Populism or the Fear of Democracy Failure


Lee Rahel NIREL

The Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC), Herzliya


Abstract: Populism is for many observers unconceivable without a strong, direct relationship between a charismatic, anti-system-oriented leader and the citizens who feel or are neglected by the main leading political parties. Nevertheless, in populism, leadership is much overestimated. If we consider the extent of populism as a political phenomenon, correlated with the fact that populism is an appeal to direct democracy and that the populists may only protest but never govern – this point of view should be challenged. Populism, unlike liberalism, has no coherent system of distinct political ideas. But it should not be defined simply as any political movement which stirs up the masses by fostering the simplistic policies proposals. We might rather say that populism cannot be understood at the level of policies, as it is more of a special way of imagining politics. A populist leader who can promote a purely moral image of an elite directs the voters to a set of expectations. The voters who support the populist movements accept this fact, because they believe that the current elites actually fail to represent them. In fact, they are not against representative democracy as such, but they want the change of their representatives with persons whom they deem as the closest to the image of moral purity proposed by the populist leader. This characteristic of populism – i.e. people want only one thing and that only their elected representatives may satisfy this wish – evokes symmetry between populism and technocratic governing. Similarly, the technocrats also assume that there is only one correct solution for every social challenge and consequently a political debate is no longer necessary. But the democratic exercise involves the very opposite: political alternatives and varied solutions generated by different perspectives.


Keywords: populism, political symbolism, social image, referential symbol, condensation symbol.



At present, most of the representative democracies are facing serious problems caused by the erosion of values, of original ideological partisanships, wide scale political migration and a pronounced distrust of the electorate of the political parties[1]. The issue of the deficit of confidence in political parties and in politics in general, may be understood in the classical terms of political science, as a consequence of the adverse economic context which spurs populist movements[2]. But from a sociological and socio-economic point of view, the reluctance and more often than not the rejection of the population of parties becomes intelligible when considering the asymmetric distribution of resources, either material or of any other nature[3]. On the other hand, more and more ruptures and distances occur between the symbols and the culture of the elites and those of the society as a whole[4]. A real political community is more and more difficult to identify irrespective of society or political system. The common ideals or purposes which might enable a relatively unitary direction between the politicians are almost non-existent. The persistence on the privatization of natural resources and bank loans from various international financial authorities cause an acute feeling of deprivation of minimum social security among the masses. From this point of view, economic efficiency may be attained only by a transfer of responsibility from the public to the private sector, while the state abandons gradually accountability and final liability for the sectors of major public importance: health, social insurance, education etc.[5]





Political symbolism may provide for a certain understanding of populism reality. Thus, the composite elements of the political process become intelligible and coherently articulated rather than symbols, than immediate material realities. Political symbolism appears as an inseparable unit of images and actions[6], that the individual acknowledges first affectively and only later rationally, trying to schematize it and integrate it in his/her own psyche. The tendency to avoid or ignore the information that contradicts personal schemes, the tendency to take over non-critically any information confirming or supporting such schemes is the basic level where populism may be developed[7].

According to Edelman, political symbolism consists of two types of symbols: referential symbols, which include objective and verifiable elements from daily experience, (statistics, survey data, official information) and condensation symbols, which contain emotions, feelings, sentiments, and subjective moods, associated to a concrete situation. They mark a concrete situation with a certain emotional tone received at the subjective level under a binary form: tensed – relaxed, frustrating-liberating, success-failure, i.e. in the end as being pleasant or unpleasant[8].

What stimulates and potentiates the manifestation of populism in all the democratic societies is the scratchy way of establishing human groups of these societies. They vary both in point of size and of interests but in point of access to information, in particular, and the result is very small groups characterized by a well-defined internal coherence, having their own strategies of functioning, well-structured and able to access and control most of the public property in relation with other groups of larger sizes, more heterogeneous and more diluted in point of internal consistency, which fail to articulate efficiently their interests. These small groups, elitist actually, have and foster in their relationship with other groups a hortative language[9], i.e. a language based on the conviction of the others of the fairness of the policies and directions adopted at a certain time, such policies and directions that are singular, unique and without any alternative in the given context. The term is semantically close to populist rhetoric which does the same thing, proposing in the end simplistic, reductionist solutions to complex social problems.

