Taking Politics to the People:Populism as the Ideology of Democracy

  • Margaret Canovan


Although populist1 movements are usually sparked off by specific social and economic problems, their common feature is a political appeal to the people, and a claim to legitimacy that rests on the democratic ideology of popular sovereignty and majority rule. Analyses of populism often point to the tension within western democracy between this populist tradition and liberal constitutionalism. Certainly, there are difficulties in reconciling the project of giving power to the people with the drive to restrain power within constitutional limits, but concentration on this particular problem leaves unexplained the enduring strength of populist-democratic ideology and the ways in which it sustains populist movements. In this chapter I will argue that in order to understand populism we need to be aware of a complex and elusive paradox that lies at the heart of modern democracy. Crudely stated, the paradox is that democratic politics does not and cannot make sense to most of the people it aims to empower. The most inclusive and accessible form of politics ever achieved is also the most opaque. Precisely because it is the most inclusive form of politics, democracy needs the transparency that ideology can supply, and yet the ideology that should communicate politics to the people cannot avoid being systematically misleading.


Majority Rule Populist Movement Direct Democracy Democratic Politics Communicative Power 
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© Palgrave Macmillan, a division of Macmillan Publishers Limited 2002

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  • Margaret Canovan

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