Populism in Democracies

Populist politicians exploit people who feel that life has not treated them fairly, by turning them against the political establishment

Politicians in a democracy need people’s votes to gain or retain power.  This pressure on them affects their interactions with the public, sometimes leading to dishonest manoeuvrings to win easy popularity – as described later (6.4.2).  And people who are discontented are easy prey for politicians seeking power.

As Robert Reich observed, discontent can be either economic or cultural in origin:

●  He describes economic populism as “the key”.  “The biggest change over the last three decades — the change lurking behind the insecurities and resentments of the working middle class …has directly to do with a huge shift in the distribution of income and wealth.”  The distortions in the way that wealth is shared have been commented on previously here (3.5.6).

●  He wrote that “cultural populism’s underlying political agenda is white male Christian nationalism. It aims to resurrect the social and racial hierarchy that dominated American life before the 1960s.  …Yet the Republicans’ cultural populism is bogus.” 

Reich’s view is that economic inequality is the root cause of much American discontent, but Republicans focus on the status anxiety of those who lost their jobs – who want to blame someone for their plight (  It is attractive for wealthy donors to support a party which diverts attention away from the real causes of discontent.

Cas Mudde defined populism as representing “the pure people” in opposition to “the corrupt elite.”  Anti-establishment sentiments on both left and right have recently played a part politics on both sides of the Atlantic: 

●  Francis Fukuyama’s article about the 2016 election, American Political Decay or Renewal?, noted that “large numbers of voters on both sides of the spectrum have risen up against what they see as a corrupt, self-dealing Establishment, turning to radical outsiders in the hopes of a purifying cleanse”.  Bernie Sanders campaigned on the left against economic inequality.  Donald Trump on the right promised to “drain the swamp” of “big donors and special interests” in Washington (although a 2018 Recording Shows That the Swamp Has Not Been Drained). 

●  Alberto Alemanno’s article in 2018, How Italy’s Five Star Movement could redefine populism, reported that “Italians turned their back on mainstream political forces and opted instead for two very different anti-establishment parties, the Five Star Movement and the League (formerly the Northern League)”.

Populist politicians feed on reactionary discontent with recent changes, as described earlier (  When people feel that they have nothing to lose, it is unsurprising that they are willing to overthrow the entire political system.  As described in an RSA article, Populism is growing because more people than you think want chaos.  This was vividly illustrated in the storming of the US Capitol building in Washington in January 2021, by supporters of Donald Trump wanting to overthrow the results of an election that they had just lost.  That was a moment when the future of America’s democracy seemed to be in the balance.

In this recent American example, democracy ultimately triumphed: the election result was upheld, and the political system started to recover.  There have been instances, though, of populism leading to a retreat from democracy into a form of authoritarianism.  The following diagram illustrates the different directions that it can take:

alternative outcomes for left-wing and right-wing populism

The diagram shows that either left-wing or right-wing populism might simply result in a failure to win the next election, and a return to normal democratic politics, as was the case when the centrist Joe Biden won in 2020 – but either kind of populism can lead to a collapse of democracy and an authoritarian form of government.

Left-wing populist politicians offer socialist solutions (, based on a Marxist view that capitalism is the enemy of the people.  This approach is rarely popular, possibly because of anti-communist sentiment in many western democracies.  Communism is seen as a failed system that lost the Cold War.  The following recent examples illustrate different left-wing outcomes:

●  As Greg Grandin described, Hugo Chavez initially became popular in Venezuela by offering generous welfare benefits.  These later became unaffordable, due to low oil prices and economic sanctions.  He became repressive.  The Economist has referred to “the authoritarian regime of Nicolás Maduro” when describing his successor.

●  Syriza, a left-wing populist party in Greece, won an election by exploiting public resentment about austerity imposed by the EU – but it was voted out when it failed to deliver on its promises.

Right-wing authoritarian populism has become widespread in recent years, as described in the following sub-section (  The political parties concerned have not yet won power in most cases, so the democracies have survived there (although the threat remains), but a few can now more accurately be described as partially authoritarian (



This page is intended to form part of Edition 4 of the Patterns of Power series of books.  An archived copy of it is held at https://www.patternsofpower.org/edition04/6325b.htm.