Essay on Populism and Democracy

The populism concept is gaining much attention in the global forums of academic and public discourses. In the recent days, the foreign policy has overseen proliferation of populist parties and movements around the world. However, there are much debate and confusion around the concept of populism based on its analytical utility and its ability to explain meaningful global politics. As such, theorists perceive populism as a ‘thin’ ideology with a limited analytical use. The use of media has become ubiquitous due to its ease of use and constant accessibility. As a result, the global social networks have changed tremendously thus reshaping the political and international relations in a great deal. In supporting the rights and power of the people against the privileged elite, social media has become a crucial tool through which the goals are pursued. This paper seeks to explore the varied perceptions on the populism concept and its relevance to international relations. As well, the use of media in the less democratic states is explored with view of understanding how populists use them to achieve their goals.

Literature review
According to Mazzoleni (2008), the leaders of European populist movements and parties have a common feature of being compelling and charming and possess a great deal of media savvy. They seem to be representing the will of the masses but in reality, they are ‘the people’ themselves. Instead of representing the people, they consider themselves and succeed in being considered by the people. When such features combine, they bring about a lasting public notoriety and consistent media visibility giving them a political capital to pursue their personal agenda. Examples of such populists are Le Pen, Pim Fortuyn, and Austria’s Jorg Haider. Precisely, almost all populist leaders exhibit flamboyant traits and they pursue highly combative issues that catch the attention of the media fraternity for scrutiny. Evidently, populists and their movements rely on ‘media complicity’. Mazzoleni (2008) holds that the European media appear to have contributed issues legitimization and communication styles of populist leaders. As such, leaders who perform the role of “underdog” gain public attention through exploiting media’s proclivity to any issue that diverges from the norm. Such communication strategy easily captures the media coverage. The result of such ‘supply and demand’ relationship leads to increased visibility of populist messages to a wider audience. Therefore, it can be said that media can voluntarily or involuntarily be a powerful mobilization tool for populist agenda.

Moreover, Gidron & Bonikowski (2013) hold that populist politics can reshape repertoires associated with political mobilization. The populist politics has the ability to galvanize new methodologies of political engagement in an era of declined formal political participation depicted by turnouts and party memberships. In less democratic states, formal political participation is generally weak and thus the populist objectives are easily achieved in the name representing the people. At the time Gidron & Bonikowski (2013), believe that populism can erode democratic institutions and bring about competitive authoritarian regimes especially in unconsolidated democracies. What is more, populist messages are sometimes responsible for political polarization and even push strong political parties to the margin of collapsing. In addition, divisive political boundaries are brought about by populist politics through realignments.

The general comparative works of literature agree that populism is confrontational, chameleonic and context-independent. Thus the various forms of the concept are prevalent across regions and countries. For instance, Mudde and Kaltwasser (2012) discuss the relationship between populism and the democracy in Latin America, Canada, Eastern and Western Europe. In Europe, for instance, the right-wing kind of populism has been targeting immigrants and minority groups from its conception in the 1980s. On the other hand, the kind of populism practiced in Latin America is associated with inclusion of the society in the governmental and political endeavors where minorities and diverse ethnic combinations are involved in the political undertakings and frameworks. In the United States, the populist agenda involves economic ideologies and political parties meant to impact both the economy and political aspects of the common citizen. It is therefore evident that the populism concept is a multifaceted ideology that cuts across geographical, historical and ideological cleavages.

It is important to note that, it is difficult to find the actual ideology that links the various populist movements from different countries and regions because the different actors rely on the expansive understanding of the concept. In the British media, any political actor who features in the news for a substantive time risks of being named as a populist. Among the political actors who were named in the British press as ‘populists’ in 2007 include Jacob Zuma of South Africa, Gordon Brown former prime minister of Britain, and Mike Huckabee, the then conservative party presidential candidate of US. It is difficult to establish any commonality in these political leaders apart from the label of ‘populism’ in them.

However, when considering populism as an ideology as it was suggested by Cas Mudde in different studies, it becomes easier to identify key features of the phenomenon. According to Mudde (2004), the concept refers to the set of ideas featuring antagonism between the people or citizens and the elites in a society. As well, the antagonism upholds the primacy of the popular sovereignty and the virtuous general will of the common citizen opposed to the morally corrupt elite political actors. This is the basis of true populism. As explained by political theorist Michael Freeden (2003), the interrelated ideas form the interpretive frameworks that come about after a practice of putting ideas into work. Mudde (2003), holds that the thin-centered ideologies such as populism, do not offer answers to the many and major social and political questions. But can be compatible with other developed socio-economic and political systems such as socialism. This argument is supported by the fact that populism can be found across different ideological cleavages and either left or right-winged appeals.

