In politics, populism refers to a range of approaches which emphasise the role of "the people" and often juxtapose this group against "the elite". There is no single definition of the term, which developed in the 19th century and has been used to mean various different things since that time. Few politicians or political groups describe themselves as "populists", and in political discourse the term is often applied to others pejoratively. Within political science and other social sciences, various different definitions of populism have been used, although some scholars propose rejecting the term altogether.

A common framework for interpreting populism is known as the ideational approach: this defines populism as an ideology which posits "the people" as a morally good force against "the elite", who are perceived as corrupt. Populists differ in how "the people" are defined, but it can be based along class, ethnic, or national lines. Populists typically present "the elite" as comprising the political, economic, cultural, and media establishment, all of which are depicted as a homogenous entity and accused of placing the interests of other groups—such as foreign countries or immigrants—above the interests of "the people". According to this approach, populism is a thin-ideology which is combined with other, more substantial thick ideologies such as nationalism, liberalism, or socialism. Thus, populists can be found at different locations along the left–right political spectrum and there is both left-wing populism and right-wing populism.

Other scholars active in the social sciences have defined the term populism in different ways. According to the popular agency definition used by some historians of United States history, populism refers to popular engagement of the population in political decision making. An approach associated with the scholar Ernesto Laclau presents populism as an emancipatory social force through which marginalised groups challenge dominant power structures. Some economists have used the term in reference to governments which engage in substantial public spending financed by foreign loans, resulting in hyperinflation and emergency measures. In popular discourse, the term has sometimes been used synonymously with demagogy, to describe politicians who present overly simplistic answers to complex questions in a highly emotional manner, or with opportunism, to characterise politicians who seek to please voters without rational consideration as to the best course of action.

The term populism came into use in the late 19th century alongside the promotion of democracy. In the United States, it was closely associated with the People's Party, while in the Russian Empire it was linked to the agrarian socialist Narodnik movement. During the 20th century, various parties emerged in liberal democracies that were described as populist. In the 21st century, the term became increasingly popular, used in reference largely to left-wing groups in the Latin American pink tide, right-wing groups in Europe, and both right and leftist groups in the US.

Etymology and common use

Although frequently used by historians, social scientists, and political commentators, the term [populism] is exceptionally vague and refers in different contexts to a bewildering variety of phenomena.

Margaret Canovan on how the term populism was used, 1981[1]

The term populism is a vague and contested term that has been used in reference to a diverse variety of phenomena.[2] The term originated as a term of self-designation, being used by members of the People's Party active in the United States during the late 19th century,[3] while in the Russian Empire during the same period a group referred to itself as the narodniki, which has often been translated into English as populists.[4] The Russian and American movements differed in various respects, and the fact that they shared a name was coincidental.[5]

Although the term started out as a self-designation, part of the confusion surrounding it stems from the fact that it has since rarely been used in this way, with few political figures openly describing themselves as "populists".[6] As noted by the political scientist Margaret Canovan, "there has been no self-conscious international populist movement which might have attempted to control or limit the term's reference, and as a result those who have used it have been able to attach it a wide variety of meanings."[7] In this it differs from other political terms, like socialism, which have been widely used as a self-designation by individuals who have then presented their own, internal definitions of the word.[3]

More usually, the term is used against others, often in a pejorative sense to discredit opponents.[8] In being applied in this way, the term "populism" has often been conflated with other concepts like demagoguery and generally presented as something to be "feared and discredited".[9] Some of those who have repeatedly been referred to as "populists" in a pejorative sense have subsequently embraced the term while seeking to shed it of negative connotations.[9] The French far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen for instance was often accused of populism and eventually responded by stating that "Populism precisely is taking into account the people's opinion. Have people the right, in a democracy, to hold an opinion? If that is the case, then yes, I am a populist."[9]

Canovan noted that "if the notion of populism did not exist, no social scientist would deliberately invent it; the term is far too ambiguous for that".[10] The confusion surrounding the term has led some scholars to suggest that it should be abandoned by scholarship.[11] In contrast to this view, the political scientists Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser stated that "while the frustration is understandable, the term populism is too central to debates about politics from Europe to the Americas to simply do away with."[12] Similarly, Canovan noted that the term "does have comparatively clear and definite meanings in a number of specialist areas" and that it "provides a pointer, however shaky, to an interesting and largely unexplored area of political and social experience".[7] The political scientist Ben Stanley noted that "although the meaning of the term has proven controversial in the literature, the persistence with which it has recurred suggests the existence at least of an ineliminable core: that is, that it refers to a distinct pattern of ideas."[13] Although academic definitions of populism have differed, most of them have focused on the idea that it should reference some form of relationship between "the people" and "the elite".[14]

Other Languages
Afrikaans: Populisme
العربية: شعبوية
asturianu: Populismu
беларуская: Папулізм
беларуская (тарашкевіца)‎: Папулізм
български: Популизъм
català: Populisme
čeština: Populismus
Cymraeg: Poblyddiaeth
dansk: Populisme
Deutsch: Populismus
eesti: Populism
Ελληνικά: Λαϊκισμός
español: Populismo
Esperanto: Popolismo
euskara: Populismo
galego: Populismo
한국어: 포퓰리즘
hrvatski: Populizam
íslenska: Lýðhyggja
italiano: Populismo
עברית: פופוליזם
қазақша: Популизм
latviešu: Populisms
Lëtzebuergesch: Populismus
lietuvių: Populizmas
lumbaart: Popolism
magyar: Populizmus
македонски: Популизам
मराठी: लोकानुनय
مازِرونی: پوپولیسم
Bahasa Melayu: Populisme
монгол: Популизм
Nederlands: Populisme
norsk: Populisme
norsk nynorsk: Populisme
occitan: Populisme
polski: Populizm
português: Populismo
română: Populism
русский: Популизм
Scots: Populism
shqip: Popullizmi
සිංහල: ජනතාවාදය
Simple English: Populism
slovenščina: Populizem
српски / srpski: Популизам
srpskohrvatski / српскохрватски: Populizam
suomi: Populismi
svenska: Populism
Tagalog: Populismo
Türkçe: Popülizm
українська: Популізм
Tiếng Việt: Chủ nghĩa dân túy
中文: 民粹主義