🔮 What populism… is not!

Populist parties have gained significant electoral successes in recent years. But Davide Vittori shows that populism is not everywhere, even in public opinion. We are in danger of simplifying what populism is, and assuming that all anti-establishment phenomena are 'populist', when they are not

Populism as a complex phenomenon

Populism as a political concept is becoming so blurred that it is difficult to disentangle its conceptual borders – what is populism is and what it is not. It is not surprising, then, that myths about it abound. Populism is the sum of different concepts. We should not treat any of the parts that makes up populism as the whole.

For example, populists are anti-elitists, but anti-elitism is not a synonym of populism. If this was the case, we would consider anyone critical of economic or political elites as populist. Yet, populism is also fiercely against an ultra-majoritarian vision of democracy. Populism is not just people-centrism, either. Nor it is just a Manichean conception of political conflict.

Regardless of the disagreement over its definition, political scientists agree (for the most part) that populism is a complex phenomenon. Thus, only the simultaneous presence of all sub-components makes a political actor a 'populist' actor, or a citizen a citizen with populist attitudes.

If we treat populism as a single-dimension phenomenon, we could end up categorising all citizens who want politicians to follow the will of the people as populists

The paradoxical consequence of treating populism as a single-dimension phenomenon is that we might end up categorising a majority of citizens as populists because surveys show that most citizens want politicians to follow the will of the people. This is something that a minority, in principle, would disagree with, since the opposite pole of this conception would be a political class that consciously goes against people’s wishes. This would lead to a large overestimation of populist attitudes in our societies, with all the unintended consequences.

Populism and direct democracy: a complicated relationship

Equally important, we should not consider populists as direct democrats. There have been fruitful attempts to link populist attitudes to a preference for direct democracy among citizens. However, the relationship is more complicated than it appears, because other individual characteristics (e.g. education) influence preferences on how decisions should be made.

More importantly, at the party level, the link between populism and direct democracy is weak. Populist parties are not overly eager to promote direct democracy; nor are they obsessed with it. In fact, they do not talk about it that often.

Populist parties are not overly eager to promote direct democracy; nor are they obsessed with it

Even when in government, these parties seem uninterested in promoting a participatory vision of democracy. At the same time, populists seem to be comfortable with, for example, technocracy (when not directly promoting this decision-making process), although we still need more data to corroborate these findings. This might be due to the fact that populism and technocracy, as Daniele Caramani shows in his work, share some fundamental characteristics opposed to the representative democracy ideal-type.

Whatever the causes may be, populism is not just being in favour of direct democracy. People and political actors, including populists, have more complex process preferences than pure ideal-types.

Trust the people, distrust the institutions?

It might be tempting to equate populism with distrust in institutions. But despite the strong correlation between the two, we should never consider distrust and populism synonymous. Nor should we use distrust as a proxy for populism. Political distrust is related to the idea that, generally speaking, institutions are not delivering for the individuals. It is a judgement about how politics is working. But it says nothing about how politics should work or the role of the people in decision-making.

Populism, in contrast, also embodies a vision of how politics should work. It embodies clearly a more people-centric model of government. Not all citizens with low political trust would share this view. If we treat distrust as a proxy of populism, we end up considering fiercely anti-populist views as populist: technocrats, for example, are distrustful of institutions and elitists.

If we treat distrust as a proxy of populism, we end up considering fiercely anti-populist views as populist: technocrats, for example, are distrustful of institutions and elitists.

There are always good reasons to make things simple. Debates about concepts in academia are often convoluted and difficult to grasp. Simplifying difficult concepts, therefore, is a much-needed effort. However, as concepts are important to define the world around us, oversimplifying them is problematic.

A final example: if we consider populism as a 'threat' to democracy, labelling all anti-establishment manifestations as populist might lead us into thinking that populism is everywhere. If we consider populism (or at least some specific types of populism) a 'corrective' to democracy, its omnipresence should comfort us.

Yet, both conceptions would be highly misguided. The starting point is wrong. Even at the cost of asking citizens to reflect a bit more on the words they (we) use, we should never give in to the temptation of oversimplifying something like populism, that is, by definition, complex.

22nd 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 Davide Vittori
Davide Vittori
Postdoctoral Researcher, Université libre de Bruxelles

Davide works on European public opinion, process preferences, political parties and voting behaviour.

He tweets @DaveVitto

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