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To What Extent is Populism a Threat to Democracy? Essay

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Table of contents

  1. Deeper into Populism
  2. The Characteristics of populist leaders
  3. Populism is a threat to democracy
  4. Populism is not a threat it's an opportunity
  5. Conclusion

Populism is notoriously difficult to define but most academics appear to agree that it has two main elements: firstly a claim to speak on behalf of ordinary people and secondly the ordinary peopl must stand up in opposition to an elite establishment or institution which stops them from fulfilling their political ambitions. In this essay, I am going to use a definition created by Cas Mudde, Professor at the University of Georgia. He defines populism as, [An] ideology that separates society into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps: the pure people and the corrupt elite. Simplified, this suggests populist movements focus on the average citizen, convincing the public that they have been misrepresented and need change that only they can deliver. For the purpose of this study I will define democratic politics as a system that tolerates a diverse range of ideas and opinions from different groups and individuals, and where politicians aim to reach agreement and accommodation of these where possible. I will examine whether populism is a threat to democracy by looking at the characteristics of populist leaders and the techniques they may use to undermine democratic processes.

Deeper into Populism

Populism feeds off failing mainstream political parties or the perceived widespread suffering of a population and relies on charismatic leaders who embody the will of the people. The opposition is generally accused of being illegitimate and unworthy. Fundamentally, populism can be described as peddling deceptively simple solutions to often difficult, nuanced, and complex questions. Populists can conform to either wing, although populism has more recently been associated with right wing political parties and movements in the form of populist movements led by politicians such as Donald Trump in the USA and Nigel Farage and his Brexit promoting UKIP party, this is not always the case. As Left-wing populists have also had a significant presence, specifically in South America where Hugo Chavez the late, former president of Venezuela is probably the most famous example. Chavez, even when governing the country, positioned himself as an anti-establishment politician who was on the side of the people in his quest to alleviate poverty and promote food security by distributing the wealth created by the country's oil industry. An important observation is that generally left-wing populists tend to focus on socioeconomic grievances whereas right wing populists are in general more concerned with socio-cultural issues such as immigration. Examples of this would be the Greek, left wing populist Syriza party whose popularity boomed following the economic recession in 20XX and the Front National in France who have gained a much greater significance in French mainstream politics by focusing their campaigns on anti-immigration policies and policies that protect their traditional definition of French national identity.

The Characteristics of populist leaders

Populist leaders typically seek to position themselves as disruptors who are outside the existing order. They believe themselves to be in some way separate and radically different from other political leaders. Even a cursory examination of well-known populist leaders reveals that they share three main characteristics. The first being charisma; a populist leader does not have to be a politician in any sense, what they need is to be an engaging individual who can captivate audiences. Leaders use emotion to stir the audience rather than traditional political methods. In Italy, a populist group named 5 Star was founded by Beppe Grillo, a former stand-up comedian who spoke passionately about how the elites and global forces were the reason for Italy's hardship. The second is describing irrational promises about the future and declaring existential threats, for example Donald Trump promised to build a wall on the USA-Mexico border to manage the threat of uncontrolled immigration of migrants from South and Central America; an extremely challenging task which has evidently not happened. Many populist leaders when campaigning, describe existential threats and explain that only they can fix these problems. To the leaders, describing a calamity can mean that the usual norms of forbearance and restraint” do not have to be followed and undemocratic practices can take place. The third characteristic is blame. By blaming the opposition for any past problems and accusing them of being a self-serving ruling minority. Through accusations and sometimes even underhand techniques, populists seek to undermine any establishment that disagrees with the common will, discredit any piece of evidence that stands in their way and destabilize the calmest of leaders during debates by using often shocking techniques. A good example of this was during the first US presidential debate between Donald Trump and Joe Biden in September 2020 where Trump interrupted Biden nearly every time he spoke, and according to Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns in the New Your Times allowed the televised debate to unravel[ed] into an ugly melee as Mr. Trump hectored and interrupted Mr. Biden nearly every time he spoke and the former vice president denounced the president as a clown and told him to shut up.

Populist leaders are often described as displaying demagoguery, emotionalism, and opportunism but they by no means have a monopoly on this. Political leaders of non-populist parties also deploy these methods when it suits them. For example, in South Africa we saw Nelson Mandela rely heavily on emotion during the process of national reconciliation. Nicolas Sarkozy, the now discredited former President of France was accused by many in France of demagoguery during his presidential campaign and Angela Merkel the Chancellor of German was accused of political opportunism when she closed down Germany's nuclear energy industry following the Fukushima disaster in Japan.

