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Populism and the Past: Restoring, Retaining, and Redeeming the Nation


Populism and nationalism have been described as major threats to democracy. But ambiguities linger over their conceptual boundaries and overlaps. This article develops a typology of nationalist narratives to historically situate the recent global rise of populist nationalism. Specifically, we identify three common types of historical experience with empire that have shaped contemporary expressions of nationalism by populist leaders: imperial power, where a nation’s forerunner was the leading polity in a regional or global empire; imperial subject, where a nation was ruled and dominated by an imperial power, and imperial holdout, where a nation battled off imperial encroachments with relative success. Collective memories of these divergent imperial experiences are associated with three distinct types of nationalist narratives today: restorative nationalism in former imperial powers, redemptive nationalism in former imperial subjects, and retentive nationalism in former imperial holdouts. We illustrate this typology in three major cases of twenty-first-century populism: Turkey under Erdogan, the Philippines under Duterte, and Thailand under Thaksin. We tentatively contend that restorative nationalism is an especially likely conduit for greater political disruptions at home and abroad.

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  1. Obama’s speech is available at

  2. Populism is not unique to democratic politics. China’s anti-corruption campaign is an example of populist politics that punishes the corrupt elites on behalf of the people. Some call contemporary China a “populist authoritarian” regime (Tang 2016).


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Previous versions of this manuscript were presented at the annual conferences of the American Political Science Association and Social Science History Association, as well as workshops at UCLA, the University of Maryland, and the University of Michigan. For helpful feedback, the authors thank Rogers Brubaker, Ernesto Calvo, Cristian Capotescu, Andrew Chalfoun, Kainan Gao, Marco Garrido, Sima Ghaddar, Kevan Harris, Allen Hicken, Isaac Jilbert, Calvert Jones, Evan Jones, Stathis Kalyvas, Connor Kopchick, John McCauley, Lachlan McNamee, Autumn Perkey, Margaret Peterson, Sean Christopher Rao, Bill Roy, Gabriel Locke Suchodolski, Ashutosh Varshney, Gilad Wenig, Andreas Wimmer, and Andrea Zhu.

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Ding, I., Slater, D. & Zengin, H. Populism and the Past: Restoring, Retaining, and Redeeming the Nation. St Comp Int Dev 56, 148–169 (2021).

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  • Populism
  • Nationalism
  • Empire
  • Collective memory
  • Asia