Democracy & Justice

What is populism: definition, characteristics, examples

Populism is a political style that has dominated public debate in Europe in recent years. But what does it actually mean to be populist? And why is populism potentially so dangerous?

by Franziska Otto

Updated on 21.05.2024 by Una Glatz

Knowledge is power.

What does populism mean?

The term populism goes back to the Latin word "populus", which means "the people". Today, populism is understood to mean a certain style of politics. However, there is no precise or uniform definition. On the contrary, the term is considered imprecise and value-laden, as it is often used in public debates as a kind of "killer argument" to undermine opposing opinions.

Just like there is no single definition for the term, there is no "unified" populism either. It is used by different political camps, be it from the left or the right, and can be charged with other additional ideologies. In the case of right-wing populism, these include radical nationalism and xenophobia.

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Populism often emerges in phases of great change or upheaval. In Germany, a good example is the rise of populist movements and parties like the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) following the arrival of many people fleeing war in 2015.

What are the characteristics of populism?

Although there is no single definition of populism, a number of characteristics can be attributed to it.

Populists refer to "the people". However, they regard the population as a unit in the sense that there are no differences within society. For populists, there is only one people and thus only one opinion. Since, in their view, they are the only ones to know and understand this opinion, they are also the only ones who can stand up for the needs of the people.

The people are then placed in opposition to "the other", often "those at the top". The government and also the media are portrayed as corrupt or out of touch - having lost all connection to the people.

Populists also stir up fear and insecurity by focusing on negative stories. They warn of alleged dangers posed by certain groups of the population, such as ethnic minorities, feminists, LGBTQI persons or immigrants. They claim that other stakeholders, such as political parties and human rights activists, are unpatriotic and a danger to the national culture.

Complex social issues are extremely simplified and often highly emotionalised. This simplification is intended to create the impression that populists are better suited to resolve problems than their competitors or "the elite".

Their vocabulary often weaponizes an ambiguous reference to ‘the Elite’. Often glossing over any concrete definition, it is used to refer to people who form part of the political establishment, as well as media, academic, cultural or economic circles. This ‘othering’ of their political opponents and their critics plays into populists’ self-assigned identity as representatives of the people.

Another feature of populism is that there is one or several charismatic leader(s). This leader is supposed to impose the will of "the people" against all obstacles and protect them from alleged dangers that threaten their traditional way of life.

Examples of populism: How does it manifest itself in the 21st century?

While populism emerged in Europe as early as the mid-19th century, it only really became politically significant in the 21st century. Today, populist parties exist in all 27 EU member states. While their success is not universal, they play a significant role in many national parliaments, as well as in the European Parliament.

At least in Germany, however, the populist trend is now on the decline again. According to the Populism Barometer 2020 of the Bertelsmann Foundation, in 2018 every third voter still showed populist attitudes, but by 2020 it was only every fifth voter. At the same time, however, it should not be underestimated that populists are becoming more radicalized, especially on the right-wing fringe.

With half of the world population voting in 2024 we are likely to see a rise in populist leaders especially, in the West. As indicated by both the Coface social and political risk indicator and a study byIpsos on the current dynamics of populism, geopolitical instability and sudden socio-economic shifts creates a fruitful environment for the success of such charismatic populist leaders. As a result, populism is a serious threat to the global state of democracy that should be taken seriously in this decisive election year.

Example 1: Germany's Alternative für Deutschland

In Germany, the example of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) shows how populist parties are becoming more and more radicalised.

When the AfD was founded in 2013, it was still seen primarily as a national and economic liberal party that sometimes used right-wing populist rhetoric. It focused on an anti-euro programme, which was fostered by the euro crisis at the time and brought the party its first successes.

Over time, the party saw a clear shift to the right and the strengthening of the national-conservative wing within its ranks. In the context of the refugee debate in 2015, the party changed its focus to the issue of migration. The party started stirring up sentiments against refugees and accused the government of acting against its own people.

Time and again, the AfD used deliberately provocative statements (e.g. the party leader at the time, Frauke Petry, said that refugees should be shot at the border if necessary), only to backtrack afterwards, denouncing an alleged lack of freedom of expression and playing the victim.

In the meantime, the party has moved so far to the right that it is being monitored by Germany's federal domestic intelligence agency, the Bundesamt für Verfassungsschutz.

In early 2024, the party suffered a scandal after their meeting with dangerous far-right and even Neo-Nazi groups was revealed. In these meetings, they discussed plans for the forceful ‘remigration’ of immigrants and even German citizens of foreign descent. This shows the extent to which fear-mongering rhetoric on the ‘threats’ of immigration can snowball.

