Theory and Society

, Volume 46, Issue 5, pp 357–385 | Cite as

Why populism?

  • Rogers BrubakerEmail author


It is a commonplace to observe that we have been living through an extraordinary pan-European and trans-Atlantic populist moment. But do the heterogeneous phenomena lumped under the rubric “populist” in fact belong together? Or is “populism” just a journalistic cliché and political epithet? In the first part of the article, I defend the use of “populism” as an analytic category and the characterization of the last few years as a “populist moment,” and I propose an account of populism as a discursive and stylistic repertoire. In the second part, I specify the structural trends and the conjunctural convergence of a series of crises that jointly explain the clustering in space and time that constitutes the populist moment. The question in my title is thus twofold: it is a question about populism as a term or concept and a question about populism as a phenomenon in the world. The article addresses both the conceptual and the explanatory question, limiting the scope of the explanatory argument to the pan-European and trans-Atlantic populist conjuncture of the last few years.


Repertoires Crisis Democracy Majoritarianism Populism Protectionism 



This article was conceived and written at the Wissenschaftskolleg of Berlin, where I enjoyed the great privilege of a residential fellowship and benefited from many collegial discussions. Earlier versions were presented at the Wissenschaftskolleg itself, at the Institute of History of Humboldt University in Berlin, and at the conference on “Populism and Citizenship” organized by the Center for Citizenship, Social Pluralism and Religious Diversity in Potsdam; I thank participants in these events for their comments. A short version of the second part of the article appeared as “Populism’s Perfect Storm” in the Boston Review, July 11, 2017. I am especially grateful to Rob Jansen, Jaeeun Kim, Mary O’Sullivan, and Matías Fernández for close critical readings and very helpful comments; Matías also provided exceptionally able research assistance. I thank Susan Osman for helping me think through the argument and for comments on successive drafts. I would also like to thank Hans-Georg Betz, Paula Diehl, Mathias Koenig, Lena Lavinas, Mara Loveman, Claus Offe, Gianna Pomata, and Peter Vermeersch for helpful comments and challenging questions.


  1. Abromeit, J., Chesterton, B. M., Marotta, G., & Norman, Y. (Eds.). (2015). Transformations of populism in Europe and the Americas: History and recent tendencies. London: Bloomsbury Academic.Google Scholar
  2. Aytaç, S. E., & Őniş, Z. (2014). Varieties of populism in a changing global context: the divergent paths of Erdoğan and Kirchnerismo. Comparative Politics, 47(1), 41–59.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Azmanova, A. (2011). After the left–right (dis)continuum: globalization and the remaking of Europe’s ideological geography. International Political Sociology, 5(4), 384–407. Scholar
  4. Beck, U., & Beck-Gernsheim, E. (2002). Individualization: institutionalized individualism and its social and political consequences. London; Thousand Oaks: SAGE.Google Scholar
  5. Berezin, M. (2009). Illiberal politics in neoliberal times: Culture, security and populism in the new Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  6. Betz, H.-G. (1994). Radical right-wing populism in Western Europe. New York: St. Martin’s Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Betz, H.-G. (2017). Nativism across time and space. Swiss Political Science Review.
  8. Biorcio, R. (2003). The Lega Nord and the Italian media system. In G. Mazzoleni, J. Stewart, & B. Horsfield (Eds.), The media and neo-populism: A contemporary comparative analysis (pp. 71–94). Westport: Praeger.Google Scholar
  9. Bordignon, F. (2017). In and out: Emmanuel Macron’s anti-populist populism. Accessed 26 July 2017.
  10. Bornschier, S., & Kriesi, H. (2013). The populist right, the working class, and the changing basis of class politics. In J. Rydgren (Ed.), Class politics and the radical right (pp. 10–30). Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  11. Brubaker, R. (2011). Economic crisis, nationalism, and politicized ethnicity. In C. Calhoun & G. Derluguian (Eds.), The deepening crisis: Governance challenges after neoliberalism (pp. 93–108). New York: Social Science Research Council and New York University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Brubaker, R. (2017). Between nationalism and civilizationism: the European populist moment in comparative perspective. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 40(8), 1191–1226.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Calhoun, C. (1988). Populist politics, communications media and large scale societal integration. Sociological Theory, 6(2), 219–241. Scholar
  14. Canovan, M. (1981). Populism (1st ed.). New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich.Google Scholar
  15. Canovan, M. (1984). “People”, politicians and populism. Government and Opposition, 19(3), 31–327. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  16. Canovan, M. (1999). Trust the people! Populism and the two faces of democracy. Political Studies, 47(1), 2–16. Scholar
  17. Canovan, M. (2002). Taking politics to the people: Populism as the ideology of democracy. In Y. Mény & Y. Surel (Eds.), Democracies and the populist challenge (pp. 25–44). London: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Canovan, M. (2005). The people. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  19. Caramani, D. (2017). Will vs. reason: the populist and technocratic forms of political representation and their critique to party government. American Political Science Review, 111(01), 54–67. Scholar
  20. Chiaramonte, A., & Emanuele, V. (2015). Party system volatility, regeneration and de-institutionalization in Western Europe (1945–2015). Party Politics, 23(4), 376–388. Scholar
  21. Coleman, G. (2016). On truth and lies in a pragmatic, Performative sense (with my respects to Nietzsche) or why reality needs a better PR department. Medium.
