Many “Europhiles” felt relieved when they heard the results of the recent European parliamentary elections. Contrary to what some surveys had predicted, the populist parties did not get the results they hoped for, though they did manage to increase their share of seats in the European Parliament, which should make for a more complicated legislative session. An important change occurred: the two largest blocks (the Popular Party and Social Democracy) lost their absolute majority, ending the “great coalition” that had dominated the European project from its origins. The fear that gripped the political sphere had been fed by several populist parties coming to positions of power, as well as the influence that they were having on the agenda of the European Union (EU) and its member states. After Brexit, these elections served as a great test and populism set the tone. But it’s worth asking, “what does populism mean in Europe?”.
To respond to these questions we should begin by concentrating on a term that, even though it is very “fashionable” today, often seems confusing and controversial. Its usage and comprehension are not consistent in literature, media, and public discourse. As specialists have pointed out, it is common to use the expression “populist” as a way to discredit positions, people or ideas that one doesn’t agree with, lending a derogatory and pejorative connotation to the word. It’s used as a synonym for “popular,” “demagogue” “irresponsible” or for “false promises”. As Hans Jürgen Puhle asserts, “the concept of populism is imprecise, multifaceted and impressionistic” and it has become necessary to study its content more deeply, especially in a context where the advance of certain forces demands such study with ever-increasing urgency.
The origin of populism is not exclusively European. Some observers find these original populists in the United States and Russia, associating themselves in the 19th century with rural interests, within the framework of an agricultural economy (Russian Narodniki and the American People’s Party). In later decades a populism appeared in Latin America with its own properties. However, it is in the 1990s that European populism becomes really interesting. From that time, the debate on the subject has not been limited to the classical left/right cleavage, but has come to be complemented —and complicated— by distinctions between liberal/illiberal, pro-EU/anti-EU, globalism/anti-globalism, and nativism/multiculturalism.
“Since the 1990’s, populism in Europe has really become interesting. Since that time, the debate on the subject has not been limited to the classical left/right divide, but has come to be complemented —and complicated— by distinctions between liberal/illiberal, pro-EU/anti-EU, globalism/anti-globalism, and nativism/multiculturalism”.
There have been different approximations to the concept. It has been defined as an ideological strategy, a style of political communication and a political discourse. It has also been considered as “a special social configuration of political power, based on a direct social expression of popular sovereignty”, and so continues to be one of those problematic terms, not only from the point of view of political science but also in the political arena itself. Confronting criticism of the concept’s vagueness, authors like Dominique Reynié respond by saying that “the relative indeterminacy of meaning is not confined merely to ‘populism’: it is clear that the use of ‘nationalism’, ‘fascism’ or ‘liberalism’ is rarely more rigorous”. and cannot on such grounds be excluded as an object of study. In view of its increasing use, and the importance it has taken on beyond Europe, interest in the need for its clarification has increased. It would far exceed the objective of this article to mention all the theoretical approaches, arguments, or variables that explain its appearance and resurgence. Nevertheless, we want to at least sketch some general observations that have been made regarding its nature.
“Populists reassert ‘popular sovereignty’ —which explains their defense of democratic tools like referendums and plebiscites— and their rhetoric in favor of ‘common sense’ or ‘the man on the street’”.
Good people, corrupt elites
If there is a consensus, it’s that there is no consensus on how to define populism, or what its causes and effects are. However, we can see that little by little, at least certain elements of the concept have been shown to be important for its understanding. In this sense, both the discursive approach of Ernesto Laclau and the “ideational” vision of Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira coincide in conceptualizing populism as an ideology that divides society into two homogenous and antagonistic camps: “the ‘people’ (seen as an integral community) and the ‘elite’ (seen as a dishonest entity, interested only in its own benefit)”. A battle between “good people” against a “corrupt elite” in which the populists attempt to become the expression of the “general will” of said people.
As Mudde and Rovira recognize, among the differences between these definitions we find that one “tends to create a positive view of the role of populism, which is seen as a transformative force that manages to articulate unsatisfied demands within the political community”, while the second “tries to avoid judgements about populism” through “a more positivist tradition that seeks to produce empirical evidence” regarding this phenomenon. For his part, Manuel Anselmi, agreeing in part with those authors, judges populism to have the following traits:
– “A community, homogenous between classes, that perceives itself as the absolute owner of popular sovereignty. The community expresses an anti-establishment attitude. The people of the community assert that they are an alternative to pre-existing elites, who are accused of being exclusionist and causing the decadence of the political system”.
– “A leader in direct connection with the people of the community, except for penal populism”.