Populism is a threat to democracy

To what extent populism is a threat to democracy is difficult to determine and it is important not to confuse the aims of the different populist movements (e.g. specific socio-economic or socio-cultural objectives) with the actual characteristics of populism as a concept in itself. It is certainly true that populist leaders and movements are prone to using tactics that can be said to threaten, undermine or destabilize what is generally recognized as good and fair democratic processes.

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Perhaps the threat to democracy can be seen most clearly when populist leaders use or attempt to suppress democratic processes to further their political ambitions. In August 2019 there was uproar in he UK when Prime Minister Boris Johnson announced that parliament would be prorogued for a period of five weeks at the height of Britain's Brexit crisis (the prorogation meant that parliament would be suspended and no MPs would sit thereby ending all current legislation under discussion). The Prime Minister was accused of mounting a coup against parliament and intentionally blocking MPs from considering ways to derail his Brexit plans. The matter was referred to the Supreme Court who unanimously declared unlawful. Lady Hale, President of the Supreme Court said it was unlawful because it had the effect of frustrating or preventing the ability of parliament to carry out its constitutional functions without reasonable justification.

The suppression of the mainstream media is a clear and direct way of impeding democracy and we have seen this in action in various ways in the USA during the presidency of Donald Trump. On 25 February 2017, the BBC reported that White House bans certain news media from briefing. The BBC then stated that, the BBC, CNN, the New York Times and others were excluded from an audience with Press Secretary Sean Spicer, with no reason given. It came hours after President Donald Trump delivered another attack on the media in a speech, saying that 'fake news' was the 'enemy of the people. The use of social media in populism is interesting. Modern populism, one could argue, has been fueled by the echo-chamber of social media. Vast groups of passionate, like-minded voters whipped into a frenzy by charismatic, emotional leaders can make a huge amount of social media noise and thereby possibly gain a disproportionate degree of influence. The ability of populist leaders to communicate directly with their supporters had never been seen to the extent it was when Trump famously used his Twitter account to communicate regularly and often controversially.

An unwillingness to engage in considered and constructive debate with other politicians of differing views can be seen a blow to democracy in that it denies voters a change to see the putting forward and defense of differing political ideas. This is very useful to voters when they are weighing up who to vote for in elections. Populists tend to try and end the debate before it has even started. As previously mentioned, a notable example of a populist leader refusing to engage in considered and constructive debate was in the first of the televised presidential debates between Trump and Biden in September 2020 when Trump continually interrupted his opponent denying him the opportunity to get his points across. In October 2020, the New York Times described that The first Trump-Biden face-off was a dumpster fire, and a bullying president lit the match.

Populism is not a threat it's an opportunity

We have examined many threats from populism, but can it be argued that populism (or at least a degree of populism) can also be an opportunity? Larry Diamond from Stanford University certainly believes it could be argued that populism has the power to involve huge swathes of previously politically inactive voters in the democratic process. Voters who had previously felt disenfranchised or unrepresented can feel finally that they have a voice. If political parties are no longer working to address the concerns of most of the population, populism may provide a legitimate and democratic way of changing the political direction. The same can be said if there is a genuine case of a political elite working against much of the population. Populism could also change democracy for the better; although populist leaders tend to use underhand techniques and emotion rather than fact, they do raise some valid points. By shining a light on these issues it can make the mainstream parties rethink their priorities and maybe focus more on what the people want. So although populism could be a threat, it is also an opportunity for political institutions to focus on what is best for the country more than ever before.


Brian Klaas, associate professor of global politics at University College of London once said Democracies are like sandcastles. Sometimes they are swept away with a single big wave, as with a coup or a revolution. But these days, authoritarian populism tends to erode democracy gradually, one piece at a time. Populism creeps up on voters, waiting for a collapse or a mistake in the usual political parties and then pounces, creating a new power that promises a better future to the common people. We can see this perhaps with Brexit when the nation was split evenly on the day of the referendum and then after this certain fact were disputed and found to be inaccurate. Therefore, populism is a force to be reckoned with because by focusing on the common people, populism already has a majority. It does hold the potential to cause damage, not just to opposing parties, but to political institutions and society itself. The impact on politics can outlast a populist party's time in office and can change the path of democracy as well as the norms of political campaign. Populism can to a large degree shape our democracies but if populism is held to account by a nation's democratic institutions and adherence to democratic procedure its threat remains limited.

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