Skip to main content Skip to Search Box
Summary Article: Populism from Encyclopedia of Global Studies

The term populism is used globally to refer to any political movement that emphasizes the fundamental role of the people. The term populism has its origins in historical research of agrarian movements. Since the 1950s, populism has been studied as a multifaceted phenomenon. The emergence of a new wave of populism in the 1980s and 1990s has brought about a renewed interest in political populism. Explanations for the success of populism have invariably pointed out that populism is a reaction to modernization and globalization.

Three Types of Populism

The term populism was coined by historians referring to two specific movements at the end of the 19th century. One was the populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s in the United States. This movement, culminating in the People's Party, demanded radical economic reforms and initiated cooperative projects. The other reference was to the narodniki in Russia in the same era. This revolutionary movement of Russian intellectuals viewed the peasantry as the main hope for Russia's future. Drawing on the Russian narod, meaning “people” or “folk,” adherents of this movement came to be known as narodniki. Over time, the accidental application of the label populism to these two specific movements gave way to a generic term denoting a type of radical agrarian politics. Since the 1950s, when the study of populism began to attract attention from social scientists, populism has become a multifaceted phenomenon. Three types of populism have since been identified: agrarian populism, economic populism, and political populism. Agrarian populism can be found in rural movements that identify small farmers and the peasantry as the economic and moral backbone of the people. It includes the U.S. People's Party, the Canadian Social Credit movement in the 1930s, Russian and African forms of agrarian socialism, and the Green Uprising after World War I in eastern Europe.

Economic populism emerged in Latin America in the 1920s and remained influential until the 1960s, but it is not restricted to this period or continent. Characteristically, this type of populism is a cross-class, and mainly urban, phenomenon. Latin American populist parties drew from various social strata: urban and rural working class, lower middle class, and sometimes upper middle class. Their economic programs highlighted growth through import-substitution industrialization, an active role of the state, and redistribution of wealth. The archetypal populism of Juan and Evita Perón in Argentina was based on the slogan Justicialismo, implying economic growth and social justice. The programs of Latin American populist leaders did not fit existing ideologies, but their labels, such as Peronismo, were often derived from adding -ismo to the names of the leaders. Typical for Latin American populism is a leadership characterized by personalismo and centralization.

Political populism is primarily driven by political dissatisfaction with elite-mass intermediation in representative democracies. Political populism opposes government by elites, emphasizing the sovereignty of the people through majority rule and direct forms of representation. It can take the form of an unmediated relation between the people and strong, authoritarian leaders. Examples are Huey Long, governor of Louisiana in the early 1930s, and Latin American leaders such as Perón. Political populism can also take the form of the people directly governing through referendums, initiatives, and recalls. An example is the Progressive movement in the United States in the beginning of the 20th century. The phenomenon of successful radical right populist parties emerging in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s is the most recent manifestation of political populism.


The core aspects of these three types of populism are the centrality of the people and the antagonism between the people and the elites. This general definition does not include references to social bases, issues, and electorates because these characteristics differ too much over time and regionally. “The people” can refer to, say, the Russian peasantry, the urban working class and lower middle class of Argentina, or manual workers and self-employed in Europe. Although “the people” cannot be perceived as class based or belonging to one social stratum, as an idea the people are being portrayed as unified, solidaristic, and homogeneous. According to Margaret Canovan, populism has an inherently exclusivist tendency. The populist notion of the people implies a contrast with outsiders. Populists tend to define the people as an undifferentiated community constructed in opposition to an enemy within or outside the nation or the state.

The main social division to be acknowledged is that between the people and the elite. Elites can be government representatives, high finance and big business, or cultural elites. Political elites are regarded as no longer representing the people because politics has corrupted them or because representation of special interests has replaced the representation of the people. The predominance of high finance and big business and the moral decay of cultural elites are often regarded as the causes that lead political elites away from representing the people.

Part of the struggle over definitions is the question of what forms populism can take. Populism has been applied to social and political movements, to specific forms of leadership, to sets of ideas, to particular electoral or political strategies, and to a specific political style or rhetoric. The most common approach is to define populism as an ideology but as an ideology that is not a well-elaborated and grand one like socialism, liberalism, or conservatism. Populism is a thin ideology that is often relegated to a complementary role.

