Encyclopedia of Educational Philosophy and Theory

2017 Edition
| Editors: Michael A. Peters


Reference work entry
DOI: https://doi.org/10.1007/978-981-287-588-4_209


Analyzing educational phenomena means understanding factors which are not merely pedagogical but above all social. This is especially true for the Latin American context, where some social and power structures strongly influence educational activity as, for example, populism, which before being a political reality is a social phenomenon interwoven in the fabric of the population. Aspects of the populist mentality which affect institutional education programming are reproduced through educational devices. Thus there exists a deep correlation between education and populism: to understand the first, we must not neglect to study the second.

Populism is a political phenomenon which has returned to affect many political and social contexts of the globe in the last few decades after a season in which it had seemed relegated to only a few areas like Latin America. By populism we mean a power relationship based upon a direct rapport between a charismatic leader and the people (Canovan 1981). On the basis of popular consensus, it offers itself as an alternative to a constituted power (establishment) and develops a political discourse based upon a rigid juxtaposition between us and them. Contemporary scientific debate on populism is focused on some crucial aspects such as its definition and its relationship with democracy: the new form of media populism.

The first scientific studies on this theme occurred in the period between the two wars. They were prevalently historical in character and took as their subject of interest the first forms of American populism from the second half of the nineteenth century and the Russian populisms (narodniki) occurring slightly later. Successively the conclusion of the fascist experience in Italy contributed to a further scientific research on the subject. For all that it is impossible to sustain that fascism and populism are the same thing, even so on an analytic level they do have a lot in common, such as the mobilization of the masses and the presence of a charismatic leader. The great difference is that fascism availed itself of a strong and strategic ideology, while populisms have always made recourse to tactical and composite ideological forms.

For a good part of the second half of the twentieth century, this term referred to extra European experiences for the most part or at least countries outside of the group of the more advanced western democracies. Populism particularly seemed to be a prerogative of Latin American governments where the charismatic relationship between the leader and people took on a patriarchal connotation. In this sense the case of Argentinean Peronism had an almost paradigmatic function.

With the end of the 1990s in the period following the collapse of the Soviet Bloc, we see new forms of populism, which have been defined neopopulisms to distinguish them from previous populisms. Not only at the margins of the more advanced societies, but even in more consolidated democracies, we witness the birth of very robust forms of populism. This is the case of the populisms of the European right, such as Haider in Austria and Bossi and Berlusconi in Italy, or also the case of Latin American populisms, personified by leaders such as Chávez, Evo Morales, and Correa, who represented the so-called Latin American “left turn” in the first decade of the new millennium. Today we can count populist entities in many countries in many areas of the world: from Russia to Thailand, to Turkey, to Spain, and to Latin America. In Italy we have a populist political context with several political forces in competition with one another structured on the basis of this characteristic: Berlusconi, the Northern League, the Five Star Movement, and the current premier Renzi.

On the level of populism analysis, we have different orientations of study. Margaret Canovan, for example, provides a first classification of populisms, which still has great value today. Canovan declares repeatedly the need for a systematic study in sociological terms of populism so that “Populism becomes a sociological category rather an historical one” (Canovan 1981, p. 299). Canovan identifies two macro-categories: the first one which she defines agrarian populisms, the American People Party, and Russian populism is part of this category; the second one, which she calls political populism, is formed by the populist dictatorship, populist democracy, reactionary populism, and politicians’ populism.

By agrarian populisms Canovan means both the farmers’ radicalism in the USA and the peasant movements of Eastern Europe, particularly Russian populism. The first is represented by those protest movements on the part of agricultural producers, who, in the second half of the 1800s, repeatedly launched protest actions with the purpose of claiming economic autonomy when it came to deciding the prices of their products. The objective of this movement was to detach itself from its subordinate position with respect to the federal monopolists who, owning the means of distribution of the products, profited outrageously to the detriment of the producers. From the very first protest actions, these producers showed themselves to be an extended community of resistance, and within a few years, they came to found the People’s Party with an effective rhetoric based on the formula of “plain people.” Canovan stresses that it was not just a socioeconomic phenomenon based on the claims of agricultural producers, but rather a sociopolitical phenomenon of revolt against the dominant plutocratic elite and national politicians, which for the first time in the history of the USA were able to express a form of “radical democracy” (Canovan 1981, p. 58).

