Revisiting the Populist Challenge
This essay makes another attempt to clarify the concept of populism and to discuss its causes and consequences. It argues that, at its core, the concept of populism refers to an ‘ideology,’ i.e. a set of beliefs about how democracy works and how it ought to work. It links this core concept to other, related notions of populism, which it considers complementary rather than competing. Given its intimate links to the promises of democracy, populism thrives in times of political and economic crises. In addition, it is facilitated by the way the media operate in contemporary democracies. The political crisis provides an opportunity for populists to point to the broken promises of democracy and to mobilize in the name of ‘the people’ who have gone unrepresented by the mainstream political forces. Finally, the electoral mobilization by populists may have a corrective democratic effect, and populists in power do not seem to put democracy in danger as long as they have to cooperate in coalition governments with mainstream parties which are electorally more important. It is in (quasi)majoritarian systems where populists gain power as the dominant force that they pose a threat to liberal democracy.