What Is Populism? Definition and Examples

Black and white illustration of a Grange farmers' meeting
An 1867 meeting of the Grange, a farmers' coalition that often backed populist groups.

Photoquest/Getty Images

Populism is a political movement that attempts to appeal to “the people'' by convincing them that its leaders alone represent them and their concerns that are being ignored by a real or perceived “elite establishment.” Since the late 19th century, the label “populist” has been applied to a range of politicians, political parties, and movements, often negatively by their opponents.  

Key Takeaways: Populism

  • Populism is a political movement that promotes the idea that its leaders alone represent “the people” in their struggle against the “elite establishment.”
  • Populist movements and political parties are often led by charismatic, dominant figures who present themselves as “the voice of the people.”
  • Populist movements are found on both the right and left extremes of the political spectrum.
  • When referred to negatively, populism is sometimes accused of encouraging demagogy or authoritarianism.
  • Since 1990, the number of populists in power worldwide has increased dramatically.

Definition of Populism

While political and social scientists have developed several different definitions of populism, they increasingly explain populist forces in terms of their ideas or discourse. This growingly common “ideational” approach presents populism as a cosmic struggle between the morally good “people” and a corrupt and self-serving group of conspiring “elites.” 

Populists typically define “the people” based on their socioeconomic class, ethnicity, or nationality. Populists define “the elite” as an amorphous entity made up of a political, economic, cultural, and media establishment that places its own interests along with those of other interest groups—such as immigrants, labor unions, and large corporations—over the interests of “the people.”

The ideational approach further holds that these basic characteristics of populism are often found in other ideologies, such as nationalism, classical liberalism, or socialism. In this manner, populists can be found anywhere along the political spectrum allowing for both conservative and liberal populism

Populist movements are often led by dominating charismatic figures who claim to act as “the voice of the people” in government. For example, in his January 2017 inaugural address, self-proclaimed populist U.S. President Donald Trump stated, “For too long, a small group in our nation’s capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost.”

In contrast to the ideational version, the “popular agency” definition of populism views it as an emancipating social force that seeks to help marginalized groups challenge well-established dominant ruling structures. Economists sometimes associate populism with governments that appeal to the people by undertaking extensive public spending programs financed by loans from foreign countries rather than by domestic taxes—a practice that can result in hyperinflation, and eventually, painful emergency belt-tightening measures. 

When the term is referred to negatively, populism is sometimes used synonymously with “demagogy,” the practice of applying overly simplistic answers to complex issues in a flamboyantly emotional manner, or with political “opportunism,” attempting to please voters without considering rational and carefully thought-out solutions to problems.

Populism in the U.S.

As in other parts of the world, populist movements in the United States have historically claimed to represent the ordinary people in an “us versus them” struggle against the elite.

In the United State, Populism is thought to go back to the Presidency of Andrew Jackson and the formation of the Populist Party during the 1800s. It has since re-emerged with varying degrees of success in both the United States and other democracies around the world.

Andrew Jackson

Black and white illustration of Andrew Jackson waving to crowds
Andrew Jackson waves to crowds on the way to his inauguration.

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President from 1829 to 1837, Andrew Jackson was called the “People's President,” and was arguably the first American populist leader. Jackson’s presidency was characterized by opposition to earlier-established government institutions. He ended the government’s use of the Second Bank of the United States, then the country’s national bank, and called for disobeying or “nullifying” many rulings of the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that “It is to be regretted that the rich and powerful too often bend the acts of government to their selfish purposes.”

The Populist Party

Populism in the form of organized political movements in the United States has been traced back to 1892 with the emergence of the Populist Party, Also Known as the People’s Party. Powerful mainly in agrarian parts of the Southern and Western United States, the Populist Party embraced parts of the Greenback Party’s platform, including banning foreign ownership of U.S. farmland, government enforcement of the state Granger Laws controlling the prices charged by the railroads to transport farmers’ crops to market, and eight-hour workdays.