– “A discursive, argumentative style of communication that is always Manichean, where ‘us’ means the members of the community and ‘them’ means everyone outside of it. The discursive style is geared to creating political polarization”.
Jan-Werner Müller believes that populism is a threat to democracy and declares that “it is not in itself democratic and even tends, doubtlessly, to be antidemocratic”. For Dominique Reynié, populism owes some of its characteristics to the limitations of the new mass politics. This author holds that “going forward it is necessary to know how ‘to represent the people,’ justify power (or disqualify it), to address not only physically present crowds but also a dispersed public, mobilize interest groups, organize public opinion movements, create ideologies, programs of action…” For his part Anselmi estimates that “populism is deeply linked to the structural transformations of Western democracies, which are increasingly exposed to plebiscitary diversions (i.e. ballot initiatives) and are under constant attack from private interests”. However, he warns that reductionist interpretations ought to be avoided.
As we can see, one of the reasons for which it is so hard to define this concept lies in the complex relation between populism and democracy, especially with liberal democracy and the system of political representation. For some authors contemporary European populism is a threat to democracy. Others believe it is wrong to consider “the populist danger” as a risk for “democracy, European integration, the West, the international liberal order, or all of the above”. There are even those who defend populism, saying it “is not only the essence of politics, but an emancipatory force. In this approach liberal democracy is the problem and radical democracy, the solution”. Anselmi writes that populism responds to a demand for more democracy from the citizenry, however, once in power, it can go so far as to provoke the regression of democracy. The question centers partly on the —certainly complex— definition of democracy, and partly on the identification of the relationship it has with contemporary populism. Populists assert “popular sovereignty” —which explains their defense of the tools of direct democracy like referendums and plebiscites, and their discourse in favor of “common sense” or “the man in the street”. Once again, here the question arises of democracy and the people, and how to understand the dynamic between them. If one starts with the concept of democracy defined by Abraham Lincoln, all parties and movements within a democratic system seek the representation of the people and their help to win power. However, what differentiates populists and contemporary liberal democracy in this idea of the “people” is that,
“They view the representativity of our democracies with suspicion and thus claim that the people has been dispossessed of the possibility of self-government; the important decisions concerning them being taken by more or less anonymous large international groups that escape all control, or by ‘Brussels’, a phantasm continuously whipped up by anti-European propaganda, particularly but not solely in Eastern Europe. The people have lost their autonomy, as Maritain would say, and they are overtaken by dark, heterogeneous, uncontrollable powers”.
Populists contrast “real people” with “corrupt elites” who have betrayed them, who think they know what’s best for the people better than the people themselves. From here it becomes necessary to identify who belongs to this traitorous and dishonest elite. Depending on the variety of populism, this elite is identified with the political class that has traditionally held power (parties that have governed in Europe since the post-war period), the Eurobureaucracy, businessmen, banks, the media, judges, and even intellectuals, experts and academics. This is the “caste” that Podemos speaks of, or the “troika” that Syriza confronted in the Euro crisis. Michael Gove, current chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster in the Boris Johnson government, said during the Brexit campaign that “people in this country have had enough of experts”, a statement made to address the studies and figures that indicated the high costs of the United Kingdom leaving the EU.
“Populists contrast ‘real people’ with ‘corrupt elites’ who have betrayed them, who think they know what’s best for the people better than the people themselves. From here it becomes necessary to identify who belongs to this traitorous and dishonest elite. Depending on the variety of populism, this elite is identified with the political class that has traditionally held power (parties that have governed in Europe since the post-war period), the Eurobureaucracy, businessmen, banks, the media, judges, and even intellectuals, experts and academics”.
In the history of Europe, the phenomenon can be traced from the remarkable case of “Poujadisme”, which in the mid-50s had a not unappreciable electoral success. From its ranks emerged Jean Marie Le Pen, who would later lead the rise of the Frente Nacional (FN) in France in the 80s. The FN, together with the Freedom Party in Austria, began a movement that in recent years has acquired growing strength, even trying to become a “populist international” Support for populism has grown in a context marked by tensions of all kinds, such as the advances made by groups and parties that promote multiculturalism and the defense of new values (like the environment or the respect for human rights, especially of minorities), or periods of economic crisis. Despite the phenomenon at first being concentrated mainly on the far right, after the great crisis of 2008 —which began as a financial crisis before rapidly becoming a multidimensional “polycrisis”— movements and parties of the radical left surged in strength in the south of the continent (especially in Spain and Greece), showing populist traits. Consequently, a phenomenon that in Europe had been characterized principally as far right, began to find a development on the left of the political spectrum as well.
