"You are a populist!" But what does that actually mean?

Are they folk people or do they represent the real will of the people? If you are called a populist or call another, the debate is soon colored by emotion. But what does 'populism' actually mean?

Are they folk people or do they represent the real will of the people? If you are called a populist or call another, the debate is soon colored by emotion. But what does 'populism' actually mean?

In summary: What is populism?

  • Populism is a political ideology
  • It puts the "good people" against the "evil elite"
  • Populism is almost always colored by a 'partner ideology'
  • It can be (radical) left, (radical) right or something in between
  • Populist movements can differ enormously
  • They arise through a complex interplay of factors
  • Populism is too complex to simply be dismissed as good or bad

If you find it difficult to determine what exactly the term populism means and to whom it applies, you can join a long tradition.

The phenomenon is not new. Some historians argue that the first populists showed themselves in Athens in the fifth century BC. The modern term came into being at the end of the nineteenth century in the United States, where the Left People's Party fought for the rural population.

After the turn of the millennium, populism experienced a revival, especially in Western Europe, explains political sociologist Matthijs Rooduijn. That tilted the picture about the political trend and made the need for a useful definition greater.

"There is increasing agreement among political scientists that populism is more than a style, rhetoric or a way in which political parties organize themselves," says Rooduijn. "It has a substantive message."

What is a useful definition of populism?

An internationally frequently used definition comes from the box of Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde.

"Populism is a thin ideology, according to which society is ultimately divided into two homogeneous and hostile camps -" the pure people "versus" the corrupt elite "- which states that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people ”Cas Mudde, populism researcher

1. Populism sets the good people against the evil elite

"It is a fundamental moral contradiction," says Sarah de Lange, endowed professor of Political Science. "Populists look at society and say: on the one hand you have the people. That is good, works hard and has good values. On the other hand is the elite, which can be cultural, economic or political. and settle, corrupt, do not know what is going on and only have an eye for their own interests. "

"Good versus evil", Rooduijn agrees. "The good people are exploited, neglected or misunderstood by a bad elite, while populists believe that the will of the people should be the starting point of any political decision."

"The definition of Mudde emphasizes that those two groups - people and elite - are homogeneous; that you can each see them as a unit," De Lange explains. "Populist parties deny that there are also all sorts of contradictions within the people, for example on the basis of age, origin, gender and religion. They say: 'You just have the people. In the end that has the same interests and the same views and there is a policy which everyone will be satisfied with. "

An anti-immigration demonstration in Chemnitz, East Germany. Populism is almost always linked to a different ideology, such as nativism. (Photo: AFP)

2. Populism almost always has a 'partner ideology'

Why does Mudde call it a 'thin' ideology? De Lange: "This means that populism cannot actually exist independently. A political party that is populist and does not involve any other ideology, really only has something to say about the relationship between people and politics. Not about things like the economy, foreign policy and the like. That is why it is actually always linked to other ideas, such as nativism, socialism or regionalism. "

A strong side of Mudde's definition is that it also clearly shows what populism is not, says Rooduijn. A clear separation is made between populism and such a 'partner ideology'. "The people against the elite are different from setting their own people against groups of 'dangerous others'," he says.

There are rare examples of populist movements without partner ideology, such as the Five Star Movement in Italy. Rooduijn: "Apart from an aversion to the elite, he has hardly a coherent ideological story."

3. Populism covers the political spectrum from left to right

To briefly explain nativism: that puts the interests of their own people and their own culture above those of immigrants. It is an important pillar of the story that right-wing populist parties such as Forum for Democracy and the PVV are trying to address voters - but it is not a requirement to be classified as a populist.

"Right-wing parties do not have to be populist and right-wing populist parties do not have to be nativist, but they have discovered that populism and nativism are a golden combination," says Rooduijn. It works so well that non-populist right-wing parties have become extremely rare. "The concepts of a bad elite and groups of dangerous 'others' are combined. Then the idea arises: the elite has opened the doors to those others, putting our standards, culture and traditions at risk."

But populism and nativism are not interchangeable. Compare, for example, the radical-right, nativist Forum for Democracy from the Netherlands with the radical-left Podemos from Spain. Both parties believe that 'the party cartel', or 'the political caste', should disappear in order to give the people back democratic power. In other words: they are populists. But in their answers to the question of how society should be organized, they are politically and ideologically miles apart.