  22. Collier, D., & Mahon, J. E. (1993). Conceptual “stretching” revisited: adapting categories in comparative analysis. The American Political Science Review, 87(4), 845–855. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Curato, N. (2017). Politics of anxiety, politics of hope: Penal populism and Duterte’s rise to power. Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 35(3), 91–109.Google Scholar
  24. De Cleen, B., & Stavrakakis, Y. (2017). Distinctions and articulations: a discourse theoretical framework for the study of populism and nationalism. Javnost—The Public.
  25. Diehl, P. (2011a). Populismus, Antipolitik, Politainment. Berliner Debatte Initial, 22(1), 27–39.Google Scholar
  26. Diehl, P. (2011b). Die Komplexität des Populismus : ein Plädoyer für ein mehrdimensionales und graduelles Konzept. Totalitarismus und Demokratie, 8(2), 273–291.Google Scholar
  27. Diehl, P. (2017). The body in populism. In R. Heinisch, C. Holtz-Bacha, & O. Mazzoleni (Eds.), Political populism: A handbook. Baden-Baden: Nomos.Google Scholar
  28. Duyvendak, J. W. (2011). The politics of home. London: Palgrave Macmillan. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Esser, F. (2013). Mediatization as a challenge: Media logic versus political logic. In H. Kriesi (Ed.), Democracy in the age of globalization and mediatization (pp. 155–176). London: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Fishelov, D. (1991). Genre theory and family resemblance—revisited. Poetics, 20(2), 123–138.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Freeden, M. (1998). Is nationalism a distinct ideology? Political Studies, 46(4), 748–765. Scholar
  32. Furedi, F. (2005). From Europe to America: The populist moment has arrived. Spiked.
  33. Gitlin, T. (2016). The media rapture of Donald Trump. The American Prospect. Accessed 15 Aug 2017.
  34. Goerres, A., Spies, D. C., & Kumlin, S. (2017). The Electoral Supporter Base of the Alternative for Germany (SSRN scholarly paper no. Id 2942745). Rochester: Social Science Research Network.
  35. Grimm, D. (2015). The democratic costs of constitutionalisation: the European case. European Law Journal, 21(4), 460–473. Scholar
  36. Guiraudon, V. (2003). Before the EU border: Remote control of the “Huddled Masses.”. In C. A. Groenendijk, E. Guild, & P. E. Minderhoud (Eds.), In search of Europe’s borders (pp. 191–214). The Hague: Kluwer Law International.Google Scholar
  37. Hay, C. (1995). Rethinking crisis: narratives of the new right and constructions of crisis. Rethinking Marxism, 8(2), 60–76. Scholar
  38. Hochschild, A. R. (2016). Strangers in their own land: Anger and mourning on the American right. New York: New Press.Google Scholar
  39. Houwen, T. (2011). The non-European roots of the concept of populism. Sussex European Institute: Working paper no. 120.
  40. Inglehart, R. F., & Norris, P. (2016). Trump, Brexit, and the rise of Populism: Economic have-nots and cultural backlash. HKS Working Paper No. RWP16–026. Available at SSRN:
  41. Innerarity, D. (2010). The transformation of politics: Governing in the age of complex societies. Brussels: Peter Lang.Google Scholar
  42. Jaffrelot, C. (2015). Narendra Modi and the power of television in Gujarat. Television & New Media, 16(4), 346–353.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  43. Jäger, A. (2016). The semantic drift: images of populism in post-war American historiography and their relevance for (European) political science. POPULISMUS Working Papers No. 3. Accessed 24 Dec 2016.
