Attribution of virtue and/or authority to the ‘common people’.
‘Ordinary people’ are possessed of simple qualities and straightforward insights, which distinguish them from politicians and members of other elites, all of whom are characterized as devious and self-seeking.
Politics should thus be carried out on behalf of ‘the people’.
David Miller et al., eds, The Blackwell Encyclopaedia of Political Thought (Oxford, 1987)
Populism refers to a range of political stances that emphasise the idea of “the people” and often juxtapose this group against “the elite”. The term developed in the 19th century and has been applied to various politicians, parties, and movements since that time, although it has rarely been chosen as a self-description. Within political science and other social sciences, several different definitions of populism have been employed, with some scholars proposing that the term be rejected altogether.
A common framework for interpreting populism is known as the ideational approach: this defines populism as an ideology which presents “the people” as a morally good force and contrasts them against “the elite”, who are portrayed as corrupt and self-serving. 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, depicted as a homogeneous entity and accused of placing their own interests, and often the interests of other groups—such as large corporations, foreign countries, or immigrants—above the interests of “the people”. Populist parties and social movements are often led by charismatic or dominant figures who present themselves as the “voice of the people”. According to the ideational approach, populism is often combined with other ideologies, such as nationalism, liberalism, or socialism. Thus, populists can be found at different locations along the left–right political spectrum, and there exist both left-wing populism and right-wing populism.
Other scholars of the social sciences have defined the term populism differently. 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 political scientist 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—where the term has often been used pejoratively—it 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. In the 1960s the term became increasingly popular among social scientists in Western countries, and later in the 20th century it was applied to various political parties active in liberal democracies. In the 21st century, the term became increasingly common in political discourse, particularly in the Americas and Europe, to describe a range of left-wing, right-wing, and centrist groups that challenged the established parties.