Populist Government: What it is, Varieties and Examples

A Populist government Is a political form that holds the importance of the common person over the elites. It can be democratic or authoritarian.

The term"populism"began to be used in the nineteenth century, to refer to Narodnichestvo movement , In Russia and the People's Party, in the United States.

Populism.  Crowd protest against Donald Trump in Atlanta.

However, it was not until 1950 that it began to be used in a much broader sense, encompassing the concept from the fascist and communist movements in Europe to the anticommunist movements in America and even Peronism in Argentina.

Over the years, it has been attributed the populist status to different political figures: Jacob Zuma Of South Africa; Gordon Brown , Former Prime Minister of Great Britain; Mahmoud Ahmadinejad , Former president of Iran; Silvio Berlusconi , Former Prime Minister of Italy; Hugo Chavez , Former president of Venezuela, among others.

Aside from being called"populist", it could not be said that these leaders have anything in common. In this sense, the word"populism"has been used to categorize very different realities. This is why the term populism is difficult to define.

Perspectives of a populist government

Despite the difficulties, one could arrive at a systematic conceptualization of the term populism if three perspectives are taken into account: populism as an ideology, as a discursive style and as a political strategy.

Populism as an ideology

The definition of populism as ideology was raised by Cas Mudde in 2004 (quoted Gidron and Bonikowski). According to the author, populism is a slightly centered ideology that separates society into two antagonistic groups: the pure and true people and the corrupt elite.

In this sense, populism is a set of ideas based on the differences between the people and the elite, favoring the first group by saying that they represent purity.

On the other hand, slightly centered ideologies are those that do not have a well-defined political and social structure and, therefore, can be compatible with other political systems, right or left.

Under this ideological conception of populism, one can understand why the term populist is used to define such diverse political figures.

Populism as a Discursive Style

This perspective posits that populism is not an ideology, but a style of discourse. De La Torre (2000, cited Gidron and Bonikowski) points out that populism is a rhetorical construction according to which politics is an ethic and moral between the people and the oligarchy.

Similarly, Kazin (1995, quoted by Gidron and Bonikowski) asserts that populism is the language employed by those who claim to speak for the people, based on the contrast between"we"(the people) and"they"(the elite).

Populism as a political strategy

This perspective is the most common among Latin American sociologists and political scientists. As a political strategy, populism refers to the application of various economic policies, such as the redistribution of wealth (expropriation, for example) and the nationalization of companies.

Similarly, under this perspective, populism is a mode of political organization, in which a leader exercises power with the support of his followers, who often belong to marginalized sectors.

Summary features of the three perspectives

Following the classification made by Gidron and Bonikowski, the different perspectives of populism are characterized by the following features.


Based on idelogy, populism is the set of interrelated ideas about the nature of politics and society. The units of study are the political parties and the leaders of these.

Discourse style

According to the discourse, populism is a way of exposing ideas. The units to study can be texts, declarations and public speeches about politics and society.

Political strategy

As for political strategy, populism is a form of organization. The objects of study would be political parties (taking into account the structure of these) and social movements.

Populism according to Michel Hastings

Michel Hastings, a university professor at the Institute for Political Studies in Lille, France, proposes a definition of populism that covers more or less the three perspectives studied above.

According to Hastings, populism in a political style and a source of change is based on the systematic use of rhetoric to attract the masses.

Hastings also proposes two aspects of populism: a discursive and an institutional one. In its discursive form, populism is characterized by the presence of declarations that express indignation towards diverse subjects (racism, elitism, eurocentrism, taxes, among others).

In its institutional aspect, populism includes partisan groups that intend to translate these declarations into revolutionary projects.

Varieties of populism

According to the people

It has already been seen that populism is directly related to the people; The populace that populism defends can be varied, giving rise to different types of populism:

  1. Ethnic populism
  1. Civic Populism
  1. Regional Populism

These are just some of the types of populism in relation to the people.

According to the political program

If the populist program includes abstract proposals for the restoration of the sovereignty of the people, while the concrete proposals are absent, we speak of theoretical populism. There will be instrumental populism if the opposite occurs.

Democratic and authoritarian populism

In its more democratic version, populism seeks to defend and increase the interests of ordinary citizens through the implementation of reforms. At present, however, populism is often associated with authoritarianism.

Populist authoritarian governments tend to run around a charismatic leader who claims to represent the will of the people, but actually seeks the consolidation of his power.

In this type of populism, the political parties lose importance as well as the elections, which only confirm the authority of the leader.

Depending on the type of government, democratic or authoritarian, populism can be a promoter of the interests of the citizens and the country or can be a movement that pretends to defend the interests of the people in order to gain the support of this and keep in charge.