  44. Jansen, R. S. (2011). Populist mobilization: a new theoretical approach to populism. Sociological Theory, 29(2), 75–96. Scholar
  45. Jansen, R. S. (2016). Situated political innovation: explaining the historical emergence of new modes of political practice. Theory and Society, 45(4), 319–360. Scholar
  46. Joppke, C. (2017). Erst die Moral, dann das Fressen. Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, June 6.Google Scholar
  47. Judis, J. B. (2016). The populist explosion: How the great recession transformed American and European politics. New York: Columbia Global Reports.Google Scholar
  48. Katsambekis, G. (2014). “Populism” against democracy or Europe against itself? ΧΡΟΝΟΣ online magazine, (17). Accessed 22 Aug 2017.
  49. Katsambekis, G. (2016). Radical left populism in contemporary Greece: Syriza’s trajectory from Minoritarian opposition to power. Constellations, 23(3), 391–403. Scholar
  50. Katsambekis, G., & Stavrakakis, Y. (2013). Populism, anti-populism and European democracy: a view from the South. openDemocracy. Accessed 18 Aug 2017.
  51. Katz, R. S., & Mair, P. (1995). Changing models of party organization and party democracy: the emergence of the cartel party. Party. Politics, 1(1), 5–28.Google Scholar
  52. Kazin, M. (1995). The populist persuasion: An American history. New York: Basic Books.Google Scholar
  53. Kioupkiolis, A. (2016). Podemos: the ambiguous promises of left-wing populism in contemporary Spain. Journal of Political Ideologies, 21(2), 99–120. Scholar
  54. Kitschelt, H., & McGann, A. J. (1995). The radical right in Western Europe: A comparative analysis. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.Google Scholar
  55. Knight, A. (1998). Populism and neo-populism in Latin America, especially Mexico. Journal of Latin American Studies, 30(2), 223–248.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  56. Knöbl, W. (2016). Über alte und neue Gespenster: historisch-systematische Anmerkungen zum “Populismus.”. Mittelweg, 36(6), 8–35.Google Scholar
  57. Kriesi, H. (2014). The populist challenge. West European Politics, 37(2), 361–378. Scholar
  58. Kriesi, H., & Pappas, T. S. (Eds.). (2015). European populism in the shadow of the great recession. Colchester: ECPR Press.Google Scholar
  59. Kriesi, H., Grande, E., Lachat, R., Dolezal, M., Bornschier, S., & Frey, T. (2006). Globalization and the transformation of the national political space: six European countries compared. European Journal of Political Research, 45(6), 921–956. Scholar
  60. Laclau, E. (1977). Towards a theory of populism. In Politics and ideology in Marxist theory: Capitalism, fascism, populism (pp. 143–198). London: NLB.Google Scholar
  61. Laclau, E. (1980). Populist rupture and discourse. Screen. Education, 34, 87–93.Google Scholar
  62. Laclau, E. (2005a). Populism: What’s in a name? In F. Panizza (Ed.), Populism and the mirror of democracy (pp. 32–49). London: Verso.Google Scholar
  63. Laclau, E. (2005b). On populist reason. London: Verso.Google Scholar
  64. Lasch, C. (1996). The revolt of the elites and the betrayal of democracy. New York: W. W. Norton & Company.Google Scholar
  65. Mair, P. (2002). Populist democracy vs party democracy. In Y. Mény & Y. Surel (Eds.), Democracies and the populist challenge (pp. 81–98). London: Palgrave Macmillan.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  66. Mair, P. (2011). Bini Smaghi vs. the Parties: Representative government and institutional constraints (Working Paper). Accessed 26 Sept 2017.
