Avoiding Bias in the Study of Populism
Avoiding Bias in the Study of Populism
Paris Aslanidis 0 1
0 Hellenic Studies Program, MacMillan Center, Yale University , Henry R. Luce Hall, Room 242, 34 Hillhouse Avenue, New Haven, CT 06520-8206 , USA
1 Department of Political Science, Yale University , New Haven, CT , USA
The comparative study of populism has produced a wide spectrum of scholarship that covers different regions and historical periods. However, and despite significant breakthroughs in conceptualization and methodology, the process of scientific cumulation is hampered by the unyielding persistence of several misconceptions around the nature of populism, even in the face of repeated refutation by empirical developments. In this paper, I single out and discuss three main problems in the literature: the regional bias, the policy bias, and the normative bias. I argue that to protect the study of populism from the increasing threat of conceptual dilution due to sensationalist punditry and partisan scholarship, analysts should (a) avoid generalizing from region-specific perspectives; (b) remain skeptical of any association of populism with economic policy; and (c) refrain from exaggerating populism's impact on democratic institutions. Considerable academic resources have been invested in the study of populism, yet the term remains contested. What exactly is populism? How do we identify it? Is it good or bad for democracy? Analysts disagree widely over these basic questions, earning populism an embarrassing position in the hierarchy of
Populism; American politics; 1 Introduction to the Concept; Discourse; European politics; American politics; Latin
political terms boasting conceptual rigor and operational consistency. At the
same time, since its inception, populism has undergone significant conceptual
stretching. Every cohort of scholars has expressed deep frustration with either
‘‘social scientists of the world [that] have mounted the hobby horse of
‘populism’ and ridden off rapidly in all directions’’
(Tindall 1972, p. 510)
with the ‘‘habit of branding as ‘populist’ everything from Bruce Springsteen to
Rush Limbaugh to loose-fitting cotton trousers’’
(Kazin 1998, p. 5)
; also, this special volume) argues, some progress is
visible during the last decades. A comprehensive assessment is outside the scope of
this article, but it seems that a level of convergence is forming around understanding
populism as a specific type of political discourse
(Aslanidis 2016a; Canovan 2005;
Hawkins 2010; Kazin 1998; Laclau 2005; Mu¨ller 2016; Stavrakakis and
. Most schools of thought would today concede that populism is best
operationalized as a political language that emphasizes a fundamental divide
between People and elites over the issue of lawful political sovereignty, upholding
the primacy of the former and accusing the latter of attempting to capture social,
political, and economic institutions for their narrow interests. Scholarly controversy
resumes unabated at a secondary front, where dispute revolves around whether
populism is ‘‘mere’’ discourse or if populist discourse is a simple appendage of a
more defining behavior such as the adoption of expansive economic policies
, a political ideology
, the exercise of unbridled
, a distinct form of political representation
, an electoral strategy
(Bonikowski and Gidron 2016)
, or a specific
style of doing politics (Moffitt 2016).1
It should be granted that some of these disputes unfold over minor technicalities
that fail to undercut a broader level of agreement. Yet, while this is encouraging,
progress remains precarious due to the persistence of redundant theories and a
tendency to overstate populism’s normative implications. Conceptual dilution is
also amplified by the haphazard use of the concept by journalists and political
commentators for sensationalist aims, especially in the aftermath of political
episodes such as Brexit and the election of US President Trump that have been
associated with a purported populist revolt at a global scale.
To achieve further scientific cumulation, students of populism must therefore
practice vigilance against unyielding misconceptions that continue to inform a
significant part of contemporary scholarship. The surviving biases are broken down
into three main types: (a) the regional bias is at work when certain perspectives that only
befit region-specific manifestations of populism are erroneously promoted to defining
properties of supposedly general applicability; American scholars who equate populism
with the People’s Party, Latin American scholars who associate it with charismatic
leaders enjoying mass electoral support, and Europeans who attach populism
exclusively to the far right, are discussed in the first section; (b) the policy bias, where
populism is reduced to an economic recipe that purportedly wreaks havoc on national
economies, is discussed in the second section; (c) the third and final section analyzes the
1 The list is not exhaustive.
normative bias, which relates to partisan assessments of populism’s impact on
democracy, with the aim to denigrate ideological adversaries or celebrate favorites.
2 The Regional Bias
Populism has a long history in several corners of the world, yet three specific
regions have received disproportionate attention. In the United States, analysts of
various disciplines argue that, even prior to the emergence of the People’s Party,
populism has permeated domestic politics, coloring both left-wing and right-wing
(Kazin 1998; Formisano 2008)
. In the southern part of the American
continent, Juan Peron provided the exemplary case of populist leadership in
mid1940s Argentina, to be copied by several leaders during the post-war decades,
turning Latin America into a hotbed of populist politics. Europe is the third region
with a long populist record. Jean-Marie Le Pen established the far right Front
National in 1972 France, providing a blueprint for several right-wing populists who
continue to gather support in Western European states to this day.
This rich collection of populist episodes—spanning three populous geographic
regions and several decades of political mobilization—allows us to examine patterns of
political behavior unobservable to our earlier peers. Surprisingly, the literature has
largely failed to take full advantage of this comparative potential
. Most contributions remain empirically confined to the comfort zones of their
authors—those regions or national case studies they have studied in-depth or
experienced first-hand. This should not prima facie affect the conceptualization of
populism in a negative manner; after all, case studies are important for social science and
regional studies do constitute comparative projects. However, failing to encompass the
full spectrum of populist politics when generalizing from particulars will inevitably lead
to errors. By stipulating features for populism that only pertain to specific settings and
are unable to travel further, scholars exhibit a regional bias, effectively treating their
familiar cases as ideal types. This, in turn, can lead us to inaccurately relegate
nonfamiliar cases to diminished subtypes or to altogether exclude them from classification
on idiosyncratic grounds, producing a set of false negatives.
