginnings than these critical junctures. For example, studies in Ghița Ionescu and Ernest Gellner's classic volume focused on populism in Europe in the inter-war period. At the time of their writing, the radical right had not yet emerged as a significant force in Europe.

My own work with Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser found populism in the rhetoric of middle-class radical movements in Argentina and Chile beginning at the start of the twentieth century. This puts them well before the movements of Peronism in Argentina or Ibañismo in Chile. Hans-Georg Betz's excellent work highlights the populist rhetoric of Boulangisme in 1880s France and the Know-Nothings in 1840s United States. McKinney Voss Wheeler finds strong evidence of populism in the speeches of US President Andrew Jackson and his supporters during the 1820s and 1830s.

The ideational approach

Clearly, some of the historical starting points we have assumed are wrong. But I think this reality also makes theoretical sense. Careful reading of scholarship connected to the ideational approach suggests that populism goes back to the beginnings of modern democracy.

Careful reading of scholarship connected to the ideational approach suggests that populism goes back to the beginnings of modern democracy

As Margaret Canovan argued, if populism stems from a belief in popular sovereignty, then any political community that believes in democracy is capable of imagining the will of the people in opposition to an elite. According to this view, populism in any democracy should appear regularly. In theory, new movements should emerge as ruling parties become disconnected from their constituents, and subside as new or existing parties absorb those unmet demands. This process may be more extreme in developing democracies with weak governance, where populism is more of a devastating condition that overturns democratic regimes. But even in experienced democracies, we can expect populism to appear in the guise of third-party movements.

This does not mean that populism is constant. However, it does suggest that populism is older and more recurring than we admit. The source material’s paucity and our lack of historical research may be the reason that we don’t find it more. Archives of political rhetoric are hard to come by the further back we go.

A chronic condition rather than a contemporary problem

There are good theoretical and empirical reasons for anticipating populism as a constant companion of democracy. Why, then, our insistence on populism being a product of the present? Again, it may just be that our historical memories are short. Also, efforts to measure populism are relatively new, and we are only just starting to reassess older parties and movements.

However, I think the reluctance to see past populisms reflects some of our normative biases and a bit of self-interest. Seeing populism as a contemporary problem heightens the sense of mystery and peril that surrounds these movements. It encourages us to treat them as mortal dangers for which we have not yet found the remedy, rather than a chronic condition that is part of everyday democratic routine or, to borrow Cas Mudde’s phrase, a 'pathological normalcy'. As academics who worry about populism’s consequences, we want the public to care about populism, too. But if today’s populism exists within a larger ebb and flow, perhaps people won’t take it as seriously as they should.

Seeing populist movements as a contemporary problem encourages us to treat them as mortal dangers for which we have not yet found the remedy

Furthermore, recognising that current populisms are one of many manifestations forces us to compare and even equate current populisms that we may personally dislike with past populisms that we revere. The idea that Trumpism has a little something in common with the Progressives may be more than we can bear. Populism is, in the end, still a pejorative, and keeping populism ahistorical allows us to preserve the label’s negative connotations and apply it only to the movements and parties that we think deserve the opprobrium.

Democratic resilience

As an empirical positivist, I encourage my colleagues to embrace the data. Recognising populisms of the past, and the frequency with which populism emerges in even well-functioning democracies, can only clarify our theorising and policy recommendations. I would rather know the complete set of conditions under which populism is a threat (rather than a corrective) to liberal democracy, than come up with a skewed set of causal variables telling me that one form of populism is safe.

If well-functioning liberal democracies are prone to failures of representation, we must identify the source of those weaknesses. Contemporary liberal democracy should not be treated as something that must be sheltered from criticism. To me, the continuous emergence and reemergence of populism sends a very different message, one echoed in recent commentaries by Kurt Weyland and Raul Madrid. Liberal democracy is resilient if we are willing to recognise and respond to its shortcomings.

15th in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 over the coming weeks and months 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 Kirk Hawkins
Kirk Hawkins
Professor, Brigham Young University

Kirk teaches comparative politics with an emphasis on Latin America.

His current research focuses on political organisation and populism, and he directs Team Populism, a global scholarly network studying populism's causes and consequences.

Projects include the creation of a global populism dataset, experimental research on populism's rhetorical mechanisms, and the mitigation of populism's negative consequences for society.

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