Populism has a place in a well-functioning democracy.

By Georgia Jones

Edited by Marina Lademacher


Populism is described by the Cambridge Dictionary as ‘political ideas and activities that are intended to get the support of ordinary people by giving them what they want’. Yet, despite the affiliation between populism and ‘the people’, populist movements continue to face criticism, and they are assumed to function in opposition to liberal democracy.  This essay defends populism, arguing that it not only is there a place for it in well-functioning democracy, but that there must be a place for it.

In this essay, I will argue that populism has a place in a well-functioning democracy. I will first clarify that my understanding of a well-functioning democracy follows a deliberative democrat’s definition, in which citizens are making well-informed votes and there is regular, thoughtful discussion of politics. Using the deliberative democrat’s view as a compass for this argument, it will be clear to see that populism, that is, an anti-establishment movement promoting the wants of ‘the people’ against the system, has a place in a well-functioning democracy.[1] Examples of populist leaders are Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen and Sarah Palin.  Crucial to my argument is that populism is not the proposed alternative to liberal democracy, but rather a ‘dimension of political culture in general’, and, true to Margaret Canovan’s interpretation, a ‘shadow’ of democracy’.[2] I will argue that populism has a place insofar that it encourages previously apolitical citizens to join the democratic debate, so that discussion can be driven by, and evolve through, deliberation. I will go on to challenge key anti-populist opinions, including the points that populism oversimplifies politics, that it encourages authoritarianism, and populism’s self-limiting nature.[3]

The first critique I address is that populism denies the ‘complexity and heterogeneity’ of politics in its Manichean view of the elites, or ‘others’ as oppressors, and ‘the people’ as the oppressed.[4] According to this theory, populism hyper-focuses on a singular part of a political problem, forcing its supporters to take one defined side, discrediting the shades of grey that politicians insist is politics. While it is undeniable that there are inescapable complexities of any political system and dialogue, these complexities can become overwhelming, making the system seem inaccessible to the very people for whom it is meant to give a voice. To that end, Canovan’s argument, that populism champions the redemptive face of democracy, redressing the imbalance between it and the pragmatic face of democracy, suggests that the emotive techniques and rhetoric of populist movements can actually translate politics into something more appealing and familiar to ‘the people’.[5] As Mudde sharply defines it, populist discourse is ‘moralistic, rather than programmatic’, aimed at stirring an emotional reaction using simplified, clear-cut opinions.[6] It logically follows that if one holds a strong view on an issue, which populist emotive rhetoric expresses and reinforces, then one is more likely to participate in a political discussion. This is a key strength of populists’ tendency for simplification. And as Mudde rightly notes, populism ‘draws its strength from the confused and opportunistic democratic promises of the political elite’.[7] Therefore, populism not only makes politics accessible for people who have been disheartened by the confusion of the political elite but challenges the contradictions within the political elite.

On a more basic level, this overly simplistic style can ‘enable citizens to regain their grip on a complex political reality’.[8] Moreover, it empowers and motivates people toward that first step into the discussion. According to deliberative democrats, a fundamental part of a well-functioning democracy is engaging citizens in a way that encourages discussion and deliberation; to ‘sustain citizen engagement in a shared public dialogue’.[9] Essentially, populism is ‘broadening the participatory horizon’ in a positive, productive way by making the complexities of politics accessible.[10] I also dispute the claim that a well-functioning democracy cannot disregard heterogeneity, because rather it is our current political system that disregards heterogeneity, in homogenising citizens’ input in order to reach a final policy or electoral decision. For instance, this is evidenced by the widely accepted liberally democratic method of giving ‘the people’ direct input through a referendum, with the many possible options condensed to a simplistic yes or no vote. While not the only method of encouraging citizens to enter the political conversation, populist discourse is an accessible method for drawing out ideas and voices that had been silent before. Within this extra democratic space that is opened up by populist movements, the scope of the discussion group is enlarged, fostering a more realistic understanding of complex political issues, as well as the development of informed political opinions in a social context. Therefore, populism must have a place in a well-functioning democracy.

