Populism and Democratic Theory

Jane Mansbridge, Stephen Macedo

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

51 Scopus citations


Commentators routinely describe "populism" as vague. Some argue that the early US populists, who coined the modern usage, were not populists. We disagree and identify this common conceptual core: the "people" in a moral battle against "elites." The core definition fits all cases of populism: those on the left and right, those in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. In addition to this minimal common core, we identify strongly suggested and frequently correlated non-core characteristics. These include the people's homogeneity and exclusivity, direct rule, and nationalism, as well as a single leader, vilification of vulnerable out-groups, and impatience with deliberation. The US Populist Party and Spain's Podemos Party fit the core definition but have few of the other characteristics. The core can be good for democracy, we argue, while the associated characteristics are often dangerous. Populism in opposition can be good for democracy, while populism in power carries great risks.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)59-77
Number of pages19
JournalAnnual Review of Law and Social Science
StatePublished - Oct 13 2019

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


  • antipluralism
  • core-plus
  • democratic theory
  • leader
  • liberal democracy
  • populism


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