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The term populism (from Latin populus ' people ') is assigned several attributes by social scientists . It is characterized by the choice of topics and rhetoric connected with political intentions and aimed at popular moods . On the one hand, this involves creating certain moods, and on the other hand, exploiting and reinforcing existing moods for one's own political purposes. Populism often manifests itself in a specific political style and serves as a strategy to gain power. Only occasionally does it appear in research as a component of individual ideologies .

In the political debate, populism or populist is a common accusation that representatives of different schools of thought make each other when they consider the statements and demands of the other side to be popular but unrealistic or disadvantageous. One then speaks of a political catchphrase or “battle term”.

Often populists address a contrast between “ people ” and “ elite ” and claim to be on the side of the “common people”. So populism often goes with the refusal of power elites and institutions associated with anti- intellectualism , a seemingly apolitical occurrence of relying on " common sense " (common sense) , and the " voice of the people ". In the political debate, populists often rely on polarization , personalization, moralization and arguments ad populum or ad hominem . The rejection of traditional political parties is also significant. The function of parties to help shape the political will of the citizens (see Article 21 of the Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany ) is what populists like to interpret as patronizing responsible citizens and instead demand the direct articulation of will through direct democracy . Populism is not based on a specific value system and can therefore go hand in hand with very different ideologies and objectives. It is often a stylistic device used by protest parties and politicians, or by social movements . Historically, Peronism and Poujadism are known as populist movements. The terms "left- wing populism " and " right-wing populism " are common. The latter has increased in influence in Europe and the USA at the beginning of the 21st century, especially in connection with a defensive attitude towards migrants and immigrant refugees . The reasons for the populist surge are the problems and cultural uncertainties in some parts of society resulting from advancing globalization and increased migration , as well as a widespread lack of satisfaction with decision-making processes and political practice. If populist parties are relatively young in Germany, this is not the case in other European countries. The Freedom Party of Austria was founded in the 1950s and the Front National in the early 1970s. It can therefore only be said to a limited extent that populism per se is a reaction to the migration question.



Populist was the first political party to call itself the Populist Party (1891-1908) at the end of the 19th century in the USA. It achieved the realization of some of its demands and soon broke up. That is why since then populism has stood for a policy that, in opposition to the interests of the established, is aimed at the common people. The term is not a battle term in English with the often negative connotation as in German.

The modern word populism is an artificial word formation from the original concepts of popularity or being popular . In the 19th century these were still understood as popular, - understandable to the people, intended for the people, affable - entering into popular custom. In addition to the Latin derivation, there is also the French meaning populace , in German mob or mob . Making something understandable to the people was called popularizing .

Long before the concept of populism in politics, people spoke of popular philosophy in the sciences . During the Enlightenment in the 18th century, it used to present philosophical problems in a generally understandable form. Representatives were e.g. B. Christian Garve , Johann Jakob Engel , Johann Georg Sulzer , Thomas Abbt or Moses Mendelssohn .

Colloquial language

The Duden (21st edition) explains the term as an opportunistic policy that “ seeks to win the favor of the masses”. In colloquial language , this is a common accusation against certain parties and individual politicians. The term is then catchword used to criticize the manipulation and exploitation of the population for their own purposes. Among other things, it stands for the accusation of trying to win votes with empty or unrealistic promises, for personal striving for power and a lack of sense of responsibility for the political future of the country and its citizens.

Politicians labeled as populists, on the other hand, often emphasize their "closeness to the citizens" in contrast to "established" politics, accuse their opponents of being problem-blind, of acting undemocratically and of being committed to elitist particular interests .

Social science

In the social sciences, there are three basic approaches to understanding political populism: 1.) as (“thin”) ideology, 2.) as strategy, 3.) as style; or as a combination of these three elements.

The Encyclopedia of Democracy defines populism as a “political movement that emphasizes the interests, cultural traits, and spontaneous sentiments of the common people as opposed to those of a privileged elite. In order to legitimize themselves, populist movements often address the majority will directly - through mass assemblies, referendums or other forms of direct democracy - without much interest in the separation of powers or the rights of minorities. "

Political scientist Cas Mudde defines populism as “an ideology that assumes that society is divided into two homogeneous, antagonistic groups, the 'pure people' and the 'corrupt elite', and which asserts that politics is an expression of volonté générale or the general popular will ”.

According to sociologist Karin Priester , populism is “not a substance, but a relation”; it cannot be defined out of itself, but only in relation to or in demarcation from another (opponent). Political scientist Paul Taggart describes populism as "inherently incomplete"; he attests that it has an “empty heart”. The external characteristics of populism could therefore be filled with very different values ​​and goals in terms of content or linked to them. In Michael Freeden's terminology, it is referred to as a “thin ideology” that can be based on various “host ideologies”. Taggart compares populism with a chameleon that adapts its ideological coloring to the values ​​of the population in its respective “core area” (heartland) .

The sociologists Hartmut Rosa , Henning Laux and Ulf Bohmann use the example of financial market regulation to describe the “sociological paradox” of populism: The populist demand “to act at last instead of just talking” strengthens political forces that promise quick and easy solutions. Systematic immediate decisions by the executive would, however, make the time-consuming formation of opinions and wills impossible for a pluralistic public. The more the desire for unconditional acceleration of political action is met, the more likely it becomes that participatory procedures will be shortened or circumvented. A corresponding political style could in turn lead to the confirmation of the populist perception that only “those up there” would decide among themselves.

