Ben Margulies

In contemporary political science, few words are more ubiquitous than “populism.” The word trails Donald Trump wherever he goes, while commentators have been quick to point out that the Trump phenomenon of right-wing authoritarian nativist populism, though somewhat novel for the United States, has been a staple of European politics for decades. At the same time, Latin America has long been known for its left-wing populism, and Europeans too have organized left-populist movements.

If we are going to talk about populism, we need to describe why such disparate forces can be accurately described by a single label. How can one term encompass both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders? And then – since they are different in so many other ways – we need to develop ways of distinguishing populists by the claims they make, both about who “the people” are, and what the state should do for them.


What is populism? 

Almost all scholarly characterizations of populism share a common feature – a discourse that paints the political world as a battle between only two camps. On one side is the elite, a unified, collusive body that is almost always corrupt, distant and sometimes foreign. On the other is “the people,” who are equally unified, but morally pure. Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser provide a slightly more complete definition:

“A thin-centred ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” 

This dualism has profound effects on the way that populists see and do politics. Populists tend to be majoritarian, and dismissive of checks and balances. Populists tend to be sceptical of representative, regulatory or judicial bodies, and often refuse to engage with them. Since the people are pure and homogenous, populists also tend to be intolerant of opposition, loyal or otherwise; such opposition can only come from the elites. There can be only correct popular will, not multiple ones, and no legitimate minorities requiring protection from it. Scholars differ on whether populism also requires a charismatic leader. As populist parties have existed without them, (George Mosse cited the Jacobins as an example; several of the parties mentioned below as “centre populists” also lack charismatic leaders) I do not consider this a necessary attribute of a populist party.


Inclusionary v. exclusionary populism

All populism involves a battle between “elite” and “people.” However, not all populists define “the people” in the same way. Inclusionary populists will tend to describe the people as everyone within the national territory who is not of the elite. This is often a leftist stance, since such a universal outlook tends to bring in the poor and socially excluded – Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser stress that a major goal of Latin American left-populists is the inclusion of low-income groups, or oppressed ethnic or racial groups. European left-populists like Syriza and Podemos openly denounced discrimination and anti-immigrant policies: “Instead of directing populist anger at immigrants and other outsiders, they direct it toward the political and economic elites whose policies create inequality. Hugo Chávez even considered the Venezuelan middle classes part of “the people.”

Exclusionary populism, on the other hand, defines “the people” as excluding not only the elite, but also some other group of people who are not within the elite, but who are resident in the state.  Almost all definitions of right-populism stress a focus on an ethnically homogenous nation or people. A classic example – perhaps the classic example – of this sort of non-elite discourse is the denunciation of Jews as “anti-national” or “alien.” More recently, Muslims have become the subject of exclusion.  Most often, these are defined on the grounds of ethnicity, race, religion or immigrant origin.


When is a party populist? 

This is, of course, the trickiest question to answer. After all, populism is a discourse, and a way of looking at things, and one “mainstream” parties use all the time. Populists, as noted, do not adhere to any specific political ideology; they do not claim a position on the old Lipset-Rokkan cleavage structures, or the new post-materialist ones described by Inglehart and Flanagan. But they do propose their own cleavage – the people versus the elite. That is quite possibly enough to distinguish populist parties. That is not so very different from the way cleavages are articulated by other parties: All parties act on the “supply” as well as the “demand” side of political contestation, and at least in part create the cleavages that they want to intensify or to resolve.

I propose that a party may be classified as “populist” if it:

  1. Primarily defines itself along a people-versus-elite cleavage, regardless of whether its actual political support comes from an identifiable social group;
  2. Cannot be comfortably accommodated in party families whose origins lie in the Lipset-Rokkan cleavages;
  3. Rejects a specifically Marxist idea of class.

Excluding undemocratic types of populism (fascism and Communism), we can then divide populist parties into four sub-families, two using an exclusionary discourse (radical right populists and neoliberal populists) and two an inclusionary discourse (left populists and centre/liberal populists):


Radical right populism

As ever, Cas Mudde provides an excellent definition of radical right populism as a “core ideology that includes the combination of (at least) nativism, authoritarianism and populism”. Alongside this authoritarianism is a deep belief in hierarchy and opposition to egalitarianism.

In general, these parties tend to fall onto the conservative (traditional-authoritarian) side of the post-materialist cleavage. However, they may adopt a wide variety of economic policies; as they have expanded their working-class bases, they have tended to become more protectionist and welfarist, especially in Europe (the National Front in France being a prime example).

