🔮 The thin and chamaeleonic nature of demand for populism

Scholars have been trying to understand what unifies voters of populist parties and what the prototypical populist voter looks like. Elena Baro proposes a new perspective in the study of the demand side. She suggests embracing what makes the study of populism challenging: its thin and chamaeleonic nature

In recent years, political choices have become increasingly volatile, and citizens’ dissatisfaction with their representatives has been growing steadily. Populist parties, in response, have flourished. All of which suggests that it is crucial to understand what moves populist voters to action.

Here, I propose a new perspective on how to bring together the knowledge we have gained about the populist electorate. Like Bartek Pytlas, when it comes to the study of populism's demand side and electorate, I suggest embracing its thin, chamaeleonic nature.

A chamaeleonic demand side

We have a rich body of literature describing who votes for populist parties and why. This literature is extensive, but remains fragmented. So far, there is general agreement on some aspects of the populist phenomenon. But a review of the individual explanatory factors for populism will offer mainly mixed – and sometimes even contradictory – empirical findings.

Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti help us by identifying two main characteristics of populism that explain why it is so difficult to identify the prototypical populist voter. First, in Paul Taggart's words, populism has a chamaeleonic nature. It changes easily and adapts according to where (and when) it operates.

There are multiple varieties of populism, which sometimes display deep differences, even within the same sub-family, and easily change and adapt

Second, there are multiple varieties of populism, which sometimes display deep differences, even within the same sub-family. As Zulianello and Guasti point out, ‘people often believe populists to be Eurosceptic or anti-immigration. In fact, these features characterise only a subset of populist actors.’

The ‘good people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’

We know that populism is ‘thin’: alone, it does not say much about what populists want. It merely emphasises the moralistic division between the ‘good people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’. Populist parties need to combine populism with other sets of ideas to produce their political agenda. This explains why different populist forces arise across places and times, and why defining a prototypical populist voter is particularly challenging.

Here, I propose a different method for navigating the similarities and differences among the varied populist party family electorate. As starting point for my perspective, I take what makes the study of populism challenging: its thin, chamaeleonic nature.

I suggest that the thinness of the populist ideology is mirrored in the commonalities of its electorate. Borrowing the terms ‘thin’ and ‘thick’ to define the populist ideology helps describe populist voters’ worldview. I therefore propose that populist voters may share a thin line of commonalities across cases, but that the remaining 'thick' part is contextual or chamaeleonic.

The thin line of commonalities

There is growing evidence regarding the role of populist attitudes and personal values as a common denominator among populist voters. Populist attitudes and values tap into the thin, common core of populist parties.

That is, the populist claims to speak for and represent ‘the pure people’, against the ‘corrupt elites’. Populist voters thus tend to see society as divided into two antagonistic groups. They also tend to believe that the 'pure' people's concerns and grievances should drive political decisions.

Populist parties don't tend to categorise in terms of natives versus immigrants, or workers versus the rich; they favour a vaguer moralistic divide between a 'good people' and an 'evil elite'

This thin line of commonalities among the populist electorate lies at a high level of abstraction. Populist parties, therefore, don't tend to categorise the people and the elite in specific host-ideology terms (e.g., natives versus immigrants, workers versus ‘the rich’). Rather, what all parties agree upon is the minimal moralistic divide between a good people and an evil elite.

The thick group of dissimilarities

In fact, at a lower level of abstraction, if we look at the specifics of populist voters’ ideas, the thin line of commonalities among them fades away. The populist electorate takes on different positions about immigration, European integration, economic issues, and more.

This happens because populist parties have a chamaeleonic character. They adapt and 'take the form of' the grievances relevant in the context in which they operate. Consequently, we find voters with very diverse positions on core societal and political issues across different populist parties, countries, and times.

Populist parties adapt and ‘take the form of’ the grievances which are relevant in the context in which they operate

Some people who vote for a particular populist party might be critical of the European integration process and immigration, while others might not. Still others might be concerned with preserving a country’s traditions and customs. In his analysis of 15 European populist parties, Matthijs Rooduijn shows how the populist electorate has very little in common. Populist voters do not agree on Euroscepticism, nor do they share attitudes about direct democracy or distrust of political institutions.

Citizen demands for populism

Where and when a populist party operates is thus essential to understanding the roots and growth of citizens’ demands for populism. For instance, voters’ Eurosceptic feelings could be suppressed when a populist party is in government. And such feelings might become less strong as populist parties with positions in government tone down their Eurosceptic discourse. Overall, this could help scholars make sense of the fragmented literature on the motives behind populist support.

Thick and thin

I suggest that when we study the demand side of populism's electorate, we should embrace populism's thin, chamaeleonic nature. This means acknowledging that commonalities among voters for different populist parties might be limited only to core populist attitudes and values. Meanwhile, the ideas of the remaining, ‘thick’ sector of the populist electorate are hugely diverse, and changeable.

Populism's thin, chamaeleonic demand side confirms its boundless adaptability. This it one of its key strengths, and may well constitute a recipe for enduring success.

37 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 Elena Baro
Elena Baro
PhD Candidate, Norwegian University of Science and Technology

Elena's PhD dissertation is entitled The worldviews of populist supporters: a study of citizens’ values and attitudes in the context of European populism.

Her research interests include European populism and public opinion, social psychology, and voting behaviour.

She tweets @elena_baro

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