“Despite the phenomenon at first being concentrated mainly on the far right, after the great crisis of 2008 —that began as a financial crisis before rapidly becoming a multidimensional ‘polycrisis’— movements and parties of the radical left surged in strength in the south of the continent (especially in Spain and Greece), showing populist traits”.
Debate has also emerged regarding the causes of populism, whether they are cultural or economic. As Dani Rodrik puts it, “Are the presidency of Donald Trump, Brexit, and the growth of right-wing nativist parties in continental Europe the consequences of an increasing values gap between social conservatives and social liberals? Or do they reflect the economic anxiety and insecurity of many voters, fed by financial crises, austerity and globalization?” Among the answers given to these questions, Rodrik highlights the idea of cultural backlash presented by Pippa Norris and Ronald Inglehart in their book Cultural Backlash and the Rise of Populism: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. They argue:
“that authoritarian populism is the consequence of a long-term generational shift in values. As younger generations have become richer, more educated, and more secure, they have adopted ‘post-materialist’ values that emphasize secularism, personal autonomy and diversity at the expense of religiosity, traditional family structures and conformity. Older generations have become alienated—effectively becoming ‘strangers in their own land’. This process, moreover, is self-reinforcing: economic success in large cities validates urban values, while self-selection in migration out of lagging regions increases polarization further. In Europe and the US alike, homogenous, socially conservative areas constitute the basis of support for nativist populists.”
Other responses have linked the growth of populism to economic crises or even to the effects of China’s penetration into developed economies. Examples of this would be the support obtained by Trump in currently depressed sectors, or those affected by Chinese products, or the votes for Frente Nacional in areas affected by the relocation of companies and a decline in national production. The same argument is used to explain the support for Brexit or the growth of the AfD in Germany. From another point of view, the austerity measures applied in Europe would explain the triumph of Syriza in Greece and the growth of the Indignados in Spain.
The above must also be understood in a European context of increased migration, especially since the start of the Syrian crisis and the terrorist attacks. The migration crisis of 2015 came to lend an argument to the parties contrary to the arrival of migrants and defenders of a “pure” national society. Resistance to the welcoming of refugees and migrants and complying with the quotas agreed upon with the Commission has often been defended by racist or xenophobic arguments. These “nativist” arguments hace been present in the discourse of parties like Frente Nacional, Salvini’s Lega, and the AfD and Pegida in Germany. We do not find them in parties of the left. On the other hand, it has also been proposed that the problem of the crisis of political intermediation is one of the principle reasons behind the surge of populism, together with cases of corruption, nepotism and clientelism within the traditional parties.
We find ourselves in an epoch of changes and incertitude. This provokes anxiety in many. Anxiety can, in certain contexts, turn into annoyance and thence into rage. In a world in which social and political relations are transforming, with overinformation, social networks, data manipulation, crises and tensions, populist parties see the ideal scenario for their proposals to fire up emotions and turn them into political votes. The bad reading of the motivations of the most active citizens, with new and more exacting demands, by an astonished and self-absorbed political class that defends the current order without self-criticism or desire to adapt to new times, could be the element that allows this populist growth to continue, with all the risks that this implies.
We believe that populism can represent a threat to liberal democracy, especially when in the name of the “good people” —which excludes “the others”— it comes to limit freedoms and the rights of citizens, and to attack minorities. But we also believe that it can at the same time create opportunities to reflect on the defects of the democratic system and improve levels of representativity. Contemporary populism has mobilized sectors that previously were apathetic or distanced from politics, and put indispensable issues on the table, like the accountability of authorities. Therefore, we believe that the debate ought not to be closed with a defense of the status quo. Not all who vote for populist parties are racists, radicals, or xenophobes. Why a sector of the electorate sees in these parties an expression of their desires, fears, and resentments needs to be addressed in depth. Underestimating these voters is a mistake. Consequently, we can address populism not only as a “threat to” but also as “an opportunity for”. The greater mobilization of the citizenry and their greater involvement in political life imposes the challenge of re-politicizing the debate and retrospecting on the workings of liberal democracy, starting with the political parties, institutions, and mechanisms of representation themselves. Are we willing?
 Anselmi, M. (2018). Populism. An introduction. Routledge Editorial, page 5. Rioux, J.P. (2007) Les populismes. Tempus. Página 7.
 Mudde, C. y Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2019). Populismo. Una breve introducción. Alianza Editorial, S.A., Madrid. Página 13. Muro, D. “¡Dejemos que la gente gobierne! Definiciones y teorías del populismo”, https://www.cidob.org/es/articulos/cidob_report/n1_1/dejemos_que_la_gente_gobierne_definiciones_y_teorias_del_populismo, last consulted 11 August 2019. Müller, J.W. (2018) Qu’est-ce que le populisme? Définir enfin la menace. Collection Folio Essais, Gallimard. Page 36.