Example 2: The Brexit referendum in 2016

In 2015, David Cameron, then Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and member of the Conservative Party, promised that if his party won the elections to the House of Commons, he would renegotiate the role of the United Kingdom within the European Union and then have British citizens vote on whether they wanted to remain in the EU.

What followed was a referendum campaign characterised by populism. The UK Independence Party, a party whose goal was to leave the EU, succeeded in exploiting fears and creating sentiment against immigration and "Brussels" (the "establishment", i.e. the leading elite). The advantages and disadvantages of EU membership were not discussed. Instead, it was suggested that the EU elites were making the decisions about national governments, and that they required compliance.

The election campaign was emotionally charged. Complex issues such as decision-making processes within the EU and membership fees were extremely simplified. For example, the Leave campaign used a campaign bus claiming that the £350 million being sent to Brussels every week should rather be spent on the National Health Service. This completely ignored the fact that Britain not only pays money to the EU, but also gets a lot of grant money back.

In the end, the populist Leave campaign was successful, albeit narrowly, and the British people voted to leave the EU.

Example 3: Hungary and Fidesz

With Hungary’s Fidesz, a right-wing populist party has come to power within the European Union. Their example strikingly demonstrates how much a state can change under the rule of populists.

The policies of Prime Minister Viktor Orban and his Fidesz party are characterised by a pronounced anti-elite attitude, be it against the European Union, the West in general or even free media. Orban is a charismatic leader who manages to mobilise his supporters. In his campaigns, he stirs up not only rejection of the EU, but also xenophobia and fears of immigration. Civil society organisations are described as "foreign agents" who, together with "the elites", are allegedly trying to turn Hungary into an immigration country and thus threaten its national identity.

At the same time, Orban restructured the state to make it more difficult for the opposition to counter populist policies. The free press was weakened, while party friends were elevated to important positions in major media houses.

Over time, basic democratic principles were undermined, and Hungarian democracy is in a critical state.

Why does democracy not go well with populism?

Even if moderate populism is not automatically anti-democratic, extreme populism as well as right-wing populism cannot be reconciled with the values of a liberal democracy.

In order to explain why this is the case, one must first understand a fundamental attribute of liberal democracy: pluralism. Pluralism means that within a democratic society, many ways of life, opinions, interests and goals can coexist on an equal footing. There is respect for each other and people recognise the diversity of society. This also applies to politics, because everyone has the right to have their opinion heard and considered by politicians.

Populists, however, do not appreciate such pluralism. They see the people as a homogeneous mass. Only certain political positions and attitudes are accepted. In more extreme cases, dissenting opinions are even seen as treason.

In Germany, it is mainly populism from the right-wing spectrum that has become prevalent. It uses terms such as " Volk" (people) and "Nation" primarily in ways that exclude social minorities.

The emotionalisation of problems is also reflected in the way populists conduct debates. In discussions, insults are often used, as well as ''alternative facts'', which are mainly based on personal feelings and opinions instead of scientific findings. This makes factual debate very difficult. The goal in a democracy is to reach a compromise based on facts. But if an opposing faction is not willing to reach such an agreement, this is almost impossible.

How does populism threaten the rule of law?

By distinguishing between "us" and "them", populists fuel distrust in democratic organisations. For example, they tell their supporters that elections are not reliable or that the government and elites are acting against the will of the people. While criticism of government decisions is desirable in a functioning democracy, these narratives sometimes go beyond this and endanger the democratic process.

Countries like Poland and Hungary show how populist governments subvert the rule of law. In Poland, for example, "unwelcome" judges have been sent into early retirement so that they could be replaced by magistrates supporting the government's positions. All this in order to consolidate power and to enforce laws, even against the objections of the constitutional courts.

How should populism be dealt with? What are possible solutions?

There is no "single solution" to populism. Some of the applied remedies can even have negative consequences. For example, moderate parties try to take voters away from populist parties by moving closer to them on specific issues. However, this can go wrong. On the one hand, voters in such situations tend to stay with the "original", i.e. the populists. On the other hand, it can lead to more extreme opinions being normalised and reaching the centre of society.

However, there are a number of strategies that can be used to weaken populists.

For a start, it is important to avoid ignoring populist parties. Populist parties could use this to assume a victim role, which in turn would further confirm their position as "outside the elite". Instead, a substantive debate should be sought to show that populists talk a lot about problems, without ever offering adequate solutions themselves.

More transparency can also be a possible solution. It gives citizens the opportunity to see and understand how a government acts and why certain decisions are made. And last but not least, dialogue between the electorate and the elected is essential.

For more on human rights and democracy issues in Europe, listen to Speechbag, our monthly podcast:

Photo credit:
Tib Tib / Segio Foo biker / Internetredactie Ad - Flickr

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