The constant use of the concept of populism either in the media or in political disputes finally led to an alteration of its semantic contents. The analysis of the type of relationship between populism and democracy should start from a conceptual clarification. Just like other disputed or multivalent concepts such as the concept of democracy, in the case of populism also a minimum definition will prove useful. The advantage of a minimum definition is that it will allow the understanding of the basic aspects of this phenomenon, thus enabling a comparative analysis[10]. In the concrete case of populism it enables the distinction of collateral elements which tend to manifest at the same time with populism (e.g., attacks to the state institutions in Eastern Europe, xenophobia in Western Europe and not only, or clientelism in Latin America, etc.), in various national/regional contexts. These elements activated by the populist phenomenon are not decisive for the phenomenon per se, but become operational after triggering such phenomenon. Essentially, there are well argued reasons to be skeptical in relation with adding too many defining attributes to the concept of populism[11].

Considering the above background, populism may be understood first as a set of ideas. According to Cas Mudde, “populism is a thin-centred ideology, that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps: the pure people and the corrupt elite, and which argues that politics should be the expression of the general will of the people”.[12]

If populism may be understood as a set of ideas then various subtypes may be identified: populist manifestations consistent with the set of initial ideas, populist manifestations in disagreement with the initial set of ideas, extremist, xenophobic, authoritarian attitudes, etc. All these subtypes may be subsequently grouped depending on various criteria providing for an articulate image of populism as a dynamic phenomenon.

If we refer to political symbolism a distance between popular social representations may be found on politics and those of political elite. This rising distance correlated with the hortative language explains the recent more and more intense populist manifestations.

According to Guy Hermet, populism as a political phenomenon has no consistent ideology or doctrinaire program. Due to the hypertrophied presence of the emotional factor, populist rhetoric often manages to inflame some nationalist and even extremist passions which may organize around a charismatic leader[13].

As an invariant of populism we may consider the assumed special relationship of the latter with the people, with the masses, whose will it represents, directly, imperatively, applied, reproaching to the governors the inability to resolve the people’s wishes.  The hypostasis of populism in the role of fast, efficient, immediate solution of the major social problems manages in a first stage to conquer and seduce human groups, to persuade or incite them to act by appealing to the condensed symbols that Edelman was talking about. The use of referential symbols by the political elite to justify certain measures taken (measures of austerity, bank loans, privatizations, etc.) only enhances the populist appeal to condensed symbols, relying on affective, irrational or force reactions of the masses.

Populism is a polymorphic phenomenon, which may result in the varied interpretations of the people. In a wider sense, in the case of populism two extreme forms may be detected. The people may be represented as a stable, trans-temporal, trans-spatial, metaphysical and moral unit, which preserves and has the same features in time. This people-image which must be protected against the external and internal enemies may be represented by a charismatic leader.

According to the second form of manifestation of populism, the people is a sum-up of the millions of more or less free citizens, each of them having his/her own aspirations and purposes, objectives, ideals and projects, which should be harmonized with a coherent legislative or normative framework. If the first form becomes operational we can speak about a fascist populism due to the ethnic approach of the notion of people. The second approach leads to a libertarian-like manifestation of populism[14]. In this respect, we cannot clearly dissociate populism from the demagogic aspect of discourse by reproaching it even a considerable extent of lack of scruples and a minimalist ethics in attaining its objectives.

All these derogatory nuances derive from the urgent appeal to the masses by avoiding the democratic process mechanisms, from the multitude of promises which are not observed, are not translated into a finite act and from the utopia more or less deliberate of the provided solutions.


In another train of thoughts, from a conceptual perspective the opposite of the term populism is elitism. The common element between the two opposed concepts is given by the pejorative contents both terms have in the usual discourse.  Being an elitist in the current society is as bad as being deemed as a populist. The two terms are intensely used either by the intellectual, or by the political elite improperly due to the strong impact they have in the etiquette assigned to others and due to their hardly definable and vague contents.

Unlike populism and elitism, pluralism is based on the very idea that the society is composed of different individuals and groups. Therefore, the pluralists affirm that democratic politics is to take into account the diversity and conclusion of agreements between different positions avoiding moral or Manichean distinctions. The persons who join pluralism consider that popular sovereignty is a dynamic and open-ended process, rather than an inflexible and unified will of the people.

A recurrent argument of the debates referring to populism is related to the association of the populist forces with demagogy, with the opportunistic emotional and behavioural manifestations. But this argument is no longer valid unless they are understood as attributes of populism.

