Populism Analysis

Thinking Lab’s Working Definition of Populism

A clarification written by Judith Rohde-Liebenau


Populism is a political movement that can adapt to different ideologies and often emerges in times of (perceived) societal change. The concept is contested in the social sciences and there is no clear, universally applicable definition.

We debated whether populism could be seen as inherent to democracy. What we can see is that populism is usually hostile to representative democracy and contests core values of liberal democracy. As a working definition, our Thinking Lab agreed on the following features, which we see as applicable to different national and temporal contexts.

1. Addressee: At the centre of populism is a specific in-group (“the people”) that is seen as homogenous, simple and right-minded. Populism is an emotional call to the people by an elite, which argues to follow, rather than lead “the people”.

2. Out-Group: Populism constructs an “out-group” in a horizontal and/or vertical way. Vertically, an anti-elitist identity of “the people” is constructed, using “the establishment” as scapegoats. Horizontally, an anti-pluralist clean up of the people (excluding e.g. minorities) takes place.

3. Communication: Instead of being based on specific core values, populism is an opportunistic political communication style that can adapt to any ideology.

4. Strong leadership: A charismatic leadership gives guidance to “the people” by addressing their emotions, emphasising the in-group identity and oversimplifying the political and social environment.

See literature on populism by Isaiah Berlin, Margaret Canovan, William Kornhauser, Ernesto Laclau, Edward Shils and others.