Perspectives: The Brussels Bubble

Social Cohesion and Inequalities

Inequalities, democracy, populism


The dramatic responsibilities of the EU in economic stagnation and social inequalities are apparent. It seems that the masses are turning their backs on left-wing parties, including the (former, now) major parties of European social democracy. A significant portion of the non-privileged is turning to parties – usually (although not always) on the Right or Far Right – characterized as populist 2. The electoral successes of right-wing populism are impressive as well as worrisome. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally has long been established as a major political force in France. In Hungary, Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz tends to establish itself as a regime in government. The same was sought for years by Jarosław Kaczyński’s PiS in Poland. Right-wing populists have achieved or are claiming participation in government in Italy (Salvini, Meloni), the Netherlands (Wilders), and elsewhere. There are many more examples in Europe and the world.


This phenomenon requires an explanation. Why has populism become so attractive to a large segment of the electorate, especially to the masses? How have the political forces of the Far Right managed to appropriate the discourse of populism to reap electoral benefits that allow them to implement their nationalist, xenophobic, racist, and intolerant political agenda? To answer these questions, we need to first understand what populism is (and what it is not).


What is (and what is not) populism


Populism is not a cohesive political ideology. No one is just a populist. Whether we perceive it as an incomplete ideology or as a distinct logic of political discourse 3, populism always presupposes and combines with a certain underlying ideology, onto which it adheres, somewhat like a parasite adheres to its host. Various ideologies can provide this foundation: nationalism, socialism, neoliberalism, social democracy, and so on. This means that there is not one populism, but many and very different among them. It is preferable to speak of populisms (in the plural) rather than populism (in the singular). It is true that often populism is nationalist, racist, xenophobic. However, there is also progressive, liberating, democratic populism. Just as there is right-wing populism, there is also left-wing populism 4.


Furthermore, populism experiences gradations; it is a spectrum rather than a dichotomy 5. A political entity is not always and only either populist or non-populist. It can be more or less populist, as well as express populist discourse to promote some of its policies, but not others. Populism, therefore, not only has different forms but also different gradations.


There is, however, something common to all forms of populism. All populists claim to represent the ordinary people against the elite that constitutes a corrupt establishment. The emphasis on the people and anti-elitism is the starting point and core of every populism 6. Differences begin from there onwards, especially regarding how each populism conceptualizes the people. Roughly speaking, the major divisive line is between authoritarian populism, for which the people have ethno-racial purity and, therefore, excludes any outsider, and, on the other hand, democratic populism, which conceives the people as non-privileged, including marginalized and under-represented racial groups.


The broken promises of liberal democracy


In any of its versions, populism entails a critique of the ‘existing’ liberal democracy, as it has been shaped since the late 20th and early 21st centuries 7. In reality, as Nicola Lacey says, “populism is born in part from the ‘broken promises’ of democracy itself.” The failure “to represent a sufficient range of interests has given significant impetus to populism, especially in Europe, where the driving idea of reconstructing democracy after World War II was the establishment of structures that limit the scope of popular will.” Particularly, “long-standing deep social and economic inequalities can trigger populism by undermining the legitimacy of governing elites” 8.


Populism is a reaction to what constitutes the most structural malfunction – and distortion of promises – of liberal democracy in our era: Economic elites have managed to impose themselves on the political system, controlling and intertwining with the governing elites – a corrupt political establishment – in such a way and to such an extent that the many are excluded from the political process 9. Politics ends up serving the interests of the few and powerful, ignoring the interests of ordinary citizens.


However, populism itself does not offer a specific answer. The answer lies in the underlying ideology with which it is combined each time. For (far) right-wing populism, the answer is the transition to what has been called ‘illiberal democracy’ 10, a form of autocratic regime that, unlike overt dictatorships, still operates as ostensibly democratic, as the rulers are elected. On the other hand, democratic populism promises the democratization of the regime 11. This presupposes and entails the representation of the socially excluded and under-represented, drastic reduction of social and economic inequalities, and necessarily, accordingly, drastic curtailment of the extravagant privileges of the elites. 


Democratic populism and the Left


There remains a crucial question: Why has far-right authoritarian populism proven far more successful than left-wing democratic populism? Perhaps the answer lies in the recent history of the governing Left. Since the 1990s, citizens have observed that whether they brought conservative or social-democratic parties to power, the result was more or less the same: political austerity, privatizations, and deregulation, in other words, the implementation of the neoliberal political agenda, which especially in our continent was centrally coordinated by the European Union. The New Labour under Tony Blair, the SPD under Gerhard Schröder, or, in our context, the PASOK under Costas Simitis are just some of the many examples of convergence of once competitive political forces into an indistinct ‘Center’ or ‘middle ground’. The Left abandoned its radicalism and, along with it, the ability to inspire and represent the popular masses. In other words, it ceased to be populist. The void that emerged was seized by the populist Far Right, successfully expressing an extreme (supposedly) anti-establishment rhetoric – regardless of the fact that the policies it promotes are anything but anti-establishment – which found a receptive audience among those hit by austerity and disillusioned by politics.


