The Populist Policy Conundrum

Populism rises to power claiming to represent the people, but its policies may benefit only a few 

August 09, 2019 11:59 AM


Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos *

While populism denotes a “thin” ideology (Mudde 2017) or a way to reason about politics and a discourse pitting the people against national and foreign elites (Laclau 2005), it also denotes a set of government policies after populists come to power. Populists may be supportive of democratic institutions, at least before they rise to government. They may, to an extent, express the interests of popular strata, such as some low-income groups hit by labor market dislocations provoked by economic crises.  In that sense, depending on the historical period in question and the structure of the political party system, populist parties may contribute to both enlarge political participation and further democracy. Yet, research in Europe has not fully analyzed how populist parties and leaders behave once they rise to power, particularly how they may restrict political participation.

European populism thrives on certain distinct themes and mentalities, which include adherence to the nation (e.g., Taguieff 2007) and hostility to domestic and foreign alleged enemies of the people. Usual alleged enemies are business elites and bankers, foreign companies, the EU authorities, the Muslim and Jewish religions, migrants and refugees, gender- and sexual-identity movements. Not all of these themes are found in all populist discourses. For instance, left-wing populists are not necessarily nationalists and have indeed supported policies in favor of refugees and migrants. Populists may be hostile to some or all of the above groups and authorities, so that to attract the votes of citizens who seek scapegoats for domestic economic and social ills or are alienated from politics.

However, we may hypothesize that, once in power, populists tend to rule as if they were unencumbered by democratic, political, and administrative institutions. They actually take democratic institutions, such as the justice system or the media, into account in so far as to undermine or neutralize them. This tendency reflects the anti-pluralist element of populist ideology (Mueller 2016), which the academic literature has not stressed as much as the anti-elite element in that ideology. A primary priority of populists is to adopt government policies subversive of or hostile to liberal democratic institutions. Among populist parties in government, the examples of the Hungarian FDZ, the Polish PiS and the Serbian SNS come to mind. Research may show that the more populist governments are successful in their anti-pluralist project, the fewer the chances that they will lose elections. If they are not fully successful in this endeavor and also encounter well-organized opposition parties, then they may fall from power, as the examples of the VMRO-DPMΝE in North Macedonia in 2016-2017 and the SYRIZA-ANEL in Greece in 2019 indicate.

Relevant populist government strategies include the control over, if not a war against, the judiciary system, and the prosecution of political opponents and targeted businessmen; the colonization of the central public administration and state-owned enterprises with populist party cadres and voters; the constraints on independent “voices” and the reshaping of the media sector to tailor populists’ re-election needs; and the pressure exerted on, if not persecution launched against, dissident voluntary and professional organizations, including civic associations and unions critical of the government. Populist governments thus give a sinister meaning to the term “civil society”. At the same time, they create or support pro-government civic associations. All this amounts to a repertoire of government policies and strategies, out of which populist governments pick and choose what suits them best.

In terms of social policy, populist parties in power may be supportive of low-income or middle-income groups, as center-left and left governing parties would do. A research hypothesis would underline the difference with the latter parties: even if populists claim to authentically represent the people, in practice, once in government, they implement strategies supporting only very selective population categories and groups. For instance, populist governments probably tend to provide more enhanced social welfare protection to pensioners and/or civil servants. Through such an array of government policies and strategies, populists attempt to obtain renewed political legitimacy. 

Populism may provide opportunities to the less-powerful social strata to mobilize against powerful groups influencing decision-making in democracies. Yet, by restricting pluralism and attempting to control political participation, populism in government may also manifest itself as a formidable challenge to liberal democratic institutions and to the delicate balance of powers among institutions. The DEMOS research project will study how populists govern and test the above hypotheses on the content and directions of populist governance.

* Dimitri A. Sotiropoulos is a professor of political science at the Department of Political Science and Public Administration, National and Kapodistrian University of Athens, Greece. He has held visiting positions at St. Antony’s College, Oxford; the Sciences Po, Paris; Harvard University; Tufts University; and Princeton University. Before the University of Athens, he held teaching positions at the University of Crete and the Juan March Institute, Madrid.  He also serves as Senior Research Fellow of the Hellenic Foundation for European and Foreign Policy Studies (ELIAMEP, Athens) and Research Associate of the Hellenic Observatory at the London School of Economics.


Laclau, E. (2005), On Populist Reason, London: Verso.

Mudde, C. (2017), ”Populism: An Ideational Approach” in C. Rovira Kaltwasser, P. Taggart, P. Ochoa Espejo, and P. Ostiguy, eds., Oxford Handbook of Populism, Oxford: Oxford University Press,27-48.

Mueller, J.-W. (2016), What is Populism?, Philadelphia: University of Philadelphia Press.

Taguieff, P. (2007), L'Illusion populiste. Essais sur les démagogies de l'âge démocratique, Paris: Flammarion. 


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