There are three core concepts that comprise populism as an ideology: the “pure people,” the “corrupt elite,” and the “general will.” The term populism itself is derived from the Latin word populus (meaning “the people”). Thus, at the core of populism is the notion of popular sovereignty in which legitimate rule can only emanate directly from the people. However, who exactly are “the pure people” is often ill-defined because it is a construction rather than an empirical fact. The people have variously been associated with specific groups in society, such as “the nation” (as in “the people of Brazil,” often with ethnic undertones) or even just a silent majority. Nonetheless, populist politicians try to make a direct appeal to “the people,” claiming to represent their true hopes and fears as the vox populi (voice of the people). Likewise, populists will identify or construct a “corrupt elite” who are enemies of the people. All populists despise political elites, who they refer to as the “political establishment” or the “political class.” Yet populists vary on which other groups are amongst this corrupt elite, which might include economic elites (the wealthy, the “one percent”), cultural elites (such as academics or scientists), or media elites (“fake news” or the “chattering classes”). Whatever groups get targeted as the corrupt elites, populists will argue that they not only ignore “the people” but also serve only their own interests, which do not align with those of “real” or “pure” people. Finally, populism makes political claims about the “general will,” otherwise known as the popular will or the will of the people. This general will (and popular sovereignty) are claimed to be the ultimate – and only – sources of legitimate authority. Notably, this general will is not one that is constructed or revealed vis-à-vis debates within the public sphere but rather one that is immediately known by populist leaders and often based on a vague notion of “common sense.” The notion of a general will is used by populist leaders to aggregate demands and identify a common enemy. Furthermore, populists claim it cannot be wrong. This can lead to the dark side of populism: because “the people” are homogeneous and their will is infallible, there are justifications for a tyranny of the majority as well as authoritarian tendencies amongst its leadership. At the core of the populist ideology is a strategic deployment of three concepts: the “pure people,” the “corrupt elite,” and the “general will.”
Beyond the core concepts, one can recognize consistent if not ubiquitous themes that emerge from populist ideology. An overarching theme is anti-politics, which can manifest in a number of ways. The most obvious way is anger with the political establishment. Populism is an expression of disenchantment with conventional politics, and it facilitates the emergence of anti-establishment political leaders and movements. Populist leaders try to convey an image of being political outsiders who are untainted by conventional power politics. Second, populists are anti-politics inasmuch they distrust and oppose many of the “intermediary institutions” of representative democracy. Representative democracy can get in the way of more direct expressions of the general will of the people. Only those institutions that directly involve citizen expression (such as elections, referenda, plebiscites) are legitimate. Other institutions, such as conventional political parties, bureaucracy, or the judiciary, are illegitimate and interfere with political expression of the popular will. Third, populism is an expression of emotional (often angry) politics. Populists are seldom interested in engaging with reasonable discourse or rational policy choices, and they tend to ignore or even deliberately flaunt the rules and norms of conventional politics. Populists deliberately play on the emotions of citizens – especially feelings of fear, anger, and uncertainty. Historian Richard Hofstadter (1955) suggested that populism was little more than a “paranoid style of politics,” while other theorists have commented on how the “performance” of crisis enables populism to flourish (Moffitt, 2015; Stavrakakis et al., 2018). Finally, populism is anti-politics in that it is a moral category rather than an intersectional political identity like class, gender, ethnicity, religion, and so on. Populists adopt a Manichean worldview (i.e., good versus evil, Us versus Them, and the illusion of a unified whole), and populist leaders make claims about having exclusive moral representation of the “pure people” (Müller, 2016). These themes contribute to an understanding that populism is fundamentally anti-politics.
What Is Populism, and What Does the Term Actually Mean? is a BBC primer on the basics of populism, with some short explanatory videos embedded.