Anton Pelinka describes populism in general as “a protest directed against the control mechanisms that are intended to avoid direct 'rule of the people'.” This is based on a radical understanding of democracy, according to which democracy - based on Abraham Lincoln - “government of the people, for the people and by the people ”. Populists favored plebiscitary or direct democracy while disregarding representative forms. Intermediate institutions such as parliaments or parties are secondary, if not a hindrance, for the “true” democracy that populism is striving for. Even if they were democratically legitimized in the traditional sense, these institutions would only presume to speak for “the people”. However, Pelinka complains of the inflationary use of the term populism, which is often vague and arbitrarily used as a fighting term or excuse.

The US political scientist Marc F. Plattner from the National Endowment for Democracy sees populism as a majority- oriented understanding of democracy beyond liberalism and constitutionalism : “Populists want what they believe to be the will of the majority to prevail - often through a charismatic populist leader guided - and with as few obstacles or delays as possible. ”Therefore, they would have little understanding for the liberal emphasis on procedural subtleties and the protection of individual rights. In addition to their basic anti-liberal tendency, according to Plattner, populist currents can also act as a wake-up call for members of a country's elite if they have become comfortable because of their own privileges and / or if their political positioning has moved too far from the majority opinion.

Hans-Georg Betz regards populist rhetoric as an opportunist strategy , which is geared towards "seizing, mobilizing and emotionally heating up resentments that are latent or open in the population and making political capital out of them".

According to Jan Jagers and Stefaan Walgrave, populism can also just be a certain style of communication that political actors use towards the people. In this case they speak of “thin populism” (as opposed to ideological “thick populism”). Benjamin Moffitt and Simon Tormey suggest viewing populism primarily as a question of political style associated with the dismantling of ideological contradictions and the increasing “stylization” of politics. They concentrate on its “performative” and “aesthetic” elements and characterize populism through a simplification of the political discourse, “clean us versus the opposites” and proposed solutions that are limited to short, concise keywords (“sound-bite solutions ").

The political scientist Ernesto Laclau understands populism as a performatively effective discourse strategy that aims at a simplification and bipolar division of the political discourse. Various demands are bundled and placed in an antagonistic position in relation to established politics. For Laclau there is no political intervention that is not, at least to some extent, populist.

Jan-Werner Müller sees less the content and form of a statement as the criterion for populism than the type of justification: If this is neither democratic nor scientific, but is derived from an alleged “popular will” that can neither be checked nor proven and thus blocks any pluralistic discourse , it is populism in the methodological sense.

“Populists present themselves as the only true representatives of the people. They describe the elite as corrupt and only interested in their own benefices. They oppose it with a supposedly pure, homogeneous, so to speak unspoiled people. [...] Populists present themselves as the only legitimate voice of the people. They do not accuse their political opponents of upholding the wrong programmatic points or values, they deny them their political legitimacy as such in a much more fundamental way. "

History of populism

According to its conceptual origin, populism is also related to historical manifestations, e.g. B. on tyrants of Greek antiquity , the Populares ( populare ) in the late Roman Republic , the agitation of mendicant friars ( Dominicans , Capuchins ) in the Middle Ages and in the early modern period , or to the social-revolutionary Russian populists . Ancient historians like Lukas Thommen see parallels to the political style of the Populares in the Roman civil wars and class struggles, which turned against the ruling conservative aristocratic elite of the Optimates .

Beginnings in the USA

The term was coined as a self-designation of the farmer movement in the United States , which - starting from the Farmers' Alliance of the 1870s in Texas  - against the in New York City focused big business for a policy of cheap credit, the silver currency, referendum democracy and agricultural recycling cooperatives struggled and founded the People's Party in 1889/1890 . The party was supported by the peasant revolt against high interest rates on loans and transport charges (railroad oligopoly ). It flourished most among farmers in the Southwest and the Great Plains . About 45 members of the party sat in Congress between 1891 and 1902. The goals of the party were, among other things, the abolition of national banks, a tiered income tax , the direct election of senators ( 17th Amendment to the United States Constitution ) and a reform of the public administration. Conspiracy theories were widespread in this movement.

The Democratic Party took up some of these demands and ideas, so that they had an impact in the New Deal . US consumer and anti-trust movements are also seen in this tradition of populism. Overall, this term was rated more positively in the USA than in Europe and was used neutrally by scientists; It was not necessarily - apart from the era of McCarthyism - connoted with xenophobia, but represented a recourse to the promise of democracy made by the US founding fathers.

Modernization Movement or Anti-Modern Reaction?

There is disagreement among historians as to whether the US populism movement at the end of the 19th century was more anti-modern (combined with the accusation that the peasant movement saw simple and rural life as an ideal state) or, on the contrary, modern (e.g. because of the overarching political goals of promoting education among farmers and promoting cooperation among farmers in the Farmers' Alliance ). Tim Spier sees populist movements like that of the US farmers as reactions to more or less successful or even failed modernization movements, the ambivalent consequences of which create the conditions for a broad mobilization of the losers in modernization.

Although this movement was not a permanent part of the political landscape in the USA, the Populist Party initiated important political decisions such as term restrictions and secret elections . Some of their positions were adopted by other movements and politicians in the course of the following decades, for example in the program of the modernization policy of the New Deal (see above). This led to the renewal of agriculture, banking, electricity supply, unemployment and social programs, the introduction of minimum wages, the ban on child labor and a cultural renewal. However, as the New Deal continued to open to the left and threaten the influence of the southern states on the party, the white southern people responded with racism.