Populism in the 1980s and 1990s

Recent research has focused on political populism. There are two developments that have brought renewed attention to populism as a political category. First, in Latin America, the influence of economic populism had been marginalized by the military regimes of the 1960s and 1970s. When populism revived in the 1980s and 1990s, it had changed. In Peru, Brazil, and Argentina, outsiders won elections in populist fashion. However, these populist leaders did not support the classic economic program of the populists of the earlier period. They followed a neoliberal program instead: Government spending was cut, public enterprises were privatized, and domestic industry was exposed to foreign competition. This phenomenon indicated that the continuity of populism in Latin America was political rather than economic. The new populist leaders of the 1980s and 1990s appealed to the large mass of unorganized voters and minimized the influence of political parties and vested elites.

Second, with the rise of neopopulism in Europe in the 1980s and 1990s, this continent became the main area of sustained growth of political populism. The last decades of the 20th century observed the rise of a new wave of political populism on the far right of the political spectrum in Europe. One main reason for the success of the new populist parties of the right, such as the Freiheitliche Partei Österreich, Vlaams Belang, and Front National in western Europe, or the Liga Polskich Rodzin and Slovenská národná strana in eastern Europe, has been their appeal to political dissatisfaction. These parties mobilized popular disenchantment with traditional parties and political elites. In the eyes of part of the electorate, the traditional parties had failed to react adequately to globalization. Economically, the programs of these parties have been diverse and of secondary status. Their answer to globalization is mainly culturally inspired. The breeding ground for these parties is one in which feelings of threatened national or ethnic identities are widespread. In western Europe, the populist parties have manifested themselves as anti-immigration and anti-Islam parties, while in eastern Europe, the populist parties mainly have targeted ethnic minorities. This new wave of populism is not only the product of a decreasing trust in politics but also of a growing resentment against cultural diversity.

Reactions to Globalization

Explanations of the success of populism have invariably pointed to modernization and globalization. Populist politicians appeal to voters that are losers of modernity. Globalization has increased the appeal of populism in peripheral countries, or the “Third World,” for voters who perceive themselves as victims of uneven development. Globalization also is widely regarded as an important explanation for the populist success in Europe. The insecurity caused by open borders and immigration has created a fertile breeding ground for populism. Economic openness and the predominance of a postindustrial labor market also have contributed to the demand for populist parties among “the losers of modernity,” such as unskilled manual workers. These demand-side factors generally explain the emergence of this geographically widespread populist wave in Europe. However, to explain electoral breakthrough and sustained success, it is important to take account of supply-side factors as well, such as electoral systems, ideological convergence between mainstream parties, favorable media attention, and charismatic leadership.

The recent success of populism on the right side of the political spectrum does not warrant the conclusion, however, that the left wing or economic populism is a thing of the past. Signs of a possible revival are most significant in Latin America, where the rise of Hugo Chávez in Venezuela, Evo Morales in Bolivia, and Néstor Kirchner in Argentina have brought about a return of left-wing populism. Yet, their economic programs are not a prolongation of the earlier economic populism with its emphasis on import-substituting industrialization. The new left populism is still committed to poverty alleviation and redistribution, but their programs vary now from oil-funded redistribution in Venezuela and Bolivia to moderate economic reform combined with neoliberal monetary and fiscal policies in Brazil and Argentina. Most left-wing populist parties in Latin America and elsewhere have not yet aggressively challenged neoliberal policies, and it is still an open question of whether the financial crisis of 2008/2009 will incite them to do so.

See also:

Activism, Transnational, Antiglobalization Movements and Critics, Civil Society, Global, Environmental Movement, Industrialization, State-Civil Society Relations

Further Readings
  • Allcock, J. B. Populism: A brief biography. Sociology, 5, : 371-387, .
  • Canovan, M.(1981) Populism. London: Junction.
  • Conniff, M. L. (Ed.). (1999) Populism in Latin America. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press.
  • Meny, Y., &Surel, Y. (Eds.).(2002) Democracies and the populist challenge. Basingstoke, UK: Palgrave.
  • Mudde, C.(2007) Populist radical right parties in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.
  • Taggart, P.(2000) Populism. Buckingham, UK: Open University Press.
  • Akkerman, Tjitske
    Copyright © 2012 by SAGE Publications, Inc.

    Related Credo Articles

    Full text Article populism
    A Glossary of Political Theory

    The term suggests a concern with the ‘people’. It sometimes has elitist connotations and may be used pejoratively to suggest a cynical and...

    Full text Article Populism
    Reader's Guide to the Social Sciences

    Conniff Michael L. (editor), Latin American Populism in Comparative Perspective , Albuquerque : University of New Mexico Press ...

    Full text Article populism
    Cambridge Dictionary of Sociology

    This began as a movement of small farmers in the South and Midwest in the late nineteenth-century United States who desired control of the...

    See more from Credo