  67. Mazzoleni, G., & Schulz, W. (1999). “Mediatization” of politics: a challenge for democracy? Political Communication, 16(3), 247–261. Scholar
  68. McCargo, D. (2016). Duterte’s mediated populism. Contemporary Southeast Asia: A Journal of International and Strategic Affairs, 38(2), 185–190.Google Scholar
  69. Mény, Y., & Surel, Y. (2000). Par le peuple, pour le peuple: le populisme et les démocraties. Paris: Fayard.Google Scholar
  70. Mepschen, P. (2016). Everyday autochthony: Difference, discontent and the politics of home in Amsterdam (PhD thesis). University of Amsterdam.Google Scholar
  71. Moffitt, B. (2016). The global rise of populism: Performance, political style, and representation. Stanford: Stanford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  72. Moffitt, B., & Tormey, S. (2014). Rethinking populism: politics, mediatisation and political style. Political Studies, 62(2), 381–397. Scholar
  73. Mole, R. C. M. (2016). Nationalism and homophobia in central and Eastern Europe. In K. Slootmaeckers, H. Touquet, & P. Vermeersch (Eds.), The EU enlargement and gay politics: The impact of eastern enlargement on rights, activism and prejudice (pp. 99–121). London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  74. Mouffe, C. (2005). The “end of politics” and the challenge of right-wing populism. In F. Panizza (Ed.), Populism and the mirror of democracy (pp. 50–71). London: Verso.Google Scholar
  75. Mudde, C. (2004). The populist zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39(4), 542–563. Scholar
  76. Mudde, C., & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (Eds.). (2012a). Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or corrective for democracy? Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.Google Scholar
  77. Mudde, C., & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2012b). Populism and (liberal) democracy: A framework for analysis. In C. Mudde & C. Rovira Kaltwasser (Eds.), Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat or corrective for democracy? (pp. 1–26). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  78. Mudde, C., & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (2017). Populism: A very short introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  79. Müller, J.-W. (2016). What is populism? Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  80. Offe, C. (2016). Europe entrapped. Cambridge: Polity.Google Scholar
  81. Orgad, L. (2015). The cultural defense of nations: A liberal theory of majority rights. Oxford: Oxford University Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  82. Ostiguy, P. (2009). The high and the low in politics: A two-dimensional political space for comparative analysis and electoral studies. Kellogg Institute. Accessed 29 June 2017.
  83. Ostiguy, P., & Roberts, K. M. (2016). Putting trump in comparative perspective: populism and the politicization of the sociocultural law. Brown Journal of World Affairs, 23(1), 25–50.Google Scholar
  84. Panizza, F. (Ed.). (2005). Populism as an internal periphery of democratic politics. In Populism and the mirror of democracy (pp. 72–93). London: Verso.Google Scholar
  85. Pels, D. (2003). Aesthetic representation and political style: Re-balancing identity and difference in media democracy. In J. Corner & D. Pels (Eds.), Media and the restyling of politics: Consumerism, celebrity and cynicism (pp. 41–66). London: SAGE Publications Ltd. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  86. Persily, N. (2017). Can democracy survive the internet? Journal of Democracy, 28(2), 63–76.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  87. Pratt, J. (2007). Penal Populism. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  88. Probst, L. (2002). Die Erzeugung “vorwärtsgerichteter Unruhe”. Überlegungen zum Charisma von Jörg Haider. Vorgänge, 41(4), 39.Google Scholar
  89. Rancière, J. (2016). The populism that is not to be found. In A. Badiou et al, What is a people? (pp. 101–105). New York: Columbia University Press.Google Scholar
  90. Roberts, K. M. (1995). Neoliberalism and the transformation of populism in Latin America: the Peruvian case. World Politics, 48(1), 82–116.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  91. Roberts, J. V. (Ed.). (2003). Penal populism and public opinion: Lessons from five countries. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
  92. Rydgren, J. (Ed.). (2013). Class politics and the radical right. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  93. Rydgren, J., & Van der Meiden, S. (2016). Sweden, now a country like all the others? The radical right and the end of Swedish Exceptionalism. Working Paper, Department of Sociology, Stockholm University.Google Scholar
  94. Sánchez-Cuenca, I. (2007). The dynamics of nationalist terrorism: ETA and the IRA. Terrorism and Political Violence, 19(3), 289–306. Scholar
  95. Sartori, G. (1970). Concept Misformation in comparative politics. The American Political Science Review, 64(4), 1033–1053. CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  96. Saurette, P., & Gunster, S. (2011). Ears wide shut: epistemological populism, Argutainment and Canadian conservative talk radio. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 44(1), 195–218. Scholar
  97. Schmitt, C. (2007). The concept of the political (expanded edition). Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  98. Schroeder, R. (2017). Populism online: Digital media and the rise of right wing politics. In Social theory after the internet: Media, technology and globalization. London: UCL Press.Google Scholar
  99. Selçuk, O. (2016). Strong presidents and weak institutions: populism in Turkey, Venezuela and Ecuador. Southeast European and Black Sea Studies, 16(4), 571–589. Scholar
  100. Sewell, W. H. (1996). Historical events as transformations of structures: inventing revolution at the bastille. Theory and Society, 25(6), 841–881.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  101. Sewell, W. H. (2005). Logics of history: Social theory and social transformation. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  102. Skinner, Q. (2009). A genealogy of the modern state. Proceedings of the British Academy, 162, 325–370.Google Scholar
  103. Skrentny, J. D. (2002). The minority rights revolution. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press. Accessed 25 Mar 2016.Google Scholar
  104. Slootmaeckers, K., Touquet, H., & Vermeersch, P. (2016). Introduction: EU enlargement and LGBT rights—Beyond symbolism? In K. Slootmaeckers, H. Touquet, & P. Vermeersch (Eds.), The EU enlargement and gay politics: The impact of eastern enlargement on rights, activism and prejudice (pp. 1–16). London: Palgrave Macmillan.Google Scholar
  105. Stanley, B. (2008). The thin ideology of populism. Journal of Political Ideologies, 13(1), 95–110. Scholar
  106. Stavrakakis, Y. (2004). Antinomies of formalism: Laclau’s theory of populism and the lessons from religious populism in Greece. Journal of Political Ideologies, 9(3), 253–267. Scholar
  107. Stavrakakis, Y. (2014). The return of “the people”: Populism and anti-populism in the shadow of the European crisis. Constellations, 21(4), 505–517. Scholar
  108. Stavrakakis, Y., & Siomos, T. (2016). Syriza’s populism: testing and extending an Essex school perspective. Presented at the ECPR general conference, Charles University, Prague.
