A minimal definition of democracy is some combination of popular sovereignty and majority rule. Beyond this, democracy can take many shapes. Direct democracy, of the type seen where referenda or plebiscites allow citizens to have a direct influence over policy or decision making, is strongly endorsed by populism. Adversely, populists take issue with liberal and representative democracy, which is when citizens elect representatives to make decisions, and those decision makers are constrained by the principles and political institutions of liberalism from abrogating the rights of individual citizens. As such, populism is fundamentally democratic yet also at odds with liberal democracy. Juan Francisco Fuentes (2020) observes that populism oscillates between ‘hyper-democratism’ and ‘anti-democratism’, with the former being a kind of nostalgia for direct democracy and the latter being the rejection of any kind of political mediation between the people and their leader.
Populism’s relationship to democracy can be partly understood in terms of the process of democratization over time. Populism can be a democratizing force within authoritarian regimes, giving voice to the masses and inspiring regime change. However, we must recognize that populism as an ideological phenomenon is predominantly found within – and challenging to – representative democracies. Dictators sometimes appeal to the masses to retain power in a more frictionless way, yet they do not need popular support to get or keep power. Populists must appeal to ‘the people’ in a representative democracy because populism remains but one ideological choice amongst many. Therefore, the main ideological competitor to populism is liberalism. It was liberalism that was the progenitor of modern (representative) democracy going back to the American and French Revolutions in the eighteenth century. Early proto-populist sentiments might have involved agitation for electoral democracy, yet populists themselves have certainly tried to negatively impact liberal democracy (Rosanvallon, 2008). Populism amplifies political participation over the short term yet minimizes it over the long term because once populism is consolidated, liberal and pluralist elements are the first to go, with democratic representation quickly eroded thereafter. Indeed, populism might necessarily be a transitory ideology in many contexts, because either it fails or it transcends itself into something bigger (i.e., a ‘thicker’ ideology). Populism could be properly understood as a response to other democratic ideologies after a democratic transition has moved into a consolidation phase.
Populism has thus been characterized as either a corrective to, or else a ‘perverse inversion’ of, liberal democracy (Rosanvallon, 2008). Populism can be corrective of representative democracy in that it can: mobilize and give voice to societal groups that feel ignored by political elites, improve the responsiveness of the political system, re-politicize issues that elites have excluded from the political agenda, and strategically promote institutions that presumably construct the ‘general will’ of the people (referenda, plebiscites, etc.). Yet populism also has significant negative effects on democracy as well. It often results in an intense moralization of politics, whereby reaching agreements between disparate groups becomes very difficult. In lieu of agreement and compromise, majority rule is used to suppress minority opinion and circumvent minority rights. The will of the people – often demonstrable by the will of a majority in a plebiscite or election – becomes authoritative and infallible. Populism is democratic because it abides the wishes of ‘the people’ yet authoritarian because not all citizens count as ‘the people’ (and those who do not have no political legitimacy whatsoever). In effect, populism advocates for an authoritarian form of democracy, and it fundamentally rejects liberal and representative democracy.