🔮 Three die-hard myths about populism

Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti explore and rebut three die-hard myths about populism. This, they argue, on the one hand guards against overestimating populism as a phenomenon. On the other, it warns that we must not underestimate the political strength of the so-called populist radical right

Populism has become one of the most widely used political terms in recent years. Populist leaders have gained popularity in many countries around the world: Andrej Babis, Jair Bolsonaro, Pia Kjærsgaard, Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Giorgia Meloni, Evo Morales, Narendra Modi, Slavi Trifonov, and Donald J. Trump, to name just a few. All have promised to wrest power from the corrupt elite, and return it to the people.

The populist phenomenon is versatile and, in the words of Paul Taggart, ‘tends to be highly chamaeleonic’. This characteristic has helped cultivate three myths about populism which it is high time to dispel. These days, the first tends to persist only among pundits and journalists. But the other two have proved particularly persistent in academe, too.

Myth No.1

'Populism is associated with specific political positions'

Populism is first and foremost identified with certain political actors (parties, movements, leaders). People therefore assume it to be associated with a specific agenda. Scholars have largely dispelled this myth. However, the media still commonly uses populism as a synonym for a specific form of the phenomenon: the (populist) radical right.

For instance, by definition, people often believe populists to be Eurosceptic or anti-immigration. In fact, these features characterise only a subset of populist actors. However, the latter in itself is a moralistic way to interpret the world (a conflict between the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’). Beyond generic ideas about ‘the people’, ‘the elites’ and the ‘general will’, populism alone does not imply a specific political agenda or programme.

People often believe populists to be Eurosceptic or anti-immigration. In fact, these features characterise only a subset of populist actors

Populism in isolation tells us very little about what populists want. But the moral distinction between the ‘pure people’ and the ‘corrupt elite’ may foster polarisation at a systemic level. This is because it poses a challenge to two key features of liberal democracy: pluralism and minority rights.

Myth No.2

'Populism is either left-wing or right-wing'

The moralistic rather than programmatic nature of populism enables it to interact with other ideas. In the real world, we typically find populism in combination with other ideas, which are essential to craft a more specific agenda. In this respect, a second myth points to the persistent tendency to classify populists in a dichotomous way.

Populists are thus either left-wing or right-wing, while all ‘the others’ tend to get lumped together into an unspecified residual category. The authoritative database Popu-List is an example of this problem When populist parties qualify as neither 'far left' or 'far right’, Popu-List dismisses them as merely ‘populist’. However, crowding such parties into a heterogenous category overlooks the profound ideational differences between them.

In the real world, there are multiple varieties of populism: no party can be meaningfully considered ‘just’ populist. Think, for instance, of the differences between the Czech ANO 2011, Italy's Five Star Movement, the Dutch Pim Fortuyn List and Self-Defence in Poland.

Right-wing populists are anti-egalitarian because they combine populism with exclusionary forms of nationalism and/or neoliberalism. Today, we typically find right-wing populism in the specific form of the populist radical right. This sub-type combines nativism, authoritarianism and populism, and it exists in almost every European country.

Typical examples of populist radical-right parties are the Brothers of Italy, the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, the Swiss People’s Party and We Are Family in Slovakia. Finally, even though they are less common than in the past, the broad group of right-wing populism includes actors that do not belong to the populist radical-right party family: for instance, the Dutch Pim Fortuyn List and Denmark's Progress Party.

Left-wing populism, instead, is an egalitarian ideology which combines populism with some loose form of socialism. It exists especially in its radical-left manifestations. It is much less diffuse than its right-wing counterpart, but current examples include La France Insoumise, Podemos in Spain and Die Linke in Germany.

Populism beyond left and right

Admittedly, some populists are much more elusive. For this reason, more often than not, they remain unspecified. However, we can, in most cases (at least in Europe), meaningfully classify these populists using one of two categories: valence populism and agrarian populism.

Valence populists lack a thick ideology (such as nativism or socialism). They combine populism with an emphasis on non-positional issues such as anti-corruption appeals, democratic reform and/or a technocratic agenda. Prominent examples are ANO 2011 in Czechia, the Italian Five Star Movement, and the Slovak Ordinary People and Independent Personalities. What makes valence populists peculiar is that they can be ideologically flexible and ambiguous on key economic and cultural issues, while focusing on the non-positional issues mentioned above.

Valence populists combine populism with an emphasis on non-positional issues. Agrarian populists' core agenda is defence of the rural world

The core agenda of agrarian populists, instead, is defence of the rural world. Such parties have in the past played a role in a number of European countries, e.g. the Dutch Farmers’ Party, the Finnish Rural Party and Self-Defence in Poland. Though rare in contemporary Europe, agrarian populism has had a revival in Dutch politics thanks to the recent breakthrough of the Farmer-Citizen Movement, and this variety remains important in a global perspective.