From organizing and speaking at rallies to writing articles about the party’s platform, women played an important role in the Populist Party even long before finally winning the right to vote nearly three decades later. The Populist Party supported the temperance and prohibition movement and stood for outlawing corporate monopolies and anti-consumer collusion, such as price-fixing. However, Populist leaders avoided appealing to black voters for fear of appearing anti-white. By promoting social and economic policies favored by both races, they hoped to assure white voters that they were not implying support for racial equality. Some influential party members in the South publicly supported the Black Codes, Jim Crow laws, and white supremacy.

At the height of its popularity, the Populist Party’s candidate for president James B. Weaver won 22 electoral votes in the 1892 election, all from states in the Deep South. Failing to gain support from northern urban voters, the party declined and had disbanded by 1908.

Many of the Populist Party’s platforms were later adopted as laws or constitutional amendments. For example, the progressive income tax system in 1913, and direct democracy through ballot initiatives and referenda in several U.S. states.

Huey Long

Known for his flamboyant oratory and charismatic style, Huey Long of Louisiana mounted the first successful populist political movement of the 20th century. From a seat on the Louisiana Railroad Commission in 1918, Long rode a wave of support boosted by his Great Depression-era promise to make “Every man a king,” to the governor’s mansion in 1928. Long’s popularity soared thanks largely to his efforts to end monopolies within the state, the most popular of which was his bare-knuckles fight to break up John D. Rockefeller’s Standard Oil.

As governor, Long cemented his control of Louisiana politics. He granted police more enforcement power, appointed his friends to head government agencies, and coerced the legislature to give him more power. He gained even wider public support by taxing the rich to fund education, infrastructure, and energy programs. 

Long was elected to the U.S. Senate in 1930 while maintaining his power within Louisiana through his hand-picked “puppet” governor. Once in the Senate, he began planning to run for president. Hoping to spread his popularity, he proposes a national Share the Wealth Club, a plan to redistribute wealth and end income inequality. Using his newspaper and radio station, he offered a platform of poverty-fighting programs, which he claimed went further than Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Though many favored him to win the Democratic nomination in 1936, Huey Long was assassinated in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on September 8, 1935. Today, numerous bridges, libraries, schools, and other public buildings in Louisiana bear his name. 

George Wallace

First elected governor of Alabama in 1963, George Wallace became known nationwide for his segregationist stance, especially highlighted by his attempts to keep Black students from entering the University of Alabama. In winning the governorship, Wallace had run on a platform of economic populism he claimed would benefit the “common man.” He went on to run unsuccessfully for president four times, first in 1964 as a Democrat against Lyndon Johnson

Racism has been associated with some populist movements, and while he sometimes claimed his fiery anti-integration oratory was merely political rhetoric intended only to gain popular support, Wallace is considered to have been one of the most successful practitioners of this association. During his third run for the presidency in 1972, Wallace denounced segregation, claiming he had had always been a “moderate” on racial matters.

21st Century Populism

The 21st Century saw a burst of activist populist movements on both the conservative and liberal ends of the political spectrum. 

The Tea Party

Appearing in 2009, the Tea Party was a conservative populist movement motivated largely in opposition to the social and economic policies of President Barack Obama. Focusing on a raft of myths and conspiracy theories about Obama, the Tea Party pushed the Republican Party further to the right toward Libertarianism

Bernie Sanders

The race for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination featured a battle of liberal populist styles. Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, an Independent who typically votes with Senate Democrats, opposed former Secretary of State and U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton. Though he ultimately lost the nomination, Sanders weathered criticism for his association with socialism to run a wildly popular primary campaign fueled by a platform promoting income equality and higher taxes on the wealthy.

