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Definition of populism

Populism is a political ideology and strategy that has gained prominence in recent years across various regions of the world. It is a multifaceted and complex phenomenon that manifests in different forms and contexts. 

At its core, populism is characterised by its appeal to the concerns and needs of ordinary people, often referred to as the “common man” or the “silent majority.” Franzisca Otto, an expert on International Studies and European initiatives against misinformation, defines populism as follows:

The term populism goes back to the Latin word “populus”, which means “the people”. Today populism means a certain style of politics. However, there is no precise or uniform definition. On the contrary, the term is considered imprecise and loaded with values, as it is often used in public debates, particularly as a kind of “killer argument” to undermine opposing opinions.

Populist leaders or movements position themselves as the voice of the people, representing their interests against what they perceive as a corrupt or self-serving political establishment. They present themselves as the authentic representatives of the masses, promising to address their grievances and restore power to the people. 

Furthermore, populism tends to emerge during periods of significant social, economic, or political change, often in response to perceived inequalities, injustices, or marginalisation. It thrives when there is a sense of economic anxiety, social dislocation, or a perceived loss of cultural identity. Populist movements can gain traction when people feel disconnected from mainstream political parties and institutions, viewing them as unresponsive to their needs and out of touch with reality. 

Characteristics of populism

The characteristics of populism can vary, but some common features can be identified.

  • Anti-establishment sentiment is a hallmark of populism, as it rejects the existing political order, portraying it as corrupt, self-serving, or beholden to powerful interests. Populist leaders often position themselves as outsiders or political mavericks, appealing to the frustrations of those who feel ignored or marginalised by the ‘established elites’.
  • Another characteristic is its tendency to embrace nationalist rhetoric and promote a strong sense of national identity, so as to create the sense of a ‘real group’ that has to get stronger to react against an external (perceived) menace. Populist leaders often emphasise the protection of national interests, sovereignty, and cultural heritage, raise concerns about globalisation, immigration, or supranational institutions that are seen as threats to national values and autonomy.
  • Moreover, populist discourse plays a crucial role in mobilising support. It often relies on emotional appeals rather than rational arguments, seeking to tap into the fears, hopes, and aspirations of the people. Populist leaders may employ divisive language, scapegoating particular groups or institutions for societal problems. They may also employ conspiracy theories, portraying themselves as the only ones who can uncover hidden truths or combat shadowy forces that they claim are manipulating the system against the people’s interests.
  • Critics argue that populism tends to oversimplify complex issues, offers unrealistic solutions, and undermines democratic norms and institutions. 

It thus becomes apparent that the binary nature of populist politics, often pitting “the people” against “the elites” or “the establishment,” can lead to polarisation and hinder constructive dialogue and cooperation. It is crucial to note that populism can take different forms and ideologies, spanning the political spectrum from left-wing to right-wing. Therefore, it is important to analyse populism within specific national, cultural, and historical contexts to fully grasp its dynamics and implications.

Let us look more at populism and its characteristics

Definition of populism
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