Myth No.3

'Populists lie outside the mainstream'

In the past, populists were typically outsiders, relegated to the margins of national politics. This was the rule, empirically speaking. Yet in recent decades, they have increasingly penetrated mainstream party politics. We see this in particular with the integration of populist radical-right parties. Nevertheless, observers still often frame mainstream and populist parties as mutually exclusive categories. However, as Benjamin Moffitt explains, mainstreaming is a process, and political parties, including populists, can become mainstream.

Notably, a study of 33 European countries found that the large majority of contemporary populist parties are (negatively) integrated into national party systems. In these systems, they are considered legitimate and accepted players.

Most contemporary populist parties are integrated into national party systems, in which they are considered legitimate and accepted players

2022 proved a historic year. The Meloni government in Italy emerged as the first cabinet led by this party family in Western Europe. The Sweden Democrats, meanwhile, entered a formal coalition with mainstream forces following decades of stigmatisation.

Surviving integration

Can populists survive integration into national politics without voters judging them to have sold out their core principles and goals? Populism is essentially moral, not situational, and what matters is the performative side. Populists today are typically mainstream and not outsiders. However, to them, it is essential to perform as if they are something different from ‘the establishment’. To echo Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, they should ‘have one foot in and one foot out’ of government.

Certainly, it is easier to articulate anti-elitism from the opposition benches. However, parties can also do this while in government. Thriving in power, not just in opposition, ultimately depends on the capacity of political actors to cope with the pressures of integration and power. These include articulating a clear message and preserving organisational cohesion.

Clearly, populism is important for (re)creating a symbolic moral distance from the establishment. Yet its long-term relevance is certainly marginal compared with the capacity to retain credibility and issue ownership over key topics, according to their specific ideological variety.

Reinterpreting populism

Dispelling these three die-hard myths invites us to acknowledge the complex nature of populism, an often-misinterpreted phenomenon. In particular, it can help make better sense of the populist radical right, in two ways.

On the one hand, dispelling these myths can help avoid overestimating the importance of populism in comparison to the two ‘true’ pillars of populist radical right ideology: nativism and authoritarianism. On the other hand, it can help us avoid underestimating the capacity of the populist radical right to implement at least part of their agenda, since they are now, typically, part of mainstream politics.

This article is the first 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.

Contributing Authors

photograph of Mattia Zulianello Mattia Zulianello Assistant Professor in Political Science, University of Trieste More by this author
photograph of Petra Guasti Petra Guasti Associate Professor for Democratic Theory, Charles University in Prague More by this author

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2 comments on “🔮 Three die-hard myths about populism”

  1. Good and balanced story - thanks. Yet a few remarks: one, I tend to distinguish between Populism as an [electoral] strategy feeding on discontent and protest [e.g. Dutch BBB = Farmers&Citizens movement, typically valence], on the one hand, and on the other hand Populism as positional (not only Left-Right, but also in terms of progresssive-Conservative). The latter type is complex and diffuse to classify (think e.g. of Forum for Democracy or Animal Party in NL). So, I argue that populism per se is widespread largely depending on the dynamics of a party system (remember my friend and collaegue Peter Mair) and type of electoral competition (including 'mainstream' parties). This will show how populism as an electoral strategy varies across Europe and beyond. Secondly, following Zakaria's label, I would call 'Illiberalism' (or: Anti-Pluralism as V-Dem researchers do) as the ideological dimension, be it Left or Right or Progessive versus Conservative). The main point is that the dominance of the Liberal Democratic model is fundamentally challenged going beyond protest, discontent and anti-mainstream partisan politics. Three: I would [and do] study Populism & Illiberalism within the context of party system institutionalisation form the viewpoint of 'office' and 'vote' seeking behaviour [e.g. Italy is different from Sweden]. Up to now I found that the (toxic) relationship between Populism and Illiberalism is growing electorally and influences the party system tendency. Further, that government participation is increasing indeed, but unclear is the policy performance of such governments. To conclude: I by and large agree on your dispelling the myths, but I would recommend a wider research design combining party analysis with party system change and how these factors affect governance in liberal democracies.

  2. Dear Hans, if I might,
    Thank you for your engaging and thought-provoking comment! We love your argument and would like to invite you to perhaps elaborate on it slightly up to the maximum 1000 words in order to share it with with our readers as a part of the #FutureOfPopulusm series. It would be a very valuable contribution.
    Thank you again for sharing your thoughts.
    All our best, Petra and Mattia

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