  109. Stavrakakis, Y., Katsambekis, G., Kioupkiolis, A., Nikisianis, N., & Siomos, T. (2017a). Populism, anti-populism and crisis. Contemporary Political Theory.
  110. Stavrakakis, Y., Katsambekis, G., Nikisianis, N., Kioupkiolis, A., & Siomos, T. (2017b). Extreme right-wing populism in Europe: revisiting a reified association. Critical Discourse Studies, 14(4), 420–439. Scholar
  111. Sum, N.-L., & Jessop, B. (2015). Sense- and meaning-making in the critique of political economy. In B. Jessop, B. Young, & C. Scherrer (Eds.), Financial cultures and crisis dynamics (pp. 27–43). New York: Routledge.Google Scholar
  112. Swidler, A. (1986). Culture in action: symbols and strategies. American Sociological Review, 51(2), 273–286. Scholar
  113. Taggart, P. (2004). Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe. Journal of Political Ideologies, 9(3), 269–288. Scholar
  114. Taguieff, P.-A. (1995). Political science confronts populism: From a conceptual mirage to a real problem. Telos, 103, 9–43. Scholar
  115. Tamás, G. M. (2017). The mystery of “populism” finally unveiled. openDemocracy.
  116. Tilly, C. (2006). Regimes and repertories. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  117. Tormey, S. (2015). The end of representative politics. Malden: Polity Press.Google Scholar
  118. Urbinati, N. (2015). A revolt against intermediary bodies. Constellations, 22(4), 477–486. Scholar
  119. Vasilopoulou, S. (2013). Continuity and change in the study of Euroscepticism: plus ça change? JCMS: Journal of Common Market Studies, 51(1), 153–168. Scholar
  120. Vossen, K. (2016). The power of populism: Geert wilders and the party for freedom in the Netherlands. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  121. Weyland, K. (1999). Neoliberal populism in Latin America and Eastern Europe. Comparative Politics, 31(4), 379–401. Scholar
  122. Weyland, K. (2001). Clarifying a contested concept: populism in the study of Latin American politics. Comparative Politics, 34(1), 1–22. Scholar
  123. Weyland, K. (2003). Neopopulism and neoliberalism in Latin America: how much affinity? Third World Quarterly, 24(6), 1095–1115.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  124. Wittgenstein, L. (1958). Philosophical investigations (2nd ed.). Oxford: Blackwell.Google Scholar
  125. Wodak, R. (2015). The politics of fear: What right-wing populist discourses mean. Los Angeles: SAGE.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  126. Wodak, R. (2016). “Green against blue”—Reflections on the 2016 Austrian presidential election. TruLies Europe.
  127. Worsley, P. (1969). The concept of populism. In G. Ionescu & E. Gellner (Eds.), Populism: Its meanings and national characteristics (pp. 212–221). London: Weidenfeld & Nicolson.Google Scholar
  128. Zaiotti, R. (2016). Externalizing migration management: Europe, North America and the spread of “remote control” practices. Abingdon: Routledge.Google Scholar
  129. Zolberg, A. R. (1999). Matters of state: Theorizing immigration policy. In C. Hirschman, J. DeWind, & P. Kasinitz (Eds.), The handbook of international migration: The American experience (pp. 71–93). New York: Russell Sage Foundation.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of SociologyUniversity of California Los AngelesLos AngelesUSA

Personalised recommendations