The Left, on the other hand – not only the governing, but also the radical Left – failed to speak to citizens in their language. It proved timid, opting for a polished, rounded, timid discourse. It hesitated to call things by their names, out of fear of being labeled populist by the media and the political-economic establishment – for which populism is, understandably, a “curse” 12. It did not resist the constant reinforcement of independent authorities, central banks, and similar national, international, or supranational institutions, which promote technocratic governance instead of majority politics. It did not defend the basic democratic principle that significant decisions affecting citizens’ lives should not be taken away from the citizens and left to unelected and unaccountable officials.


Democratic populism stands critically against the constant tendency of liberal democracy to downgrade or even obstruct the political activism of “ordinary” citizens in contrast to the elites 13. Its message is “more power to the citizens” 14. This demand presupposes and entails the democratization of the regime towards a more inclusive and participatory democracy. This demand is particularly urgent in countries with a weak civil society and a feeble political system, such as in Greece, where the prevailing perception of liberal democracy is more likely to result in the slide of the regime into a tool of the elites. And since precisely these “failures” of liberal democracy are the cause of the spread of authoritarian deviations of the populist idea, democratic populism seems to offer an answer to combat authoritarian populism. A certain “healthy” populism, therefore, appears to be necessary to fight the “bad” populism. The Left will only be able to regain its relationship with the popular masses when it (re)becomes genuinely populist.


  1. The study was conducted as part of the research project “Populist Constitutionalism,” funded by the Hellenic Foundation for Research and Innovation (ELIDEK) under the Action “1st Call for ELIDEK Research Projects to support Academic Staff and Researchers and to procure high-value research equipment” (project number: HFRI-FM17-1502).[]
  2. The best introduction to the phenomenon of populism is offered by the work of G. Stavrakakis, “Populism: Myths, Stereotypes, and Reorientations,” EAEP Publications, 2019.[]
  3. For the two main conceptions of populism (‘ideational’ and ‘discursive’), see respectively C. Mudde & C. Rovira Kaltwasser, “Populism: A Very Short Introduction,” Oxford University Press, 2017, pp. 6, 19, and F. Panizza & Y. Stavrakakis, “Populism, Hegemony and the Political Construction of ‘The People’: A Discursive Approach,” in: P. Ostiguy et al (eds), “Populism in Global Perspective: A Performative and Discursive Approach,” Routledge, 2021, pp. 21-46.[]
  4. Politicians such as Jeremy Corbyn in the UK or Bernie Sanders in the USA, and parties such as Podemos in Spain or SYRIZA in Greece, are often characterized as left-wing populists. See A. Kioupkiolis & G. Katsambekis, “New left populism contesting and taking power: The cases of SYRIZA and Podemos,” in: G. Charalambous & G. Ioannou (eds), “Left radicalism and populism in Europe,” Routledge, 2020, pp. 129-155.[]
  5. G. Katsambekis, “Constructing ‘the people’ of populism: A critique of the ideational approach from a discursive perspective,” Journal of Political Ideologies, 2020, p. 7, DOI: 10.1080/13569317.2020.1844372.[]
  6. J. Mansbridge & S. Macedo, “Populism and Democratic Theory,” Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 15(2019), pp. 59-77.[]
  7. The analogy to ‘real’ socialism is intentional.)). From this perspective, populism serves as a ‘mirror’ that allows us to see the inherent problems, weaknesses, and deficiencies – especially the democratic deficit and the representation deficit – of liberal democracy ((D. Landau, “Populist Constitutions,” University of Chicago Law Review, 85(2018), pp. 521-543.[]
  8. N. Lacey, “Populism and the Rule of Law,” Annual Review of Law and Social Science, 15(2019), pp. 79-96.[]
  9. J. McCormick, “Democracy’s Crisis and the Populist Cry of Pain,” 2017, available at:[]
  10. See P. Parara, “The emergence of illiberal democracy. Democracies are constantly diminishing,” in: the same, Res Publica: Liberal Democracy, vol. III, Sakkoulas Publishing, 2023, pp. 1-50.[]
  11. See McCormick, op. cit.[]
  12. See Y. Stavrakakis, “How did ‘populism’ become a pejorative concept? And why is this important today? A genealogy of double hermeneutics,” POPULISMUS Working Papers No. 6, April 2017.[]
  13. The increasing political alienation and indifference of citizens hollow out democracy. See P. Mair, “Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy,” Verso, 2013.[]
  14. R. Parker, “Here, the people rule”: A constitutional populist manifesto (translated by A. Papasiryopoulos), Papasotiriou Publishing, 2021[]
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