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Is Democracy Under Siege? Populism and the Threats it poses to Democracy

Updated: Oct 5, 2020

The political landscape in recent times has been dominated by the rise of populism. This has been given much impetus by events such as the election of President Donald J. Trump into office, Brexit, and the continuous rise of self-acclaimed advocates of populism across Europe and everywhere else. Why has populism assumed such levels of attention particularly in an era of democratic dispensation? Is it a recent phenomenon? What at all is populism all about and what does it seek to achieve? Does it portend any threats to democracy? How can these threats be managed successfully?


What is populism?

This article adopts the definition by the Dutch political scientist, Cas Mudde who posits that populism is an ideology between two extreme ends: the “real people” and “the corrupt elite.” He contends that “it considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonist groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people” Grzymala-Busse. It simply argues that the interest of the masses should supersede that of a minority group referred to as the elite and asserts to represent all people instead of a section. It must be emphasized that there is no universal agreement as to the definition of populism among scholars despite their agreement on its common shared trait. This is because populism takes different forms, across different spectrums, spanning from nativist right (Hungary’s Fidesz; Italy’s Lega) to redistributionist left (Syriza of Greece). Populism’s potency lies in its ability to convince its teeming supporters and serve as an attractive prospect for unscrupulous politicians who see capturing power as their ultimate goal to dabble in it for their political relevance. It thrives on allegations against formal institutions and processes and promises a departure from them by offering representative democracy of inclusivity with a focus on “the people” rather than “the elite.”

Is populism a recent phenomenon?

Populism dates back in time and is probably as old as democracy. A cursory look at American history is replete with examples of populist movements and groups who consistently exploited the fears of marginalized groups. In the 1840s came the Know-Nothings, a political movement which deployed xenophobic rhetoric and acts against the influx of Irish Catholics and German immigrants insisting they were culpable for the unemployed native protestants and moral decadence of the American culture and religious identity. The 1880s saw the advent of left-wing populism which was largely fueled by the worsening plight of farmers as a result of drought and the plummeting prices of cotton. After constant exploitation by bankers through exorbitant lending rates and railroad moguls charging high prices for transport, formed what was known then as the People’s Party and was commonly called as Populists. This group later split into two: “fusionists” who advocated a merger with the Democrats and the “populists” who preferred independence. 

Why is populism on the rise?

There is no one single reason that satisfactorily answers this question. Some take a simplistic view by asserting that the rise in populism is largely fueled by the widening gap of economic inequality. Others contend that, fears of insecurity posed by high immigration levels and exacerbated during the immigration crises in Europe in 2015. Whereas these may hold some truths, they do not solely account for the rise in populism across the political space in the world. This article attempts to answer this question by adopting the rationalization posited by a group of Stanford scholars in their 2020 White Paper. They contend that populism is on the rise due to the failure of the political class to adequately represent their constituencies, properly articulate their needs and interests and proffer distinctive policy prescription with enduring solutions to the litany of issues confronting them. This proposition is particularly instructive since it touches on both known and unknown issues which unfortunately are by-products of bureaucratization as a result of the democratic institutions and processes and tends to breed fear. This is beautifully summed up by Robert E. Litan, a non-resident Senior Fellow of the Brookings Institution as “fear can be manifested as resentment. It triggers instinctive fight-or-flight behavior.”

How does populism threaten democracy?

Populism in its totality is not bad to democracy since it touches on certain truths within the democratic space that cannot be glossed over. Its constant rhetoric of rising inequality among majority of the populace is very true and deserves all the attention it projects. It is also a fact that established democratic institutions have failed to deliver on its mandate. Populism like democracy thrives in its ability to secure the buy-in of its grassroots and mobilize the same for social, economic and political change. Despite these ideals, it must be averred that populism carries some elements which are inimical to the democratic successes chalked over the years. Populism threatens democracy when it extols divisiveness, intolerant to dissenting views and differences, exhibits anti-pluralism, and resort to misinformation and disinformation to court mistrust for liberal democratic institutions and processes. Larry Diamond summarizes by stating that “the more comprehensive, extreme, unfettered, and uncompromising the version of populism, the more it is likely to represent a threat to democracy.”

What is the way forward?

In dealing with populism, it is important to note that, populism and liberal democracies are bedfellows and so far as there is a lacuna in the democratic dispensation space, there will be actors who will exploit illiberal populism to their advantage. To deal with populist implications for liberal democracy, democratic actors can deploy various strategies to their advantage. 

First, democratic political party actors must re-galvanize its base to prevent populists from exploiting their discontentment and disconnection from the centre. This should involve political leaders disseminating information in unambiguous terms to the ordinary people and explaining it to them to prevent them from being susceptible to the promises of populists.

Secondly, liberal democrats should avoid identity politics. That is using language that links identity and partisanship and channels its efforts to building political consensus at the local level. This requires a conscious effort to change the political rhetoric from one that perpetuates divisiveness to a more binding and inclusive one.

Last but not least, radical reforms of institutional structures to build more trust in the democratic processes and improve integrity and accountability. It will require a willingness on the part of actors within the democratic space to be willing to clip some of its political pecks in order to accommodate these reforms.


Populism will continue into the foreseeable future and thus attempts made at dealing with it are not necessarily geared towards extinguishing it completely but reduce to the barest minimum its inhibiting effects. Given this, democratic actors must be adept at competing reasonably with populism with their eyes firmly fixed on building trust and restoring the hope of the grassroots in the democratic ideals and systems. It is only then that democracy can withstand the onslaught of populism on its base.

References : -

[1] Diamond, L. When does Populism become a Threat to Democracy? Stanford, CA, 3-4 November 2017.

[2] Grzymala-Busse, A, et al. Global Populisms and their Challenges. Stanford, CA: Stanford Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, 2020.

[3] Kendall-Taylor, A. (Dr.) and C. Nietsche. Combating Populism: A Toolkit for Liberal Democratic Actors. 1152 15th Street NW, Suite 950, Washington, DC 20005: Center for a New American Security, 2020.

[4] Pinto, J. F. "Populism, is it Democracy's Bastard or Twin? The Case of the European Union." Chinese Political Science Review (2017): 328-344.

[5] Rooduijn, M. Why is Populism Suddenly all the Rage? 20 November 2018.

[6] Staff, The Week. A Brief History of Populism. 26 September 2015.

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