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The Populist Challenge to Representative

Democracy

By
Ilkin Huseynli
huseynli@stud.uni-heidelberg.de

Submitted to
Heidelberg University
Heidelberg Center for American Studies

Lecturer: PD. Dr. Martin Thunert


Heidelberg, Germany
Winter Semester 2016-2017
Introduction
The academic debate on the relationship between populism and democracy has remained
controversial mainly due to the definitional problems of both terms among scholars. Although
populism and democracy are widely used by scholars, journalists, and ordinary citizens, there is
no consensus about the meanings of them. As a result of these uncertainty, the question regarding
how a modern democratic system should function also becomes a debate between populists and
proceduralist. In this paper, I argue that populism is intrinsically against liberal principles, and
democratic procedures. Moreover, its understanding of political representation is anti-pluralistic.
Populism uses democratic institutions as a means to centralize power in the executive branch and
to weaken all constitutional and parliamentary limitations for the government. While the core of
representative democracy is “the citizen,” the central theme of populism is a fictional
“homogeneous people without factions.” Populist democracy, therefore, is a disfigured form of
representative democracy where the majority can rule by ignoring liberal principles such as
minority rights, checks and balances, division of powers, and constitutional procedures. I also
argue that this populist democracy is more likely to become a plebiscitarian democracy by taking
away deliberative means of its citizens and turning them into a reactive audience.
Between populism and democracy, the most problematic one is the former because in
academia it is still one of the most important terms that has yet to be precisely defined (Berlet and
Lyons 2000, 4; Jansen 2011, 76; Brewer 2016, 250). While some see populism as a vital element
of democracy (Tännsjö 1992) and argue that this phenomena creates a direct connection between
the masses and their leaders with the acclamation of the former (Schmitt 2008 [1928], 269-275),
many consider populism as a challenge to democracy on the grounds that it radically opposes the
democratic procedures, political representation, and pluralism (Urbinati 1998; 2011a; 2011b;
2013; 2014; Beyne 2011, 58-65; Corduwener 2014; Baggini 2015). On the one hand, populists
reject procedures and institutional arrangements by arguing that these principles disfigure the true
democracy – rule by the people (Mény and Surel 2002, 9). Populists consider themselves the only
true democrats and see political representation as a distortion of direct democracy. On the other
hand, proceduralist democrats argue that in the contemporary world, democracy cannot function
without political representation and cannot be imagined without liberal constitutional principles,
such as division of powers, pluralism, and civic rights (Urbinati 2014, 129). Democracy, they
argue, has both democratic and non-democratic elements, such as popular elections and

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constitutional courts respectively. In other words, “practical democracy” in the Western countries,
is a representative democracy which is a mixed form of governance (Canovan 2002, 39; Urbinati
and Warren 2008, 392). Representative democracy is a broad and rich field of study. Therefore,
for the purpose of my paper, I think it is necessary to state the most fundamental views against
representative democracy and clearly draw the boundaries of my research.
Contemporary democratic theorists’ view of representative democracy as a mixture of
direct democracy, in the sense of the ancient Athens, and aristocracy is traced back to the eighteens
century. Rousseau favors participation of each citizen in the lawmaking process and argues against
political representation because “sovereignty (…) cannot be represented. (… ) The deputies of the
people, therefore, are not and cannot be its representatives: they are merely its stewards, and can
carry through no definitive acts” (Rousseau 2008 [1762], 95). He also claims that the English
people are only free during the elections; as soon as the representatives are elected, the people
again become slaves. This distinction between democracy and representation has continued among
the democratic theorists. In the twentieth century, many scholars argued that a society was divided
between the masses or the people, and the elite (Mosca 1939, 50-69; Schumpeter 1965 [1943],
269-283; Aron 1997 [1968]; Sartori 1997 [1987]). Some of them, such as Pareto and Mosca,
cheered this situation with the underlying assumption that the masses are unable to rule themselves
and govern for the benefit of the whole society, resulting in the need for limited a group of
individuals to control the government. Others, such as Schumpeter, claimed that we should see the
political situation clearly and create a realistic, instead of a normative, definition of democracy in
order to better understand how the democratic system functions.
Arguable the most prominent sociologist in the elite theory, Charles Wright Mills,
identified three ruling classes, political, military, and economic, that made up the power elite (Mills
1956). He had a strong influence on Domhoff who suggested a radical version of elite theory.
Unlike Mills, he claimed that there was one “upper class” that controlled the United States
(Domhoff 1967). Furthermore, Dye and Zeigler argued that for the survival of democracy “elites
must govern wisely” and the masses should only follow their leaders instead of participating in the
decision-making process (2009, 1-17; see also Prewitt and Stone 1973; Higley et al. 1976, 13-58;
Bottomore 1993). Although their definitions of people and elite differ slightly, the main idea in all
of them is that even in democracies, small groups of individuals govern and the people do not have
a significant impact on the government. For example, Pareto famously claimed that “a political