Bolivian president Evo Morales (l) and Greek prime minister Alex Tsipras are both left-wing populists, but the South American and Western European populist movements differ in many respects. (Photo: AFP)

4. In addition to ideological, there are major international differences between populist movements

Political scientist Tjitske Akkerman, who investigates nationalism and populism, makes a clear distinction between right-wing populist and left-wing populist movements in Western Europe. According to her, the definition of Mudde fits in better with the former group than with the latter.

This is especially true of his observation that populists see the people as homogeneous, internally equal. Akkerman: "You see that left-wing populist parties, such as the SP in the Netherlands, Die Linke in Germany and Podemos in Spain, are very inclusive. They are committed to the rights of LGBTs, women and ethnic minorities."

Also intercontinental, you can't just put populists in one place, says Akkerman. "In South America, left-wing populism is really different than in Western Europe, and here the definition of populism is colored by the dominance of right-wing populist parties, but that is not the case."

5. There are no clear causes for the revival of populism

It is difficult to pinpoint the causes for the recent worldwide emergence of populist movements. Not all of these movements are created equal, and not the same political, economic and cultural conditions prevail in every part of the world that have created room for populism.

"The pace at which populist movements emerge depends very much on the national context," says Tjitske Akkerman. "In Spain, for example, you can only see right-wing populism coming up with the Vox party."

International trends that can create a fertile breeding ground for populism can be identified.


Globalization has, among other things, led to more intense international partnerships, such as the EU, which place part of the country's governance outside its own borders. That can instill fear of the loss of national self-determination and provoke resistance.

Another consequence: never before have the international migration flows been greater. The London think tank Legatum Institute states that in 2017 around 258 million people lived outside of their home country. The International Organization for Migration (IOM) expects this number to rise to 405 million by 2050.

Migration creates tensions in the receiving societies and thereby promotes nativist sentiments.

"On the voters' side, there has actually been a more negative view of immigration since the 1980s," says Akkerman. "That happened when it became clear that all kinds of labor migrants, for example from Morocco and Turkey, would stay here permanently. In the course of the 1990s, parties came to serve that electoral demand."

The evacuation of the 'de Jungle' migrant camp near Calais in February 2016. The European refugee crisis helped right-wing populist parties in Western Europe gain popularity, just as the 2008 economic crisis did for left-wing populists. (Photo: AFP)

Economic Inequality

Growing economic inequality is also seen as a driver of dissatisfaction with the existing elite. Oxfam calculated that the 26 richest individuals in the world in 2018 had just as much as the poorest half of the world population, 3.8 billion people. In 2017 there were 43, a year earlier 61.

The super rich not only have much more ownership, but also contribute less to the public good. An estimated 10 percent of world GDP is channeled away to tax havens and thus remains out of the hands of the tax authorities, and that is not counting favorable tax deals that wealthy people can conclude with governments.


The end of social and political pillarization, and the individualization that this entailed, also played a role, says political sociologist Rooduijn. "You used to go to a Catholic school as a Catholic, you read a Catholic newspaper and you voted for a Catholic party. Now voters float much more."

If you link that to the fact that the established parties were also shaking off their ideological feathers and moving more towards the center, it created room for populist parties on the flanks, according to the political sociologist.

"If you put away populists as folk lovers, you do not recognize that it is indeed a concept" Sarah de Lange, special professor of Political Sciences

6. Populism is too complex to be easily put away as good or bad

Populism often has a negative connotation. "In everyday language, and in particular in the media, the word is often used for parties that respond to the lower abdomen and appeal to people's emotions and fears. That's how they are dismissed as folk lovers," says professor Sarah de Lange . "You do not acknowledge that it is indeed a body of thought, a vision of society and politics. You may disagree with that vision, but it is well thought out."

"Populism has good and bad sides," says Matthijs Rooduijn. On the one hand, it ensures that topics that people consider important are placed on the political agenda and it channels social dissatisfaction. "That's why it's good for a democracy if there are parties like this."

The downside is the tense relationship between populism and liberal democracy. Rooduijn: "Populists want the will of the people to be translated as directly as possible into policy. In this regard, issues such as minority rights and the separation of powers are of secondary importance."

ref: nunl