Manifestations in the 20th century

In the 1970s, American neoconservatives called the ecology , women's and peace movements in the USA populist in order to devalue them as an anti-modernist, irrational and regressive movement (“back to the Stone Age” etc.). Neo-Marxists, on the other hand, called Margaret Thatcher's politics populist. This British Prime Minister had succeeded in portraying the previously ruling Labor government as a “power bloc” and replacing it with demands for “more personal initiative and freedom” against “those up there”, although her policy of social cuts put some of her voters at a disadvantage.

In France, populist movements such as the tax strike movement led by Pierre Poujade (1920–2003) by small traders and craftsmen in the 1950s are also referred to as poujadist .

According to Pierre Bourdieu , populism is "always just ethnocentrism with the opposite sign", in that members of the elites, contrary to their mainstream and "for populist motives ... recognize the people as it were an innate knowledge of politics" and thus make proselytes among the lower classes of the population .

Latin America is considered a center of populist politics. For some observers, it represented the most important political force of the 20th century there, since it had brought about the subordination of broad sections of the population to a political leader. There populist regimes came to power for a long time: Juan Domingo Perón , Argentine President from 1943–55 and 1973–74, Eva Perón (without any ministerial office), Getulio Vargas , head of government in Brazil from 1930–45 and from 1950–54 and President Lázaro Cárdenas (1934–40) in Mexico. The younger left-wing populist governments of Presidents Hugo Chávez in Venezuela (1999–2013), Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva in Brazil (2003–2011), Cristina Fernández de Kirchner in Argentina (2007–2015) or Evo Morales in Bolivia (2006–2019) However, they are measured by different standards than those usual in Europe: “When Morales guarantees the impoverished population of Bolivia a minimum pension of barely 50 euros in old age, this is called 'populist election gifts' in German newspapers. But when the minimum rate of state social benefits in Germany is set at eight times the Bolivian national pension, then the same newspapers speak of 'social cuts'. "


The effects of accelerated socio-economic change as well as cultural influences and fear of threats as well as problems of identification with the political structure of institutions are considered as causes favoring populism. The underlying factors and manifestations influence each other and form a causal relationship. The sociologist Cornelia Koppetsch considers three factors to be necessary for the emergence of significant populist protest movements:

  • structural downgrading of significant parts of the population
  • a legitimation crisis of the existing order
  • structurally threatening crisis events.

Politics remote from citizens

As causes of increased incidences of populism are among other too much distance and distinction between the interests and language of the population on the one hand and the rulers and the establishment on the other. This leads to a lack of direct or representative democratic representation and a lack of closeness to the citizens .

Political scientists see another reason for the success of populists in the dissatisfaction of voters with consensus democracy . Originally, it was supposed to guarantee the participation of all social groups in politics. However, since fewer and fewer citizens identify with traditional milieus , they see their interests inadequately represented by the negotiation-oriented “backroom politics” of the established parties.

Emotional aspects: fear of decline, alienation and denationalization

Actual and perceived causes and forms of expression of populism sometimes get mixed up, for example through fear of state failure and unemployment , through dwindling social security and fear of social decline , falling or threatened prosperity , fear of crime , the falling importance of popular parties , conditions perceived as oligarchical , rejection of value and culture change or zeitgeist or rejection of the “ mainstream ”, the rejection of the Islamization of non-Islamic regions, the contrast between rural and urban areas, media criticism , criticism of capitalism and globalization , dwindling freedom of opinion and loss of sovereignty , increasing centralism , religious belief and bureaucratization . The fear of a loss of sovereignty is particularly widespread in the EU, as the state's renunciation of sovereignty goes further here than in the rest of the world, since the states concerned, in addition to the loss of competences forced by globalization, have additional responsibilities, e.g. B. for border security voluntarily to the supranational EU level.

Also playing emotional aspects often play a role in the spread of populist rhetoric and politics, about prejudice , stereotypes , alienation and fears of foreign infiltration , human overwork , the desire for social slowing down or feeling modernization losers to be.

Cornelia Koppetsch sees that the declassed of the descending milieus perceive their descent as a process of release from the civilized code of conduct, social decoupling and de-socialization. With the devaluation of competencies or previously valid standards of value and behavior, the level of affect control and discipline would decrease. The feeling of being at the mercy of unknown powers as a passive object means alienation. Koppetsch thinks that there have been similar developments before and therefore cites Norbert Elias that groups affected by downgrading feel “degraded in their self-worth” and a loss of power triggers their “bitter resistance, an often hardly realistic desire for the restoration of the old order” .

Socio-economic causes

Various authors see populism not as the cause of the threat to modern democracies, but rather as a consequence of increasing economic and social inequality and exclusion , which cannot be effectively reduced by democratic means. The historian Werner Scheidel sees a connection between the increasing economic and social inequality in Germany since the 1980s and the susceptibility to populism. Since, from a historical point of view, economic inequality has never diminished by itself and peacefully, but always only through violent redistribution in the form of wars and disasters, a further intensification of the conflicts between economic elites and the disadvantaged is quite conceivable. Scottish regional economist Andrew Cumbers takes a similar position . He has developed an Economic Democracy Index on economic marginalization, which is intended to show the connection between social and economic exclusion on the one hand and xenophobia on the other in 32 OECD countries. The connection is particularly clear in neglected old industrial regions such as South Wales , Ohio or Michigan . But Cumbers points out that there are other causes for racism as well.

For Norbert Berthold , too, it is primarily the economically “left behind” who follow the populist parties. The globally open markets have put the jobs of workers with simple qualifications - especially male industrial workers - at risk. For the social cohesion of society, social capital is decisive, which arises through mutual trust. This is easier to build up in homogeneous societies with a similar cultural background. With mass immigration, fears arise that immigration will erode social capital and destabilize society.