Donald Trump

In the 2016 presidential election, millionaire Republican real estate developer Donald Trump, unexpectedly defeated Hillary Clinton, winning a majority of the electoral vote despite losing the popular vote. Using the slogan “Make America Great Again,” Trump ran one of the most successful populist campaigns in U.S. history. He promised to undo all of President Obama’s executive directives and federal regulations he felt harmed the United States, to drastically reduce legal immigration, to build a security fence along the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent illegal immigration, and to take a decidedly isolationist stance against other countries, including some U.S. allies. 

Populist Ideals

The right or left political ideology applies to populism when it comes to the stances of populist movements and parties in economic and cultural issues, such as redistribution of wealth, nationalism, and immigration. Populist parties on the right and left differ in the primary aspects in which they compete. While right-wing populism competes mainly in the cultural aspect, left-wing populism does so mainly in the economic aspect. 

Right-Wing Populism

Right-wing populist movements generally advocate for nationalism, social conservatism, and economic nationalism—protecting the nation’s economy from foreign competition, often through the practice of trade protectionism.

Overwhelmingly conservative, right-wing populists tend to promote the distrust of science—for example, in the area of global warming or climate change—and hold highly restrictive views on immigration policy. 

Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist who focuses on political extremism and populism argues that the core concept of right-wing populism is “the nation.” Rather than “nationalism,” however, Mudde argues that this core concept is better expressed by the term “nativism”—a xenophobic expression of nationalism asserting that almost all non-natives should be excluded from the country.

In areas of social policy, right-wing populists tend to oppose raising taxes on the wealthy and large corporations to counter income inequality. Similarly, they typically oppose government regulations limiting the powers of private corporations to conduct business. 

In Europe, right-wing populism is associated with politicians and political parties that oppose immigration, particularly from Muslim countries, and criticize the European Union and European integration. In the West, including the United States, right-wing populism is more often associated with anti-environmentalism, cultural nationalism, opposition to globalization, and nativism. 

While they generally oppose social welfare, some right-wing populists favor expanding welfare programs only for a chosen “deserving” class—a practice known as “welfare chauvinism.” 

Left-Wing Populism

A pile of Occupy Wall Street protest signs
Occupy Wall Street protest signs from 2012.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Also called social populism, left-wing populism combines traditional liberal politics with populist themes. Left-wing populists purport to speak for the cause of “common people” in their socioeconomic class’ struggles against the “Establishment.” Besides anti-elitism, the platforms of left-wing populism often include economic equality, social justice, and—seeing it as a tool of the wealthy elite—a skepticism of globalization. This criticism of globalization is partly attributed to feelings of antimilitarism and anti-interventionism, which have grown more common among left-wing populist movements as a result of United States military operations like those in the Middle East.

Perhaps one of the clearest expressions of left-wing populism, the international Occupy movement of 2011 expressed, sometimes violently, how the lack of “real democracy” had led to social and economic inequality around the world. Sometimes wrongly accused of employing anarchist tactics, the Occupy movement strived to advance social and economic equality through the establishment of new forms of more inclusionary democracy. While its specific focus varied according to location, the movement’s main concerns included how major corporations and the global banking and investment system undermined democracy by disproportionately benefiting an elite wealthy minority. Unlike right wing populism, left wing populist parties tend to claim to support minority rights, racial equality, and the ideal that nationality is not defined exclusively by ethnicity or culture. 

Overarching Populist Characteristics

Representative democracies, like the United States, are based on a system of pluralism, the idea that the values and interests of many different groups are all valid. In contrast, populists are not pluralist. Instead, they consider only the interests of whatever they believe to be “the people” as legitimate.

Populist politicians often use rhetoric intended to stir up anger, promote conspiracy theories, express distrust of experts, and promote extreme nationalism. In his book The Global Rise of Populism, Dr.  Benjamin Moffitt argues that populist leaders tend to depend on maintaining a state of emergency, in which the “real people” are perpetually threatened by either the “elite” or “outsiders.”

Populism’s ties to authoritarianism and its lack of trust in the established system tend to give rise to “strongman” leaders. This overarching populist sentiment was perhaps best expressed by the late Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, who once said, “I am not an individual—I am the people.”