The regional bias is not particularly prevalent in the US, yet experts of the
People’s Party do provide a case in point. For many of them, populism (preferably
with a capital P) denotes the history and activity of that particular group of people
that started with the Farmers’ Alliance, coalesced with the Knights of Labor and
other organizations into the People’s Party, and ended up in fusion with the
Democratic Party under William Jennings Bryan in 1896
. Affinity to
the history of the People’s Party is promoted into the ultimate yardstick; anything
that deviates from the paradigm is not considered a ‘‘real’’ manifestation of
populism. Even those who do entertain a wider relevance for the concept will only
label a subsequent phenomenon as populist if its lineage can be somehow traced
back to the original Populists.2
2 Compare, for instance, the arguments in
a) on the Tea Party to those in
Occupy Wall Street.
Contrary to the US, where the ideal type is a grassroots movement that never
made it to power, Latin American populism immediately connotes powerful
individuals who won elections to subsequently rule as Presidents of their nations.
Figures such as Chavez, Peron, Morales, Correa, Vargas, Fujimori, Menem, and the
Kirchners, comprise the subject matter. The bias in this region forms as a tendency
to treat ‘‘personalistic leadership’’ and ‘‘mass mobilization’’ as defining features of
populism, continuing an intellectual tradition that harks back to the father of Latin
American populist scholarship, Torcuato di Tella, who argued early on that
populism is ‘‘based on the support of broad masses of the population, but does not
derive its main power from the autonomous organizational structures of those
(Di Tella 1965, p. 425)
Adhering to this dominant view, Levitsky an
d Loxton (2013
, p. 110) argue that
populists are outsiders who ‘‘mobilize mass support via anti-establishment appeals’’
by establishing a ‘‘personalistic linkage to voters, circumventing parties and other
forms of institutional mediation’’. As a corollary, the possibility of grassroots
populism is dismissed, and the concept is treated as an exclusively top-down
phenomenon that mobilizes the masses through ‘‘dominant personalities who
control the channels, rhythms, and organizational forms of social mobilization’’
(Roberts 2015, pp. 681–2)
. This ‘‘charismatic bond between political leaders and
(Roberts 2012, p. x)
, the ‘‘hierarchical relationship between a
personalist leader and masses of devoted followers’’
(Weyland 2012, p. 201)
unequivocally seen as the common core of all populist episodes in the region’s
history. The leader’s withdrawal would signal the end of the populist project since
his rule is almost unchallengeable within a party that has associated its fate with the
charisma of its captain
The unconditional conceptual primacy assigned to populist leadership by Latin
American scholars is particularly bewildering if one considers populism’s original
empirical manifestations. The personalistic element was absent or at least
unremarkable both in the US Populists and the narodniki movement in tsarist
Russia, those nineteenth-century grassroots movements generally treated in the
literature as the main forebearers of populism
(Canovan 2005; Taggart 2000;
Woods, this special issue)
. Charismatic leadership is also a marginal topic in
numerous populist episodes we have come across since then. Populist grassroots
movements such as the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, or the European indignados,
either failed to rely on explicit leadership or openly dismissed the desirability of
(Aslanidis 2016b; Gerbaudo 2017)
. At the level of institutionalized
politics, several established populist parties either lack an undisputed ‘‘charismatic’’
leader or have undergone changes in leadership without losing appeal. The German
AfD, the Danish People’s Party, the Norwegian People’s Party, the Swiss SVP, the
FPO¨ in Austria, the FN in France, the Lega Nord in Italy, and the Peronist Party in
Argentina, are all instances where this ‘‘logic of personalism’’ (Weyland 2013) fails
to apply. The recent transfers of power from Chavez to Maduro in Venezuela and
3 It is interesting to note that the Latin American conceptualization would render the new French
President, Emmanuel Macron, as the uber-populist of our times.
from Correa to Moreno in Ecuador also constitute evidence of the continuity of
populism, irrespective of specific leaders.
This is not, of course, to say that leadership is trivial for populist politics. It
simply goes to indicate that leadership is equally relevant for all types of political
mobilization, and that assigning ultimate primacy to this feature without comparison
to a control group can lead to erroneous classifications. Moreover, scholars of Latin
American populism, in their uncompromising devotion to personalistic leadership as
a defining feature, fail to acknowledge the influence of institutional peculiarities in
the region. The countries they study feature presidential governing systems where
executive power inevitably ends up in the hands of a single person. Accustomed to a
habitat replete with ‘‘white swans,’’ these scholars are tempted to stipulate a direct
association. However, a cursory glance at the European habitat, where multiparty,
parliamentary systems are the norm and ‘‘black swans’’—like those indicated in the
previous paragraph—are plenty, should suffice to overcome this misconception.
The comparison with Europe highlights the second element that cannot travel
outside the Latin American region: the stipulation of a ‘‘mass following’’ for the
leader. Populist presidents in Latin America are supported by the majority of voters
(that is after all, how they manage to win elections), but in Europe, this is rarely the
case. There, analysts labor over populist parties that enjoy limited, even meager
electoral influence over society. A showing of over 5% in national polls usually
leads researchers to consider a party as ‘‘successful’’ and incorporate it into their
datasets (Minkenberg 2013
); others adopt even lower thresholds. For instance,
political parties covered in Mudde’s (2007) highly influential Populist Radical Right
Parties in Europe, commanded an average electoral support of 12.9%.4 In an
updated version of the
dataset (Mudde 2013
), the average drops further to 9.6%.5
Taken at face value, the reasoning that populism is ‘‘a question of who gains
public office and how they govern’’
(Conniff 2012, p. 2)
and that populists are
leaders ‘‘who had charismatic relationships with mass followings and who won
elections regularly’’ (ibid., p. 7), inevitably turns Europe and the US into regions of
marginal experience with populism. Yet, while their electoral performance
figures hardly signify anything close to ‘‘mass mobilization’’, dozens of European
parties are classified as populist in the literature.6 The Latin American paradigm
unduly restricts populism to leaders who have actually won power, rendering the
dependent variable the exclusive source for case selection: instances of failed
populism become non-sensical. Pushing the argument a bit further, a party or a
leader that mobilizes voters for several years before managing to win office should
not be classified as populist until the day they actually win power. But, did we really
have to wait until January 2006 to label Evo Morales a populist or until November
4 At the time of publication, and measuring their best performance in any national election during their
careers. Source: Table 2.1, p. 44 in
. Final calculations my own.
5 Source: Table 1, p.3 in Mu
). Final calculations my own. The reduced figure compared to
2007 is mainly due to an enlarged dataset.
