Democracy & Justice

Populism vs Progressivism: Similarities And Differences

What do these terms mean, what defines a populist or progressive, and how are they similar or different?

by LibertiesEU
Updated on 21.05.2024 by Una Glatz

Knowledge is power.

Populism and progressivism are two political movements getting a great deal of attention these days. Both in Europe and elsewhere, many countries have elected governments that have been called populist, while progressive policies and parties are gaining more and more support. But what do these terms mean, what defines a populist or progressive, and how are they similar or different?

What is populism?

Simply put, populism is a political strategy of appealing to “the people” by pitting them against “elites” who are blamed for disregarding the will or concerns of the people. It is important to note that populism is not inherently tied to a certain political ideology, or even to one side of the political spectrum. Barack Obama and Donald Trump, who share almost no political beliefs, have both been called populists. The same is true for both Silvio Berlusconi and Jeremy Corbyn.

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Beginnings of populism: how it started, where it is today

Populism dates back to the Roman Republic, from which it gets its name. The Populares—Latin for 'favoring the people'—were a political faction that favored the cause of the plebeians (the commoners) against the ruling class. Since then the label has been applied to various politicians, parties and movements all over the world, and from all over the political spectrum.

But when populism is discussed in the context of today’s Europe, it is most often a used to talk about populist authoritarians – leaders who gain support through populist messaging, but govern in a way that actually favors elites and destabilizes the very democratic institutions that protect the rights and freedoms of “ordinary people.” Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban or Janez Janša of Slovenia are two examples.

Europe’s populist authoritarians most often divide society along ethnic or religious lines, where white people are the “ordinary people” and NGOs, the media, celebrities, and even judges are portrayed as the elites. And populist authoritarians portray these "elites" as only caring about protecting and promoting the rights and needs of “out groups” at the expense of "ordinary people." Outgroups can include migrants, LGBTQI people, migrants, the disabled—even women are cast as an outgroup.

Anatomy of populism

“The people” are under threat from “elites” who are ruining the country and are to blame for the hardships of ordinary people.

Populist authoritarians want to restore old social hierarchies and old traditions that keep marginalized people separated in some way from the rest of society.

To fulfill their aims, populist authoritarians need to dismantle certain democratic institutions, like an independent judiciary, and human rights standards so that they can pass discriminatory laws.

This goes hand in hand with stamping out critical voices, whether they be from civil society or the media. The latter is often taken over, directly or indirectly, by the government and then used to promote its propaganda.

What is progressivism?

At its core, progressivism is about equality, human rights and equal protection and treatment under the law. It also embodies a respect for democracy, as this system and its political institutions are the best at protecting progressive values and fundamental rights.

Beginnings of progressivism: how it started, where it is today

This definition of progressivism hews to its origins. 18th century philosophers like Immanuel Kant and Nicolas de Condorcet conceived progressivism as any movement towards a more civilized, safer and just society. Ending slavery, increasing gender equality and access to education, and addressing economic inequality were tenets of early progressive thought.Today, ‘progressivism’ may mean something slightly different from country to country. In the United States, for example, progressivism is now strongly tied to environmental issues and the fight against climate change, or reforming social services and policing. There is also a strong emphasis on workers’ rights and reining in corporate power.

But when human rights advocates talk about progressivism, it’s used to suggest support for the principles of human rights, rule of law, and democracy—things that many feel shouldn’t be controversial or a source of disagreement, but very much are in today’s Europe.

Anatomy of progressivism

Progressivism is about the progress of humanity away from barbarism and towards the creation of free, prosperous and safe communities where everyone has the opportunity to contribute and the same chances to succeed.

Government policies should seek to reduce societal inequalities, including economic and gender, and dismantle structural and institutional discrimination.

All people have human rights, and every person’s rights are as important as the next person's rights. Similarly, every person should be afforded the same protections under the law.

The rule of law must be respected to ensure the proper functioning of a democratic government, wherein the rights and welfare of every citizen are paramount when crafting law and policy.

Populism vs. progressivism: what are the similarities and the differences?

Populism and progressivism are similar in that both of them claim to be acting for the good of everyone, and in particular “ordinary people.” Both political movements promise to enrich the lives of ordinary people and promise to legislate towards that aim.

But even this singular similarity is misleading, because progressives and populists define “ordinary people”—or even “everyone”—differently. As mentioned before, European populist authoritarians define “the people” as white people, and more specifically white Christians. And rather than truly wanting to help “the people,” populist authoritarians want to divide people against each other, blaming minorities and other groups for the hardships of “ordinary people” and even the government’s own failings.

Progressives, on the other hand, are more inclusive. They genuinely want every member of society to have an equal chance to contribute and succeed. Rather than highlighting what makes us different from one another, as populist authoritarians do, progressives point to what we all have in common, what unites us, and portray our differences as sources of strength and cultural enrichment, rather than weaknesses or things to fear.

Perhaps the biggest difference, then, is that progressives believe in, and work towards, equality, whereas populist authoritarians actively work to create unequal societies. And this means weakening or getting rid of people, organizations, or institutions that help safeguard equality and equal protection under the law. Civil society groups and independent judges are often at the top of this list.

What does the future hold for populism and progressivism?

A more recent study by the MIDEM research centre shows that polarisation on specific socio-political topics has only grown. The two main issues that are polarising today's political atmosphere are immigration and climate change policies. We can see these topics at the height of current political discussions, especially in the many countries holding important elections in 2024. The stronger the polarisation on such complex political issues, the easier it is for authoritarian populists to implement emotional rhetoric when campaigning for office.

Both movements—progressivism and authoritarian populism—have been resurgent in recent years. The rise of Fidesz in Hungary and PiS in Poland came on a wave of support for right-wing, nationalist politicians in Europe. They’ve also found success in Italy, the Czech Republic, Slovenia and several other EU countries. Their success is partly because of the Great Recession and growing economic inequality, and partly because authoritarians have been better at getting their messages across.

Progressivism, meanwhile, is also enjoying more support. Green parties in Germany, France and elsewhere are seeing unprecedented success at the polls, while progressive policy initiatives are entering the mainstream in the US, the UK and elsewhere. But in order to finally get over the line and into power, progressives need to be better at showing people what they have in common with each other. They also need to make sure that people have what they need to get by in life so that they aren’t vulnerable to the divide-and-rule tactics of populist authoritarians.

For now, nothing is decided. Populist authoritarian governments in the EU are, for the most part, well entrenched. In some places, like Hungary, they have been so successful at changing the law, stamping out critical voices and eroding the rule of law that it is difficult to see them losing an election any time soon. It’s no longer true that all EU countries have free and fair elections, so even waning support might not mean the end of some populist authoritarians. But if progressives are able to improve their messaging and rallying yet more support for critical causes like equality and environmental protection, they may well be able to turn the tide and overcome populist authoritarians.

Photo credits:; Matt Johnson

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