Populism Around the World

Argentine president Juan Peron
Argentine president Juan Peron represented one brand of Latin American populism.

Hulton Deutsch/Getty Images 

Outside the United States, the number of populists in power worldwide has increased from four to as many as 20 since 1990, according to the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change. This includes not only countries in Latin America and in Eastern and Central Europe, where populism has traditionally been prevalent, but also in Asia and Western Europe. 

Once found mainly in newly emerging democracies, populism is now in power in long-established democracies. From 1950 to 2000, populism came to be identified with the political style and program of Latin American leaders such as Juan Perón in Argentina and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In the early 21st century, populist authoritarian regimes arose in European and Latin American countries, most notably, Hungary and Brazil.

Hungary: Viktor Orbán

After being elected to his second stint as Prime Minister of Hungary began, in May 2010, Viktor Orbán’s populist Fidesz, or “Hungarian Civic Party,” began steadily trimming away or diluting essential elements of the country’s democratic systems. Orbán is a self-proclaimed advocate of “illiberal” government—a system in which, although elections take place, citizens are denied facts about the activities of their leaders because of the lack of civil liberties. As prime minister, Orbán has imposed policies that are hostile to LGBTQ people and immigrants and clamped down on the press, the educational establishment, and the judiciary. Up for reelection again in 2022, however, Orbán will face six opposition parties ranging from the left to the far right, all formed specifically to depose him.

Brazil: Jair Bolsonaro

Far-right populist Jair Bolsonaro won the countries presidential election in October 2018. Some observers worried that Bolsonaro’s publicly expressed admiration for the brutal military dictatorship that ruled Brazil from 1964 to 1985, presented a clear and present danger to the hard-earned Brazilian democracy. Others assured that the nation’s aggressive press and strongly independent judiciary would squash any authoritarian policies he might try to implement. 

The controversial Bolsonaro will face re-election in 2022, hounded by increasing criticism over his mishandling of the economy and the COVID-19 pandemic. Shortly before the country went on to suffer one of the world’s worst COVID-19 disasters, Bolsonaro had assured Brazilians that the respiratory illness was no more than “a little flu.” Operating on that politically-motivated misassumption, he opposed lockdowns in favor of keeping the economy open, disparaged masks, and voiced doubts regarding COVID-19 vaccines. The Brazilian Supreme Court recently ordered an official investigation over comments made by Bolsonaro on October 24, 2021, falsely claiming that taking the coronavirus vaccines could increase one’s chances of contracting AIDS. 

Sources

  • Mudde, Cas. Populism: A Very Short Introduction.” Oxford University Press, 2017, ISBN-13: 9780190234874.
  • Moffitt, Benjamin. “The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style, and Representation.” Stanford University Press, 2016, ISBN-13: 9780804799331.
  • Berman, Sheri. “The Causes of Populism in the West.” Annual Review of Political Science, December 2, 2020, https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/10.1146/annurev-polisci-041719-102503.
  • Kazin, Michael. “The Populist Persuasion: An American History.” Cornell University Press, October 29, 1998, ISBN-10: ‎0801485584.
  • Judis, John. “Us Vs. Them: The Birth of Populism.” The Guardian, 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2016/oct/13/birth-of-populism-donald-trump.
  • Kyle, Jordan, “Populists in Power Around the World.” Blair Institute for Global Change, 2018, https://institute.global/sites/default/files/articles/Populists-in-Power-Around-the-World-.pdf.
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Longley, Robert. "What Is Populism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo, Jan. 28, 2022, thoughtco.com/populism-definition-and-examples-4121051. Longley, Robert. (2022, January 28). What Is Populism? Definition and Examples. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/populism-definition-and-examples-4121051 Longley, Robert. "What Is Populism? Definition and Examples." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/populism-definition-and-examples-4121051 (accessed October 1, 2022).