The economist Adalbert Winkler criticizes a. a. that "at the European and global level for central economic and socio-cultural issues there (is) no political authority capable of acting that is able to correct undesirable developments warned by citizens in these areas", which consist in the fact that " Subsidies, regulations and privileges that protected the socio-cultural peculiarities of a country ”will be dismantled without replacement.

Shifts in weight in the democratic institutional structure

For Michael Zürn , both the socio-economic and the cultural explanation of the causes of the recent surge in populism are only partially convincing. From a socio-economic perspective, it remains unclear why losers from globalization turn to authoritarian populism and not to left-wing populism that promises immediate social protection. Zürn prefers a political approach that includes a decline in acceptance of the political system that has not given enough consideration to their wishes and interests among “less educated and more closely connected” social classes since the 1960s.

A semi-pragmatic, semi-technocratic policy of compromise negotiated by experts and professionalized party leaders seems to many to be too distant and bureaucratized. As a result, there was an alienation between voters and party representatives. On the other hand, “non- majority institutions” such as central banks and constitutional courts enjoyed a high level of trust for a long time. “In the past few years it became clearer what had always been laid out in the non-majority institutions: a liberal- cosmopolitan basic orientation. Courts protect individual rights against the will of the majority, international institutions aim for open borders and supranational decision-making powers and the central banks support a monetary economic policy. "For many people with close ties to their home country, this gave the impression, according to Zürn, that they were dominated by non-majority institutions, but not represented. Also Karin priest cites as reasons for increasing populism "narrowing of politics on technocratic governance, deliberative on collusion between policy makers, and democratically legitimized experts and the supposed no alternative to political parties".

Argumentation structures

Topics are preferred which arouse strong emotions in many citizens and which defy the traditional right-left allocation to the extent that they relate to national or global issues (e.g. immigration). Populism argues (apparently) in a non-class-specific manner and claims to create a prerequisite for the formation of a common identity and to represent the general.

Karin Priester names the basic elements of populist thought and argumentation structures:

  1. the juxtaposition of "common people" and elites
  2. the appeal to the people's judgment, which is still unadulterated by the elites, or to common sense
  3. the conspiracy-theoretical denunciation of the machinations of the elites
  4. the moralization of the discourse (truth vs. untruth; moral spinelessness of the elites)
  5. the evocation of crisis and decline
  6. the legitimation basis of the "common people" as "voice of God" (higher power)

According to this, a dichotomous worldview is typical which “does not derive its legitimation from political demands, but from a previous, higher morality”.

The political scientist Harald Schmidt defines the term in a similar way. The focus of the agitation is placed on “the people”, who are assumed to have both political maturity and unified interests, which means that they are opposed to the paternalistic and selfish interests of the “elites”. In the populist worldview, the “good citizen” as a trustworthy ideal type represents the broad majority of the population, their interests, the interests of the people and, ultimately, the general will of the people. The result is a fictitious, homogeneous national community with a unified but unclear will that is faced by various opponents. These are both the ruling elites and “those parts of the population who utterly refused to recognize the will of the people as their own and to identify with it”. Populists present themselves in the name of the "common people" as challengers to these "oppressors". The dichotomy between “we, the people” and “those who oppress us, harm us, hinder us” is a common element in otherwise very different populist movements. In the context of right-wing populism, there is often a focus on strong, charismatic leaders.

Directions of populism

Vlaams Belang , even as Vlaams Blok, received up to 24 percent of the vote in Flanders.

If populism is understood as a mere strategy to gain power, it can be combined with both “left” and “right” political goals. According to Florian Hartleb , who examined the Rule of Law Offensive party and the PDS in his case study and classified them as right-wing or left-wing populist parties, however, there is no fixed catalog of criteria for classifying a party as right-wing or left-wing populist.

Right-wing populism

Herbert Kitschelt describes the program of right-wing populist parties as a “combination of decidedly ' ultra-liberal ' economic positions and an authoritarian and particularist approach to questions of participatory democracy , civil rights and lifestyles”. Central mobilization topics are mostly the rejection of the political establishment , “neoliberal” economic-political demands and a racist , culturalist and / or (location-) nationalist identity politics . Florian Hartleb contradicts Kitschelt. A “pronounced neoliberalism ” only applies to some of the right-wing populist parties. Rather, parties like the Front National or Vlaams Blok were oriented towards the welfare state .

For Wolfgang Merkel and Robert Vehrkamp, ​​the dangerous thing about right-wing populism is “its ethnic nationalism in the guise of a populist-illiberal concept of democracy. [...] It is the playing off of the great idea of popular sovereignty against the rule of law, which makes democracy possible with the unconditional safeguarding of civil and political rights. ”Right-wing populists deformed democracy and undermined it.

The marginalization of neo-fascism associated with the rise of right-wing populist parties and the changed program are partly understood as a modernization movement of right-wing extremism. Examples of right-wing populist parties are usually the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ), the French Front National , the Polish Prawo i Sprawiedliwość , the Belgian Vlaams Belang (formerly Vlaams Blok ), the Danish Dansk Folkeparti , the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid , the Norwegian Fremskrittspartiet , the Italian Lega Nord , the Swiss People's Party (SVP) and the Alternative for Germany (AfD).

