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By Manuela Caiani

Academic attention to populism has sharply increased in recent years. Thousands of books, articles, columns, and editorials have been written about it in the last two decades. Yet a commonly accepted definition is still lacking, with scholars disagreeing on categorization, labels, and boundaries between its different manifestations. Some also stress that there is an abuse of this term in public discourse. One of the difficulties regarding the definition of populism is that it has been applied (and adapted) to several very different historical phenomena (movements, parties, regimes, intellectuals), across various periods of time: from the American People’s Party of the late 1800s to postwar European movements such as the Italian Common Man’s Front (late 1940s), the poujadist (conservative reactionary movement to protect the business interests of small traders) French Union for the Defense of Merchants and Artisans (late 1950s), the Dutch Farmers Party (1960s), or the Danish Progress Party (1970s). Some scholars have argued that populism was a key feature of Mussolini’s and Hitler’s regimes. What is clear is that the growing interest in populism is justified by scholars’ need to account for an ever-growing phenomenon with a global reach.

Populism has been conceptualized as a political rhetoric that is marked by the unscrupulous use and instrumentalization of diffuse public sentiments of anxiety and disenchantment and appeals to ‘the power of the common people in order to challenge the legitimacy of the current political establishment’ (Abts and Rummens, 2007, p. 407). It has been considered a ‘thin’ or ‘weak’ ideology that holds “society to be ultimately separated in two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: ‘the pure People’ (generally conceived as monolithic) versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté general (general will) of the people” (Mudde, 2004, p. 543). A specific feature of this ideology is its indeterminacy that responds to its need to be adaptable. Finally, populism has been defined as a type of organization, characterized by the presence of a charismatic, personalistic and institutionalized (not belonging to the ruling elite) leadership and a special style of communication, namely without intermediaries (but also as a political strategy to conquer power). There is also a ‘fifth’ definition of populism which partly overlap with the fourth one: according to a socio-cultural approach, populism is a political style (way of being, way of doing) and mode of relationship. In this sense, aspects such as relations, affinity, bonding, are emphasized as the crucial ones characterizing the phenomenon, which appear as normatively neutral or ambivalent.

Definitions of the concept, however, generally converge (apart from the Latin American school, such as Weyland and Roberts) in seeing as a core aspect of populism its focus on ‘the people’.  Populist movements attempt to create a direct connection between the people and the political power, bypassing the electoral process (or, according to Aslanidis mobilizing in the non-institutional arena). They often consider the people’s aspirations to be betrayed by corrupt political elites and suspect that a conspiracy against the people is taking place. The central role of the people in politics is generally associated to the claim of betrayal by the ruling elite abusing their power and to the need to restore peoples’ sovereignity. In these regards, the charismatic leader – mainly within the Latin American school of thought – is the only one who embodies the will of the common people and is able to speak on their behalf. However, the very definition of ‘the people’ remains ambiguous, such that Müller defines the notion of the people a ‘metapolitical illusion’ (Müller 2016, p. 18). Competing interpretations try to clarify who ‘the people’ actually are, some seeing the people in terms of class or ethnicity, others referring to the heartland, namely a place in which in the populist imagination, a virtuous and unified population resides. Finally, according to a socio-cultural characterization, the people is local, from here, genuine vs. the elites, which are cosmopolitan, polite, far.

The centrality of the people notwithstanding, ‘elitism’ is also seen as embodied in the logic of populism. However, it clashes with concept of liberal democracy, since it excludes anyone who does not belong to ‘the people’ in-group. In other words, it is against pluralism.Starting from these various definitional approaches, recent scholarship has suggested to study the phenomenon as a ‘gradational property’ rather than as an essential (i.e. dicotomicous) quality of particular parties.

Related References

Abts, Koen, and Stefan Rummens. 2007. “Populism versus Democracy.” Political Studies 55 (2): 405–24.
Caiani, Manuela, and Paolo Graziano. 2019. “Understanding Varieties of Populism in Times of Crises.” West European Politics 42 (6): 1141–58.
Eatwell, Roger. 2003. “Ten Theories of the Extreme Right.” In Right-Wing Extremism in the Twenty-First Century, 45–70. London: Routledge.
Fella, Stefano, and Carlo Ruzza. 2013. “Populism and the Fall of the Centre-Right in Italy: The End of the Berlusconi Model or a New Beginning?” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 21 (1): 38–52.
Gidron, Noam, and Bart Bonikowski. 2013. “Varieties of Populism: Literature Review and Research Agenda.” In . Vol. No. 13-0004. Weatherhead Working Paper Series. Weatherhead Center For International Affairs.
Katsambekis, Giorgos. 2017. “The Populist Surge in Post-Democratic Times: Theoretical and Political Challenges.” The Political Quarterly 88 (2): 202–10.
Kriesi, Hanspeter. 2018. “Revisiting the Populist Challenge.” Politologický Casopis; Czech Journal of Political Science 25 (1): 5–27.
Mammone, Andrea. 2009. “The Eternal Return? Faux Populism and Contemporarization of Neo-Fascism across Britain, France and Italy.” Journal of Contemporary European Studies 17 (2): 171–92.
Mény, Yves, and Yves Surel. 2002. “The Constitutive Ambiguity of Populism.” In Democracies and the Populist Challenge, edited by Yves Mény and Yves Surel, 1–21. London: Palgrave Macmillan.
Moffitt, Benjamin. 2015. “How to Perform Crisis: A Model for Understanding the Key Role of Crisis in Contemporary Populism.” Government and Opposition 50 (2): 189–217.
Mudde, Cas. 2004. “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition 39 (4): 541–63.
Müller, Jan-Werner. 2016. What Is Populism? University of Pennsylvania Press.
Ostiguy, Pierre. 2017. “Populism: A Socio-Cultural Approach.” In The Oxford Handbook of Populism, edited by Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Paul Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo, and Pierre Ostiguy. Oxford University Press.
Taggart, Paul. 2004. “Populism and Representative Politics in Contemporary Europe.” Journal of Political Ideologies 9 (3): 269–88.
Torre, Carlos de la, and Oscar Mazzoleni. 2019. “Do We Need a Minimum Definition of Populism? An Appraisal of Mudde’s Conceptualization.” Populism 2 (1): 79–95.
Urbinati, Nadia. 2014. Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth, and the People. Harvard University Press.

Cite this entry as:

Caiani, Manuela. 2022. ‘Populism/Populist Movements’. In Populisms and Emotions Glossary, edited by Cristiano Gianolla and Maíra Magalhães Lopes. Available atário