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system in which ‘the people’ expresses its ‘will’ (…) exists only as a pious wish of theorists”
(Pareto 1997 [1935], 51-52). While I am aware that some theorists see democracy as utopia and
representative democracy as oxymoronic (see Urbinati and Warren 2008, 392; Urbinati 2011a, 37-
41), since the goal of this paper is to scrutinize the uneasy relationship between populism and
representative democracy, I will only analyze the populism-democracy debate within the
framework of representative democracy.
I think that literal understanding of democracy as “rule by the people” is a reductionist
approach. The modern-day concept of democracy should be understood as a complex governing
system with two related but distinct sides, in Urbinati’s words, “‘will’ and ‘opinion’” (Urbinati
2014, 22). Urbinati argues that “representative democracy is a diarchic system” which consists of
“will” – institutional arrangements and procedures that make clear how collective decisions should
be taken, free and fair elections, and majority rule – and “opinion” – various political activities
that empower the citizens and enable them to influence the government with informal and indirect
way (Urbinati 2014, 2). However, the argument goes, populism aims to weaken the institutional
arrangements of constitutional democracy by concentrating power in executive branch of the
government. By overemphasizing the importance of “people’s power,” populism is inherently
hostile to liberal principles, such as individualism, minority rights, and pluralism. Populist
democracy, therefore, is a disfigured form of representative democracy. But before proceeding
with the analysis, by taking into consideration the definitional problems of populism and
representative democracy, I proceed to define the fundamental components of these two terms.

The Definitional Problem of Populism


The term “populist” has been used to label individual politicians, popular movements,
political parties, some government policies, and specific political rhetoric which make populism
extremely difficult to define. Because of this wide usage of populism in public discussions, the
border of the journalistic and the academic understanding of the term is not clear-cut. In social
media, any government whose “legitimacy is understood to ascend from ‘the people’ rather than
descend by divine or natural right” can be called populist (Jansen 2011, 76-77). Journalistic
approach to populism makes it impossible to understand this social phenomenon, and by
equalizing “populism” with “the people,” journalistic definition oversimplifies the complexities of
this term and eliminates the differences between various types of government. Since all

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governments in the contemporary world, except theocracies, claim that their legitimacy derive
from the people, according to the journalistic definition of populism, there would be no difference
between liberal representative governments and populist governments. However, populism
opposes liberal principles and considers them dangerous to the sovereignty of the people; thus, it
is necessary to recognize the illiberal elements in populism. As Müller points out “populism (…)
is profoundly illiberal and, in the end, directly undemocratic understanding of representative
democracy” (2014, 484). While liberal governments emphasize the importance of constitutional
limitations, institutional arrangements, political representation, and low-making procedures,
populist governments would be hostile to the enumerated liberal principles on the grounds that
they minimize the people’s sovereignty, and empower the elite domination. A scholarly definition
of populism, therefore, is necessary in order to recognize the distinct features of populism from
liberal representative democracy.
Ernesto Laclau acknowledges that “intuitively,” we know which movement or ideology is
populist, “but we have the greatest difficulty in translating the intuition [sic] into concepts” (Laclau
1977, 143). By its nature populism is flexible enough to be adopted to the specific local features
of different societies. Depending on historical and cultural values of particular societies, populism
can marry with nationalism, religion, and leftism (see, Fallers 1964; Hellinger 1984; Mussio 1996;
Xu 2001; Etkind 2003; Aytaç and Öniş 2014; De La Torre 2016). Furthermore, populism itself is
divided into many “populisms,” according to their political orientation, such as right-wing or left-
wing populism, and egalitarian or anti-egalitarian populism (Taggart 2002, 68). A distinction
among populists, therefore, is essential for the further clarification of the term. According to
sociologist Sara Diamond, the right-wing populist is a person who “support[s] the state in its
capacity as enforcer of order and (…) oppose[s] the state as distributor of wealth and power
downward and more equitably in society” (Diamond 1995, 9, see also Berlet and Lyons 2000, 6-
13). Alan Ware describes left-wing populism as a more egalitarian form of populism which
advocates the distribution of wealth in favor of the people, especially of the least advantaged
section of society (Ware 2002, 109).
All these difficulties lead to the many misunderstandings among scholars because when
they refer to populism. Scholars do not always mean the same thing, and their wide definitions of
the term make it possible to label any political party, popular movement or a political leader “a
populist” (see, Müller 2014, 483). Therefore, it is necessary to define some basic elements of

