political philosophy

Populism is a political doctrine that proposes that the common people are exploited by a privileged elite, and which seeks to resolve this.

1896 Judge cartoon shows William Jennings Bryan/Populism as a snake swallowing up the mule representing the Democratic party.


  • No chord in populism reverberates more strongly than the notion that the robust common sense of an unstained outsider is the best medicine for an ailing polity. Caligula doubtless got big cheers from the plebs when he installed his horse as proconsul.
    • Alexander Cockburn. "Obama's Speech; McCain's Palinomy," CounterPunch (August 30 -31, 2008).
  • Ur-Fascism is based upon a selective populism, a qualitative populism, one might say. In a democracy, the citizens have individual rights, but the citizens in their entirety have a political impact only from a quantitative point of view—one follows the decisions of the majority. For Ur-Fascism, however, individuals as individuals have no rights, and the People is conceived as a quality, a monolithic entity expressing the Common Will. Since no large quantity of human beings can have a common will, the Leader pretends to be their interpreter. Having lost their power of delegation, citizens do not act; they are only called on to play the role of the People. Thus the People is only a theatrical fiction.
  • Populism is a path that, at its outset, can look and feel democratic. But, followed to its logical conclusion, it can lead to democratic backsliding or even outright authoritarianism.
    • Max Fisher and Amanda Taub, “How can Populism Erode Democracy? Ask Venezuela,” The New York Times, (April 2, 2017)
  • We have been given an assignment as a monarchy, and we do as well as we can … We try to be as little populistic as possible. We don't do anything on the spur of the moment to win an opinion poll, or short-term popularity.
  • Populism is the simple premise that markets need to be restrained by society and by a democratic political system. We are not socialists or communists, we are proponents of regulated capitalism and, I might add, people who have read American history.
  • Democrats have to figure out why the white working class just voted overwhelmingly against its own economic interests, not pretend that a bit more populism would solve the problem.
  • Building on Linz’s work, we have developed a set of four behavioral warning signs that can help us know an authoritarian when we see one. We should worry when a politician 1) rejects, in words or action, the democratic rules of the game, 2) denies the legitimacy of opponents, 3) tolerates or encourages violence, or 4) indicates a willingness to curtail the civil liberties of opponents, including the media. Table 1 shows how to assess politicians in terms of these four factors. A politician who meets even one of these criteria is cause for concern. What kinds of candidates tend to test positive on a litmus test for authoritarianism? Very often, populist outsiders do. Populists are antiestablishment politicians—figures who, claiming to represent the voice of “the people,” wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties, attacking them as undemocratic and even unpatriotic. They tell voters that the existing system is not really a democracy but instead has been hijacked, corrupted, or rigged by the elite. And they promise to bury that elite and return power to “the people.” This discourse should be taken seriously. When populists win elections, they often assault democratic institutions. In Latin America, for example, of all fifteen presidents elected in Bolivia, Ecuador, Peru, and Venezuela between 1990 and 2012, five were populist outsiders: Alberto Fujimori, Hugo Chávez, Evo Morales, Lucio Gutiérrez, and Rafael Correa. All five ended up weakening democratic institutions.
    • Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt (2018) How Democracies Die. New York: Crown.
  • Popularity is what you get when lots of people like a thing. Populism is what you get when a small group of people tell you that everyone likes a thing and if you don’t like it, you’re a traitor.
  • The growing power of political lobbies has given moneyed interests undue influence over policymaking, and has endowed a new class of politician with the ability not only to fundamentally misunderstand their constituents but to be rewarded for this. Socioeconomic inequality, which for much of the postwar era had been warded off by the welfare state, has returned. In response to such developments, the streets of Western capitals have been marched upon by people in larger numbers than at any time since the high point of the civil rights movement half a century ago. Whether it is Occupy protesters or the gilets jaunes, white supremacists or national populists, a more assertive voice is emerging beneath the battered wing of liberal democracy and its representative institutions. Some of these movements are utopian, others demand greater rights, if only for themselves. But everywhere the clamor of popular disapproval is growing and is making its presence felt in the cordoned halls of liberal democratic debate. Democracy itself is changing before our eyes.
    • Simon Reid-Henry, Empire of Democracy: The Remaking of the West Since the Cold War, 1971-2017 (2019), pp. 1-2

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