Populism is a threat to democracy

updated 2024

Populism is the political buzzword of the day – with commentators, political theorists and politicians all debating its meaning and the merits of its apparent rise in recent years. Examples of populism abound: from Brexit and Trump which dominated discussion in 2016, to more recent examples such as the 2023 election of Javier Milei in Argentina [Ref: Populism Studies], the Europe-wide farmers’ protests [Ref: Financial Times] and the rise of the Reform Party in the UK [Ref: The Week] or most strikingly the overwhelming rejection by referendum in Ireland of a proposed constitutional change [Ref: The Guardian]. Whilst many discuss populism as a right-wing phenomenon, it has a long history on the left as well, with recent examples of Syriza in Greece [Ref: New Statesman] and Podemos in Spain [Ref: BBC News].

But particular alarm is caused today by its right-wing variety. Some insist it is dangerous for democracy and liberal values, going so far as to suggest that it has echoes of the emergence of fascism in the 1930s and 1940s [Ref: Guardian]. Such fears seemed to be confirmed when news broke in Germany of an alleged meeting between members of far-right populist party Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and neo-Nazi groups. This led to widespread public protests and even calls to ban the AfD [Ref: The Guardian]. The call to ban a political party, supported by a large number of Germans, gets to the heart of the debate about populism: is populism a reflection of widespread anger and disillusionment with the mainstream, or is it a dangerous force which justifies suspending the democratic process in order to contain it?

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Some see populism as a rational response to rising inequality [Ref: Chicago Booth]. For advocates, populism, whether left- or right-wing, is democracy and popular sovereignty in action. It embodies the will of the people, potentially acting as a catalyst for profound and lasting political change, by disrupting consensus and re-invigorating debate around topics which matter to ordinary citizens but that elites would rather ignore. It signifies the re-engagement of the populace with politics and political ideas, and ultimately represents the, ‘public desire for democracy’ [Ref: Spiked]. In this vein, the defeat in March 2024 of twin referendums to change the Irish constitution was hailed by some as a victory against an establishment out of touch with public sentiment [Ref: The Guardian].

However, critics see populism in less favourable terms, with many suggesting that populist movements are simply empty vessels which exploit public vitriol on a range of issues. They argue that by claiming ownership over the will of the people, populist movements often silence dissenting voices by depicting them as “enemies of the people”, threatening democracy [Ref: Human Rights Watch, The Guardian]. One commentator concludes that populism is essentially ‘the belief that there are easy solutions to hard problems – [the] belief that one can escape reality.’ [Ref: Atlantic]

So, amid the competing arguments, is populism something we should welcome as capturing the undiluted will of the people, the very essence of democracy? Or should we be wary of it as a divisive and dangerous phenomenon which attempts to distil complex societal problems into simplistic slogans but is unable to offer practical solutions? Is populism good for politics?

This section provides a summary of the key issues in the debate, set in the context of recent discussions and the competing positions that have been adopted.


Political populism is not new, and it can be traced to as far back as the power struggle between the populares and optimates in Ancient Rome [Ref: Encyclopedia Britannica]. A slippery and often-misused word, according to Oxford Dictionaries, populism denotes: ‘The quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people.’ [Ref: Oxford Dictionaries] Expanding on this definition, political theorist Cas Mudde suggests that all populist movements of the left or right  are ‘an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the “pure people”, and the “corrupt elite”, and suggests that politics should be an expression of the general will of the people.’ [Ref: Guardian]

In this way, politicians as distinct as Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines [Ref: BBC News], Evo Morales in Bolivia [Ref: BBC News], Geert Wilders in the Netherlands [Ref: Telegraph], and Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain [Ref: Guardian] have all been defined as populists at one time or another. Nonetheless, the contemporary debate remains contentious, as advocates underline that on principle, enhancing representation through the general will of the people is an important democratic corrective to stagnant political discourse, which often excludes large swathes of the electorate [Ref: The Conversation].

Critics, though, are suspicious of this appeal to the general will. Some suggest that because ‘populists are defined by their claim that they alone represent the people, and that all others are illegitimate’ this creates a problem for political discourse, warning that ‘populism’s belief that the people are always right is bad news for two elements of liberal democracy: the rights of minorities and the rule of law’ [Ref: Economist].


Supporters of populism argue that having faith in the demos to engage with challenging ideas about how society should work is a core principle of democracy, not just populism. One commentator asserts: ‘From Plato onwards, the social and cultural outlook of the political elites has been suspicious of and often hostile towards public opinion.’ [Ref: Spiked] Another argues that, ultimately, ‘populism is seen as dangerous because democracy is dangerous’ [Ref: Guardian].

Advocates of this approach assert that ‘many politicians dream of democracy without the demos’, and ask ‘what is the eventual target of anti-populism today – populism or the people?’ [Ref: Newsweek] Similarly, political theorist Chantal Mouffe argues that ‘populism represents an important dimension in democracy’ [Ref: The Conversation], enhancing the plurality of the political sphere, thus empowering the electorate and allowing their views to be represented authentically [Ref: The Conversation]. In this sense, populism needn’t be seen as a pejorative term ‘exclusively linked to the radical right, leading to an incorrect conflation of populism and xenophobia’ [Ref: Guardian]. Populism should instead be understood as the rejection of a distant, technocratic and increasingly irrelevant ruling political elite, whose messages no longer resonate with the majority of people [Ref: Spiked].