Without a doubt, there are many examples of populists who act in a demagogic way (Geert Wilders’s withdrawal of support to the minority government in 2012 due to differences over budget cuts), appeal to emotions (Hugo Chávez’s political rallies) and are masters of opportunism (Silvio Berlusconi’s legal reforms in his favour). However, there are several non-populist political leaders who show signs of demagoguery (Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidential campaigns), emotionalism (Nelson Mandela’s approach of national reconciliation) and opportunism (Angela Merkel’s decision to close down nuclear energy in Germany after the Fukushima disaster)”.[15]

The recent crisis Europe is facing has shown a fact that is relatively obvious from politics observers of the USA and Latin America, in its dynamics it can be both right-wing and left-wing. As an argument for this idea, Greece may be seen as a case study in this respect. Thus, in this country,

“[…] austerity policies promoted by the EU have facilitated the electoral rise of both leftist populism (SYRIZA) and rightist populism (Golden Dawn). Not without reason, some have raised the question of whether it makes sense to use the same label (i.e. populism) to study these political formations. In fact, these two political parties advance extremely different policy proposals. The same can be said about contemporary left-wing movements in Latin America and current right-wing populist forces in Europe: whereas the former is characterised by an inclusionary approach, the latter is distinguished by an exclusionary approach”.[16]

On the other hand, it is difficult to equate populism with an authoritarian ideology. While in democracy there is an intrinsic principle according to which the people is the sovereign and its will prevails, then no internal or external element should constrain this will. If democracy means (demos, people + kratos, power) rule by the people then obviously, neither the elites, nor the aristocrats, experts, religious authorities or foreign powers should make decisions that violate popular sovereignty. According to this logic, instead of treating populism as an irrational phenomenon supported by a group of people as irrational, it should be accepted that there issometruth in the claims advanced by those who adhere to the populist set of ideas[17].

Populism is not always oriented against the establishment. Populist forces become extremely vocal, for example, in the electoral districts where they do not feel represented by the existing political elite. This shows that there is some truth in the populist attack against the establishment[18]. The populist discourse becomes more and more legitimate and pervasive in certain social sectors where political elites fail to take into consideration the ideas and interests of the electorate. This elitist attitude may result in a similarity between the left-wing and right-wing populism: besides their different policy proposals,

“[…] both types of populism are inclined to politicize certain topics that intentionally or unintentionally are not being addressed by the political establishment. Whereas in the case of right-wing populism in Europe this process of politicization is related mainly to immigration policies, in the case of left-wing populism in Latin America this process of politicization is linked chiefly to economic policies”.[19]

Certainly, this is not an exculpation of the populist phenomenon or that it should not be criticized, monitored, challenged, particularly when the populist actions endanger the democratic functioning of the society. The management of the populist phenomenon remain the same, a challenge of contemporary democracies.

According to Jan-Werner Müller the populist phenomenon is a matter of urgency, over which the supranational institutions, such as the European Union, should think about and try to defend liberal democracy both from populists in opposition and populists in government.[20]

On the other hand, anti-elitism has the same essence as populism[21]. He refers to a people in the position of provider of physical work in particular. Although anti-elitists are essentially also intellectuals, they affirm that the elites are the fruit of the vanity of some to the detriment of others[22]. Actually, the elites are in any democratic society the outcome of a natural selection. It is unanimously acknowledged that societies evolve mainly due to their elites[23].

Egalitarianism is an alternative to populism, which inserts the delusive idea of natural equality among all people. It is the equality of chances which is really important. The individuals of a society are not born equal but they may become equal provided that the environment, society in particular, should provide equal chances for them.

Populism insists that only by popular will can all the problems of society be solved focusing on the correctness and fairness of this assertion. The referendum is one of the major symbol-concepts that the populist leaders resort to. Some of the problems may certainly be solved by popular consultation, but others cannot. For example, the problems related to economic programs, health or education strategies or the problems referring to scientific, research and art activity. For this type of problems the required solutions imply specific competences, the criteria for solving them being valuable and efficient and not of easy success. Invariably, the popular solutions provided for such social problems-challenges will be false, inoperative.

Populism is placed in opposition with elitism because the elite sets the rule, the criterion, the canon.[24]. The selection according to value is imposed by all these. For all these reasons, the selection of the value cannot be submitted to a referendum, as it is the result of the critical spirit of the elite[25]. The rejection of the idea of elite, typical for anti-elitism and implicitly for populism, has negative effects if it becomes more and more applied because it blocks and delays progress in all domains, including the political domain. Abandoned to popular will, the elite of any nature (political, economic, cultural) is doomed to dissolution, disappearance and art along with it, culture being reduced to folklore[26].