The second critique I address is that populist leaders threaten a descent into authoritarianism.[11] This critique claims that, if a leader is the epitome of the thoughts and dreams of ‘the people’, as a populist leader is often depicted, the leader will logically end up having all the power because they are accepted to know everything.[12] However, this is unpersuasive. Realistically, it is less likely that a society will descend into authoritarianism and more likely that it will encourage disenfranchised citizens to recall the personal aspect of politics. Moreover, the critique simply disregards the number of benefits that a salient, charismatic leader can provide within a democracy. A singular leader that represents a core idea might actually establish a sense of community spirit and enable a ‘demystification of the political office’.[13] Such fostering of community spirit is outlined by Canovan in her exploration into how a typical populist appeal to ‘our people’ reflects the concept of ‘the heartland’ to which Mudde refers.[14]  This is a redefinition of the idea of ‘the people’ in accordance to populist discourse, and becomes a ‘constructed sub-set of the whole population’, conveying connotations of the solidarity within this subset.[15] Indeed, this aspect of populism is intrinsic to the extreme closeness a populist leader boasts with ‘the people’ and the subsequent strengthening of community spirit. The ‘demystification of political office’ is, moreover, achieved through the ways in which populist leaders might ‘denounce the shady… processes’ within the system.[16]  This makes the populist seem both ordinary, as ‘the people’ can identify with the leader, yet exceptional in this ordinariness. Such a leader brings ‘the political’ back into the sphere of the mundane, from the public into the private, whereby politics becomes accessible through a more responsive, personal representative. This encourages democratic participation because the previously neglected motivations and feelings of citizens are being crucially recognised, legitimised and reinforced. To emphasise my claim once more, engaging citizens in politics is fundamental for a well-functional democracy.

As Romano Prodi, the EU Commission president, rightly states, ‘people want a much more participatory, “hands on” democracy’.[17] Ironically, some populist reactions against the EU are indeed demanding such democratic change, while intransigence by establishment politicians has allowed this sentiment to be channelled into far-right Eurosceptic populism. Having a leader represent a particular interest of ‘the people’ does not lead authoritarianism, rather, it adds to the conversation by fostering a dialogue across the populace and by bringing more people into a process in which their views can be discussed and deliberated. Secondly, on a more theoretical standpoint, denial of a leader on the basis of their populist appeal alone, is anti-democratic. Within a well-functioning democracy should be the inclusion of all identities and perspectives. Thus, to condemn and reject a populist leader would indicate an unhealthy democracy. That negative connotations surrounding the word ‘populism’ exist indicates a democratic deficit. Therefore, a populist leader’s ability to revitalise disenfranchised citizens’ interest in politics and political opinion through extreme personalisation is enough to merit its place as a practical component of a well-functioning democracy.

The third critique of populism I address is that it is episodic and self-limiting and cannot have a healthy place in democracy because it is temporary and unstable.[18]  This critique runs deep throughout much anti-populist prose. Since populism fights against ‘the system’, it can never enter the system for the long term and thus discredits populism as a whole. My first rebuttal of this is that an episodic nature does not discredit the place that populism has within a well-functioning democracy. Although populist movements struggle to survive within the system, this does not mean that ‘spontaneous action at the grassroots’ lack depth.[19]  In fact, it can not only encourage political imagination, bringing out ideas that can then be thought out and discussed in a critical space, but lead to further political action. The style of populism, as illustrated by Canovan, is characterised by a ‘revivalist flavour of a movement, powered by… enthusiasm’.[20] This spirit is, by essence, directed at challenging elites or the system.[21] We should instead view the episodic nature of populism as potentially beneficial: the energy of populist movements, and its surrounding grassroots activism, facilitates entry into the political arena, while also challenging citizens to participate in democratic discourse.