6 After all, as Rovira Kaltwasser (2012) indicates in his own criticism of this bias, multi-class ‘‘mass
mobilization’’ would also apply to Christian Democratic and Social Democratic parties in Europe, in
to do the same for Donald Trump? Or should we refrain from labeling Beppe
Grillo a populist until his party wins the next Italian election?
Nevertheless, American scholars face strong competition in their propensity to
succumb to the regional bias by their peers on the other side of the Atlantic. The
European scholarship on populism has contributed its own distinctive brand: an
ingrained association of populism with the far right
(Moffitt 2016; Stavrakakis et al.
. If Juan Peron was the inspiration for academic bias in Latin America,
JeanMarie Le Pen was the culprit for Europe7; and if left-wing populist leaders are
usually in the crosshairs of Latin American scholarship, it is actors on the far right
that attract attention in Europe. Xenophobic right-wing parties emerged in the 70s
and 80s as a reaction to the influx of immigrants from former colonial territories.
Leading to the fall of the Iron Curtain in 1989–90 and in its immediate aftermath,
new waves of immigration hit most countries of the region. Starting with Le Pen’s
Front National in France, a number of new parties emerged to supply an electoral
option to citizens who wanted to protest against these developments. Xenophobia
and even racism were core values of these actors, leading many scholars and
opinion-makers to fear the return of the specter of fascism over Europe, even if
these parties commanded little support. The study of the far right became a booming
industry across European universities, and competition among academics vying for
space on such a narrow field fostered conceptual innovation, but also occasioned a
fair level of conceptual stretching.
credit Hans-Georg Betz with the introduction of
populism into mainstream scholarship on Western European far right parties. While
it was not the first work to stipulate this association in European circles,8 Betz’s
(1994) Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe ultimately mainstreamed
the generalization that populist parties overlap with the extreme right. Betz fused
together socioeconomic values that were distasteful to a modern, liberal audience
into a mix that effectively rendered its original ingredients (right-wing ideology,
radicalism, populism) indistinguishable. ‘‘Generally,’’ he wrote,
‘‘the majority of radical right-wing populist parties are radical in their
rejection of the established socio-cultural and socio-political system and their
advocacy of individual achievement, a free market, and a drastic reduction of
the role of the state without, however, openly questioning the legitimacy of
democracy in general. They are right-wing first in their rejection of individual
and social equality and of political projects that seek to achieve it; second in
their opposition to the social integration of marginalized groups; and third in
their appeal to xenophobia, if not overt racism and anti-Semitism. They are
populist in their unscrupulous use and instrumentalization of diffuse public
sentiments of anxiety and disenchantment and their appeal to the common
man and his allegedly superior common sense’’
(Betz 1994, p. 4)
7 European scholars of populism also tend to forget that the first populist to ever win power in the
continent in the post-war era was Andreas Papandreou, a radical left-winger who ruled Greece for more
decade (Pappas 2016
8 Pierre- Andre´ Taguieff was a pioneer in this respect, especially in francophone circles
(see Ja¨ger 2017)
He next cautioned the audience of the threat these radical right-wing populist
parties posed for European democracies:
‘‘Recent electoral trends illustrate the dramatic rise, diffusion, and expansion
of radical right-wing populist support in Western Europe. During the past
several years most of these parties have been able to expand and multiply both
votes and parliamentary representation, thus threatening to render the
formation of governments increasingly difficult’’
(Betz 1994, p. 4)
By extension, xenophobia was promoted to a necessary dimension of European
populism. This idea was solidified with Kitschelt’s (1995) The Radical Right in
Western Europe, in which Betz is rightly criticized for subsuming all extreme right
parties under the populist label
(Kitschelt 1995, p. 89)
, yet it is maintained that
‘‘populist antistatist parties’’ are firmly positioned at the far end of the political
spectrum (along with fascist, welfare chauvinist, and new radical right parties), even
if they are qualified as the ‘‘furthest removed from the fascist legacy’’
1995, p. 31)
Paul Taggart followed suit in 2000 with an equally influential book titled
Populism, where he proceeded to (re)coin the term ‘‘new populism’’, a
‘‘contemporary form of populism that emerged, primarily but not exclusively in Western
Europe, in the last part of the twentieth century’’
(Taggart 2000, p. 73)
populism, a phenomenon that ‘‘has been advocated by a number of parties on the far
right of the political spectrum’’ (p. 73) centers on issues such as ‘‘taxation,
immigration and nationalism or regionalism’’ (p. 75). In countries such as France,
Austria, and Germany, according to Taggart (2000, p. 77) ‘‘new populism draws on
an explicitly racist and nationalist agenda’’.
Later, several experts became skeptical of painting the whole family of radical
right-wing parties as ‘‘populist’’ and voiced their reservations
(e.g., Ignazi 2003;
Carter 2005; Minkenberg 2015)
, but the vast majority of European scholars
congregated around this versatile concept and applied it widely in their publications.