The case of narodnichestvo, Russian populism, is profoundly different. If American populism is something that arises from within society and from the deepest needs of economic and political representation of the social base, Russian populism is instead the result of an elaboration made by an intellectual elite. It was a populism of the intelligentsia that was proposed to the rural social classes, whose doctrine was aimed to hypostatize and glorify the rural lifestyle in anti-modern protosocialist terms and on the basis of a sentiment of rediscovery of Slavic roots. American populism arose from the people as a form of self-awareness in the wake of a rebellion; Russian populism took its moves from young intellectuals who, abandoning bourgeois and metropolitan life to stay near the peasants, often rediscovered their orthodox and patriotic roots. In this case, in fact, there was the elaboration of an ideology which contributed more than a little to the development of the struggle against tsarist autocracy, often resulting in acts of terrorism. The end of this movement was decreed by the establishment of the Bolshevik regime.

Political populisms are such because their focus is political rather than agrarian. It is conceivable, however, that there may be cases in which an agrarian populism is also political or that a political populism may contain elements of agrarian populism. In political populism, elements such as the urban dimension, the presence of charismatic leadership, and/or structured political parties are preeminent.

The first kind of political populism which Canovan presents is the “populist dictatorship,” and to illustrate she indicates two paradigmatic examples: the Argentinean Juan Domingo Perón (1895–1974) and the American Huey P. Long (1893–1935). In both cases, Canovan underlines the special condition of widespread social uprooting of citizens as the condition that creates possibility of populism: a widespread individual disorientation that acts as a lever to the rhetoric of redemption proposed by the leader and which permits a positive outlet for social resentment. They are phenomena of collaboration between classes, hardly ascribable to a single ideological logic, but highly anti-elitist and characterized by an extraordinary mass mobilization through means of a leader’s just as extraordinary charismatic ability. This kind of populism has an effect of weakening democratic institutions and favoring the personalization of the political dimension. Precisely because of this dynamic of mass consensus, these populisms have more things in common with fascism and Nazism.

Populist democracy is the second type of political populism. With this expression are meant all the forms of populism which strive for a considerable increase of political participation and a government of the people. Populist democracy is therefore a radical democracy where the aspects of the representation of the people and the mediation between the governing classes are reduced to the minimum. All the movements that require greater direct democracy in clear opposition with representative democracy and its dysfunctions are part of this subtype. Canovan includes the case of McCarthyism in this area of analysis. Studied by Shils in his famous book The Torment of Secrecy (Shils 1956) as a populist social reaction in a political context of democratic elitism, it was the spread of a popular mentality which simplified the terms of political issues, coming to assume highly uncivil and violent positions. In contrast, Switzerland is a case of concrete, or perhaps it would be better to say institutionalized populist democracy. Government procedures established by the Swiss constitution are, in fact, a rare example of accomplished radical democracy. The people have the possibility to intervene in many crucial questions of political life trough referendums and participative forms. The reason for this political regime, which may be considered unique, is the peculiarity of the process of formation of the Swiss State. Unlike other States which were created through a top-down process, Switzerland came into being through a bottom-up evolution of a federal kind among the different cantons. Canovan also presents what may be the extremes of populist democracy, which have often been pointed out by neo-elitist critics: the risk, for example, of a tyranny of the majority in which minorities are not adequately represented; the tendency of public opinion to influence government policy in a nonobjective and distorted way, based on the oversimplification and over-dramatization of issues; or the loss of authority and legitimacy of the elected government due to a social logic of exaltation of the popular point of view, but also a loss of authority and prestige of office on the basis of an absolute egalitarianism.

Reactionary populism is characterized by an antiprogressive, nationalist, and often xenophobic and traditionalist ideological content. The return to the people is conceived as a return to roots and a refusal of every element of progress. In this form of populism, the contrast is therefore between a popular base that is identified in its retrograde and reactionary cultural forms against the elites and their progressive and cosmopolitan culture. Therefore this kind of populism is often in sharp disagreement with intellectuals and all forms of avant-garde art. Canovan identifies a typical example in the politician George Wallace, governor of Alabama famous for his positions in favor of the defense of racial segregation of blacks.

Politicians’ populism is the last one of the political populisms according to Canovan’s classification. More than anything else, it is a political style expressed through their actions and political practices. The “catch-all people’s parties” and all those organizations that are found in the democratic dimension without necessarily desiring a radical structural change, but find strength in direct popular consensus, belong to this subgroup. The concrete political forms where it is possible to find this populist style range from what is called anti-politics to personalist parties to radical coalitions. Canovan gives the example of Jimmy Carter for the USA, who defined himself personally as a populist or the Partido de la Revolución Mexicana PRI. The structural characteristic of politicians’ populism is the tactical nature of populism, which consists of using popular appeal as a means of renewing consensus and social legitimacy to realign from time to time political action with the requirements of the context. In this case, the paradoxical nature of the concept of “people” is evident more than ever: if, on the one hand, it is ambiguous, vague, and undefined; on the other hand, at the social level, precisely because of this vagueness, it allows forms of political inclusion, even only momentary and limited, which renew politicians’ power.