The right-wing populist parties in Germany include the AfD, the Republicans , the Statt Party , the Federation of Free Citizens , the Rule of Law Party and Pro Köln . In comparison with right-wing populist parties in other Western European countries, this tendency was rather unsuccessful in the Federal Republic of Germany until recently; However, the AfD was able to achieve over 12% in the 2017 federal election and thus moved into the Bundestag. The previous rather weak results are explained in the social science debate with the inability of the previous right-wing populist parties to exploit the voter potential that exists in Germany as well. The reasons given include the lack of political skills on the part of right-wing populist actors, the lack of a convincing leader and the political culture shaped by German history .

Even within right-wing populism, there are clearly distinguishable currents that can even be contradicting in some aspects. The Perussuomalaiset (“True Finns”) represent traditionally conservative values ​​and are authoritarian on socio-cultural issues, while Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands had a socio-cultural libertarian program and did not focus on the nation or an ethnic popular term, but on the “Western” culture oriented.

The Swiss political scientist Laurent Bernhard writes that right-wing populism is developing primarily in northern Europe, while southern Europe tends towards left-wing populism. A special case is France, where both forms are present.

Left populism

Left-wing populist parties also show typical characteristics of populism. In addition, however, they have a political orientation close to socialism and social democracy . For example, they emphasize social justice , anti-capitalism , anti-globalization and pacifism . Compared to the older socialist and social democratic parties, however, class issues and socialist ideology are less important in left-wing populist parties. In contrast to right-wing populism, which practices the exclusion of certain groups of people, left-wing populism is about the equal possible inclusion and participation of underprivileged social groups. This is to be achieved through improved participation and through redistribution of social wealth. To strive left populists typically an addition to the existing state institutions standing, parliamentary uncontrolled, but bonded directly to the respective leader clientele system on.

Left-wing populism is particularly widespread today in Latin America (Argentina, Bolivia, Brazil, Chile, Ecuador, Guyana, Peru, Uruguay and Venezuela). Well-known left-wing populist politicians are Evo Morales (Bolivia), Rafael Correa (Ecuador), Fernando Lugo (Paraguay) and Hugo Chávez (Venezuela).

According to Andrej Zaslove, left-wing populism also has a long history in the United States and Canada . Examples in Europe are Green politics in Germany the party PDS , in Italy against the government Berlusconi addressed Girotondi movement of 2002-03, in Eastern Europe, the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia , or the Communist Party of Slovakia .

Further distinctions

In addition to (radical) right-wing populism, Cas Mudde names two other types of populist parties in Europe: social populists and neoliberal populists. Other populism researchers have adopted these categories. According to this, radical right-wing or national populism is combined with ethnonationalism as a “host ideology”, neoliberal (radical market) populism is combined with neoliberalism and social populism with democratic socialism .

Christoph Butterwegge stated as early as 2008 that "modern right-wing extremism or right-wing populism [...] cannot be detached from its socio-economic framework, but should only be understood in the context of greater global market dynamics". The radical market neoliberalism plays a dominant role in daily politics as well as in everyday consciousness; it is an expression of the fact that the primacy of politics has ended. Against the imposition of universalist market laws that include the globalization of labor markets and cultures, right-wing populists try to erect local and national protective fences, while left-wing populists want to achieve universal equality through redistribution.

When describing populist parties in the post-communist countries of Central and Eastern Europe, the political scientist Kai-Olaf Lang differentiates between seven types of populists: national populists , left- wing populists , agrarian populists, middle-class populists, national liberals and national conservatives , social populists and law-and-order populists. He summarizes the first three groups as “hard” and the other four as “soft populists”. The latter includes not only parties on the fringes of the political spectrum, but also large and relatively moderate ones, e.g. B. Občanská democická strana in the Czech Republic and Fidesz in Hungary (national liberal or national conservative), Law and Justice in Poland (Law and Order), Smer in Slovakia and the Estonian Center Party (social populist) as well as Res Publica in Estonia and Jaunais laiks in Latvia (populism the middle).

Using a broad concept of populism, Klaus von Beyme also defines the Greens in their early phase and the “ angry citizens ” of the international Occupy movement as representatives of varieties of populism. He describes the Pirate Party Germany as “grassroots-democratic-populist”. The attempt to capture “everything that deviates from representative democracy” as populism has been criticized from other quarters.

Austrian author Sylvia Szely talks in relation to the populism of the young political leaders of Europe like Sebastian Kurz and Luigi Di Maio that the Generation Y come from a light populism . They set themselves apart from right-wing hardliners and grew up with the Internet and mobile communication, with advertising and marketing. They experienced the terrorist attack on the Twin Towers in New York and other global crises at a young age and are therefore relatively resistant to feelings of insecurity; They are also "masters in improvising" and manage their parties and governments "like a CEO his company".

Strategic aspects of populism and criticism of populism

Populism can also consist of a strategy for presenting political content. The core of right-wing populism is provocation, breaking taboos, according to Wolfgang Merkel and Robert Vehrkamp. The characteristics of populist strategy include emotional campaigns that promote simplistic solutions to complex problems. It is often a question of political opportunism with the aim of winning over voters. Those who are called populists, on the other hand, like to portray themselves as someone who takes up taboo topics and fights a supposedly remote politics.

On the other hand, it is criticized that almost every popular political demand is treated and dismissed as populist, which corresponds to the real or presumed majority will of the population, but which contradicts the objectives or the political practice of the rulers. Critics see it as a disturbed relationship to democracy, especially when unpopular governments claim "greater insight" for their actions.