, p. 206) may have sensed the limitations of the promiscuous application
of his work when he subsequently proclaimed that ‘‘radical right-wing populist
parties are, above all, anti-immigration parties,’’ but the gears had already been set
in motion, and populism became a media sensation. Eventually, the same parties
that until the mid-90s were unproblematically studied as radical and/or extreme
right were re-baptized as populist, taking on a new life and multiplying their
academic paper trail. Things quickly blurred into ‘‘an almost exclusive identification
of populism with the extreme Right’’
(Meny and Surel 2002, p. 4)
Cas Mudde, another scholar of the European extreme right, was more cautious in
incorporating populism into his work. In his widely read book, he also argued in
favor of using populism as a qualification for radical right parties, yet opted for the
label ‘‘populist radical right parties’’
rather than Betz’s established
‘‘radical right populist parties’’. His rationale was that, in the old formulation, the
primary term is populism and ‘‘radical right’’ is used as an epithet to indicate
ideological emphasis. His own ‘‘populist radical right parties’’, on the other hand,
9 See also
would connote a populist subgroup of the radical right genus. ‘‘Given that nativism,
not populism, is the ultimate core feature of the ideology of this party family, radical
right should be the primary term in the concept’’
(Mudde 2007, p. 26)
. In his view
then, nativism, authoritarianism, and populism, formed the conceptual triad that
defined the populist radical right, which meant that ‘‘while all populist radical
rightists are nationalists, not all nationalists are populist radical rightists’’
2007, pp. 30–1)
However carefully populism was situated in this context, its operationalization
remained vague and its extension was widely open to idiosyncratic interpretation,
rendering the lines between populist and non-populist radical-right parties very hard
to discern.10 ‘‘Othering’’ in the form of excluding immigrants, foreigners,
indigenous populations, sexual minorities, and other groups, from the authentic
body of ‘‘the people’’ became for many a central tenet of populism
. In quantitative studies, anti-immigration was promoted to a defining feature
(e.g., Jagers and Walgrave 2007)
and populism was even employed as a
proxy variable for radical-right voter support
(e.g., Norris 2005)
. In a characteristic
example of populism’s mutation into an ornament of the far right,
recently adopted Mudde’s (2007) framework but curiously proceeded
to explain it as advancing a view of populism that has ‘‘three core features:
antiestablishment, authoritarianism, and nativism’’ (p. 6). For
Inglehart and Norris
, populists ‘‘characteristically display authoritarian leanings’’ (p. 7),
emphasize ‘‘nativism or xenophobic nationalism’’ (p. 7) and favor ‘‘mono-culturalism over
multiculturalism’’ (p. 7). In other words, the ‘‘populist radical right’’ lost populism
as a defining element of its intension, yet its extension—and branding—remained
From a simple accompanying variable of extreme right groups, populism has
been promoted to a necessary dimension and an uncontested label of the European
far right without adequate conceptual justification. The vast empirical area where
populism does not overlap with xenophobia or racism—even within the European
continent—was lost from attention. Prior to the mid-90s, populism was rarely if ever
discussed in conjunction with the European far right
(e.g., Falter and Schumann
1988; Harris 1990; Husbands 1981; Ignazi 1992; von Beyme 1988)
; nowadays, its
identification with radical and extreme right parties is total and retroactively applied
to all prior manifestations. This, again, is not to say that certain far right parties in
Europe do not illustrate populist elements. The European regional bias is not
necessarily about the general relationship of the far right with populism since in
some cases an osmosis is well established. The bias is inserted by exaggerating
populism’s classificatory capacity and by generalizing from particulars without
taking into account the larger picture.
A logician would understand the regional bias as a typical non sequitur. Scholars
study cases that fit their regional stereotype of populism, failing to incorporate
control groups in their analyses. With important exceptions
(e.g., Kazin 1998;
, American scholars find it hard to escape the attraction of using the
10 For example, scholars are divided on whether to include Jobbik in Hungary and the Golden Dawn in
Greece into the populist radical right party family. The same is true for Norway’s Freedom Party.
People’s Party as their yardstick for all things populist. Students of Latin American
populism are infatuated with charismatic personalities enjoying the unrestrained
trust and support of unorganized popular masses. European scholars have developed
their own tunnel vision, treating populism as identical with the far right. Since the
mid-1990s, the empirical literatures on US, Latin American, and European
populisms are advancing in parallel, with no effort put into resolving these glaring
conceptual tensions. The unsuspicious observer would be tempted to surmise that
they are discussing altogether different phenomena. The next section adds more
substance to this verdict.
3 The Policy Bias
Political commentators—and even some academics—regularly associate populism
with specific policies populists enact when in power that presumably lead to
economic disaster. The bias in this line of reasoning is not so much about the
spurious fit with empirical reality that will be illustrated below, but mainly with the
fact that, in typically circular fashion, the association has been worked backwards
from an effect to a condition, and from an inductive observation to a characteristic
feature of populism. Economists working on Latin America in the 1970s and 1980s
are the original perpetrators of this fallacious association that has since traveled far
and wide and has become almost impossible to dislodge.
For decades, economists had been studying Latin America’s economic
development without reference to the conceptually alien notion of populism in their
(e.g., Baer and Kerstenetzky 1964; ECLA 1950; Fliegers
1955; Mikesell 1960; Schulz 1956; Taylor 1953)
. The main trend had been a wave
of protectionist policies that swept over most countries in the region, especially after
the 1950s, known as Import Substitution Industrialization (ISI). A backlash against
laissez-faire economics that had set the pace of reform in previous decades, ISI
aimed at stimulating domestic demand through state intervention, protecting
national industries from international competition by means of tariffs and excise
taxes, and promoting national industrial ‘‘champions’’ that would stem the flow of
imported goods from rich nations, thus ameliorating current account balances and
even boosting foreign currency reserves through exports. Generally, governments
(military or civilian) that opted for ISI achieved considerable growth and provided
employment and increased wages to their citizens, but all to the long-term detriment
of their economies, since growth was predicated on increasing levels of public debt
that became unsustainable during the 1980s.
A semantic transformation emerged in the 1970s. Established concepts such as
protectionism, statism, Keynesianism, dirigisme, or economic nationalism,
employed until then to denote dominant modes of Latin American policy-making,
gradually lost ground to what was termed ‘‘economic populism’’. The origins of this
transformation are traced to 1971 when
Cardoso and Faletto (1979)
wrote of the
ideology of ‘‘developmentalist populism’’ that accompanied the ISI phase under the
intellectual influence of Rau´ l Prebisch (the ‘‘Latin American Keynes’’) and other
structuralist theorists. C
oupled with O’Donnell’s (1973
) influential analysis of ‘‘the
populist period’’ in Brazil and Argentina and ‘‘populist authoritarianism’’ in Peru,
Bolivia, and Ecuador, populism was steadily established as an economic notion, in
effect equated with protectionism, state-driven industrialization, and domestic
market expansion. Populism also assumed causal electoral implications: the (largely
urban) social coalition that benefitted economically from ISI was seen as prone to
maximize its utility by voting populist actors into office.
