What is Populism?

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Populism is a political philosophy which focuses on standing up for the rights and positions of the common people as opposed to the elite and the government. Several political movements around the world have promoted populist ideals. When used to describe political rhetoric, an individual or a political party, the term often carries pejorative connotations, and “populism” has become a loaded word to many people.

The ostentatious wealth of the late 19th century industrialists and the extreme disparities in income led to the creation of the populist movement in the United States.
The ostentatious wealth of the late 19th century industrialists and the extreme disparities in income led to the creation of the populist movement in the United States.

For the Common Man

The key ideal behind populism is that the common man should have a chance in society and an active role in government. Populist movements generally divide society into "the people" and "the elite," with individuals who have limited power being considered the people and individuals who have clout being among the elite. The elite typically are wealthy and often use their wealth to influence the political system while accruing more wealth. Populists typically feel that the government protects the interests of the elite, not the needs of the common people, and they want that to change.

In Support of Democracy

People who espouse populism generally support democratic systems and believe that democracy is the best way for the people to play a role in the government. Although they promote the welfare of the common man, populists tend to shy away from socialism and extreme liberalism. Politicians from various political parties or viewpoints can be involved in populism, and politicians might accuse each other of pandering or playing to populism in an attempt to get support and votes.

For the Greatest Good

These sorts of political movements are designed to encourage governments and society in general to work to provide the greatest good to the greatest number of people. This might be achieved through policies and pieces of legislation that support ordinary people. Populist movements, however, often reject policy suggestions such as living-wage mandates, public assistance and government-sponsored healthcare, even though these policies are often designed to help the members of the public who are most in need.

Negative Uses

Some people are fond of using the terms "populist" and "populism" in descriptions of public outcry over political events. People might be said to be “erupting in populist rage” when they lodge complaints about flagrant abuses of power among the elite or when there is backlash against a government pushing through legislation that does little to benefit the lower and middle classes. In this sense, these terms might be pejorative in nature and are often used to suggest that the public is too ignorant or short-sighted to understand what is really taking place.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a wiseGEEK researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

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Discussion Comments


Many politicians spout a kind of faux populism, a commitment to the people that hides an agenda mostly focused on the rich and powerful. The problem is that populism is very easily inspiring and also very difficult to carry out in a legislative sense. It makes for great rhetoric and tricky policy. So we end up with a lot of fake sentiments that lead to renewed misery.


One thing that often gets overlooked is that all populism is essentially radical populism. It is disappointing to admit, but being on the side of the majority is a controversial stance these days.

You have to recognize who is represented in the population. It is not the rich, it is not business owners or even the middle class. The vast number of people in this country and in the world, are lower class, often minority and struggling with all the problems of being second and sometimes third class citizens. Aligning yourself with these people is, as I say, a radical idea.


It really astounds me that anyone could get elected to office with anything except a populist message. And yet, it happens all the time. I think we are preparing to see it all over again.

Why would anyone support a candidate that is not on the side of the largest number of people? I know that humans are selfish creatures. It is one of the weakest features of our typically weak nature. But how can you favor yourself above all other people? How could anyone be excited about that future?

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