The philosopher and sociologist Oliver Marchart criticizes the strategy of fending off mass demands as “populist”, as an expression of “liberal anti-populism”, a defense strategy against conceivable alternatives without having to go into the contents of the alternatives: If true, that “populism per se Has no specific ideological content, then the blanket criticism of populism is also meaningless. Because then only a certain form of mobilization is criticized. What is specifically mobilized for is then irrelevant. ”He also considers the strategy of shaming the voters of populist parties to be ultimately counterproductive:“ Shaming people is one of the most effective ways to keep them quiet because it also internalizes their own subordinate position. [...] Poverty and unemployment are increasingly portrayed as self-inflicted through politics in recent years. But the shaming of the so-called right-wing voters as male, white racists is also counterproductive. "

Populism and media

Paul Virilio saw the influence of the media on politics as a main cause of the rise of populist currents as early as the 1990s: the virtualization of politics and its shift into the media space prepared the ground for Silvio Berlusconi's success in Italy ; the change of power between parliamentary forces is replaced by a change of power between politics and the media, and the importance of the elections is replaced by opinion polls and audience ratings.

The “media logic” of modern “media democracy” is also seen in media studies as a breeding ground for “populist moods”. The media logic regulates primarily according to the system of the selection logic the selection of the messages according to their event and message value and according to a rule system of the presentation logic . According to the presentation logic, the aim is to achieve a maximum of “ sustained public interest ” for the selected news by means of a catalog of criteria of “staging forms” . This leads to “levels of presentation” in almost all media, which are characterized by “exciting theatrical productions”.

In this context, a communication structure shaped by both political actors and media observers, in which the public presentation of politics and its actual implementation are separated from each other, is a special breeding ground for populism. Media scholars like Thomas Meyer count among the manifestations in this regard "symbolic pseudo-politics", "media-appropriate theatricalization", "event politics" and "image politics". According to Andreas Dörner, these forms are called politainment .

Some mass media are also accused of populism, in the USA for example the television station Fox News , in Great Britain the tabloid The Sun , in Germany the Bild , in Austria the Kronen Zeitung and in Switzerland the Blick .

Populism and Conspiracy Theories

Correlations between contemporary populism and conspiracy theories have been found in the scientific literature for some time . Examples of the frequent occurrence of conspiracy theories among populists include the Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez , the Polish ruling party Prawo i Sprawiedliwość , the Hungarian ruling party Fidesz and German right-wing populism, where the view is widespread that the refugee crisis is the work of secret elites, who were up to a re- population or a destruction of the values ​​of the Christian West . The proximity between the two ways of thinking is explained, among other things, by the elite criticism they share and the complexity reduction typical for both . In addition, the relationship between populism and conspiracy theories can be explained by the tendency of some populists to view the supposedly impartial observations of "simple people" as the only true knowledge and to present scientific knowledge as something that is based on the interests of power and profit or the political convictions of one academic elite, as the communication scientists Niels G. Mede and Mike S. Schäfer describe with the concept of “science-related populism”. According to the German Americanist Michael Butter , conspiracy theories are not a necessary element of populist discourse, insofar as it can get by without them, but he succeeds in integrating conspiracy theorists and non-conspiracy theorists.

In two social psychological studies from 2017, a significant correlation between populist and conspiracy theoretic beliefs could be demonstrated as far as belief in malicious global conspiracies is concerned, in which small groups control world events and access to information at the public's expense. In contrast, there was no significant correlation to conspiracy theories that accuse their own government of crime and terrorism . There was even a negative statistical relationship to conspiracy theories on the subject of physical and mental health (mind control, anti-vaccination ). The authors explain this by the fact that health-related conspiracy theories are widespread in better-off social milieus, which are less prone to populism. In addition, the criticized elites are regularly accused in conspiracy theories of being evil , while in populism they are merely portrayed as greedy and selfish. A conspiracy-theoretic worldview, on the other hand, appears to be a strong predictor of the basic populist convictions of anti- elitism and a popular will, which is imagined as a unified volonté générale .

Political scientists Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead argue that Donald Trump is arguing both populist and conspiracy ideological: He presents himself as both a defender of the people (for example against illegal immigration) and a victim of conspiracies (the National Park Service would be the real number keep the visitor secret at his inauguration ). Both models of argument would reject pluralism. Nevertheless, populism remains within the limits of representative democracy and is fundamentally accessible to arguments, evidence and common sense. The new conspiracy ideology that Rosenblum and Muirhead see, however, rely solely on repeated assertions. In addition, populists would focus on the supposedly spontaneous, authentic voice of the people, while conspiracy theorists claim that they alone understand what is really going on in false flag operations and the machinations of the "Deep State" . In this respect, they see themselves as a new elite with privileged access to secret knowledge. These conspiracy ideologies thus represented an attack on democracy.

Political antidotes

In order to defend the basic values ​​of the existing democratic order, it is important for Michael Zürn to criticize the status quo without making “the system” contemptible. There is only one promising way: "to advocate the democratization of the European and international institutions, to enable political competition at international level and to equip these institutions with regulatory power to prevent neoliberal excesses." There is a risk of "completely succumbing to the authoritarian populists." Combatting them through "preventive renationalization", however, is like "suicide for fear of death."

Wolfgang Merkel and Robert Vehrkamp recommend a “two-pronged anti-populism” that focuses on the one hand on demarcation and on the other on responsiveness in the sense of closer ties to the voters. Populists who mobilized along the old social and the new cultural lines of conflict had no offers of their own to overcome them. This would have to come from the democratic, anti-populist counter-mobilization. "A more distributive social policy, more social housing, more educational opportunities for everyone, more pension equality and affordable care for everyone," the authors say, referring to the current situation in Germany, "are therefore not only sensible politics, but building blocks of successful anti-populism."


