Correcting Conventional Wisdom
Strictly Speaking, Populists Do Not Exist

Populism is a means of doing politics, not an ideology. Getting this simple fact wrong leads well-meaning people down dangerous, anti-democratic paths.

Published on: January 3, 2018
Damir Marusic is Executive Editor of The American Interest.
show comments
  • WigWag

    Here’s an idea, Damir; how about asking Richard Aldous to sponsor a debate between you and Adam Garfinkle on one of his TAI podcasts. Adam thinks populists of the Trump-supporting sort are cultists. If you were unaware of that, go here,

    You obviously have a different view.

    It would be informative and entertaining for your loyal readers to hear the two of you debate the proposition, “are all populists cultists at heart.”

    • Jim__L

      That’s a bit like posters on this site who claim to follow a religion, but whenever that religion is contradicted by the eternally-remolding views of the Democrats’ platform, it gets thrown out the window.

  • Gary Hemminger

    Probably the best article I have read on TAI in a few years. Excellently written and I personally agree 100% with the last paragraph. I have been living and working in silicon valley for over 50 years. I work beside many immigrants and they are absolutely great. But having an open border, sanctuary city as policy in california is not going to be a good idea in the long run. The immigration debate is a political one, not a moral one.

    • Everett Brunson

      Similar to what we talked about in another TAI article on the left’s hangup with the meanings of words and how they use them to frame the “other” side this is especially pertinent. As you say, the immigration debate is a political one and not a moral one. However, as the left continues to frame all arguments as a moral dilemma, pathways to solutions become anathema.

      Whether discussing populist movements in Hungary or the United States the common thread appears to me, at least, to be one of a country’s citizens rejecting the idea they must somehow pay for the unwanted infiltration of outsiders–non-citizens. Does anyone in California really believe that becoming a sanctuary state will not result in a surge of illegal immigration–and that will in turn result in a greater demand of social services paid for by its citizens?

      I certainly agree with Marusic that a populist movement does not necessarily demand a populist leader. By that, I mean the leader does not have to come first to create the movement. The movement is created first by a populace that feels disenfranchised by its own government. Anyone with clout that comes along and echoes the sentiments of the forgotten men and women will find adherents simply because, at last, someone is listening to their concerns as being legitimate and not as xenophobic ravings.

  • Psalms13626

    I’m a first generation immigrant, and I absolutely think that immigration system should first and foremost benefit the host country. Anything else leads to quiet material social unrest. Muslim territories in Europe are in perpetual state of resistance to everything their host countries want and represent. I believe that we are going to see substantial bloodshed in Europe within the next 20 years.

    • Everett Brunson

      I echo your fears. Much has been written about what the Muslims failed to do with arms 1,000 years ago will now be accomplished with births today. I have written before that the tipping point for Muslim conquest is when the population reaches 3% of the nation’s total population. Western Europe is (on average) currently at 7% while Eastern Europe is at 2.6%. It is fascinating to me how such a small percentage of an overall population can so skew a nation’s political (and hence economic and moral) culture. We’ve seen the changes in laws in Belgium, Sweden, Germany, and France that restrict a citizen’s rights to protest, even by words, the perceived destruction of national integrity.

      In 2015, the Guardian wrote an article that the Muslim population would reach 10% in Europe by 2050. ( ). Two short years later the Washington Times ( ) had an article that projects that the Muslim population in France will become the majority by 2060. My how things changed in two scant years! Regardless, is it any wonder the European citizens voice concerns to a tone deaf leadership?

  • Anthony

    In the case of radical-right politics, a variety of social changes have engendered a sense of collective status threat among national ethnocultural majorities – Populist Explosion misidentified, perhaps, as essay infers (“woolly thinking often leads to bad decisions”).

    Bonikowski’s claim and Damir’s thrust: “the potent ideational mix of populism, ethno-nationalism, and authoritarianism has rallied large numbers of supporters in established democracies behind a radical-right agenda”, perhaps,mistakenly categorized as populism. The categorization however (from essay’s point of view) fails to consider in its populist application the distinction between ideology and politics as practiced by discursive politicians. To this end, both Damir and Bart make reasonable claims (assertions). Still, the populist explosion (if I may refer to it as such) does not a set of features reveal – that is, there is no set of features that exclusively define movements, parties, and people called populist (Damir infers as much). Strictly speaking, what is populism and why is it now important receives a look here:

    • Everett Brunson

      Anthony, thanks for the link to the Bonikowski article. I only had enough time to scan the first few pages but find it will be well worthwhile to do a thorough reading. I’ve “saved” it for later when I will have more time to read and digest.

