Populism, do we all mean same thing?

University of Amsterdam

The word populism is on everybody’s tongue these days, but do we all mean the same thing? What is the difference between left-wing and right-wing populism? Is populism good or bad for democracy? How are the populist parties in the Netherlands doing in the polls in the middle of this pandemic? These questions and more were put to our populism expert Matthijs Rooduijn.

wallpainting with the word 'populism'

The word ‘populism’ is often bandied about, yet do we all mean the same thing?

‘Outside academic discourse, the term populism is used very differently than within it. Its intended meaning is often unclear in public debate and used to mean all sorts of different things. Sometimes it refers to demagoguery, and sometimes to opportunism, simplification or radical ideology.’

Matthijs Rooduijn

Copyright: FMG

In the eyes of populists, the elite is bad, corrupt and fails to listen, and must be replaced
Matthijs Rooduijn

‘Within academic discourse, there is more agreement about what populism is. It always comprises opposition to the established elite, while at the same time emphasising the will of the people. That elite can be the political elite, but also the cultural, economic or media elite. In the eyes of populists, this elite is bad, corrupt and fails to listen, and therefore must be replaced. According to populists, all political decisions should initially be based on the will of the people.’

Is populism strictly a right-wing affair, or does it also happen on the left?

‘Although such an ideology of the evil elite pitted against the good people can be combined with right-wing and left-wing political thinking, we often see it on the radical left and right flanks. Which flank is dominated by it, depends on your view. In Europe, we mainly see populism combined with the radical right, where the populist message dovetails nicely with the anti-immigrant rhetoric of these parties. In Latin America, however, populism historically tends to be a left-wing phenomenon, suiting the message of saving the people from corruption and economic oppression.’

What are the similarities between left-wing and right-wing populism?

‘Ideologically speaking, left-wing populism and right-wing populism are very different. Whereas the left aims for inclusiveness, the right-wing message revolves around excluding minority groups. But what they share is the message that the people have been betrayed by an evil elite. For the left this is usually the political-economic elite, while for the right it is not just the political elite, but also the cultural elite, such as the academic community or the opera-loving Amsterdam city centre dwellers. In recent years we have seen the right-wing populists shifting slightly to the left in terms of their socioeconomic agenda.’

Who are the populist party supporters?

‘Populist party voters often have little faith in politics. Left-wing populist voters do differ greatly from right-wing populist voters in their ideological views on immigration and climate, for example. We also see that education level has a negative effect regarding the radical right, so the less educated someone is, the sooner they will vote for the radical right. On the left this varies greatly from party to party; in the more progressive ‘red-green’ parties, for example, the level of education is higher than in the more conservative radical left-wing parties with a communist background.’

Which parties in the Netherlands are populist?

‘It is useful to view the level of populism as varying in degree as well. This allows you to observe that parties can be more and less populist over time. In the Netherlands these levels of populism vary widely. At the top are the PVV and FvD: they have been the most clearly populist parties throughout the years. JA21 is now joining them. These parties are followed at a distance by the Socialist Party (SP), which is more difficult to label as a populist party, although it does have populist overtones at times. The campaign film in which they ridiculed European Commissioner Frans Timmermans, a member of the Labour Party, is an example of this. Besides the SP, we sometimes see populist tendencies in the elderly party 50Plus, for example, although you cannot really call them populist.’

What are the chances for a populist party to become part of the government?

‘In most European countries there are populist parties with government experience. In the Netherlands, however, we see that the largest populist party, the PVV, has sidelined itself – especially due to their party leader Wilders’ radical statements. This also applies to Baudet, party leader of FvD, by the way. Yet we also see that as soon as they join a government coalition, populist parties lose more voters than average. The populist message is of course difficult to sustain when you yourself are at the controls.’

Is populism good or bad for democracy?

‘Populists emphasise the will of the people. A liberal democracy will limit this will of the people with checks and balances (i.e. the separation of powers such as the trias politica) and by ensuring minority rights to protect the interests of minority groups. Populism is at odds with such limitation and aims to give voice to the majority, at the expense of those minorities. Nevertheless, populism can also be good for democracy, provided it does not become too overpowering. It engages people with politics and can channel their dissatisfaction. This is especially true in a multiparty system like we have in the Netherlands where no single party will quickly have the upper hand. But when populist parties become too big and start dismantling essential liberal institutions, like in Hungary and Poland, democracy is in danger.’

What impact is the coronavirus pandemic having on populist parties?

‘Shortly after the pandemic erupted, we saw the populist parties losing a lot in the Dutch polls. It is a well-known phenomenon that in a crisis support for an incumbent prime minister will grow. In addition, the political and public debate was swamped by the pandemic, and populists were unable to insert their message properly. When the first lockdown ended, there was more room for criticism and support for populists began to grow again. The populist message also goes well with the conspiracy theories that have gained ground in this crisis.’

‘It could very well be that populist parties will grow when we see the end of this pandemic and social and economic inequality becomes even more visible and tangible. But as for now, we are still in lockdown and with only a few weeks to go until the Dutch elections, there is probably too little time for populists to take advantage of this.’

Dr. M. (Matthijs) Rooduijn

Faculty of Social and Behavioural Sciences

Programme group: Challenges to Democratic Representation

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