  • Jasper von Altenbockum : Populists in Europe. The virus of totalitarian democracy. In: Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, February 5, 2017.
  • Ulf Bohmann, Henning Laux , Hartmut Rosa : Desynchronization and Populism. A sociological experiment on the democratic crisis using the example of financial market regulation . In: Kölner Zeitschrift für Soziologie und Sozialpsychologie 70 (2018), pp. 195–226.
  • Carina Book, Nikolai Huke, Norma Tiedemann, Olaf Tietje (eds.): Authoritarian Populism . 2020, ISBN 978-3-89691-257-2 .
  • Winfried Brömmel, Helmut König , Manfred Sicking: Populism and extremism in Europe. Sociological and socio-psychological perspectives . transcript, Bielefeld 2017, ISBN 978-3-8376-3838-7 .
  • Ralf Dahrendorf : Eight comments on populism. In: Transit , 2/2003 ( online ).
  • Frank Decker (Ed.): Populism - Danger to Democracy or Useful Corrective? VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2006, ISBN 978-3-531-14537-2 .
  • Helmut Dubiel : Populism and Enlightenment . edition suhrkamp 1376, Frankfurt am Main 1986, ISBN 3-518-11376-3 .
  • Roger Eatwell, Matthew Goodwin: National Populism. The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy. Pelican Books, London 2018, ISBN 978-0-241-31200-1
  • Richard Faber , Frank Unger: Populism in the past and present . Königshausen & Neumann, Würzburg 2008, ISBN 978-3-8260-3803-7 .
  • Susanne Frölich-Steffen, Lars Rensmann (ed.): Populists in power - populist governing parties in Western and Eastern Europe . Braunmüller, Vienna 2005, ISBN 978-3-7003-1521-6 (afterword: Cas Mudde).
  • Birgitt Haller, Anton Pelinka (Ed.): Populism. Challenge or danger to democracy (= study series on conflict research , volume 27). Sir Peter Ustinov Institute, NAP New Academic Press, Vienna 2013, ISBN 978-3-7003-1849-1 .
  • Florian Hartleb : Populism. In: Martin Hartmann, Claus Offe (ed.): Political Theory and Political Philosophy: a Handbook (= Beck'sche Reihe , Volume 1819), CH Beck, Munich 2011, pp. 53–55, ISBN 978-3-406- 60157-6 .
  • Florian Hartleb: Populism as a grave digger or a possible corrective to democracy? In: From Politics and Contemporary History, (2012) 5–6, pp. 22–29.
  • Florian Hartleb: International populism as a concept. Between style of communication and a fixed ideology . Nomos, Baden-Baden 2014, ISBN 978-3-8329-6889-2 .
  • Wolfgang Herles : The Complacency: Against Conformism in the Media and Populism in Politics. Munich 2015.
  • Richard Hofstadter: The Age of Reform; From Bryan to FDR. New York 1955.
  • Everhard Holtmann , Adrienne Krappidel, Sebastian Rehse: The drug populism - On the criticism of political prejudice. VS Verlag für Sozialwissenschaften, Wiesbaden 2006, ISBN 978-3-531-15038-3 .
  • Dirk Jörke , Veith Selk: Theories of Populism as an introduction. Junius, Hamburg 2017, ISBN 978-3-88506-798-6 .
  • Alexander Kirchner: Populism . In: Gert Ueding (Hrsg.): Historical dictionary of rhetoric . Volume 11. WBG, Darmstadt 2011, Sp. 933-946.
  • Cornelia Koppetsch: The Society of Anger - Right-Wing Populism in the Global Age. transcript, Bielefeld 2019.
  • Ernesto Laclau : On Populist Reason . Verso, London 2005, ISBN 978-1-84467-186-1 (English).
  • Philip Manow : The Political Economy of Populism. suhrkamp 2018, ISBN 978-3-518-12728-5 .
  • Yves Mény, Yves Surel (Eds.): Democracies and the Populist Challenge . Palgrave Macmillan, Basingstoke 2014, ISBN 978-0-333-97004-1 .
  • Thomas Meyer : Populism and the media. In: Frank Decker (Ed.): Populism in Europe . VS Verlag, Wiesbaden 2006. Licensed edition for the Federal Agency for Civic Education Bonn, ISBN 3-89331-680-9 .
  • Sergiu Mișcoiu: Au pouvoir par le Peuple! Le populisme saisi par la théorie du discours. L'Harmattan, 2012.
  • Cas Mudde, Cristóbal Rovira Cold Water: Populism. A very short introduction. Oxford University Press, Oxford u. a. 2017.
  • Cas Mudde, Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser: Populism in Europe and the Americas. Threat or Corrective for Democracy? Cambridge University Press, New York 2012.
  • Jan-Werner Müller : What is populism? An essay , Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2016, ISBN 978-3-518-12697-4 .
  • Kolja Müller: popular uprising & bad luck. On the history of populism , Wagenbach, Berlin 2020, ISBN 978-3-8031-3696-1 .
  • Peter Peetz: Neopopulism in Latin America. The politics of Alberto Fujimori (Peru) and Hugo Chávez (Venezuela) in comparison (= Contributions to Latin American Studies , Volume 7). Institute for Ibero America customer, Hamburg 2001, ISBN 3-926446-85-4 (Master's thesis University of Hamburg 2001, 132 pages, 21 cm).
  • Karin Priester : Populism. Historical and current manifestations. Campus, Frankfurt am Main / New York, NY 2007, ISBN 978-3-593-38342-2 .
  • Karin Priester: Right and left populism. Approaching a chameleon. Campus, Frankfurt am Main 2012, ISBN 978-3-593-39793-1 .
  • Jutta Scherrer: Populism. In: Joachim Ritter, Karlfried founder, Gottfried Gabriel (Hrsg.): Historical dictionary of philosophy. Volume 7. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft, Sp. 1100-1104.
  • Bernd Stegemann : The Specter of Populism: An Essay on Political Dramaturgy. Theater der Zeit, Berlin 2017. (Short version: Bernd Stegemann: Der Liberale Populismus und seine Feinde . In: Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik , 2017/4, pp. 81–94.)
  • Paul Taggart: Populism. Buckingham, Philadelphia 2000.
  • Carlos de la Torre (Ed.): The Promise and Perils of Populism. Global Perspectives. University Press of Kentucky, 2015.
  • Bert van Roermund: Populism and Democracy: A Critique in Lefort's Footsteps. In: Andreas Wagner (Ed.): At the empty place of power. Nomos, Baden-Baden, pp. 143-166.
  • David Van Reybrouck : For a different populism. A plea (essay), Wallstein Verlag, Wallstein Verlag, Göttingen 2017, ISBN 978-3-8353-3157-0 . ( Review notes from Perlentaucher )
  • Nikolaus Werz (Ed.): Populism. Populists overseas and Europe (= Analyzes, Volume 7). Leske + Budrich, Opladen 2003, ISBN 978-3-8100-3727-5 .
  • Friso Wielenga , Florian Hartleb (ed.): Populism in modern democracy. The Netherlands and Germany in comparison. Waxmann, Münster a. a. 2011, ISBN 978-3-8309-2444-9 .
  • Daniel Hornuff . Listen carefully! From populism . Radio essay (SWR2) from September 25, 2017 ( manuscript (PDF))
  • Andreas Voßkuhle : Democracy and Populism , guest article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung , from November 23, 2017; faz.net
  • Jan Zielonka: Counter-Revolution. Liberal Europe in Retreat. Oxford University Press, Oxford 2018, ISBN 978-0-19-880656-1
    • Jan Zielonka: Counterrevolution. The withdrawal of liberal Europe. Campus Verlag, Frankfurt am Main 2019, 206 pp., ISBN 978-3-593-51009-5 .

