Interview #27 – Populism and Liberal Democracy with Takis Pappas

The promise is that in a democracy we will be able to have some significant degree of control over important issues that affect us. But even supposing that ‘we, the people’ can combine our diverse interests and opinions into a coherent collective will, the hard facts of political and economic interdependence often make that an empty promise. This ambiguity affects democracies regardless of their scale, and cannot be avoided either by participatory democracy in face-to-face communities or by the global democracy now projected in some quarters.

Margaret Canovan, Trust the People! (1999)

In this interview Takis S. Pappas presents his forthcoming book comparing populism across countries and over time, in order to address two crucial points: what causes populism’s rise to power and what happens under and during populist rule. He shows that populism is the outcome of extraordinary leadership acting within conditions of democratic representation crisis and able to set into motion a chain of specific micro-mechanisms until populism emerges as a significant political force. Moreover, engaging in a great populist travel from Fujimori to Papandreou through Cristina Fernández Kirchner, we discuss the peculiar traits of Donald Trump’s populism.

Enjoy the read.

POP) You have just finished writing a book about populism, which will be published by Oxford University Press in early 2019. Why did you write this book?

TP) The book will appear under the title Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis and tries to answer all the big questions we have been dealing with in recent years about populism. The reason that I wrote this book is simply that I have been studying populism for many years, I have had written several academic papers on the topic, and had quite a few unfinished jobs in my drawer. I felt I had to bring all those works together in a unified whole. The problem with recent scholarship about populism is that, although it very much looks like a flourishing cottage industry, it still lacks a general theory with particular emphasis on the modern and contemporary manifestations of the phenomenon. I ask what causes populism’s rise to power, and also what happens under and during populist rule. The real difficulty is that, to build a theory addressing those questions, you have to choose your cases very carefully so as to come up with a most representative sample while at the same time avoiding selection bias. This is turn depends on how you conceptualize populism in a clear and unambiguous way.

POP) Do you want to tell us about the country cases that you have selected for your analysis?

TP) Many people are now tempted to examine populism globally. I am afraid, though, that, because of the huge variety of party cases representing an equally huge variety of country settings, it is impossible – let alone meaningless – to do so. I am more modest in my comparative aims, so I focus my attention on the emergence of populism in postwar Europe and the Americas. Then, from the dozens of cases of populism that have appeared since 1945 in the two continents, I selected all countries in which a populist party has won at least two consecutive elections and, consequently, has enjoyed a long stretch in office. Based on this intuitively simple criterion, I have included in my analysis the populist parties-turned-into-populist-governments in Argentina, Ecuador, Greece (both in the 1980s and the 2010s), Hungary, Italy, Peru and Venezuela. To those cases, I also added the United States for the political and symbolic importance of its current populist administration. Finally, for analytical contrast and theory-falsification purposes, I also provide two negative cases of populism, Spain (during the period from 1975 through 2014) and Brazil. In both cases, the theoretical expectation is that populism should have grown strong, but it didn’t. I explain why.

POP) Let us now come to the vexata quaestio, so we can get over it and clarify your approach: What is populism and how does your understanding of it differ from previous ones?


Scholar looking for definition of populism.

TP) Let us first see what causes the vexation that you mention. If you only think about it for a couple of seconds, you will immediately realize that  our thinking about populism stems from simple deductive reasoning. It originates in general statements, usually presented as broad definitions, which we then use to supposedly decide about whether some specific referent, usually a political party or some party leader, falls within the populist class or not. In this logic, if the initial statements are true and their terms are clear, the conclusions reached are necessarily true. To give an example of how this logic works: First, I state that populist parties have characteristics x and y, then I assert that party Z has characteristics x and y, upon which we finally conclude that Z is a populist party.

Now, it has come to be accepted that populism’s three main characteristics are “the people,” “the elites,” and the “general will.” The reason I am putting all these terms within inverted commas is that we do not actually know what each of these terms actually means with respect to the particular cases we choose to compare unless we engage in detailed empirical study. Unfortunately, such research is sorely missing. And also missing is the empirical clarification of the concepts we use: Who are “the people” after all? And who the “elites”? And what is the “general will” if not majority rule, which is common in all democracies?

But here arises another problem, too. Suppose you somehow manage to broaden your terms and present your definition as if its premises were true. In this case, you eventually arrive at what we may call the “ubiquitous-populism paradox.” The paradox is this: If some party did not appeal to ‘the people’ against some ‘elites’ on political and moral grounds based on the ‘general will’ principle, then that party would definitely be non-populist, no? But, in modern democracy, there’s no such party, so all parties are populist! Therefore, populism becomes a fluid that covers everything that is political, and so it turns, as you say, into a permanently vexing question.

POP) So how do you define populism?


TP) In my work, I see populism as a historical phenomenon of late modernity that retains democratic electoral rules while at the same time opposes liberal institutions. Already in 2012, I put forward a minimal definition of populism as “democratic illiberalism” which, let me just mention in passing, is quite different from Fareed Zakaria’s earlier use of the same term in an oft-cited article (in which there is no single reference to the word populism!) but very much alike to Victor Orbán’s subsequent embrace of it.

In my sense, then, populism is an alternative political model to postwar liberal democracy and, currently, in antagonistic relationship to it. As we now know, postwar liberal democracy did not signal the “end of history” as many optimists came to believe after the defeat of fascism in 1945 and the collapse of the communism in 1989. Instead, new challenges to liberal democracy emerged, together with several novel political systems that are now in direct competition with it. Of those new challenges, populism is perhaps the most formidable. Another challenge is nativism, which usually, but quite unnecessarily, is confused with populism, with nationalism or with both.


POP) The theory is clear now, so let’s go to the juice. What causes populism to emerge as a significant political force?