Populism served a career as a synonym for ISI until the late 1970s, when
protectionist policies started to unwind. However, it curiously retained its relevance
in the economic vocabulary even after ISI’s demise and the subsequent domination
of the so-called ‘‘Washington consensus’’. By means of another semantic shift, it
was employed to qualify a subsequent wave of unorthodox policies (unrelated to
ISI) that several Latin American leaders adopted in reaction to the 1980s’ sovereign
debt crisis. Two widely read working papers authored for the US National Bureau of
Economic Development by Jeffrey
Dornbusch and Edwards
repackaged economic populism as ‘‘an approach to economics that
emphasizes growth and income redistribution and deemphasizes the risks of
inflation and deficit finance, external constraints, and the reaction of economic
agents to aggressive nonmarket policies’’
(Dornbusch and Edwards 1989, p. 1)
Populism was now equated tout court with ‘‘deficit spending’’ and ‘‘fiscal laxity,’’
and it was implicitly assumed that all populist leaders engaged in unorthodox
economics. Their actions, ‘‘characterized by overly expansionary macroeconomic
policies which lead to high inflation and severe balance of payments crises’’
1989, p. 5)
, spurred the infamous ‘‘populist policy cycle’’ in the domestic economy.
The cycle purportedly starts with a short spike of economic growth and high
expectations, quickly leading to severe bottlenecks, a reduction in real wages,
hyperinflation, and eventually some form of bankruptcy and debt restructuring
. Apart from its contemporary applications, the framework was
retroactively applied back into the 1940s, and hence, from a Keynesian approach to
promoting growth through ISI, populism became associated with destructive
economic policies that lead to hyperinflation, the erosion of foreign currency
reserves, domestic currency collapse, and bankruptcy.
The Latin American ‘‘pink tide’’ around the start of the twentieth century
rejuvenated the theme.
) authoritative Foreign Affairs article
emphasized the role of economic policy in distinguishing between the ‘‘right’’
(nonpopulist) left and the ‘‘wrong’’ (populist) left. The former type was employed to
qualify leaders such as Lula in Brazil and the left-wing regimes in Chile and
Uruguay, and generally implied some level of adherence to free-market principles.
The populist left was associated in turn with Chavez in Venezuela, Lopez Obrador
in Mexico, and Morales in Bolivia, who purportedly opted for nationalization of key
industries, government handouts to the poor, and a general disregard for sound
economics. Edwards (2010, p. 7) insisted that populists ‘‘used nationalistic and
egalitarian rhetoric to justify increases in protectionism; harassment of foreign
investors and businesses; nationalization of foreign companies; taxation of exports
at almost expropriatory rates; hikes in regulations, red tape, and bureaucracy; and
increases in the power of the executive branch of Latin American governments’’.
The preceding paragraphs summarized the various mutations of the policy bias
since the 1970s, a process that has left the theory of ‘‘economic populism’’
conveniently vague. However, and despite its continuing popularity, ‘‘economic
populism’’ suffers from both methodological and empirical inconsistencies. First of
all, there are issues of causal sequencing that resemble what we observed in the case
of the regional bias. Economic policy can only be used as a yardstick to classify
populist parties or leaders after they actually manage to win power and enact their
policies. After all, the ‘‘populist cycle’’ is an outcomes-based, long-term theoretical
framework: it is the results of enacted policies that purportedly vindicate the theory.
Hence, the vast landscape of political parties that mobilize without ever getting the
chance to actually govern is lost from our radar. There can be no populism in
opposition. We have to wait, again, until Beppe Grillo wins the Italian national
election, forms a government, passes his first economic bills, and an adequate body
of statistical data on inflation, current account balances, and sovereign debt levels
become public, before we can begin to form an opinion on whether Grillo is a
populist. Similarly, we have to stand by until Donald Trump kicks the populist cycle
into motion, all the way to the eventual bankruptcy of the American state, before we
register him as a populist.
Secondly, the theory suffers at an empirical level. In hindsight, the ‘‘pink tide’’
did not prove destructive for Latin American economies. With the exception of
Venezuela, the other members of the ‘‘tide’’ did not fare as bad as the paradigm
predicted. Bolivians, for instance, have been enjoying a stable economic
environment during Morales’s long rule
. While in 2005, their GDP per
capita had sunk near its 1981 levels, their average annual return has tripled since
MAS took office.11 The latest Article IV Consultation with the IMF commends
Bolivia for achieving consistently robust growth rates, applauds the soundness of
the financial sector, and praises the authorities ‘‘for the significant declines in
inequality and poverty achieved over the last
decade’’ (IMF 2016
). Similarly, the
IMF’s 2015 Consultation with Correa’s Ecuador finds that growth averaged 4.5%
since 2005 and that social indicators improved during that decade, with both poverty
and unemployment rates declining substantially
. Even the Argentinian
economy overperformed after 2003, registering an average GDP growth of 4.6%
during the thirteen years the Kirchners were in power,12 disproving the apocalyptic
scenarios that circulated after their original victory
performance is an easily monitored dependent variable that opens large holes in
the conceptual foundations of ‘‘economic populism’’. A simplistic reductio ad
Venezuelanum, singling out Chavismo as the epitome of populist catastrophe,
cannot rescue the theory from criticism.
The policy bias is also at odds with empirical evidence from populist governance
in Europe. Right-wing populist parties have won power, joined governing
coalitions, or supported minority governments in Europe in the past three
decades—such as with FIDESZ in Hungary, the coalition governments involving
Forza Italia and the Lega Nord in Italy, the FPO¨ and the BZO¨ in Austria, SVP in
11 Source: World Bank (http://data.worldbank.org).
12 Source: World Bank (http://data.worldbank.org).
Switzerland, the Finns in Finland, the Norwegian Freedom Party, the PVV and Lijst
Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands, the HZDS in Slovakia, and PiS in Poland—yet no
‘‘populist cycle’’ materialized. On the contrary, considerable growth was achieved
in many cases. Besides, Western European populist parties of the right had
consistently campaigned in favor of fiscal orthodoxy since the 1980s, to the point
that scholars saw neoliberalism as a key element of the ‘‘winning formula’’ that
rendered them successful in the first place
The ‘‘populist policy cycle’’ did not materialize in Europe even under left-wing
populists that resemble the Latin American paradigm more closely. Smer has ruled
Slovakia since 2006,13 and Greece has been run by a government coalition under a
left-wing populist party since 2015. Yet, in both cases, governments have generally
adhered to the guidelines of international financial organizations, with Greece even
managing to achieve an unprecedented primary surplus, checking almost every box
in the list of fiscally orthodox reforms. Outside Europe, the case of Shinawatra’s
Thai Rak Thai Party was another instance of a healthy economy under populist rule,
and so was Canada under Stephen Harper and Australia under John Howard
and Moffitt 2012)
. Should we, succumbing to the policy bias, retract the populist
qualification from all these famous cases?
