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Populism Explained: I Am Not an Individual, I Am the People

Updated: Jul 27, 2023

Populism becomes a commonly heard phenomenon being used to gain more supporters by politicians worldwide. From the USA to Europe and back to Asia populist leaders are regarded by such enormous masses of the public that people are curious about what exactly populism is, which opponents of populist leaders are blaming for being one.

While political scientists are not able to agree on how to define populism, it is explained by the Oxford Dictionary as a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. Since most populists are ideologically on the radical right wing in Europe, there is a misunderstanding that populism only belongs to the right wing; however, ideology and populism are not connected, populism is a way that can be used by all politicians.

According to political scientists, populists divide society into two groups: “the corrupt elite (they)” and “the pure people (us)”. The corrupt elite contains both current government officials and the manager class of society which has the same ideals as the current government. From a populist's view, elites underestimate ordinary people's ideas, therefore they do not apply ordinary people's wishes exactly in the administration. In today's politics, these mentioned accusations of populists are mostly against the center parties' policies on refugees, immigrants, religion, minority groups, gender inequality, and development plans. For instance, during former US President Donald Trump's election campaign, democrats were blamed for not taking enough action against Mexican immigrants despite Americans' concerns. Opposingly, populists identify themselves as the representative and member of the pure people, and, in addition, they promise to listen to every word that comes from the pure people and apply their wishes.

Although populism has helped many reformist actions such as French Revolution to take place in history, modern populism is feared to cause many problems by a lot of political scientists or social science experts. Modern populist leaders who rise during a crisis are mostly charismatic and talented rhetoricians. They bring simplified reasons to complex problems and tend to identify marginalized groups or different ideologies as "them who are the reason for problems" and the pure people as "us". Since their arguments are not hard to understand or relate, they can be easily and deeply internalized by many people which can cause direct hate towards people who don’t support the same politician or who are claimed to be the reason for the problem. This division can be easily deepened to consolidate electors to vote for the populist leader.

A society where hate is widespread can cause increased crime rates and is a threat to freedom of speech, which makes life less pleasing for so many people. These simplified reasons are mostly related to emotional findings, and this makes arguable topics hard to debate. Anti-populists assert that harming debate culture directs the country to a radicalized future day by day.

Democracy and freedom of speech allow for the spreading of populism and every other legal way to create politics. While many people agree that populism should not be completely eliminated, it is also not advised to solely rely on it. According to anti-populists, politicians should not counter populists by ignoring or targeting them but by using arguments that question the effectiveness of their suggested solutions for ongoing problems. They also propose that adopting a more transparent governing process can lead people to trust politicians or business managers, who are often seen as elites. As a result, although the rise of populism can have concerning consequences, its arguments are not invincible.

Written by Nehir Türkmen

Edited by Melisa Altıntaş & Yağmur Ece Nisanoğlu

Works Cited

Molloy, David. “What is populism, and what does the term actually mean?” BBC, 6 March 2018,

Manow, Philip. “Populism Is a Symptom of Democracy’s Deeper Crisis.” St. Gallen Symposium, 6 November 2021, gclid=EAIaIQobChMIvrL2ways_wIVlrnVCh3MvAZrEAAYAiAAEgKm6fD_BwE.

“Oxford Languages and Google - English | Oxford Languages.” Oxford Languages,

Fogarty, Edward A. “Unitary state | Definition, Examples, & Facts | Britannica.” Encyclopedia Britannica,

“Populism - ECPS.” European Center for Populism Studies,

Otto, Franziska. “What is populism: definition, characteristics, examples |” Civil Liberties Union for Europe, 20 May 2022,

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