The word “democracy” is derived from the Greek “demos,” meaning “the common people,” and “kratia,” meaning “rule.” The term “populism” is derived from the Latin “populus,” meaning “the people.” Populism and democracy are sociopolitical concepts that on the surface appear to be similar, but are not always. Political science researchers have shown that in fact, populism often can be antithetical to true democracy. Populist politicians may emerge with promises of working “for the people” in opposition to the wealthy elite. They may actually have a secret agenda to favor the elite, undermining democratic institutions and ultimately causing problems for the “common people” they once promised to serve.
The People in a Democracy
From a democratic standpoint, "the people" are defined as citizens who possess rights and duties. They have sovereignty that must be exercised within the limits of the law often codified in a constitution or charter. This framework spells out the ways that the people can exercise their rights and duties.
Populism Correcting Democracy
When the populace is frustrated with their perceived inability to affect legislation and regulate governance, they find populism encouraging. Leaders of an anti-establishment faction will often take a populist approach, rallying the followers with promises that the movement will address the wrongs committed against them by the ruling class. This can serve as a warning that the system is not working properly or is weakened. A populist movement may compel the establishment to make changes that benefit the lower and middle classes, including giving them more influence in government.
Populism Seeking a Return to Idealized Democracy
Populist leaders may rouse the people with rhetoric of political rebirth: the return to sovereign rule by the people, which is how they define classic democracy. The emergence of populism, however, can result in populist leaders acquiring more and more power and subverting the very democratic traditions they profess to uphold. Assurances of dismantling elitist politics can then lead to a highly authoritarian and centralized rule.
Autocracy and Demagoguery in Populism
Extreme populism works against any limitations on the manifestation of the public will. The majority must rule with no exception for the rights of individuals or concern for the repression of minority groups. Much populist rhetoric includes xenophobic, nationalistic and exclusionary language. The core members of the movement use the tools of democracy -- elections and town-hall meetings -- to consolidate their authority and eliminate dissenting voices. This can lead to racial intolerance and violence against those seen as outsiders by the “native” citizenry. The populist regime will distance itself from those acts, often accusing the victims of the violence of being the disruptive influence.
- Digital Vision./Digital Vision/Getty Images