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Populism's Place in Democracy

Updated: Jun 1

What is Populism?

Populism, an increasingly relevant term in Western politics, is usually framed with a negative connotation and as a danger to democracy. This raises the obvious question: what is populism? Is it a threat to democracy or a side effect of it?

Populism is generally defined as an approach to politics that appeals to the average person, especially when they feel misrepresented by a detached elite. Within a democracy, populism is powered by the political energy it generates by engaging with the widespread concerns of citizens.  

Democracy, originally the Greek dēmokratia, literally translates to “people power.” It is the rule of the many through referendum and/or the election of representatives. This form of government is quite popular in the modern era. Democracy is a system in which the consensus among the people can be represented through the free election of politicians. 

A Danger to Democracy?

At a recent debate held by the Oxford Union, former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi asserted the widely held opinion that “[populism] is a threat to democracy.” This argument, albeit popular on the left, is faulty and misleading.

Populism is a democratic force. It is the will of a frustrated contingent of citizens who perceive their government as mismanaged or misrepresentative of the people's will. An opinion that, by the definition of democracy, they are entitled to have. Regardless of the collective orientation, be it left or right, this consensus is empowered by democracy to express their will at the ballot. 

The declaration that the democratic force of populism is a danger to democracy is myopic and contradictory. This argument can be simplified to mean “democratic action is a danger to democracy.” However, this is not how the critics of populism in the United States and Europe conceptualize their position. 

The common claim is that the nationalist strain of contemporary right-wing populism is a danger to pluralistic democracy. It is dangerous because it stems from “racism” and “bigotry” and therefore cannot be justified as a legitimate political stance within a democracy. This criticism is far from a charitable representation of what former speaker Pelosi called the “legitimate economic and political concerns” of populists. 

Casting a Ballot or Crossing the Rubicon?

For the sake of argument, however, let’s grant these accusations of bigotry, regardless of their perverted nature. Let’s say a mass of mindless bigots, driven by a pathological aversion to change and diversity, is collectively voicing its opinion. Are they calling for a Caesar to end the Republic? Are they chanting down with democracy? Or are they simply opposing the status quo of progressive policy? 

If they simply criticize policies and express their opinions, they are faithfully operating within the boundaries of democracy. Moreover, if this is their tactic, populists are not a threat to democracy; they are, in fact, reliant on it. Ironically, condemnation and the attempts at subversion by the left are closer to a democratic threat than populism. Some seek to invalidate the perspective of millions of citizens across both the U.S. and Europe based on their nationalist ideology.

Many right-wing opponents of FDR, a left-wing populist, once denounced populism as a danger to American democracy. This claim was similarly partisan. FDR was a progressive Democrat. He was popular with average people, he promised to lead them out of the Great Depression into renewed prosperity. Populists get their support from average people.

The Purpose of Populism

The current wave of populism that began with Trump's election in 2016, now sweeping across Europe, is largely a nationalist response to the progressive policies on immigration and globalism. Average U.S. and European citizens feel their quality of life has been negatively impacted by these policies. Mainstream media and academia are dictated by the left, however, and so they label populism as a threat to democracy. The New York Times, the BBC and Harvard all seem to agree on this. However, populism is only a threat to the progressive grip on power.

There is much to criticize about populism, as with any political perspective. However, the assertion that a legitimate democratic force is a threat to democracy opens Pandora's box. The Red Scare was driven by such a claim. Fortunately, that failed. Currently one can major in Marxist studies or Critical Theory at American universities. These ideas, like populism, are scrutinized because some perceive them as possessing motivations antagonistic to entire classes and/or demographics of citizens. But they should be entitled to do so. Not on a moral basis, but because a functional democracy demands it.  

Populism, like Marxism, is a side effect of a mismanaged democracy. Those who adhere to these ideologies are instinctively unsatisfied with the status quo, and rightfully so. These are credible and subjectively rational perspectives. The only authentic threat to democracy is those who wish to "preserve" it by euthanizing it.  

Acknowledgment: The opinions expressed in this piece are those of the individual author. 


Very interesting piece Ryan!

I think however some part of your text should have some precision if you let me play the devil's advocate.

The definition of populism you wrote represents many forms of populism, but not every variants of the ideolgy. It is completely understandable, because there is no perfect definition of it, which also makes people so divided about it. For example, Javier Milei fits in the definition you wrote, but misses the point where he justified his call that a massive election fraud would probably happen because some surveys said he would lose because he calls himself the "voice of the people". Yet the people from the survey has spoken showing it might not had been the…

Replying to

Thanks Gabe! Your words are very kind, and I respect you very much as a writer so they mean all the more!

I think one thing I would like to push back it on is the populist media point you made. I personally think these journals (almost all conservative media) to be worthless pseudo-pornographic perspectives on politics. That being said I don't think they have a very coherent or meaningful place in the future of the right or of populist motivations.

Just as I would not hold Biden responsible for the ideas of Don Lemon or Wolf Blitzer, I will not hold Trump accountable for the writings of "conservatives" who don't do much else beyond embarrass us on the right.…

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