Is the Populist Discourse a Lie in Modern Democracies?

By Jorge Mario Soto.

This article examines the root causes of populism and the challenges that populism and its rhetoric presents in a non-homogeneous society.

Source: Public Seminar – How Populists Became Popular

Populism and its rhetoric is a phenomenon that is gaining popularity in world politics. Examples of its spread can be found around the world, in different periods of time, to a greater or lesser extent, and from different political positions. However, how valid is it to speak and create public policy, actions and projects, in the voice of “the people”?

Populism is considered as the proclamation of “the people” as a single entity, virtuous and homogeneous, and the existence of a corrupt elite with which it is in constant quarrel. This concept does not have a political alignment, making populism an idea that does not respect colors or ideals, but is changeable and adaptive to different social contexts. This makes its application possible in several countries with different institutional setups and levels of development.

[Populism] does not have a political alignment, making populism an idea that does not respect colors or ideals, but is changeable and adaptive to different social contexts.

Populism and its rhetoric are not something new. The dichotomy between the people and the elite can be appreciated from the Communist Manifesto of Marx and Engels in the mid-1800s, returning in the 50s and 60s in Brazil and Chile with Vargas and Perón, and being a trend in the last 20 years in countries like Venezuela, Poland, Italy, Mexico, USA, France, among others. If populism and the discourse of the people against the elites has existed for more than 150 years, why is it being a current trend in governments around the world? Michael Cox has a theory that this happens for 3 reasons:

  1. Nationalist ideas, extreme or not
  2. An anti-establishment mentality
  3. A manifestation of tiredness of “the people”

The first component, nationalism, is an ideology that has been the cause of atrocious movements in the search to establish a national identity based on religion, language, culture, or politics, and unifying it with a sense of solidarity. This feeling is making its way in many governments around the world, discarding cultural and racial diversity and legitimizing ethnic and cultural division and its claims surrounding superiority. While it is not a norm around the world, it is an idea that remains in many countries in political parties, especially in right-wing parties such as those of Salvini, Le Pen, Vox, Trump, among others.

The second component is the anti-establishment mentality. This point is based on the argument of the people’s dissatisfaction with the government, and high levels of socio-economic inequality. In this type of discourse, political actors use the dichotomy of “we against you”. “We” is the conglomerate of people that isn’t the elite and normally considered outsiders or powerless, against the “you”, a group of individuals that concentrate power, in any form it can be displayed or enacted, normally portrayed as the government as a whole colluded with key enterprises in a country.

The third component, the manifestation of the “tiredness of the people”, is independent and at the same time, the glue of the two previous ideas, allowing flexibility over political ideologies. A political actor can be a nationalist without being populist, or it can have anti-establishment goals. However, the appeal to the fight between two classes, who have power, against those who do not, is a classic characteristic of populists, achieving a great polarization of the electorate.

The combination of these three components, which in themselves can lead to negative results for some segments of the population, has the potential to legitimize actions of political actors who speak as spokespersons for the people. The problem of speaking for the interests of the people assumes that the people are homogenous, that they have only one voice, that they know what they want, and that this represents all that makes them up. This approach is subject to many criticisms, but the simplest is that the arguments of the people or “argumentum ad populum”, are a fallacy, although at first glance and for important segments of the population, they may seem true and appeal to their feelings and beliefs.

The problem of speaking for the interests of the people assumes that the people are homogenous, that they have only one voice, that they know what they want, and that this represents all that makes them up.

With this I do not say that populist governments are necessarily bad. Mudde and Kaltwasser pose the position where populism can be both a threat and a corrective agent for a democracy. While it is true that, in general, populist governments can cause large negative impacts and create regimes like in some Latin American countries, when it is applied with moderation, there is a possibility for populism to be a tool capable of bringing new elements to closed spaces and integrate them in the country’s political agenda, giving voices to marginalized groups and democratizing democracy. This possibility, however large or small, prevents populism from being a complete lie within a democratic system, however, being critical and seeing examples from all over the world, its veracity can be extremely fragile and dangerous to be implemented.


Jorge completed his Bachelor in Economics, specialising in political science. Jorge worked for the Secretary of Social Development and the Federal Economic Competition Commission, after that, he was a Junior Consultant for IDEA Consultores in Mexico City. His main interests are public policy, behavioural sciences, and education. He is currently studying for a Masters in Development Studies at IDS.


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