So far, it seems that a strict adherence to the ‘‘populist cycle’’ as the necessary
and sufficient characteristic of populism leaves as with very few instances of
populism throughout global history since it excludes all parties in opposition and all
those leaders who failed to plunge their domestic economies into catastrophe during
their tenure. But perhaps the paradigm can be saved by switching to a new theory of
‘‘economic populism’’ that prioritizes electoral promises over economic
performance, programmatic statements on economic policy-making over monitoring solid
policy outcomes. In this case, we should expect empirical scrutiny to rely on
complex econometric models that predict whether the various electoral platforms
will eventually lead to a ‘‘populist cycle’’ and a bankrupt economy if enacted in
Setting aside the technical feasibility of such evaluations, this—yet to be
formulated theory—would also have a hard time classifying ‘‘bait-and-switch’’
politicians. There is a long history of this kind of behavior on the part of Latin
American leaders, who reneged on their promises to enact expansionary policies and
betrayed their mandates by embracing free-market reforms once in office
. By the time
Dornbusch and Edwards (1991)
published their influential
volume on economic populism, the Cold War had ended and expansionist policies
had generally fallen out of vogue. Latin American Presidents such as Fujimori in
Peru, Collor in Brazil, and Menem in Argentina—widely registered as populists—
had turned into enthusiastic proponents of orthodox economics, fiscal consolidation,
privatization, and deregulation. The results of their policies were a far cry from the
‘‘populist cycle’’. Guided by these developments, influential scholars of Latin
American populism such as
decided to break
ranks with economists and not only to dismiss profligate economic policy as a
13 Except for 2010–2012.
defining characteristic of populism but also to argue persuasively that neoliberalism
had always been perfectly compatible with populism.
Even if one disagrees with the choice to uphold populism as a ‘‘purely political
(Weyland 1996, p. 6)
, the question remains: how should we classify
‘‘baitand-switch’’ cases? Are they populists when they overpromise and cease to be so
right after they switch to orthodox policies? Or is it somehow justified to retain the
populist label for them just because of their prior record? If one of the pitfalls in the
first version of the theory of ‘‘economic populism’’ was that it left us with only a
small number of cases where the ‘‘populist cycle’’ was at work, the second version
produces the opposite problem. If populism is merely overpromising, then it would
be difficult to find any political party that does not campaign on populist grounds.14
Despite the avalanche of methodological inconsistencies and empirical
falsifications, scholars of populism need to constantly remain vigilant against its
degradation to an economic term. Brexit, and the populist overtones of the recent
US Presidential primaries, where both Donald Trump, on the side of the Republican
Party, and Bernie Sanders, on the part of the Democratic Party, entertained
economic ideas that seemed at a distance from the mainstream, brought the theme of
‘‘economic populism’’ once more to the fore. Today, most political commentators
are going as far as dismissing any type of economic policy not predicated upon a
balanced budget as populist. The number of policy papers and editorials that equate
populism with destructive economic policies has grown enormously. For instance,
in an article titled ‘‘How Economic Populism Works’’, the former finance minister
of Chile posits that ‘‘there can be no disagreement that Latin Americans have been
the longest and best practitioners of economic populism’’
cherrypicking Peron, Vargas, Garcia (‘‘at least during his first term’’), Ortega, and Allende,
as exemplary cases, mixing-and-matching ISI, socialism, authoritarianism, and
Keynesianism, and avoiding mention of all those cases that escape the paradigm.
Similarly, the Council on Foreign Relations dedicated its December 2015 Global
Economics Monthly to the issue of ‘‘Addressing Economic Populism in Europe’’
De Bolle (2016
Dornbusch and Edwards (1991)
the ‘‘populist paradigm’’ to contemporary Brazil, dismissing the country’s stellar
economic performance in the last decade.
Even if one is not ready to concede that populism bears no links to economic
policy, it is still helpful at this point to compare the ‘‘economic populism’’ paradigm
with the different conceptualizations of populism discussed earlier. Understanding
populism as a destructive type of economic policy-making, seeing it as a core
feature of far right parties, and associating it with the activity of an all-powerful
leftwing leader that leads unorganized masses to power are hardly mutually compatible
positions. On the contrary, conceptual and methodological degrees of separation
appear overwhelming. Nevertheless, pundits and analysts will frequently prioritize
ends over means and will readily engage in mixing-and-matching these otherwise
irreconcilable perspectives. As I argue in the next section, this haphazard behavior is
not always a simple artifact of a pronounced tolerance for ambiguity.
14 Another dangerous implication of the policy bias is to end up classifying as populist any party that
stands in favor of some kind of redistribution.
4 The Normative Bias
Scholars of populism have done much to lend a profligate nature to their concept, as
shown in the previous sections. Pundits and politicians have also greatly contributed to
turning populism into a political buzzword. The term has now mainly acquired a
pejorative sense, and its various negative angles—the links to extremism, the irrational
approach to economics, the authoritarian elements of personalism—converge towards
conceiving populism as a menace to liberal democracy
(Urbinati 2014; Pappas 2016)
Populism is considered an ideology, a set of values, or a regime, that stands opposite to a
liberal democratic paradigm because of a tendency to bend the rule of law, disrespect the
separation of powers, disrupt the free market, and display hostility against minorities.
This highly normative context influences the analytical study of populism since scholars
find it difficult to distance their work from the tacit expectation of taking a position in an
ongoing ideological battle. Political shocks such as Brexit, the rise of Donald Trump to
the US Presidency, and a general electoral upsurge of populist parties, have intensified
polarization in the public sphere, tempting academics to use their analytical tools in the
service of wider political aims, linking their findings to an increasing journalistic
demand for political commentary on populism’s purported ascendance.