In addition to Mudde’s conceptual approach to populism, Pankowski (2010) suggests that ideologies are just but mental frameworks through which political actors interpret political reality thus giving a guided political action. Apart from adopting the Mudde’s assertion on the concept, Pankowski stresses on the role of cultural resources in the population in question such as organization templates and repertoires that are shared. In essence, populist movements have only succeeded in situations where they have managed to relate well with the culture of the common sense of the ordinary citizens. Using the Polish case, Pankowski (2010) argues that the truths that are taken for granted such as ‘all the Polish are Catholics’ act as the source of populist mobilization.

Method and Analysis
In this paper, scientific articles have been used to bring into perspective the concept of populism. According to Gidron & Bonikowski (2013), there is a close relevance between the populism and international relations. The role of populism in foreign policy is substantial despite the fact that the former is notoriously slippery and highly contested. While focusing on Europe, the existing knowledge on populism and foreign policy, indicate that the different ideologies and traditions are brought together, to bring about the division of the elite and the people. From this conceptualization, the right-winged populist parties hold to foreign policy positions that portray their belief in nativism, the primacy of the ordinary people, opposition of economic and cultural globalization and opposition to immigration. This implies that the ideology’s tastes and preferences have a direct impact on the international relations. Those leaders and countries that do not subscribe to the beliefs of the right-winged populists are likely to have a hard time with those who believe in the ideology.

On the other hand, the populist parties allied to the left reject foreign policy positions around open markets and neo-liberalism(“Populism in Foreign Policy – Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics,” 2017). This implies that the neighbor countries and nations that are of the contrary opinion are likely to have strained relations with the left-winged populists. However, the European populist parties from different persuasions are pro-Putin Russia, Anti-U.S., and Eurosceptic. Evidently, populists have immense influence in practical foreign policy and international politics. Such conceptualization perceives populism as an aftermath reaction to political representation predicaments prompted by events of international politics and relations. The dislocations of the populism in the West and in the Global South are regarded to concur with the political and economic crises manifested in a highly denationalized and de-territorialized world. In other words, the populist foreign policies show unused popular mandate and demands of national interest away from established global governance processes. Those who pursue such demands become the greatest beneficiaries while the masses fail to get the anticipated share.

Literally, there is a close relationship between populism and nationalism and isolationism. Using the example of the European radical right, to a larger extent, the assertion is on point. The people for whom the populist represent in matters of international interests can go beyond the anticipated borders. For instance, the foreign policies that Hugo Chavez and Mahmud Ahmadinejad advocated for covered the wider constituencies of the global south and the Islamic world (“Populism in Foreign Policy – Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics,” 2017). What is more, whenever immediate material benefit is noted especially in matters of trade. President Donald Trump’s discourse on this matter is a good example. Populists are seen as ideological protectionists who can easily enter into a deal when their interests are favored regardless of their ideology.

In conclusion, populism remains a widely used concept with an intense contest. Its definition is based on political, social, economic and discursive approaches and it is analyzed from innumerable theoretical slants that include party politics, political economy, structuralism, democratic theory and social movement theory among others. Different authors have documented differences in the concept of populism and its varieties. Media has also been extensively used to convey the populist messages due to the fact that the issues addressed are contentious and combative in nature. As such, they easily capture the attention of the media. This is common in underdeveloped democracies where the political, social and economic systems are not very strong. Most importantly, populism is closely linked with foreign policies following the immense influence it has on the international economy, politics, and relations.

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Reference List
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Gidron, N., & Bonikowski, B. (2013). Varieties of Populism: Literature Review and Research Agenda. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.2459387
Mazzoleni, G. (2008). Populism and the Media. Twenty-First Century Populism, 49-64. doi:10.1057/9780230592100_4
Mudde, C. (2004). The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39(4), 542-563. doi:10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x
Mudde, C., & Kaltwasser, C. R. (2012). Populism and (liberal) democracy. Populism in Europe and the Americas, 1-26. doi:10.1017/cbo9781139152365.002
Pankowski. (2010). The Populist Radical Right in Poland. doi:10.4324/9780203856567
Populism in Foreign Policy - Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics. (2017, July 19). Retrieved from