Examples of this party family are numerous:  The National Front in France; the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ); the Swiss People’s Party; the Sweden Democrats; the Danish People’s Party; Fidesz and Jobbik in Hungary; Law and Justice in Poland; and perhaps the post-Trump Republican Party.


Neoliberal populism

Put simply, neoliberalism is a belief that the free market, in which capital is privately owned and resources allocated through price signals, should operate as freely as possible without interference from the state or other collective entities.

Neoliberal populism adopts an exclusionary construction of the people. Typically, it defines “the people” as taxpayers - “the productive majority of taxpayers,” in conflict with “a minority of politicians, bureaucrats, and their clients, which consumes the fruits of the majority’s labour” (Jupskås 2013: 269). In another sense, the people are those who obey capitalist discipline and accept its promise of social mobility. The key excluded groups are any that the populists perceive to be rejecting capitalist discipline, or illegitimately obtaining resources from the taxpayers and/or the state (the “next-door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits”). These scroungers do not have to be identified with a specific race, ethnicity or religion; however, some neoliberal discourses may implicitly ethnicize or racialize the “scrounger” class, and some populist parties espouse neoliberal and nativist messages.

It is harder to define a sub-family of neoliberal populist parties, partly because other populist parties and mainstream parties also use neoliberal-populist language (the quote above is from George Osborne). Teen Pauwels describes the Lijst Dedecker in Belgium the Lijst Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, the Danish Progress Party and Forza Italia as neoliberal populist parties.


Left populism 

Left-populists share with Marxist parties a concern with redistribution and egalitarianism, but do not use class as the main subject of their mobilization; rather, they rely on the much fuzzier category of “the people,” and reject specifically Marxist views of history, philosophy and the dialectic. This is partly because in many countries, especially in the developing world, the Marxist proletariat is too small to form a majority on its own, as Jorge Castañeda pointed out in Utopia Unarmed (134). Another reason is that, in the developing world, the capitalist class is often foreign or dependent on foreign capital, making nationalist appeals more effective.

In the popular imagination, the left-populist party is often associated with Latin America. Castañeda includes the Movimiento Nacional Revolucionario (MNR) in Bolivia and the Alianza Populara Revolucionaria Americana (APRA) in Peru. Levitsky and Roberts describe Presidents Hugo Chávez of Venezuela and Rafael Correa of Ecuador as left-populists, implying that their parties (the Partido Socialista Unido de Venezuela and Alianza PAIS, respectivelyare also left-populist. In Europe, Spain’s Podemos specifically calls itself “populist,”; Greece’s Syriza is often also placed in this category.


Centre or liberal populism

Occasionally, populist parties emerge that do not make either economic, nationalist or nativist claims. Often found in Central and Eastern Europe, these parties deploy the populist rhetoric of anti-elitism to promote abstract values of accountability, representation and democratic control. Sikk and Hanley discuss a set of “centrist or (neo-) liberal populists, or as we prefer to call them anti-establishment reform parties (AERPs)”, and Allan Sikk discusses a set “purifier parties” in the Baltic States, which claim their goal is to purge the existing constitutional or political order of corruption. Marie Demker conceived a  similar category of “virtue parties.” These built their campaigns around “anti-incumbency” and “more open and accountable politics.” They cite a number of possible former and current members of this family: Res Publica in Estonia, Latvia’s New Era, Bulgaria’s National Movement Simeon II, the Swedish Pirate Party, and the Mouvement Democrate (MoDem) in France.

Can populism be liberal? Populism and liberal democracy are effectively antithetical, but populism and liberalism as ideologies have some common points – for example, populism and liberalism both tend to reject class discourses. Perhaps we can say that a “liberal populism” keeps the anti-elitism inherent in populism, while placing less stress on the untrammelled will of the majority. Or perhaps we can simply define any populism that focuses on clean, accountable government without making redistributive or identity claims as “centre populism” or “liberal populism.”



This is not a fully developed classification. However contest populism may be as a concept, populism itself is primarily an ideology based on the idea of a primary conflict between a unified “people” and a unified “elite.” This is in itself a cleavage, inasmuch as people identify with it and act accordingly, and parties form to institutionalize it. We can meaningfully group and analyse populist parties by these appeals, and further sub-divide them by their economic, identity or other political stances.  In an age of ever-rising dissatisfaction with the political consensus, we must identify, classify and explain populism. Who knows? Our future leaders may like to read about themselves.


Ben Margulies is a Postdoctoral Research Fellow on the ERC Diasporas Project at the University of Warwick. He tweets @ChequeredFuture.