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A Very Short Introduction

By Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser
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Populism by Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser

Populism (2017) investigates one of the political buzzwords of our age, which is often encountered in the media and thrown around by political opponents. Populist leaders attempt to mobilize the frustrations of the masses by claiming to speak for “the people.” By placing blame for social and economic problems on a supposed “elite,” populists attempt to gain political success.

Key idea 1 of 6

Populism is a political phenomenon in which the people’s interests are juxtaposed against those of the elites.

Over the last few years, the term populism has increasingly appeared in political and media discourse. Although populism is a growing political phenomenon, it is often misunderstood and treated more as a buzzword than an actual political strategy. It is used to describe political movements from both the left and the right – from Bernie Sanders’ left-wing 2016 presidential campaign to the right-wing nationalist ascendancy in Europe. But what really is populism?

We can attempt to define populism as a political worldview in which societies are split into two contrasting camps – the people and the elite. Furthermore, populism maintains that policy should be determined by the general will of the people. A populist conception of the people can have different forms – either as sovereign, common or the nation – or a combination of the three.

A populist understanding of sovereignty implies that the people themselves – and not the elite – should hold political power. Meanwhile, the portrayal of a common people revolves around a shared socioeconomic class. Finally, in the understanding of the people as a nation, the people constitute a national community. The corrupt elite stand in opposition to these differing constellations of the people. This can refer to a ruling political class, mainstream media or the wealthiest members of society.

Within the populist worldview, different components of the elite are often working to prop each other up. For example, the wealthy are seen as supportive of political elites for their own vested interests against the general will of the people. This is the final core element of populism, consisting of what the eighteenth-century philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau termed the “volonté générale,” or general will. Rousseau used this term to describe the people’s ability to come together in order to bring about change that is beneficial to them as a group.

And it is through this general will that the charismatic, populist leader comes in. This leader must be able to identify the general will of the people and also forge a community of individuals who share it.

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