Exclusive and inclusive population

Exclusive populism focuses on excluding stigmatized groups, such as the poor, refugees, clandestine or Roma, among others.

On the other hand, inclusive populism demands that the country's policies allow the integration of these Minority groups .

Right and left populism

Left populism refers to revolutionary movements, socialist, focused on the virtues of minorities (indigenous groups and the poor, for example). This movement is common in Latin America, specifically in Venezuela, Bolivia and Ecuador.

Right populism refers primarily to cultural terms, emphasizing the negative consequences of cultural diversity and political integration.

Right-wing populists see minority groups as the scapegoat for problems the nation may be suffering. For example, during the Great Recession European right-wing populist governments argued that immigrants were to blame for the loss of work thousands of Europeans experienced.

Left and right populism share elements. The line that separates them is, in fact, blurred, which shows that populism is more a style than a fixed ideology.

The only tangible difference is that leftist populism opts for class struggle, such as the confrontation between the working class and the bourgeoisie, while right-wing populism seeks to divide society, excluding different ethnic groups and cultures.

Remarkable Movements and Populist Governments

The narodnichestvo movement was one of the first organized populist movements of the history (century XIX). It was a group of socialist and revolutionary intellectuals who tried to make the peasantry of Russia rise in revolution; However, they were unsuccessful.

In the United States, the movement began in the nineteenth century with the creation of the People's Party in 1892. This movement sought the nationalization of railways, telegraphs and other monopolies; It also demanded that the government stimulate the economy through dollar inflation.

Unlike the predecessor Russian movement, some of the proposals of the People's Party were adopted by later governments.

The government of Theodore Roosevelt , President of the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century, revived populism with the implementation of policies that went against large companies. He also supported farmers and acted as an intermediary in the 1902 coal strike. In addition, he created new job opportunities.

In Latin America, in the middle of the 20th century, various populist governments, such as Juan Perón (In Argentina) and Getúlio Vargas (in Brazil).

Other populist figures of the last century were the following:

Margaret Thatcher

Populist Government: What it is, Varieties and Examples

She was prime minister of Great Britain (1979-1990). His government can identify with a right-wing populist government. Known as the Iron lady , Was the first woman to hold this position in the United Kingdom.

Find out more about this character with the 90 Best Phrases by Margaret Thatcher .

Woodrow Wilson

Populist Government: What it is, Varieties and Examples 1

Woodrow Wilson Was president of the United States (1913-1921). During his rule, he favored the development of small businesses.

Juan Domingo Perón

Populist Government: What it is, Varieties and Examples 2

President of Argentina from 1946 to 1952, from 1952 to 1955 and from 1973 to 1974. He is the only president of Argentina who has reached the third term.

Getúlio Vargas

Populist Government: What it is, Varieties and Examples 3

He held the position of president of Brazil from 1930 to 1933.

Theodore Roosevelt

Populist Government: What it is, Varieties and Examples 4

President of the United States of America from 1901 to 1909.

Populist governments today

Today, populist regimes have become more important. A great example is that of Venezuela with"chavismo". This is a political movement initiated by the late president Hugo Chavez, whose practice has been continued by the current president of the nation, Nicolás Maduro .

In this regard, Hawkins (2003, quoted by Acemoglu, Egorov and Sonin) points out that if populism is defined as the presence of a charismatic connection between voters and politicians and the presence of a discourse based on the idea of ​​struggle Between the people and the elite, then Chavism is clearly a populist phenomenon.

The governments of Rafael Correa In Ecuador and Evo Morales In Bolivia are other examples of existing populist governments in Latin America.

All these examples of populism mentioned above are left-wing. Other populist governments are: the government of Donald Trump In the United States, an example of right-wing populism or the Rodrigo Duterte , In Philippines.

Final Thoughts

The term populism is much more complicated than it may seem. Historically it has been used to define realities that often oppose, which has supersaturated at the end of connotations.

The media use it as a pejorative term to refer to extremist parties. However, populism can not be reduced to the connotations that it receives nor to the political figures who are branded as populists, since this is only a part of reality.

In this sense, populism must be studied as a set of values, opinions and arguments, leaving aside the condition of extremist that is usually awarded.

Also, many authors point out that populism refers to the opposition between the people and the elite. However, not all those who oppose the elites are necessarily populist; Citizens have the right to objectively criticize the behavior of those in power.

Similarly, populism is more than the use of aggressive rhetoric used to defend the rights of ordinary individuals, since the same objective can be achieved without having to resort to virtually violent methods.


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