Explaining Populism to My Son’s Class

It’s not right-wing. It’s not left-wing. So what is it exactly?

The other day I ran accidentally into my son’s high school history teacher who, over other small talk, had an idea, “You’re an expert on populism,” he said, “So why don’t you come to our school class and tell us about it? Anytime this fall would be good for us and the kids. All of them have an international family background, and are brilliant.” He smiled reassuringly.

“Why not?” I smiled back, half out of politeness and half because I like that teacher. Alas, no sooner had we parted after our little deal was made that I almost regretted my carefree promise to him.

Yes, I have often offered classes on populism in a number of universities, but those I have had designed for advanced students. But this was different. My new task was to explain this most-baffling-of-all modern political phenomenon to seventeen-year-old school kids. What kind of previous knowledge did they have, and what kind of a method should I use for presenting a comprehensible but also compelling explanation of the topic?

As luck would have it, I found out what pre-college kids have in mind precisely when it comes to populism. Here’s how it occurred. As I was scrolling down in Twitter one day, I spotted a tweet by someone who had already asked her British (notably LSE Choice) students to define populism. The tweet was accompanied by this picture with the students’ answers:

Now, if there is one word to describe what was in those students’ minds, that word is “confusion.” Zoom in on the picture and you will see that populism is mistaken for such disparate political phenomena as fascism, right-wing [politics], nationalism, socialism, far-right, dictatorship and more. As for populist leaders, the high school students pointed to such strange bedfellows as Trump and Putin, Farage and Corbyn, Chávez, Hitler and Kim Jong-un.

I instantly realized two things. First, high-school students are no less confused about what populism is than my university students, journalists the world around, and, indeed, academics. And, second, the main reasons of confusion are facile generalizations, a simplistic perception of populism as a “we-versus-them” adversarial politics, and mixing up populism with non-democratic, especially far-right, politics. Here is, then, how I decided to present the topic to my son’s class.

For starters, rather than asking for their definitions of populism, I invited them to reflect on the following definition offered by the popular Google dictionary.


Asked what they think about populism defined simply as “support for the concerns of ordinary people,” their reaction was immediate: This sounds sensible, they said, but isn’t it also a definition of democracy itself – a system, that is, in which the concerns of the people are dealt with by their elected representatives?

“You’re right,” I said, happy in my knowledge that two major roadblocks, sweeping generalizations and the idea that populism is inimical to democracy, had already been removed. “Populism has the characteristics of democracy, but not of any democracy.”

“Even so, populism always divides society into two groups, the ‘elites’ and the ‘normal people’,” another student contended, then went on to illustrate, “Look at Donald Trump, for instance, and how he transformed the divide between Republicans and Democrats into one of ordinary Americans and America’s elite establishment!”

“That is very true,” I replied, and this is why many journalists and academics define populism as the idea that society is divided into two antagonistic camps: one comprising the ordinary people, the other, the elites, who are presented as “enemies of the people.”

“Only that,” I went on, “this is a rather superficial description of populism, not least because divisive politics of us-versus-them is not a populist exclusivity. Communism, too, as both an ideology and concrete politics, is based precisely on the divide between the working people and the enemy capitalists. The same is the case with various authoritarian and fascist regimes, as a large number of studies have shown. Here is only a very recent example with a most telling pair of title and subtitle.”

“OK,” another student retorted, “we understand that populism is not contrary to democracy and that the we-versus-them antithesis is common in many political systems, including democracies. But populism is always a far-right thing, isn’t it?”

“No, it isn’t!” I replied. “This is a common mistake that is caused by something called false synonymy, which is to say, the use of different words as having the same meaning. Take the example of the following tweet by a prolific scholar on such topics, who however conflates “far right” and “populism,” the outcome being increased conceptual confusion.

It only takes a quick look at real-world politics, I continued, to see that combining “far right” and “populism” into one is empirically misinformed. Firstly, not all populist parties stand on the far right. There is left populism aplenty, and, in fact, some of the left populist parties are of the far-left type, as shown by the cases of Chávez and his successor Maduro in Venezuela, or the governing Syriza party in my native Greece. Secondly, not all far-right politics is populist. Some of it is simply anti-EU and nativist, some is purely nationalistic (for instance, the current Polish government) and some outright fascist, like the Golden Dawn party in Greece again.

“Fine,” a student suddenly exclaimed, “what has now become clear to us is that populism is a form of democratic politics, one however that uses the us/them antithesis in a way that is also common to nondemocratic and fascist parties, and which comes in both a right and a left variant. But how would you define populism in a more concise way? And how do we know it when we see it? And, final question, should we really care for it?”

“Good questions,” I replied. “Perhaps we try to tackle them all at once.” I then drew on the board this cartoonish image of two figures on a seesaw.

Imagine, I explained, the triangular fulcrum to be democracy and each of the figures on the beam to represent two different types of democracy. The one type is the democracy your grandparents built after the end of World War II, and which your parents and you are still happily living in. We call it “liberal democracy” and, on the whole, it has three major characteristics: It takes differentiation among multiple social groups and interests as granted; but strives for moderation and consensus; which it achieves by respecting the rule of law and protecting minorities. The other type of democracy, call it “populist democracy” if you wish, has exactly the opposite characteristics: It views society as being divided into only two social categories, roughly the rulers and the ruled; which in turn generates social polarization and political adversity; while it also promotes majoritarianism at the expense of rule of law.

With this differentiation of characteristics of the two types of democracy in mind, why don’t we define populism simply as the opposite of liberal democracy, hence democratic illiberalism? Now, as the old saying goes, the proof of the pudding is in the eating. Think of any democracy you happen to know best from experience, I urged, and then simply try to assess whether your democracy has the characteristics of a liberal democracy or a populist one. Simple, no?

“Lastly, on the question about whether you should care at all about populism,” I said, “please let’s have one more look at the cartoon on the board.” Mechanically, a seesaw is a lever whose direction, whether upwards or downwards, is determined by the forces exercised on each of the sides of the beam. As populism becomes stronger and more widespread in western societies, I concluded, it becomes a potent opponent to liberal democracy and, in fact, has already overcome it in several countries in Europe and elsewhere. Now ask yourselves: Which kind of democracy do you want to live your lives in? If your answer is that you want to continue living in a liberal democracy, then you should get to know thy enemy.

As the class was about to end, and I was trying to grasp the students’ new level of understanding populism, I turned to their history teacher. He gave me a reassuring smile.

About the author

Takis S Pappas

Takis S. Pappas has a PhD from Yale University, taught for years in several universities, and is now a comparative political science researcher and writer. His most recent book, Populism and Liberal Democracy, is forthcoming by Oxford University Press in early 2019. He lives in Strasbourg, France, and tweets @takisspappas