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He who builds upon the people, builds upon mud.
Niccolo Machiavelli, The Prince, p. 37[1]

Populism is a strange political beast, as nobody knows what it is, and fewer identify with it, but (in theory) it should be the prevailing political ideology in a democracy. Merriam-Webster's defines it as "the belief in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people."[2]

Populism is closely aligned with anti-elitism. Populism can be either left or right-wing. Often it involves a charismatic leader galvanising support from among the general population, on an issue that arouses a great deal of passion and concern. Depending on the prejudices and outlook of the great masses of the people, this can be either a good or an awfully bad thing. For example, Daniel O'ConnellWikipedia was probably the first populist of the Industrial Revolution who used "people power" in his campaign for Catholic Emancipation in Britain/Ireland. On the other hand, Hitler. It can vary from being one ingredient to a comprehensive platform, or just be a bunch of post-truth bullshit.

Once in power, populist leaders (regardless of political leaning) often engage in democratic backsliding, arguing that democratic institutions meant to ensure democratic ideas such as pluralism and the right of the minority conflict with 'the will of the people' which is based on the idea that because they were elected by the majority of the people the populist leader is allowed to do whatever they want. Thus, populism is considered a form of mobocracy. Populist leaders also tend to stay in office for longer periods of time and leave under more dramatic terms such as impeachment and resignation compared to non-populists.[3]

Trouble with defining populism[edit]

Many attempts at defining populism run into trouble because they try fitting populism somewhere on the left-right political spectrum, or on a two-dimensional spectrum of economic and social freedom. Populism doesn't belong in any one place on the political spectrum because it is a rhetorical style, not a political ideology. Populism can occur anywhere on the political spectrum. It is simply an appeal to the common people in rhetoric, policy, or both, and proclaiming one's identification with common people and against an 'elite' (even if the proclaimer is the elite), however defined. Critics of far-right populism would do well to keep in mind that it isn't the 'populism' part that is the main problem, it's the 'far-right' part.

Libertarian analyses, such as the Nolan Chart, enframe populism as the opposite of libertarianism, but do not see it as being as extreme as totalitarianism. If one thinks of libertarianism as the belief in economic and social freedom, liberalism as the belief in social freedom and economic regulation and conservatism as the belief in social regulation and economic freedom, populism forms the natural fourth quadrant of social and economic regulation. How this gets interpreted can enter into comedy; see Australia's Bob Katter, who is (in equal measure) a homophobe, anti-immigrant, a global warming denier, an MRA and gun nut yet supports Keynesian economics.[4]

Many far-right groups would conform to the Nolan definition of populism. The Nazis combined an autarkic economic policy with a far-right racist policy on the ideal of an 'Aryan race'. Today in modern Britain the British National Party opposes participation in the European Union and is "committed to stemming and reversing the tide of non-white immigration", whilst having an economic policy that supports import tariffs, which is further to the left than the Labour Party.

In current American politics it is also important to distinguish between true populist movements (e.g. Occupy Wall Street) and astroturf ones (e.g. the Tea Party), since the latter get much of their support from big-money interests.

Political scientist Francis Fukuyama has defined three types of populism:[5]

  1. "a regime that pursues policies that are popular in the short run but unsustainable in the long run"
  2. a regime that defines populism based on only one segment of the population, either an ethnostate or a theocracy
  3. a regime that is based on cult of personality

Timothy Snyder has further refined the third type in the case of Donald Trump as 'sado-populism', creating policies that directly harm large segments of one's own supporters (in this case, the 2017 tax cuts for the rich, Trump's only major policy in his first year in office).[6]:272[7]

Populism in practice[edit]

In a less extreme version, populism is merely choosing the political positions which have the largest voter support, essentially a pick-and-mix based on opinion polls on what should win the most votes. Most politicians choose to avoid the populist label as it is easy for their opponents to attack them as unprincipled and pandering to gain votes.

Also, for this reason, populist politicians may find themselves forced to make unrealistic proposals; for example, while the voters may love a proposal to hand out lots of free cash from the treasury, and vote for someone who proposes it, they might not love the heavy taxation and/or heavy deficits necessary to fund such largesse, and will vote against any politician who admits to these necessities. The populist politician is therefore stuck between ignoring such potential consequences to get themselves elected, or facing up to the costs and losing votes. This is illustrated by a quote often misattributed to Alexis de Tocqueville:

The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.

Another one of the main issues with populism is that, regardless of where it appears on the political spectrum, it tends to trail behind it vehement anti-intellectualism. This is mainly because academia and education is seen as a trait of elitists, and is therefore rejected by populists. Some, such as Mao Zedong, went so far as to kill "elitist" intellectuals, but most populists just reject the advice of "elitist professors" and the like in favor of "common sense" policies (such as heavy protectionism), leading to economic and social woes.

The Populist Party[edit]

There was an actual short-lived People's Party, more commonly known as the Populist Party, in the United States late in the Gilded Age. The party was a left-wing coalition of angry poor farmers in the South and Great Plains, who felt that they had been screwed over by the elites running the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.[8] After some gains in the early 1890s, they were absorbed into the Democratic Party with some help.

Some notable populists[edit]



Rest of the world[edit]


Also known by supporters, critics, and academics as national populism.[10] Sound familiar to something else?



Rest of the world[edit]


It includes not only simple centrists but also center-left and center-rights.

Independent or not affiliated[edit]

Note: Not all of these populists are as far to the right or left as others in their category. Indeed, some are even reasonable!

See also[edit]


  1. Translated and Edited by Peter Bondanella (2005), Oxford University Press, ISBN 0-19-280426-X
  2. Merriam-Webster's definition of populist
  3. https://institute.global/policy/populist-harm-democracy-empirical-assessment
  4. See the Wikipedia article on And that's just the start..
  5. What Is Populism? by Francis Fukuyama (November 28, 2017) The American Interest.
  6. The Road to Unfreedom: Russia, Europe, America by Timothy Snyder (2018) Tim Duggan Books. ISBN 0525574468.
  7. Timothy Snyder Speaks, ep. 4: Sadopopulism (Dec 2, 2017) YouTube.
  8. You can read their official platform here,
  9. https://www.georgiaencyclopedia.org/articles/history-archaeology/thomas-e-watson-1856-1922/
  10. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/nov/08/national-populism-immigration-financial-crisis-globalisation