Populism explained

Populism - Toolshero

Populism: This article explains populism in a practical way. It covers what populism is and provides examples throughout the article. It furthermore gives an explanation for the origin of populism. After reading the article, you will understand the basics of this very powerful political movement.

What is Populism? The theory

Populism encompasses a range of political views and views that emphasize the idea of the people. This group is often placed against the elite within societies. This ideology often goes hand in hand with an anti-political sentiment and a general anti-establishment sentiment.

The term appeared in the late 1800s, begin 19th century and has been used to describe politicians, political parties and movements ever since.

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The definition of populism

Populism is also defined as an ideology that presents the people as a good and moral force that contrasts with the strength and power of the elite. The elite are usually portrayed as corrupt and selfish. There are differences in the way populists define the people, but often ethnic or national characteristics are used to designate the population.

Populism: the elite and the people

Populists and populist leaders are critical of the elite, who dominate the political, economic, cultural and media landscapes in established parties. The elite often refers to 1 entity. This entity is accused of putting its own interests first and putting the interests of, for example, foreigners above the interests of its own people.

Populist movements and political parties are often led by charismatic and dominant figures i.e. Donald Trump. Like other parties, they are the voice of their voters. This ideology is often combined with other ideologies, such as nationalism, conservatism, liberalism or socialism.

Populists are thus present at both ends of the political center, left and right as well as centrist.

Others define populism as the involvement of the population in political decision-making. Ernesto Laclau argues that populism is an emancipatory social force, challenging dominant power structures.
Economists use the term for economic policies based on taking out foreign loans that finance large government spending, which can result in hyperinflation.


The term is also used to describe politicians who provide overly simplistic answers to complex questions, using strong rhetoric, deceitful proposals or false claims. They try to get the population moving in this way. Such a leader is also called a demagogue.

The term became popular in the 1960s and was later applied to describe political parties mainly in Europe and the United States.

Anti-elite and populism

Anti-elitism is seen as the basic feature of populism. The elite includes several people and parties, as listed below, but the elite is presented as 1 homogeneous, corrupt group or corrupt elite.

  • Political establishment (government)
  • Economic elite (wealthy business people, financial world in general)
  • Cultural elite
  • Academic elite
  • Media elite

When populists are active in liberal democracies, as is commonly seen in the Western world, they do not entirely condemn the dominant form of party politics, but favor a new kind of party that is different from the others.

When populists take power, they face the challenge of becoming the elite themselves. In such cases, as in Slovakia, populists maintain rhetoric against the establishment. They do so by making changes, but at the same time insisting that powerful forces continue to undermine the populist government.

An example is Venezuela’s President Chávez, who accused the economic elite of holding back his reforms.

The elite does not necessarily have to be one of the above groups, but can also be another elite that works against the interests of a country. An example of this is the European Union (EU). The EU institutions put their own interests above those of the nation states themselves. Similarly, in Latin America, there is friction over the influence of the United States in those countries.

Immigrants over native population

A common position among populists is that the interests of immigrants are placed above the interests of one’s own people. In African Zambia, Michael Sata, a populist politician, took a xenophobic stance towards Asian minorities in the country. He disapproved of Chinese and Indian ownership of mines and companies in the country.

When populists use ethnicity and immigration as part of their stances, members of the elite are often portrayed as traitors because they would allow immigrants to be admitted into the country.

Explanation for the origin of populism

An important question in explaining populism is whether its cause is based on the needs of the citizens or the failure of governments. The citizens are called the demand side. The government is the supply side.

By focusing on the demands and needs of those two parties, an explanation can be given. Some argue that various demand-side issues allow individuals to adopt populist ideas. Political economists often emphasize the importance of economic concerns, while political scientists and sociologists often emphasize socio-cultural factors on the demand side.

Economic explanation demand side

An economic explanation may be that economic factors, such as deindustrialization, economic liberalization and deregulation, cause the formation of a fallen-behind precariat. A precariat in this case is a growing group of citizens in society, who have to deal with strong job insecurity, inequality and wage stagnation. This group then supports populists in search of a better future.

The influence of increasing economic inequality and income volatility is clear. Figures like Martin Wolf emphasize the importance of the economy and warn that current trends increase resentment and friction and predispose people to populist rhetoric.

Evidence for this has been found in studies by political scientists. They report that in difficult economic times:

  • Xenophobia increases
  • Anti-immigration feelings increase
  • Resentment against outside groups increases

Modernization losers demand side

Another explanation can be found in the modernization losers theory. This theory argues that aspects of modernity have led to the emergence of populism. Many arguments are based on the belief that anomie of industrialization has led to dissolution, fragmentation and differentiation.

However, studies have shown that populists exist across the political spectrum and thus populist groups are not just losers of modernization.

Cultural setbacks demand side

A cultural explanation for this ideology is that right-wing populism is a response to the rise of post-materialism, including feminism, multiculturalism, and environmentalism. At some point, the spread of beliefs and ideas among the population reaches a so-called tipping point. This provokes a reaction: support for this ideology.

Individuals who identify as part of a group and feel threatened are more likely to support political parties that promise to protect the group’s status and identity. Studies on this have focused primarily on white identity, but their results apply to other threatened social groups in different societies in general.

Democratization demand side

The extent to which a society is populist also depends on the time the country has been democratic. Young democracies have less established political parties and institutions and weaker liberal-democratic norms. Populist success in Eastern Europe, for example, has been called a legacy of communism.

Incompetent government supply side

This statement states that when governments fail to respond effectively to the challenges of the people, citizens turn to populism. Research confirms that populism is more likely to expand when political parties fail to address contemporary issues and provide clear alternatives to citizens.

Institutional decay supply side

In the supply side of American politics, populism is seen as a result of institutional decay. It is sometimes suggested that factors such as lobbyists, black money, certain colleges and other factors distort the debate and diminish the government’s ability to respond appropriately. This causes great dissatisfaction, which increases the chance that citizens will support populist parties.

In the case of the European Union (EU), this is also the sore point, according to some scholars. The EU integration has the undesirable effect of making the system less responsive to domestic voters, as legislation and policy making increasingly becomes the policy of the centralized EU system in Brussels and Luxembourg.

These factors also increase support for this ideology in the 21st century.

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Now It’s Your Turn

What do you think? Do you recognize the explanation about populism? Do you see populism in the political landscape of your country? What do you think of populism? Is it important that the voice of the people is heard? Do you think populist political parties should be excluded from government?

Share your experience and knowledge in the comments box below.

More information

  1. Müller, J. W. (2017). What is populism?. Penguin UK.
  2. Noury, A., & Roland, G. (2020). Identity politics and populism in Europe. Annual Review of Political Science, 23, 421-439.
  3. Wodak, R., KhosraviNik, M., & Mral, B. (Eds.). (2013). Right-wing populism in Europe: Politics and discourse. A&C Black.
  4. Buzalka, J. (2008). Europeanisation and post-peasant populism in Eastern Europe. Europe-Asia Studies, 60(5), 757-771.

How to cite this article:
Janse, B. (2022). Populism. Retrieved [insert date] from Toolshero: https://www.toolshero.com/sociology/populism/

Published on: 09/21/2022 | Last update: 07/04/2023

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Ben Janse
Article by:

Ben Janse

Ben Janse is a young professional working at ToolsHero as Content Manager. He is also an International Business student at Rotterdam Business School where he focusses on analyzing and developing management models. Thanks to his theoretical and practical knowledge, he knows how to distinguish main- and side issues and to make the essence of each article clearly visible.


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