Loading an analytical term with normative content to the point of transforming it
into a political tool is not peculiar to populism. As
regards to the study of nationalism, scholars do not only observe politics but
occasionally participate in political struggle. Hence, the felt need to differentiate
between various types of nationalism and attach moral prestige to the well-known
notion of ‘‘civic’’ (as opposed to ‘‘ethnic’’) nationalism may have originated with a
project that is ‘‘more political than analytical: it may speak more to the putative
international respectability and legitimacy of the state or movement in question than
to its empirical characteristics’’
(Brubaker 2004, p. 135)
. A term loaded by
definition with negative connotations becomes a useful stick to beat political
opponents: ‘‘Who could have a good word for a form of nationalism routinely
glossed as illiberal, ascriptive, and exclusive?’’
(Brubaker 2004, p. 135)
Brubaker’s analysis bears a striking resemblance to the ideological battle
simmering among academics of different ideological origins in populism studies.
Yet, the politicization of populism is not a new phenomenon. On the contrary, it
carries a long and quite distinct history. When the McCarthyist revolt spurred terror
and disgust among the ranks of pluralist American academics in the 1950s,
populism was—for the first time—uprooted from its historical context to be
employed as the thread that linked together all instances of ‘‘paranoid’’ politics in
(Saloutos 1966; Rogin 1967)
. As Edward Shils (1956, p. 103)
suggested, ‘‘[t]here is a straight line from Ben Tillman to Huey Long and Eugene
Talmadge; from Bryan and LaFollette to Gerald L. K. Smith, Father Coughlin and
Senator McCarthy, Gerald Nye, William Langer and many others.’’ A speech by
Shils in 1954 at the University of Chicago
and two influential
volumes published in the following year, Richard Hofstadter’s The Age of Reform
(1955) and Daniel Bell’s The New American Right (1955), proved pivotal in
recasting the populist movement of the 1880s-90s as a dark and irrational force, a
direct progenitor of every anti-liberal strand in American society that subsequently
found its national representative in Senator McCarthy.15 Some went even further,
drawing a direct link between Populism and American fascism
The emotions of shame and despair that McCarthyism spread within academic
circles acted as the crucial trigger that transformed populism from a historical to a
political–analytical concept in the mid-1950s.17 Even if important enemies of this
revisionist drive such as
exaggerated in their
critique, Hofstadter certainly overplayed his hand to make a normative point, as he
later conceded to several of his colleagues
(Collins 1989; Stavrakakis 2017)
recasting of populism as an anti-liberal mentality in the work of modernization
theorists had an immense impact that reverberates until today and partly explains its
haphazard use. The catch-all nature of populist mobilization and its tentative
relationship with liberal democratic values render it a political instrument that can
cut both ways, in favor of those who like to see it as a radical yet progressive
movement, but also those who tend to emphasize its darker implications
Liberal theorists today will caution that populist movements present a danger
for core elements of our liberal democracies. Populist leaders distort the playing
field and employ plebiscitary methods that undermine representative institutions
and have the capacity to disfigure democracy and lead societies down
. They mobilize ‘‘an exclusionary form of
dentity politics’’ (Mu¨ ller 2016
, p. 3) that erodes pluralist values, colonizes the
state apparatus, favors mass clientelism, and fosters corruption. The populists’
claim to be democrats is fake since their view of democracy is a distorted one
that, if implemented, will ultimately dismantle our institutions and establish a
totalitarian state of affairs.
On the other side, radical democratic theorists will distinguish between ‘‘phony
populists’’ who hide their authoritarianism behind a seemingly democratic fac¸ade,
and those true populists who do nothing but reclaim the values of popular
sovereignty, political freedom, and equality, core democratic tenets that have been
increasingly receding in our post-democratic times. They will point out that
skepticism towards elites is a healthy element in democratic societies (McCormick
15 Another very influential volume of the same school is
) Political Man, where, under
‘‘Chapter V: Fascism-Left, Right, and Center’’ we find a subsection titled ‘‘The United States:
McCarthyism as Populist Extremism’’.
were the ones who introduced this
pejorative revisionism to the wider public, the seeds had been sown in academic circles earlier, when
linked the rise of anti-semitism in America to the legacy of the People’s Party
17 Of course, this only pertains to the Western world. The legacy of the narodniki movement informed an
equally interesting attack on the part of orthodox Marxist intellectuals who were probably the first ones to
use the term in a strategically pejorative manner, smearing as ‘‘populists’’ those within the socialist camp
who believed that socialism could be established without a passage through capitalism. Lenin also
criticized the populist mentality from a vanguardist point of view, even though he did acknowledge
several positive elements in the narodniki
(see Brock 1961)
18 For a comprehensive analysis of the impact of modernization theory on populism, see
, Ja¨ger (2017),
D’ Eramo (2013
2001) and that citizens are justified in being vigilant against elites with regards to
the power struggle over issues that dominate the decision-making process. They will
emphasize limitations in the juridical view of democracy and claim that people are
allowed to question power-holding institutions when the latter contribute to an
overly rigid accommodation of popular sovereignty. In this sense, they will uphold
populism as a legitimate tradition with a ‘‘persistent democratizing aspiration’’
(Grattan 2016, p. 10)
A major misconception that feeds into the polarization between the two
contrasting views is the persistent use of populism as a dichotomous term,
despite the battery of empirical work that proves its graded nature
2017; Bonikowski and Gidron 2016; Hawkins 2010; Rooduijn and Pauwels
. Populism, as a language, is employed to various degrees by a large
majority of politicians, making it hard to straightforwardly divide them into
populists and non-populists.19 However, populism’s ‘‘demotion’’ to a matter of
degree rather than kind would devalue its assumed political import, rendering it
a blunt instrument for use within the Manichean field of political struggle.
Academic experts who are able to publicly furnish arguments from authority
over whether politician X or Y is indeed ‘‘a populist,’’ gain significant mediatic
currency, functioning as epistemic gatekeepers of the concept and providing a
veneer of scientific legitimation for normative political claims. In a volatile
political environment ripe with outsider contenders, this behavior
deterministically leads to a significant expansion of the concept’s application. As Mudde and
Rovira Kaltwasser (2012, p. l) complain, ‘‘it seems that almost every politician,
at least those we do not like, is a populist’’.