As a result of populist movements and the increased activism it inspires, ‘radical alternatives’ might also emerge.[22] Such possibilities pose interesting questions about the scope and authenticity of existing political methods, for instance whether instituting experts in political decisions dilutes or misrepresents the true intention of the people.[23] One example of this, which Mudde uses, is Canada’s highly successful populist group, the Social Credit.[24] This group pushed for more citizen participation in policy making, challenging the extent of the role of experts in a political regime.[25] Canovan’s description that populism is a ‘shadow’ of democracy strongly supports the claim that, despite being short-term, populism persists in rightly claiming its place in democracy. Even if it is channelled through short-term bursts of sentiment, populism, as a recurrent phenomenon implied in the term ‘episodic’, demonstrates its functioning as a shadow of democracy. Secondly, from a practical angle, it is self-deceiving to believe that anything in politics is permanent. Even a well-functioning democracy is a cycle or a constant process, evident through regular elections, leadership changeovers, and fluidity of opinions. And even the rigidly inflexible US Constitution can be altered and reinterpreted. Therefore, the aspects of democracy that are seen to be fundamental, are themselves episodic. Populism may indeed be short-term, but this does not necessarily limit the influence or impact that populism movements can affect and the subsequent political engagement they might inspire.

It is undeniable that populism has merited a place in a well-functioning democracy in its various ways of encouraging more voices to join the political discussion. It has the potential to challenge self-serving elites with their monopoly on institutional power, having an invaluable energetic style that challenges the status quo. Furthermore, populism makes the complexity of politics accessible to the general populace and gives a platform for strong leaders to inspire strong opinions. As Canovan states, and is echoed by Arditi, populism is a shadow of democracy, ‘it both accompanies democracy and haunts it’.[26] Even if it is episodic and simplistic, it is unshakable from its place within a well-functioning democracy.

[1] Canovan (1999), 1.

[2] Arditi (2004), 135.

Canovan (1999), 3.

[3] Moffit (2016), 145.

Arditi (2005), 77.

Taggart (2000), 95.

[4] Moffit (2016), 145.

[5] Canovan (1999), 11.

[6] Mudde (2004), 544.

Ibid., 542.

[7] Ibid., 561.

[8] Moffit (2016), 142.

[9] Ackerman & Fishkin (2004), 130.

[10] Arditi (2004), 136.

[11] Arditi (2005), 77.

[12] Ibid., pp. 95

[13] Moffit (2016), 143.

Mudde (2004), 546.

[14] Taggart (2000), 95.

[15] Mudde (2004), 546.

[16] Canovan (1999), 6.

[17] Mudde, C. (2004), 548.

[18] Taggart (2002), 62.

[19] Canovan (1999), 6.

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid., 1.

[22] Mouffe (2005), 55.

[23] Canovan (2004), 241.

Mudde, C. (2015). Populism in Europe: a primer, Open Democracy, https://www.opendemocracy.net/can-europe-make-it/cas-mudde/populism-in-europe-primer (12/11/2017).

[24] Mudde (2004), 547.

[25] Ibid.

[26] Arditi (2004), 141.


Ackerman, B. & Fishkin, J. (2004), Deliberation Day, New Haven: Yale University Press.

Arditi, B. (2004), ‘Populism as a Spectre of Democracy: A Response to Canovan’, Political Studies 52, 135 -141.

Arditi, B. (2005), ‘The Verbal Smoke Surrounding Populism’, in F. Panizza (ed.), Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, London: Verso, 72-98.

Canovan, M. (1999), ‘Trust the People! Populism and the Two Faces of Democracy’, Political Studies Association, 47.1, 1-11.

Canovan, M. (2004), ‘Populism for political theorists?’, Journal of Political Ideologies 9.3, 241.

Moffit, B. (2016), The Global Rise of Populism, California, Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Mouffe, C. (2005), ‘The end of politics?’, in F. Panizza (ed.) Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, London: Verso, 50-71.

Mudde, C. (2004), ‘The Populist Zeitgeist’, Government and Opposition 39.4, 544-548.

Taggart, P. (2000), Populism, Buckingham: Open University Press.

Taggart, P. (2002), ‘Populism and the Pathology of Representative Politics’, in Y. Mény & Y. Surel (edd.), Democracies and the Populist Challenge, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 62-80.

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