University publications

  • Harald Schmidt. Populism - Danger or Opportunity for the Democratic Constitutional State? Supervisors: Joachim Detjen, Manfred Brocker, Catholic University Eichstätt-Ingolstadt 2015, DNB 1073584798 . Dissertation Catholic University of Eichstätt-Ingolstadt, 2009, full text (PDF).
  • Armin Zaak: Interpretation Patterns of Populism: A Comparative Analysis of the Framing of Populist Parties in Government Responsibility in Germany, Austria and Switzerland 1985-2013 . University of Hagen 2015, DNB 1064757944 . Fernuniversität Hagen 2014, full text (PDF).
  • Florian Hartleb : Left and Right Populism, a case study based on the Schill Party and PDS. VS, Wiesbaden 2004, ISBN 3-531-14281-X (Dissertation University of Chemnitz, 2004, 361 pages).

See also

Web links

Commons : Populism  - collection of pictures, videos and audio files
Wiktionary: Populism  - explanations of meanings, word origins, synonyms, translations


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  69. See for example Jovan Byford: Conspiracy Theories. A Critical Introduction . Palgrave Macmillan, New York 2011, p. 9 and ö .; Karin Priester : Right and left populism. Approaching a chameleon. Campus, Frankfurt am Main / New York 2012, p. 42. Jan-Werner Müller: What is populism? An essay. Suhrkamp, ​​Berlin 2016, p. 63. Laura Luise Hammel: Conspiracy, populism and protest. In: Politikum , 3 (2017), pp. 32–41.
  70. Bruno Castanho Silva, Federico Vegetti, Levente Littvay: The Elite Is Up to Something. Exploring the Relation Between Populism and Belief in Conspiracy Theories . In: Swiss Political Science Review , 23 (2017), Heft 4, pp. 423–443, here p. 423.
  71. Helmut Fehr: Elites and civil society. Legitimacy Conflicts in East Central Europe. Springer VS, Wiesbaden 2014, pp. 328-335. Bruno Castanho Silva, Federico Vegetti, Levente Littvay: The Elite Is Up to Something. Exploring the Relation Between Populism and Belief in Conspiracy Theories . In: Swiss Political Science Review , 23 (2017), Issue 4, pp. 423–443, here p. 424.
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  76. Bruno Castanho Silva, Federico Vegetti, Levente Littvay: The Elite Is Up to Something. Exploring the Relation Between Populism and Belief in Conspiracy Theories . In: Swiss Political Science Review , 23 (2017), Issue 4, pp. 423–443, here pp. 432 f. and 437.
  77. ^ Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead: A Lot of People Are Saying. The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy . Princeton University Press, Princeton 2019, ISBN 9-780-6912-0225-9, pp. 62-67 (accessed via De Gruyter Online).
  78. ^ Michael Zürn: Liberal Elites as an Object of Hate. Decisions are often influenced by European and international institutions, about whose top executives the population knows little. For many, this creates a strange feeling of being dominated by them but not represented . In: Der Tagesspiegel , October 21, 2018, p. 8; accessed on November 3, 2018.
  79. Wolfgang Merkel, Robert Vehrkamp: The populist temptation. Nation and people are once again thought of as exclusive and homogeneous. That is a fateful step backwards - and that is also the right to right-wing populism . In: Der Tagesspiegel , October 14, 2018, p. 7; accessed on November 4, 2018.