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what is populism

What Is Populism and Why Does It Matter?

For starters, it could end democracy as we know it.

Words: Dan Misch
Pictures: Edwin Andrade

Last year, the Guardian observed a startling trend the word “populism” appeared ten times more in their pages in 2016 than in 1998. In fact, according to Google Analytics, worldwide interest in populism hit an all-time high in November 2016, only to be outdone again in January 2017. While these trends in media and public interest are self-reinforcing, researchers from the Tony Blair Institute have also shown that populism in politics has increased five times in the last thirty years around the world.

But, do you know what populism is and why it matters?

Political scientist and former Clinton Administrator William Galston might tell you that “populism is the enemy of pluralism” or that it is “an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.” If that sounds like nonsense, then here is a simplified explanation:

If a lot of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone.

Populism is the view that the true people of a country are under attack by elites and liberal institutions which seek to control the democratic process. Populism is fueled by nativism and classism, where the “true people” can be defined along socio-economic or cultural lines. It can grow in states where there is a failing economy, fear for security, or resentment of special interests. As a movement, populism systematically identifies insiders, delegitimizes outsiders, and escalates crises; however, it lacks a clearly defined end state.


University of Chicago Law Professors Aziz Huq and Tom Ginsburg argue that charismatic populism and partisan degradation are the primary cause of democratic erosion. In their book, “How to Save A Constitutional Democracy,” Huq and Ginsburg explain how a democratic takeover by a communist regime or military coup is much less of a threat than the slow decline that could potentially be caused by populism. 

The authors identify a number of ways in which populism degrades democracy, including abuse of constitutional amendments, attack on the separation of powers, attack on independent liberal actors, and attack on institutions that are part of the public sphere such as journalism, universities, and tax audits. 

If a lot of this sounds familiar, you’re not alone. The rise of right-wing populism in the United States with the election of Donald Trump reflects many of the textbook trends identified above. Populism in the US today is rooted in an anti-immigrant, anti-elite sentiment that aggravates the white, middle class and delegitimizes any opposition like the media and Democratic Party.

Fortunately, there are a number of ways to defend US democracy against populism:

  1. Maintain support for and empower liberal institutions this might mean incorporating rules for international trade treaties that can expel countries for populist offenses. 
  2. Pursue compromise across policy disputes to bridge partisan gaps things like taking a tougher stance on illegal immigration.
  3. Promote inclusive growth through increased jobs, wages, and technological distribution such as providing internet access to rural locations.
  4. Improve protections for the minority party and election integrity through sub-constitutional measures like ending gerrymandering, seceding control of election management, and maximizing voter participation.

Populism is getting a lot of attention and for good reason: it poses a legitimate existential threat to liberal democracy as we know it. Through knowledge, compromise, and economic inclusivity across classes and cultures, the seeds that sow discontent can be squashed to protect constitutional democracies worldwide.

Dan Misch is an Emerging Leader with the Chicago Council on Global Affairs. Learn more here.

Dan Misch


Dan Misch is a U.S. Navy submarine veteran and graduate of the U.S. Naval Academy, where he studied physics and nuclear engineering and deployed on three nuclear deterrent patrols. He is a member of the Truman National Security Project Defense Council and Energy Expert Group. Dan was a 2016 Take Point Initiative Fellow with the Atlantic Council of the US for his work on the Veterans Energy Seminar. He lives in Chicago, IL.


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