Populism is a “thin-centered” ideology because it does not have strong concepts of its own. It merely purports to reflect the will of the people – whoever those people are and whatever their will might be. “Full” or “thick” ideologies, such as liberalism, or socialism for example, have clear, consistent, and coherent claims about the way society is and the way it should be. Populism does not. It merely claims that “the people” should be the driving force in politics – without prior claims about what kind of society “the people” might want. Thus, populism is malleable and must attach itself to other ideologies. It is the combination of populism and a thicker “host ideology” that can generate specific (and localized) definitions of “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite.”
Two “host ideologies” are natural bedfellows for populism and indeed produce the two distinctive types of populism we see in the world today: left-wing populism and right-wing populism. Left-wing populism is essentially a combination of populism and socialism. Historically, left-wing populism was prevalent mainly in Latin America, yet it has also surfaced recently in Europe and North America as a backlash against the politics of austerity. Austerity refers to government-mandated reductions in welfare state spending, and austerity measures were widely adopted by Western governments during the economic recession that followed the global financial crisis of 2007–2009. A well-known example of a left-wing populist is Bernie Sanders, a self-declared socialist who narrowly missed out on leadership of the US Democratic Party in 2015. In Europe, radical left populist parties emerged in countries hit hardest by economic crisis and recession, countries that were also subject to austere “bailout” rules imposed by international organizations like the European Union and the International Monetary Fund. In Greece, Syriza (the Coalition of the Radical Left) became the largest party in the Greek Parliament during 2015 elections, and its chairman Alexis Tsipras became Prime Minister of Greece. That same year, Podemos (meaning: “We can”) became the second largest party in terms of parliamentary seat share in Spanish elections. However, left-wing populism is less common (in practice) than right-wing populism, which we will turn to next.
Right-wing populism is essentially a combination of populism and nationalism. It invokes the “pure people” as a unified and homogenous national identity and claims that this identity (and perhaps also the nation itself) is under threat. Charles Maier (1994) coined the term “territorial populism” to describe a xenophobic national identity that excludes others (usually immigrant groups) while also mobilizing negative and reactionary emotions towards powerful external agents (such as the European Union, China, or multinational corporations). It is in this rejection of external (and often capitalist) agents that one can see some overlap between left-wing and right-wing populism. In the twenty-first century, right-wing populism has effectively become a counter-globalization ideology that acts as a bulwark against cultural and economic globalization. Like left-wing populists, contemporary right-wing populists are against free trade and seek to protect and promote the national (or sometimes local) economy. Unlike left-wing populism, right-wing populism is also characterized by cultural conservativism, which is staunchly anti-immigrant. Right-wing populists galvanize citizens by referencing a constant threat to national identity, a threat that emanates from both inside and outside the nation-state – inside from corrupt elites and minority viewpoints and outside from immigrants who belong to (and retain allegiance to) other nation-states. For right-wing populists, borders become symbolic boundary markers, and the constant threats to identity and security demand a permanent state of emergency that mundane “establishment” politics has failed to recognize or act on. For many right-wing populists, the message is: “unless you fight, you will lose your nation.” Due to this messaging, critics of right-wing populism suggest that this ideology is essentially fascist in nature and less related to more benign forms of nationalism. Historically, there might be some veracity to this claim. Frederico Finchelstein (2017) observed that modern (right-wing) populism was born out of early twentieth-century fascism. When fascist dictators were defeated in World War II, populism emerged as a postwar reformulation of fascism. However, populism differs from fascism in a number of crucial aspects. For one, they differ in terms of their commitments to democracy. Fascists reject democracy in all its forms and see violent struggle as the most appropriate means to getting and keeping power. Populists play the democratic game and typically cede power after losing elections. They also differ in their understanding of legitimate authority. Fascists exalt a charismatic leader – an elite by definition, albeit an incorruptible one – as well as prescribe a totalitarian dictatorship as the ultimate goal. Right-wing populists exalt the general will of the people – even if it is embodied by a charismatic leader – and prescribe to an authoritarian form of democracy. There is undeniable overlap between fascism and right-wing populism, especially in their tendencies towards authoritarianism and their understanding of a single infallible source of political legitimacy (yet differing on what that source is: for fascists it is the will of the leader, while for populists it is the will of the people). Beyond authoritarian tendencies, right-wing populism and fascism explicitly relate to a third ideology: nationalism, with fascists romanticizing a symbolic hyper-nationalism, and populists merely treating the nation as an embodiment of the “pure people.”
There are other ideologies that are complete anathema to populism and that populists of all stripes reject. One of these is pluralism, which for right-wing populists also translates into a rejection of multiculturalism. Pluralism refers to a belief in or commitment to diversity, be it political diversity (such as strong competition between political parties) or cultural diversity (the belief that a variety of cultural beliefs is healthy and desirable). Populists have a vision of society being uniform, which often manifests in a unique, singular, and exclusive national identity. Although populists reject pluralism and cultural diversity, they also reject totalitarian regimes, meaning that populists will allow limited space for contestation in the public sphere (De la Torre, 2016; Müller, 2016). The other ideology that populists reject is liberalism, so much so that populism might be deemed anti-liberal. If liberalism is about the protection of individual rights and the separation of powers, then populism is fundamentally against these notions. The protection of visible minorities or minority political opinions is antithetical to policies that should reflect only the will of the majority. Separating branches of government so that the executive branch is constrained from unilaterally executing the general will is also antithetical to populism. According to populists, the executive branch (i.e., the populist leader) should be able to govern without interference from the judiciary because the populist leader is a legitimate representative of the people (and the people cannot be wrong), while a supreme court is unelected and out of touch with regular people, even when their rulings protect the rights of individuals. As we will see in the next section, populism’s rejection of pluralism and liberalism creates a complex relationship between populism and democracy. In effect, populism advocates for an anti-liberal and intolerant form of democracy.