Populism’s supporters highlight its ability to change the dynamics of political debate in radical ways, bringing to the fore ‘issues that large parts of the population care about, but that the political elites want to avoid discussing’ [Ref: Guardian]. Examples of such issues could be found in the both the Brexit referendum and the Irish family referendum, but anti-austerity movements also fit into this category. From Occupy to Podemos, left-wing populism is seen as ‘challenging neoliberal hegemony’ [Ref: The Conversation]. It is this disruptive quality which advocates say stimulates discourse and challenges the orthodoxies of the elite, and can help ‘create the conditions for the re-politicisation of public life, reviving a culture of political participation and democratic debate’ [Ref: spiked].


‘The modus operandi of populism is not to reason but to roar’ [Ref: New York Times] claims former British Prime Minister Tony Blair. This broadly reflects the anxieties that opponents of populism cite, with most arguing that in all its forms, it is divisive for society and problematic for democracy.

The philosopher Julian Baggini questions the idea that ‘the will of the people is…clear, virtuous and homogenous’, and argues that the consequence of this assumption is that populists end up ‘ignoring or denying the fact that there are different, competing interests in society, not just those of the majority’ [Ref: Guardian]. The problem, Baggini asserts, is that democracy is not simply about trusting the will of the people but also requires people trusting their elected officials and institutions. Populists, by contrast, often call both into question. [Ref: Guardian]

In addition, a common criticism is that ‘Populists are dividers, not uniters’ [Ref: Atlantic], and controversial figures such as France’s Marine Le Pen [Ref: Institut Montaigne], American President Donald Trump [Ref: Guardian] and Hungarian President Viktor Orbán [Ref:BBC News] are used as examples of how divisive and problematic right-wing populism can be.

But populists are not merely divisive, for opponents of populism. They also display a dangerous tendency to ignore constitutional limits on their power. This is termed ‘illiberal democracy’, where democratically elected leaders like Orbán are said to ride roughshod over liberal norms [Ref: Guardian] and stir up ethnic division [Ref: Guardian].

Another common criticism of populism is that it is too simplistic. Modern life is said to be multi-layered and complex, and the ‘us vs them’ rhetoric of populism is not sophisticated enough to ‘navigate a complex reality that requires serious, long-term planning and compromise’, because ‘populists have no solutions to offer’. [Ref: Atlantic].

So, how should we view populism? Is it the embodiment of democratic principles and popular sovereignty, expressing the will of the people and thus invigorating political discourse? Or is it an empty and divisive form of politics which we should avoid?

It is crucial for debaters to have read the articles in this section, which provide essential information and arguments for and against the debate motion. Students will be expected to have additional evidence and examples derived from independent research, but they can expect to be criticised if they lack a basic familiarity with the issues raised in the essential reading.


Trump and J.D. Vance embrace populist economics. That’s bad for Americans.
James Davis USA Today 26 March 2024

US election: how populists encourage blind mistrust – and how to push back
John Shayegh The Conversation 15 December 2023

Heed the events in France – populism is gaining ground and only a revolution can stop it
Simon Jenkins The Guardian 11 April 2022

After Trump, Is American Democracy Doomed by Populism?
Yascha Mounk Council on Foreign Relations 14 January 2021


Populism is back
Frank Furedi Spiked 7 April 2023

Populism is on the march throughout Europe
Matthew Goodwin Conservative Home 7 February 2024

Populism is just common sense
Ralph Schoellhammer MCC Brussels 21 March 2024

A Somewhat Reassuring Defense of Populism
Donald Critchlow Athenaeum Review 28 October 2019

What is populism, and what does the term actually mean?
David Molloy BBC News 6 March 2021

Responding to populism with caution
Anthoula Malkopoulou The Loop 28 June 2023

High Tide? Populism in Power, 1990-2020
Jordan Kyle and Brett Meyer Tony Blair Institute for Global Change 7 February 2020

Why Voters who Support Populism are Perfectly Rational
Michael Maiello Chicago Booth Review October 15, 2018

The Upside of Populism
Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson Foreign Policy 19 October 2019

What democracies can learn from Greece’s failed populist experiment
Stathis Kalyvas Atlantic 4 May 2017

How does populism turn to authoritarianism? Venezuela is a case in point
Max Fisher New York Times 1 April 2017

Who’s afraid of populism?
Battle of Ideas
28 October 2023

It’s a mistake to call Reform UK “far-right”
Tim Bale LSE Blogs 21 March 2024

The 2024 Biden-Trump Contest Is a Test of Populist Visions
Joshua Green Bloomberg 8 January 2024

Can science help us understand populism, from ‘malignant manicheism’ to Marine Le Pen?
John Letzing World Economic Forum 29 April 2022

Undermining Democracy: Marine Le Pen and Eric Zemmour’s Populist Politics
Institut Montaigne
14 February 2022

Is there a populist foreign policy?
Angelos Chryssogelos Chatham House 30 March 2021

The problem with populism
Cas Mudde Guardian 17 February 2015

Galloway Shows How US-Style Culture Wars Are Spreading to the UK
Martin Ivens Bloomberg UK 2 March 2024

The rise of agricultural populism
Editorial board Financial Times 5 February 2024

Where populists rush in: How George Galloway harnessed the Middle East to derail an election in forgotten Rochdale
Tanya Gold Politico 1 March 2024

Keir Starmer, Reform UK and Britain’s populist paradox
Bagehot The Economist 11 January 2024

Why the Pandemic and Populism Still Work Together
Pepijn Bergsen Chatham House 24 November 2020

Trump’s Iowa win is just a small part of soaring right-wing populism in 2024
Daniel Drache and Marc D. Froese The Conversation 16 January 2024

Definitions of key concepts that are crucial for understanding the topic. Students should be familiar with these terms and the different ways in which they are used and interpreted and should be prepared to explain their significance.

Popular sovereignty
Populares and Optimates