 Thus, for example, upon being asked what is populism, Mario Vargas Llosa declared that is “Before anything, irresponsible and demagogic politics of some governments that do not hesitate to sacrifice the future of a society for an ephemeral present”, in Vargas Llosa, A. (ed). (2017). El estallido del populismo. Editorial Planeta. Page 10.vvf
 Puhle, H.J. (2003). Zwischen Protest und Politiks-til: Populismus, Neo-Populismus und Demokratie. Pages 15-43, cited by Müller, J.W. (2018). Qu’est-ce que le populisme? Définir enfin la menace. Page 30.
 Mudde and Rovira have understood it as “a slender ideology, that sees society divided basically into two homogenous and antagonistic camps, the “pure people” vs. the “corrupt elite,” and that holds that politics ought to be the expression of the general will (volonté générale) of the people.” Ibid. page 33. Anselmi defines it as “a complex configuration, consolidated and compounded from political power based on popular sovereignty, that has changed with the times together with changes in politics, and that now represents an independent field of scientific analysis.” Ibid, page 2.
 Ibid, page 3.
 Comparable perhaps to the debates surrounding the definitions of “democracy,” “terrorism,” “self-determination of peoples,” “fascism,” “socialism,” and “liberalism” among others.
 Reynié, D. (2013). Les nouveaux populismes. Collection Pluriel. Pages 10-11.
 As it has been used to refer to diverse phenomena, it has been termed a “catch-all” concept or mot-valise.
 Mudde, C. and Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2019). Populismo. Una breve introducción. Alianza Editorial, S.A., Madrid. Page 16.
 Jan-Werner Müller agrees with this basic definition, although he has some differences with Mudde, Rovira, and Laclau.
 Mudde, C. y Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2019). Populismo. Una breve introducción. Alianza Editorial, S.A., Madrid. Page 17.
 Anselmi, M. (2018). Populism. An Introduction. Routledge Editorial, page 5. Rioux, J.P. (2007) Les Populismes. Tempus. Page 8.
 Müller, J.W. (2018) Qu’est-ce que le Populisme? Définir Enfin la Menace. Collection Folio Essais, Gallimard. Page 18.
 Reynié, D. (2013). Les Nouveaux Populismes. Collection Pluriel. Page 12.
 Anselmi, M. (2018). Populism. An introduction. Routledge Editorial, page 5. Rioux, J.P. (2007) Les Populismes. Tempus. Página 2.
 See Müller, J.W. (2018) Qu’est-ce que le Populisme? Définir Enfin la Menace. Collection Folio Essais, Gallimard y Mudde, C. and Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2019). Populismo. Una breve introducción. Alianza Editorial, S.A., Madrid.
 Stengel, F.A. & MacDonald, D.B. & Nabers, D. (2019). “Conclusion: Populism, Foreign Policy, and World Politics” in Populism and World Politics, Publisher: Palgrave Macmillan, pp.365-372
 This is the approach of Ernesto Laclau and Chantal Mouffe. Cited by Mudde, C. and Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2019). Populismo. Una breve introducción. Alianza Editorial, S.A., Madrid. Page 30. See also Retamozo, M. (2017) “La teoría del populismo de Ernesto Laclau: una introducción”. Estudios Políticos, volume nine, num. 41 (May-August, 2017): 157-184.
 “Government of the people, by the people, for the people.”
 Valadier, P. (2019). “Les populismes et l’appel au ‘peuple’”. in L’Europe et ses populismes. Collection Les Essentiels d’Études. Page 31.
 Gove, M. (1 August 2019). https://www.ft.com/content/3be49734-29cb-11e6-83e4-abc22d5d108c. Consulted last on 1 August 2019
Rodrik, D. (9 July 2019). “What’s Driving Populism?”, https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/economic-and-cultural-explanations-of-right-wing-populism-by-dani-rodrik-2019-07?utm_source=Project+Syndicate+Newsletter&utm_campaign=c160ba5549-sunday_newsletter_14_7_2019&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_73bad5b7d8-c160ba5549-105715097&mc_cid=c160ba5549&mc_eid=b73fbb52da, 9 July 2019. Last consulted 29 July 2019
 Rodrik, D. “What’s Driving Populism?”, Ibid.
 Rodrik, D. “What’s Driving Populism?”, link cited, mentions Dorn, Hanson, and Majlesi.
 Anselmi, M. (2018). Populism. An introduction. Routledge Editorial, page 5. Rioux, J.P. (2007) Les Populismes. Tempus. Page 3.