Why Populism Is Not Simple: Three disruptive dimensions explained

Why Populism Is Not Simple

Populists are often cast as ‘outsiders’ who challenge the ‘mainstream’. At the same time, populism itself is generally characterised as a way of doing politics that agitates not only against ‘the elite’ to implement the will of ‘the people’, but also against (other) outgroups (e.g. ‘migrants’, ‘business(wo)men’), who are blamed for social, political, and economic grievances.

However, many political parties linked to the recent ‘populist surge’ in Europe, such as the Freedom Party of Austria and the National Rally in France, were founded decades ago. Whether inside or outside government, many of them are already an integral part of their respective national political systems and the national political elite, and wield considerable power.

The outgroups identified by populists also vary from party to party, as well as across time. A generalising rhetoric that defines specific social groups as problematic is by no means specific to populism, either. So where does the common perception that populists are ‘different’ from ordinary politics in western representative democracies come from?

In this Commentary, Josefin Graef argues that populists themselves fuel this perception as part of a broader project by doing a lot more than just pitting ‘the people’ against
the ‘elite’.

Download the paper here.

Josefin Graef is a Dahrendorf Forum Postdoctoral Fellow based at the Hertie School of Governance.