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Populism, defined in 170 words

A Harvard political scientist on the three dimensions of populism.

Donald Trump Holds Political Rally In Louisville Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

The term “populism” is often used but rarely understood.

In the 2016 presidential election, populism became a catchall to describe both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. Populism was a right-wing phenomenon and a left-wing phenomenon. It’s also been used to describe some of the ultra-nationalist movements sweeping across Europe.

As recently as last month, writers like the Atlantic’s Uri Friedman have described populism as a “thin ideology.” But how can populism conform to any ideological framework and still apply to such an array of movements and people?

The truth is that we don’t have a clear definition of populism, or we do and it’s poorly understood.

Pippa Norris is a political scientist at Harvard University and a scholar of populism. I spoke with her recently about the roots of the global surge in populist politics. Our conversation covered a lot of ground, but her definition of populism is both clarifying and useful:

Populism for me has three dimensions. One of which is an appeal to popular sovereignty over and above liberal democracy. The argument is that moral virtue and power should be with the ordinary people and not the elites.

The second dimension is anti-establishment, and this is opposed not just to political and economic elites but also to other perceived power-holders, like intellectuals or journalists or other groups at the top of society.

And then thirdly, even though it's about popular sovereignty in practice, there aren't that many mechanisms. Mechanisms like public opinion polls or other forms of democratic referendum are typically weak. So in practice, what happens is the power is seen to reside in the individual leader, the charismatic leader who represents the voice of the ordinary people.

So those three elements come together but they don't tell you a lot about what populists stand for. And here what you get is a variety of populists — from authoritarian populists to progressive populists, and they differ in their actual values.

So we shouldn’t think of populism as an ideology or a worldview; it’s not really an “ism” at all if “ism” implies a specific relationship to ideas. Populism can manifest in myriad ways, and in very different contexts.

As Norris emphasizes, there are three basic features that any populist movement shares: a rejection of representative democracy in favor of direct rule; a criticism of the prevailing power structure (i.e., the “elites”); and a single charismatic leader who personifies the movement.

You can read the rest of my interview with Norris here.