From the cultural point of view, populism is present under a dissipated form, less outlined and less substantial. Thus, populism is much more frequently used in political discourse than in the cultural discourse. Nevertheless, the more frequent use does not imply also an enhancement of the extent of conceptual precision.  Yet, there is a constant in the sense that giving the label of populist implies almost invariably negative connotations, with meanings related to the mobilization of the political majority around a set of simple slogans and, probably, the hypocrisy of discourse, the offer of easy, unrealistic solutions to severe social problems, emotional impregnation of the messages and avoiding their rationality, etc.

Cultural populism is not a strictly analytical and semantically well-articulated category. Cultural populism refers in particular to the propagation of some associated political feelings in a way specific for culture rather than a phenomenon which might generate a paradigm. Any form of culture which appeals to popular symbols or which takes into consideration the popular masses in point of satisfactions, emotions, wishes, trends, etc. may be called, without pejorative nuances, a populist culture[27].

Two interdependent forms of manifestation may be distinguished in cultural populism: the first type aims at primary cultural production, and the other type refers to a secondary practice, of educational nature, where popular cultural texts are studied as an extension of literary criticism. The first of these forms was called by some authors[28] aesthetic populism.

Cultural populism is not a unitary phenomenon. After the answer from the elitist sector of society to the criticism of mass culture, two positions are highlighted: an attitude of production related to mass culture, and a second one aims at an elimination of consumerism, of the production meant for the masses, a production is disregarded from the aesthetic point of view though the non-critical endorsement of the popular artistic taste is in accordance with the economic liberalism of the consumer’s sovereignty[29].

The cultural debates on popular topics are actually also a type of intellectual manifestation where the participants in the cultural, education, art, etc. fields try to make themselves heard, to seduce by their discourse, by the artistic creations so as to win the symbolic power in the confrontation of rival ideologies. It is noteworthy that the phrase popular culture, and the related idea, is intellectual because this type of culture was not identified by common people but by intellectuals: popular culture was not identified by common people, but by others[30].

The discovery of popular culture was in fact a political movement in the true sense of the word, in relation with the ideas of nation. This aspect is in direct relation with the formation of national identity, besides industrialization and democratization and, therefore it represents a constituent of modernity[31].

As for cultural populism we may say that unlike real, genuine populism, socio-politically manifested, it emphasizes the visible trends of the cultural spectrum with a view to highlighting the subsequent dilemmas of the cultural and political space.


Populism coexists with democracy and uses the rules of movement of the system it denies[32], which justifies the presence of populists both in opposition and in the government. The negative effects of the populist manifestations will be invariably found at the level of the democratic system it corrodes. For this reason, democratic filters are needed which might interpose between the populist actions and the democratic mechanisms.  These filters have the role to dilute, mitigate or convert the populist attack under a desirable form or, at least, socially accepted form. .

Contemporary debates, studies and research made in the sense of quantification, monitoring and finally managing this phenomenon are important because:

“[…] on the one hand, they show the limited efficiency of certain remedies otherwise deemed as exceptional – such as the increase of the general level of education and information of the population– and on the other hand, they indicate the high hazard level whose forms of complacency towards populism or of cohabitation and cooperation with them. Fighting populism cannot be done by taking over […] the populist slogans, themes or methods but by providing with distinct agenda able to inspire the masses and by developing certain different attitudes but which should disengage the same inflexible authenticity that populism is only mimicking”.[33]

On the other hand, the moral decline and the decrease of the level of confidence in the governing elites, the corruption of social cohesion, the promotion, acceptance or non-critical takeover of some political models may be correlated providing for the populist forces a really remarkable volitional, motivational and action resource, which may become at some point a serious risk for a democratic society[34].

In the absence of some democratic filters which might protect them from populist attacks, the governments become reactive and more often than not unable to manage the crisis, and populism will not represent only a symptom of a political body in crisis of credibility and legitimacy, but it will open new opportunities for arbitrary authoritarianism, and even for extremism.




BRÉCHON, Pierre, Partidele politice, trans. Marta Nora Țărnea & Adina Barvinschi, Eikon, Cluj-Napoca, 2004.

COPILAȘ, Emanuel, Simbolistica politică românească: între populism și cinism”, Sfera Politicii, No. 174, 2013.

DRĂMNESCU, Marin, “Educational Psychology. Trends and Developments”, 6th Silk Road International Conference “Globalization and Security in Black and Caspian Seas Region”, București, 2011.

DRĂMNESCU Marin, Postmodern Society and Individual Alienation”, Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy, Vol. 16, No. 63, 2013.

EDELMAN, Murray, Politica și utilizarea simbolurilor, trans. Ruxandra Nichita, Polirom, Iași, 1999.