Great new books on populism can only build on great classics such as this one. In memory of the English political theorist Margaret Canovan.

TP) The question posits the problem of how some country may move from a situation of full liberal democratic politics (let’s call it postwar political “nature”) to a situation of democratic illiberalism. To understand how this happens, it is necessary that we open the “black box” that stands midway between the original position of liberalism and the final outcome, populism, and then discover how the elements you find in the box may work together to produce populism. You find three such elements: pre-existing structures, quasi-rational actors, and a host of micro-mechanisms that, put and made to work together, constitute a pathway to populism. If you study such pathways in all the countries that I mentioned earlier, you will soon discover a common pattern. In summary, the pattern is that populism is the outcome of extraordinary leadership acting within conditions of democratic representation crisis and able to set into motion a chain of specific micro-mechanisms until populism emerges as a significant political force. It is a complex causal mechanism and yet, as my work reveals, it is quite similar in all the cases studied.

POP) Is it possible to say that left-wing populism is successful in Latin America and right-wing populism in Europe?

TP) Not really. Like so many other misconceptions – and, indeed, myths – in the study of populism, this assertion is wrong simply because it ignores reality. Have a look at the cases. In postwar Europe, the Greek PASOK (the most important populist force that developed in the continent) was a purely leftist party. Led by maverick Andreas Papandreou, a liberal-turned-populist, PASOK captured power by landslide in 1981, thereafter ruling Greece for many years. Still in Europe, there have been several other left populist parties, including, more recently, Podemos, currently the third largest party in Spain, and Greece’s Syriza, which is in office. Flip the coin now and you will see that, in Latin America, along with such left populists as Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez or Ecuador’s Rafael Correa, there have been quite a few right-wing populists such as Juan Perón in Argentina or Alberto Fujimori in Peru.

populists in power_alb

You might be interested also in this great book from Albertazzi & McDonnell

Even more interesting, but hardly brought up in the existing literature on populism, are two further phenomena: first, populism’s capacity of transmutation from left to right and vice versa, and, second, the strong osmosis of left and right populisms for forming alliances against liberal parties. Ideological transmutation is best exemplified by Argentina’s Justicialist Party, which has often oscillated ideologically. It represented right-wing populism under Perón and Carlos Menem, left-wing populism under Néstor and Cristina Fernández Kirchner. Or, look at the all too frequent ideological changes of the Italian Five Star Movement: So many scholars have classified it in the past as a left populist force only to be disproved by that party’s more recent rightist political action. As of the strong attraction between left and right populists, just witness the ongoing since 2015 symbiosis in office of leftist Syriza and the right populist party of Independent Greeks. Not be surprised if a similar tandem appears in other countries with a strong tradition of populism.

POP) Populism in Europe is often identified by its nativist manifestations. Is this always the case?

TP) To be sure, neither populism nor nativism are found in pure form. But conflating populism and nativism into a common phenomenon is another common error in the study of populism. Again, look at facts that are conveniently ignored. To give you just one example, while populism may be of a right or a left ideological hue, nativism is to be found always on the right. If you look even closer, you will be able to identify about a dozen of specific conditions that can tell nativist parties apart from populist ones, including programmatic orientation, party organization patterns and leadership style, among other characteristics. Conclusion: better keep populism and nativism apart for better understanding contemporary European politics.

POP) You write somewhere in the Introduction of your book: “Let its democratic ethos go away, and populism will turn into authoritarianism. But reverse its illiberal disposition and whims, and liberal democratic order is likely to be reinstituted.” What do you mean by that, and what are the immediate political implication of this symbiotic relationship?


TP) This is written as a warning for politicians and policy makers for the dangers inherent in populist rule. The proposition is a logical consequence of the fact that modern populism pertains to a type of democracy that stands midway between liberalism and autocracy. Once it power, and whether it is for its lack of ideology, concrete policy agenda, wish to compromise with political opponents, or acceptance of political institutions, populism cannot achieve a position of equilibrium and political stability. It constantly tilts at either side of the spectrum, now towards repairing liberalism, now towards autocracy. Of course, this is not just a theoretical proposition. The comparison of the cases we have available reveal two patterns: Venezuela, Hungary and Poland, for instance, are moving, albeit at different pace, towards autocracy; Argentina, Italy and Greece, for instance, are currently experiencing the difficulties of returning to liberalism after decades of populist rule.

POP) No, you won’t be spared a question about Donald Trump. Which traits of his populism are similar to those of other parties and actors across Europe and the Americas? And which ones, on the other hand, are peculiar to his approach?

Trump’s rise to power, has followed the causal model I just referred to, and which, to repeat, is almost identical for all cases of populist emergence. So Trump’s rise can only be understood by combining:

A) his personality and style of leadership,

B) the crises of both the Obama-style liberalism and the ideological disarray within the GOP,

C) the prior emergence of the Tea Party movement,

D) the symbolic themes and mobilization practices of Trump during his electoral campaign.

And when it comes to his presidency, Trump, exactly like any other ruling populist, is now implementing a distinctly illiberal political project that includes all of the elements I describe in my book as the “populist blueprint:” creating conditions of extreme political and social polarization, attacking the independence of institutions and polity checks-and-balances, championing majoritarianism and denigrating most minorities. It is also obvious that, as we discussed earlier, he is already facing a dilemma of whether to return to old conservative liberal practice or to become more autocratic and, as it seems, he opts for the latter way. What is going to happen eventually, only time can tell.


Takis S. Pappas (PhD Yale) is a political scientist, scholar, and author. A former professor of comparative politics in several universities in Europe, he specializes in democratic politics, populism, and political leadership. Takis has published numerous academic articles, authored five books and edited two. His latest book, Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis is forthcoming by Oxford University Press in early 2019. He lives in Strasbourg, France.

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