Populism and Democratic Theory

Posted: 23 Oct 2019

See all articles by Jane Mansbridge

Jane Mansbridge

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS)

Stephen Macedo

Princeton University, Politics and Human Values

Date Written: October 2019


Commentators routinely describe “populism” as vague. Some argue that the early US populists, who coined the modern usage, were not populists. We disagree and identify this common conceptual core: the “people” in a moral battle against “elites.” The core definition fits all cases of populism: those on the left and right, those in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere. In addition to this minimal common core, we identify strongly suggested and frequently correlated non-core characteristics. These include the people's homogeneity and exclusivity, direct rule, and nationalism, as well as a single leader, vilification of vulnerable out-groups, and impatience with deliberation. The US Populist Party and Spain's Podemos Party fit the core definition but have few of the other characteristics. The core can be good for democracy, we argue, while the associated characteristics are often dangerous. Populism in opposition can be good for democracy, while populism in power carries great risks.

Suggested Citation

Mansbridge, Jane and Macedo, Stephen, Populism and Democratic Theory (October 2019). Annual Review of Law and Social Science, Vol. 15, pp. 59-77, 2019, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=3472514 or http://dx.doi.org/10.1146/annurev-lawsocsci-101518-042843

Jane Mansbridge (Contact Author)

Harvard University - Harvard Kennedy School (HKS) ( email )

79 John F. Kennedy Street
Cambridge, MA 02138
United States
617-495-9343 (Phone)
617-496-9053 (Fax)

HOME PAGE: http://www.hks.harvard.edu/about/faculty-staff-directory/jane-mansbridge

Stephen Macedo

Princeton University, Politics and Human Values ( email )

Corwin Hall
Princeton, NJ 08544-1012
United States

HOME PAGE: http://www.princeton.edu/~macedo/

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