Toward a Typology of Populists

Post developed by Pauline Jones, Anil Menon, and Katherine Pearson 

ICYMI (In Case You Missed It), the following work was presented at the 2019 Annual Meeting of the American Political Science Association (APSA).  The presentation, titled “Putin’s Pivot to Populism” was a part of the session “Russia and Populism” on Sunday, September 1, 2019. 

The rise in populism around the world has received much attention, but not all populists are the same. In a new paper, Pauline Jones and Anil Menon present an original typology of populists that goes beyond typical left-wing versus right-wing classifications. 

To better understand the different types of populists and how they operate, Jones and Menon examine two key dimensions: position within the political landscape (outsider versus insider), and level of ideological commitment (true believer versus opportunist). 

Populists tend to frame their criticism of political elites differently depending on whether they are political outsiders or government insiders. While outsiders are free to criticize those in power broadly, populists who hold political power are more likely to tailor their criticisms to their political opponents. Insiders are also more careful not to attack members of the elite with whom they will need to build political coalitions. 

Many populists evoke the past, but outsiders and insiders tend to do so differently. Whereas outsiders focus on the near past as a critique of a corrupt elite, political insiders instead focus on the distant past to evoke better days of shared national values. 

Jones and Menon also draw distinctions between true believers in populism and those who embrace populism for purely strategic reasons. True believers will remain strongly committed to enacting their populist agenda once in office; opportunists will use populist rhetoric to gain power, but won’t support their platform strongly if elected.  

The intersection of these two dimensions leads to the classification of populists into four types, illustrated in the table below: Oppositional, Classical, Strategic, and Pivot. 

Classification of populists

The most common variety of populist is the oppositional populist, who are outsiders and true believers. Oppositional populists put their agenda before all else and distance themselves from the mainstream elite. 

Classical populists sometimes start out as outsiders who become insiders once they are elected to office. Like oppositional populists, they are strongly committed to enacting their agenda; unlike oppositional populists, classical populists can enact their agenda from a position of power. Because they are insiders, classical populists are more selective about criticizing elites. 

Pivot populists are a rare group of political insiders who adopt populist rhetoric with little or no commitment to the populist ideology. Jones and Menon point to Russia’s Vladimir Putin as an example of a pivot populist who has adopted populism to bolster support for his regime while deflecting blame for the country’s problems. 

The final category is strategic populists. Like Donald Trump in the United States, strategic populists are outsiders with a weak commitment to the populist agenda. Strategic populists are broadly anti-elite, and also use their rhetoric to create divisions among the people. Once in power, they are unlikely to alienate elites by pursuing populist policy goals. 

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