Canovan’s latest studies focused precisely on the people as an abstract political concept, but also as a widespread social representation conditioning the citizens’ actions. Populism is set in a wider horizon of problems which goes back to the nature of the western State, so that it is impossible to understand populism as a feature of contemporary democracies unless you reconstruct genealogically the progressive centrality of the people and of popular sovereignty in constitutional forms, in political culture, and in political theory. The people are thus a widespread social concept among the citizenship which not only legitimize political authority but also have the possibility of changing it, according to what Canovan calls sovereign people in reserve.

It is possible to catalogue the principle theories on populism in at least three different approaches as Gidron and Bonikowsky have clarified: populism as a political ideology, populism as a political style, and populism as strategy.

The theories that consider populism an ideology hark back to the concept of “thin-centered” ideology elaborated by Michael Freeden. According to these authors, populism is in fact a subtle and limited ideology, typical of the new postmodern context and after the end of the great twentieth-century ideologies. The most significant representative of this theoretical orientation is Cas Mudde (Mudde 2007). Mudde explains that populism is a set of ideas on politics and on society which is structured on a macro opposition of us against them, where us is the people while them coincides with the elite. Populism is thus always an anti-elitist ideology in a context where the elite coincides with the power establishment. This aspect of juxtaposition between an us and a them follows an ingroup-outgroup logic highlighted by Teun Van Dijk (1998), where every ideology develops a discursive logic of social representations according to which everything that belongs to the sphere of us is inclusive, positive, and enhancing, while everything belonging to the sphere of them is excluding, negative, and diminishing. Applying this logic to populism presupposes the first sphere being associated with the people, while the second belongs to the elite enemy of the people and to all which opposes the people.

The second approach conceives populism as a form of discourse. The most significant exponents are Laclau and Panizza (Laclau 2005; Panizza 2013). These scholars essentially interpret populism as a means of protesting and engaging in politics on the basis of a communicative style geared toward the claim of a majority of society against the dominating elites. Especially Laclau’s writings have permitted a relative revaluation of populist forces. Keeping especially in mind the Latin American cases of progressive matrix populism of the first decade of the present millennium, Laclau has explained how populism may be the political discourse interpreted by the excluded part of society in a subordinate context with respect to the elite. Thanks to the populist discourse, a new democratizing perspective is possible in a context where democracy is merely formal and oligarchic tendencies prevail.

The third type of approach considers populism as a strategy and thus essentially a form of social political mobilization and organization (Weyland 1996; Jansen 2011). Concentrating our attention on the social dynamics which underlie the populist phenomenon, these bring to light aspects such as social mobilization, social polarization, the institutional crisis which precedes the populist ascent, and the role of leadership in regard to all this.

The increase of populisms in the last decades on a global scale has not only been a matter of quantity but also a matter of quality. Today in fact we can find numerous types of new populisms and new labels. We speak in fact of media populism to indicate those forms of populism which are based on forms of social consensus through the media, one example was the case of Berlusconi in Italy and his use of television to impose a political domination, or we speak of web populism to indicate specifically strategies of consensus which use the Internet; we also speak of ethno-populism to define that type of populism based on a strong ethnic connotation of the people in question, as in the case of Evo Morales’s movement in Bolivia (De la Torre 2007).

In addition to political populism, other forms of populism exist such as penal populism. This type of populism regards the forms of pressuring and alteration of the justice system by politics. Penal populism is not necessarily tied to a charismatic figure or leader, but it is made up of a series of procedures and situations. Amplifying and distorting the risk of criminality during electoral campaigns, failing to make recourse to statistical data, or making criminal trials glamorous and hyping them up, altering their perception by public opinion, and pressuring the judges are some examples.

Beyond the complexity due to the multiple forms of populism, this phenomenon poses a profound problem with regard to the concept of democracy. Populism may be considered either pathology of the forms of political representation that emerges when the classical mechanisms of mediation in representative governments enter into crisis. However it may also be seen as an intrinsic form of democracy because it is profoundly tied to popular sovereignty, one of the cornerstones of modern democracies. The people’s rallying cry in such a strong and absolute way typical of populist forces may even be perceived as an excess of democracy. Certainly the action of criticism of the establishment fostered by populism is a form of delegitimization of the established order and of the preexisting symbolic social scene; thus populist action constitutes a possibility of social change of the forms of citizenship and of democratic participation in a more direct and vertical direction.


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© Springer Nature Singapore Pte Ltd. 2017

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.University of PerugiaPerugiaItaly