This highly politicized backdrop influences the quality of academic work,
dividing scholars into those who see populism in a positive light and those who see
(Rovira Kaltwasser 2012)
. Unable to distance themselves from the
normative connotations of populism, and faced with the task of assessing a specific
phenomenon as populist or non-populist, researchers may be tempted to work
backwards, beginning with gauging their personal emotions towards the movement,
political party, or leader, under consideration, before devising an analytical
framework to accommodate their stance. In essence, there is a four-fold typology of
normative bias, along two interrelated questions. Combining their positions on
whether they sympathize with populism in general and whether they favor the
particular case (political party, leader, movement etc.) they are analyzing,
researchers adopt one out of four resulting perspectives: if the researcher is
sympathetic to both populism and the case she is studying, the tendency will be to
enthusiastically endorse the populist nature of the latter; if she subscribes to a
negative view of populism, she will step in to rescue the case from the populist
accusation. In contrast, a negative stance on both accounts will lead to a
straightforward denunciation of the case as a dangerous populist phenomenon. And
in the—not so rare—event that a negative stance against the case under
consideration coincides with positive feelings for populism in general, the
19 Peter Mair (2002), for instance, has famously studied Tony Blair’s populism.
researcher will make every effort to prove that the case should not be classified as
The normative bias starts with the conscious use of the ‘‘populist’’ epithet as a
valence, a normative signal denoting a ‘‘good’’ or ‘‘bad’’ politician. Yet in both
cases, the problem is that populism has been infused with immense and unwarranted
causal implications for democratic governance. Both camps inflate populism’s
significance for their desired set of policies. However, there is no straightforward
path from observing the use of populist discourse by a given politician to deriving
conclusions about her ultimate performance in government. A rhetorical adherence
to the value of popular sovereignty and a distaste towards the power of elites may
prove a powerful act in terms of electoral mobilization but it cannot readily supply
information about deeper ideological anchors entertained by a given politician and it
is a weak predictor of actual policy preference. As Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser
(2012) explain, a populist’s record in government will have more to do with her
main ideological or attitudinal inclinations (right-wing, left-wing, libertarian,
authoritarian), rather than the impact of the populist invocations employed to attract
wider support for a political project. In this light,
, p. 68) cautions
that populism may end up an empty label that ‘‘political elites attach to policies
supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like’’ and advises that populist
mobilizations should be understood as ‘‘neither inherently bad nor inherently good;
they can do great things, as during the Progressive era and the New Deal, but also
terrible ones, as in Europe during the 1930s.’’
Populism is a relatively widespread political phenomenon. In any type of regime,
the public may grow apprehensive of power-holding elites that tend to maximize
their personal utility at the expense of other actors or groups. Whether elite
manipulation actually takes place or not, and to what level, is irrelevant; what
matters is that in those countries where political contestation is institutionalized or
becomes marginally available for whatever reasons, political actors with a credible
outsider status will tend to mobilize grievances by use of a populist language as an
entry point into the hearts and minds of the citizens. When citizens feel overly
alienated against elites, due to perceived policy failures of the latter, or issues of
corruption, or simply boredom with a stagnated state of intellectual affairs, the
populist message will tend to gather steam.
Therefore, whether the populists’ attacks against elites reflect an underlying
reality and whether their actions in office are going to prove negative for the
economy or the quality of democratic contestation, should be seen as open,
empirical questions. The schemata that politicians employ to frame their arguments
provide little evidence for their actual political views and policy inclinations and
should not be taken as determined outcomes. Instead of stipulating non-existent
20 See for instance the interestingly different appraisals of the Tea Party by Charles Postel and Chip
Rosenthal and Trost (2012)
patterns or generalizing from characteristics that only pertain to specific instances of
populism, researchers should consider a wider set of factors when assessing the
record of politicians to whom the label is attached. When, for instance, nationalist
politicians employ populist language alongside their main ideas about the interests
of a national society, populism tells us little about the core tenets of their behavior.
The same is true for socialist politicians who otherwise mobilize voters along class
Populism’s flexible nature opens the door for all sorts of generalizations, yet
researchers should avoid the biases analyzed in this paper if the analytical utility of
the concept is to be cured of its currently overstretched status. Populism should not
necessarily connote charismatic leaders who win presidential seats by mobilizing
unorganized masses: populist voters can be organized into well-functioning parties,
personalism or strong leadership may be absent, populist parties may survive as
marginal actors in multiparty parliamentary systems, and populism can even emerge
as a leaderless social movement rather than a party. Populism is not a fixture of the
far right: nationalists may color their discourse with populism elements, or they may
not, and populism can be mobilized without any connection to nationalist,
xenophobic, or racist rhetoric. There is no established link between populism and
specific economic policies: populists may bankrupt their states but they can also
lead them to stability and prosperity, or they may choose between expansionary and
conservative economic policies according to their strategic calculations, like every
other rational politician. The relationship between populism and democracy should
not be overstated: depending on the case, populists may bend liberal institutions and
undermine political contestation, but they may also lead to a restoration of
democratic accountability and an increased involvement of previously
unrepresented social groups—and all this may have little to do with the populist discourse
that helped a party win power in the first place.
Overcoming the pitfalls of the regional bias, the policy bias, and the normative
bias, requires a process of unlearning. Prospective students of populism need to first
unlearn the misconceptions with which they were introduced to the concept, before
they can approach its true nature. Populism is a handy tool for anti-establishment
forces looking to open up cracks in established party systems but also for
mainstream forces that use anti-populism to discredit their legitimate opponents.
The field is at a critical juncture today: it will either succumb to populism’s
instrumental use for partisan politics and suffer its subsequent erosion as a scientific
term, or it will become more rigorous and objective in its assessments and resist
sensationalist temptations. Scholars of populism need not become fodder in this
Paris Aslanidis is a Lecturer at the Department of Political Science and the Hellenic Studies Program at
Yale University. He studies populism in social movements and political parties, with a particular interest
in the quantification of populist discourse. His articles have been published in journals such as Political
Studies, Mobilization, Democratization, and Quality & Quantity. His chapter on ‘‘Populism and Social
Movements’’ is under publication in the Oxford Handbook of Populism.
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