      • Anthony

        A pleasure. I think you will appreciate (after reading) its honest attempt to give perspective to populism, ethno-nationalism, and authoritarianism.

      • Just for the record, most of the quotes are from that article, and it’s linked in the piece. A less academic piece by Bonikowski is also linked to in the piece.

        • Everett Brunson

          Thank you. I had noticed in my brief perusal the similarity in terms and concluded the Bonikowski piece was the inspiration for your piece.

          • He doesn’t, though. Here’s a passage from the less academic essay (

            From a theoretical standpoint, if populism is a frame and not an ideology, it can be used to express any ideological position, not just ethno-nationalism. For instance, it would not be di cult to imagine the earlier example of environmental activism articulated in populist terms:

            > Climate change denial is perpetuated by self-serving and corrupt politicians who don’t care about the future of our families because they have sold their souls to big oil companies. We need radical change that will take money out of politics and return rightful power to the people, saving the planet for future generations.

            This quote is fictional, but it echoes general themes employed by some leftist politicians in Europe and the United States and illustrates that populism is a malleable discursive strategy.

          • Everett Brunson

            Exactly, and I think you framed your fictional quote most aptly. Populism to me is the reflection of a people–any people–who feel the elected representatives and judiciary no longer pay heed to their concerns. Any leader–left or right–who gives voice and ink to those concerns will find a willing constituency.

  • Tom Scharf

    I didn’t think it was possible for me to finish an article that used Hitler 11 times in a political context, but I guess I was wrong.

    I have also found it ironic that so many of the “danger to democracy” charges are accompanied by a fix of invalidating a fair democratic election by fiat. This was well written and it would be wise for the left to frame their arguments more in this context if they want to win elections. The moralistic labeling of opponents used in the previous election was counter productive as it was way too toxic.

    Borderless liberalism isn’t likely to be very popular in politics. Elections are about local representation. It is almost impossible to understand the stance on immigration from the left currently. It seems they “aren’t opposed to not being against open borders” or some such doublespeak.

  • Matt_Thullen

    Great article, and a good antidote to some of the more hysterical reactions against the notion of populism.

    I would add that one component is missing from the discussion of populism, and that is the concept that liberal institutions themselves are becoming less responsive to the desires of the populace, and voters know it. The main example is how judicial bodies have taken it upon themselves to make pronouncements about all manner of issues, including many that are not legal in nature, based on nothing more than the preferences of individual judges. When liberal institutions themselves become more authoritarian without a clear understanding of any limits on their power, is it any wonder that there is going to be an inevitable reaction against these institutions?

    You can also add to the list bureaucratic institutions, the media, universities and any number of other liberal entities that have decided that many issues are simply not fit for discussion or debate, and that those who hold contrary opinions on these matters are, in a word, deplorable.

  • FriendlyGoat

    It’s true, “populism” and “populists” don’t exist. Fools exist, particularly religious fools who can be swayed into trashing the best of their own religions and eliminating the might-have-been virtues of their countries. They re-elect Putin in Russia, and elected both Erdogan in Turkey and Trump in America.

  • Erich Saphir

    Populism is both an approach to politics and an ideology. As an ideology, it originated with the movement that gave it its name in the late 19th century. Yes, it’s anti-elitist, but it’s both protectionist (anti free trade and free market) and traditionalist. That’s what makes Viktor Orban and Pat Buchanan ideological populists, like the most famous leader of the original movement, William Jennings Bryan (who opposed teaching evolution and the gold standard, for example). Populism as an ideology is in many ways the opposite of libertarianism. So assuming that Democrats are liberal/progressive, Republicans conservative (not a safe assumption at the moment), and Libertarians are libertarian, that leaves Populists adherents of an ideology without a party.
    It is true that the term populism is mostly used today in the other sense discussed in the article as a style of politics that pits champions of the virtuous little guy/gal against the corrupt or decadent or oppressive establishment. And in that sense, populism of course predates the Populist movement by a century or more, and includes the Antifederalists, the Antimasons, etc.
    Finally, it is worth noting that being anti-democratic it’s not the same thing as being anti-republican. In fact, many of our Founders viewed republicanism as the cure for the problems of democracy. That is literally how James Madison describes it in Federalist number 10. The point of a republic is not to simply carry out the tyranny of the majority, but to “refine and enlarge the public views by passing them through the medium of a chosen body or citizens” who are supposed to be more knowledgeable, tolerant, prudent, experienced, and less factionriven than their constituents.

© The American Interest LLC 2005-2018 About Us Masthead Submissions Advertise Customer Service
We are a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for us to earn fees by linking to and affiliated sites.