HERMET, Guy, Sociologia populismului, trans. Dan Burcea, Artemis, București, 2007.

KERTZER, David, Ritual, politică și putere, trans. Sultana Avram & Teodor Fleșeru, Univers, București, 2002.

McGUIGAN, Jim, Cultural Populism, Taylor & Francis e-Library, London and New York, 2003.

McGUIGAN, Jim, “Reaching for control – Raymond Williams on mass communication and popular culture”, in W. MORGAN and P. PRESTON (eds.), Raymond Williams – Education, Politics and Letters, Macmillan, London, 1992.

O’CONNOR, A.,  Raymond Williams – Writing, Culture and Politics, Basil Blackwell, Oxford, 1989.

OBER, J., The Original Meaning of 'Democracy': Capacity to Do Things, not Majority Rule, Constellations, Stanford University, 2007.

ONUF, Nicholas, World of our making. Rules and rule in social theory and international relations, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1989.

ROSS, A., No Respect – Intellectuals and Popular Culture, Routledge, New York & London, 1989.

[1] Emanuel COPILAȘ, Simbolistica politică românească: între populism și cinism”, Sfera Politicii, Vol. 174, 2013.

[2] Pierre BRÉCHON, Partidele politice, trans. Marta Nora Tărnea & Adina Barvinschi, Eikon, Cluj-Napoca, 2004, pp. 189-192.

[3] Nicholas ONUF, World of our making. Rules and rule in social theory and international relations, University of South Carolina Press, Columbia, 1989.

[4] Murray EDELMAN, Politica si utilizarea simbolurilor, trans. Ruxandra Nichita, Polirom, Iași, 1999.

[5] Emanuel COPILAȘ, “Simbolistica politică românească…cit.”.

[6] Idem.

[7] David KERTZER, Ritual, politică si putere, trans. Sultana Avram and Teodor Fleseru, Univers, București, 2002, p. 93.

[8] Marin DRĂMNESCU, Postmodern Society and Individual Alienation”, Journal of Experiential Psychotherapy, Vol. 16, No. 63, September 2013, p. 55.

[9] Murray EDELMAN, Politica…cit., pp. 127-129.

[10] Cristóbal Rovira KALTWASSER, Populism, its opposites, and its contentious relationship with democracy, 18 October 2013, [http://www.opendemocracy.net/].


[12] Cas MUDDE, “The Populist Zeitgeist”, Government and Opposition, Vol. 39, No. 4, 2004, pp. 541–63.

[13] Guy HERMET, Sociologia populismului, trans. Dan Burcea, București, Artemis, 2007, p. 52.

[14] Emanuel COPILAȘ, Simbolistica politică românească…cit.”

[15] Cristóbal Rovira KALTWASSER, Populism, Its Opposites, and Its Contentious Relationship with Democracy…cit.

[16] Cas MUDDE and C. Rovira KALTWASSER, “Inclusionary versus Exclusionary Populism: Contemporary Europe and Latin America Compared”, Government and Opposition, Vol. 48, No. 2, 2013, pp. 147–174.

[17] Cristóbal Rovira KALTWASSER, Populism, Its Opposites, and Its Contentious Relationship with Democracy…cit.

[18] Idem.

[19] Idem.

[20] Jan-Werner MÜLLER, “Defending Democracy within the EU”, Journal of Democracy, Vol. 2, No. 2, 2013, pp. 138-149.

[21] Nicolae MANOLESCU, Dicţionar politic: populismul şi suratele lui [adev.ro/mptxpj].

[22] Idem.

[23] Idem.

[24] Idem.

[25] Idem.

[26] Idem.

[27] Jim McGUIGAN, Cultural Populism, Taylor & Francis e-Library, London and New York, 2003, p. 3.

[28]Idem, p. 13.

[29]Idem, p. 18.

[30] R. Williams, Television, Technology and Cultural Form, Fontana, London, 1974.

[31] Jim McGUIGAN, “Reaching for control – Raymond Williams on mass communication and popular culture”, in W. MORGAN and P. PRESTON (eds.), Raymond Williams – Education, Politics and Letters, Macmillan, London, 1992.

[32]Adrian SEVERIN, Tranziţia către populism [http://www.fisd.ro/PDF/mater_noi/Tranzitia%20catre%20populism.pdf].

[33] Idem.

[34] Marin DRĂMNESCU, “Educational Psychology. Trends and Developments”, 6th Silk Road International Conference “Globalization and Security in Black and Caspian Seas Region”, București, 2011.