🔮 Responding to populism with caution

Anthoula Malkopoulou warns against conflating populism with authoritarianism and thus over-reacting and supporting repression. But treating populists as regular political opponents may lead to the opposite: under-reacting to the risks posed by some populist parties and individuals

The discussion about how to respond to populism is often fraught with pitfalls. These are, in part, caused by misguiding myths within our understanding of populism. To respond to these myths, we must correctly diagnose the causes and nature of populism, and fairly evaluate our strategies of response and their legitimacy.

Our disagreements concern not only what populism is or how we should deal with it, but also what we expect from democracy

Each type of response attaches a certain meaning to populism. This meaning extends to how populism relates to democracy, which we must define for this purpose. Thus, disagreement concerns not only what populism is or how we should deal with it, but also what we expect from democracy. On these grounds, two myths have been prominent in the debate on responses to populism.

Myth 1: Democracies must repress populist parties

Some scholars, many of whom are associated with the school of ‘militant democracy’, support strategies of repression. They contend that state and non-state authorities may legitimately repress parties and movements that act prima facie legally but oppose basic liberal democratic principles, as populists often do.

In short, if populists do not subscribe to certain key democratic beliefs, they should be contained, as András Sajó argues. For example, their state funding should be cut. They should not receive permission to gather in public spaces, or opportunities to run for elections, or invitations to committees, governing or voting coalitions. On social media, they should be de-platformed. And so on.

But for strategies of repression to make sense, we must interpret populism as an anti-democratic phenomenon. This is because militant strategies of oppression were designed to deal specifically with fascist, Nazi, and similar extreme-right parties.

Is populism anti-democratic?

But to think of populists as far-right anti-democrats is to forget that, as a political style or discourse, we can find populism in both left-wing and right-wing varieties. It can combine with xenophobic and nativist views, but also with more inclusionary stances and social-egalitarian ideas. As such, it can become a ‘threat’ to democracy, promoting strong leadership and quenching intermediary institutions. But it can also ‘correct’ democracy by bringing out its grassroots anti-hegemonic potential. Repression of populism misses this double dynamic.

In fact, populism is not the same as authoritarianism. It is true that populists can become authoritarian. But when they do so they have mutated, and we should not label them as simply populists any more.

Repressing populists implies that democracy cannot exist without liberal intermediary institutions – but can exist without the full expression of popular will

In addition to a biased understanding of populism as by definition proto-authoritarian, strategies of repression rely on a biased understanding of democracy as by definition liberal. Repressing populists implies that democracy cannot exist without liberal intermediary institutions. However, these strategies imply, democracy can exist without the full expression of popular will.

Repression also renders democratic exclusion and rights restrictions in principle acceptable, as temporary means to secure democracy in the long run.

Once these implications become clear, many would reject a militant-democratic approach to populism. But the opposite strategy, of not doing anything about populism, may also be problematic.

Myth 2: Democracies must treat populists as ordinary opponents

From the perspective of a non-militant, tolerant democracy, the right strategy for dealing with populism is inclusion. Populists, they say, must be treated like ordinary political adversaries. They should be invited to debates, engaged with politically, and even defended as rightful dissidents.

Many argue that treating opponents as legitimate eventually transforms them into democratic partisans. The experience of regularly participating in day-to-day politics will inevitably tame populists, familiarise them with the ethics of civility and partisanship, and move them to value cooperation and compromise. Meanwhile, institutional checks and balances such as high electoral thresholds and the power of independent courts to reverse undemocratic decisions complement and counterbalance this inclusiveness.

In addition, applying regular criminal law will prevent the worst, punishing only acts that are directly harmful. Otherwise, political activity will remain unrestricted.

Are populists harmless?

But such a criminal law strategy is more suitable against extremist parties. Populists do not, as a rule, openly disregard the law. When they weaken judicial independence, media freedom and the separation of powers, they do so through formally legal procedures. Thus, they evade the usual mechanisms through which tolerant democracies guard themselves.

But neither are populists harmless. Not only do they often undermine political and social structures, they also tend to claim ultimate legitimacy for their actions, thanks to their extensive popular and electoral support.

Including populists as ordinary adversaries risks the alteration of central frames of political discourse and the erosion of democratic attitudes

Including populists as ordinary adversaries carries the risk of mainstreaming their messages. This can lead to the alteration of central frames of political discourse and the erosion of democratic attitudes in the long run. This is why centre-right parties are heavily criticised for adopting populist rhetoric or providing shelter to populist parties.

As a result, supporting tolerant strategies towards populism reveals an understanding of populism as either too immersed in illegal practices or, the opposite, as relatively harmless.

All or none of the above?

Given the problems associated with both repressing and tolerating populists, should we be tempted to mix these strategies? Unfortunately, there are problems here, too. The mix is vulnerable to the charge of opportunism. It is also likely to be normatively inconsistent, combining mutually contradictory ideas about populism and democracy. The same problem of normative incoherence persists when we choose to respond to populism ad hoc with whatever strategy seems convenient on each occasion.

However, advocating normative rigidity is not the point. What matters is to appreciate how important it is to design responses on the basis of a well-grounded understanding of what is good and bad about populism. In addition, we must have an honest appreciation of what is good and bad about the current state of democracy. Taking into account the democratic risks involved in both over- and under-reacting to populism is a good start.

25th 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 Anthoula Malkopoulou
Anthoula Malkopoulou
Senior Lecturer and Associate Professor, Department of Government, Uppsala University

Prior to appointment to her current post at Uppsala in January 2022, Anthoula worked at Lund, Princeton and the Hellenic Open University.

Her research focuses primarily on democratic theory, constitutional ideas and political ethics.

It is problem-driven, and examines questions of political representation, democratic exclusion, voting rights, political parties, and populism.

More specific topics include militant democracy and democratic self-defence, compulsory voting, sortition, ostracism, and lately democratic secessionism.

Anthoula is also broadly interested in political ideologies, the history of political thought (mainly 19th and 20th century), and ancient Greek democratic thinking.


She tweets @AMalkopoulou

The History of Compulsory Voting in Europe
Democracy's Duty?
By Anthoula Malkopoulou

The History of Compulsory Voting in Europe: Democracy’s Duty?
Routledge, 2015

Forthcoming monograph on Theories of Democratic Self-Defence

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