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populism in order to study the phenomena from a scholarly point of view. In this paper, I analyze
different approaches to populism, and I make some limitations in the definition of this term based
on Nadia Urbinati’s distinction between populism and popular social movements. She observes
that popular movement is not populism, and the former is consistent with representative
democracy. Populism, Urbinati points out, seeks a powerful leader and centralization of power
into few hands because it aims to mobilize “the masses toward the conquest of the democratic
government” (2014, 130; cf. Galston 2014, 20-22).
Donald MacRae sees populism as an ideology which is “composed of more primitive
ideological themes” (1969, 154). He claims that populist ideology should not be understood as
Stalinism and Maoism because “while Maoism is not populism, yet populism is an important
element in Maoism” (MacRae 1969, 154). In other words, MacRae divides ideologies into less
sophisticated ideologies, like populism, and more complex ones, like Maoism. He claims that the
main idea of populism is to belong to some social group and to have a strong root because
“populism is against ‘rootlessness’” (MacRae 1969, 156). Although, he does not explicitly explain
the components of “rootlessness,” he writes that this notion of “belonging” are defined differently
by various societies. For example, in Russia it meant “fraternity based on locality” but in the United
States, rootlessness also included “manly independence” along with fraternity (MacRae 1969,
156). In addition, MacRae continues, as an ideology, populism tries “to escape from the burden of
history” by denying the negative sides of the concept of “nation,” such as its unjust acts towards
its neighbors, and by praising the nation’s moral superiority throughout its history (MacRae 1969,
157). I think this element of populism can be helpful to understand why populists are against
pluralism and minority rights. Populist conception of “the people” is a homogeneous entity that
includes every ordinary member of society, and in most cases, excludes only elites and the
members of some minority groups who, allegedly, collaborate with elites (Müller 2014, 486-487).
Therefore, for populists, there should not be plurality of ideas and interests in society because “the
people’s will” is and should be unanimous but not plural. Even though all populists are skeptical,
or, mostly, hostile to elites, there is no single definition of “elite” among populists too. For left-
wing populists, elite is usually the economically rich section of society while for right-wing
populists, elite is mainly liberal intellectuals.
Although it is difficult to choose a single definition of populism, it is necessary to define
some fundamental elements of the term in order to keep it limited. Jansen argues that trying to

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define populism as “a scientific term like entropy or photosynthesis” is not correct (Jansen 2011,
10), and he suggests that this term should remain undefined, but I think one should define some
basic principles of populism for analyzing it. Due to its characteristics, such as romanticism,
moralism, and spiritualism, Angus Steward argues that “populism is a kind of nationalism”
(Steward 1969, 183). Regarding this point, MacRae also claimed that populism, in the
contemporary world, namely in the 1960s, was closely related to nationalism and Marxism (1969,
163). Although some scholars, such as Hofstadter (1964) and Wiles (1969) conceptualize populism
as a pathology, I agree with Mark Fenster’s statement that the elements of populism “should not
be dismissed and analyzed simply as a pathology” (Fenster 1999, 47; Mény and Surel 2002, 3-7).
Recently, many scholars have agreed that populism should be taken as a serious political
phenomenon instead of a pathology or any other pejorative term (Diamond 1995; Canovan 1999;
2004, 5-6; see also Berlet and Lyons 2000, 98-99; Jansen 2011, 77). For example, even though
Peter Wiles concludes that populism is a “syndrome,” without accepting his conclusion, I think he
defines some important elements of populism which are essential for understanding this
phenomenon. Despite his reductionist approach to populism, still we can use Wiles’s contributions
to its definition. He defines populism as “virtue resides in the simple people (…) and in their
collective traditions” which is similar to the MacRae’s understanding of the term (Wiles 1969,
166). First, Wiles writes, populism is strongly moralistic, and it aims a spiritual connection of the
people with their leaders. Second, populism is more like a movement rather than a continuous
struggle or an organization with strictly defined agenda. Third, populism is anti-intellectual
because it glorifies the people and demonize the intellectuals on the grounds that they are arrogant
persons who always tell the people what to do and what not to do (Wiles 1969, 167).
According to Michael Kazin, the preliminary definition or characteristic of populism lies
in its Manichean view of the good people on the one hand, and the corrupt elite on the other (Kazin
1998, 1). Despite the fact that this definition is wide, it can explain the people-elite dichotomy.
Based on this fundamental distinction between the people and the elite, which is also mentioned
by Wiles and Kazin, Mark Brewer (2016) defines five characteristics of populism. First, for a
populist, “the people” represents the vast majority of the citizens, and by virtue, the people is hard-
working and good, unlike unfair and arrogant elite. Second, the elite exploit1 the people and

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For populists, the people is “not bounded narrowly by class” (Kazin 1998, 1), thus, the ‘exploitation’ here should
not be understood as a Marxist term.

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unjustly obtain the national wealth. Thirdly, the central government is controlled by the unjust
elite, and the people has no influence on the government. Fourthly, in order to preserve the
Manichean world-view, populism always needs an enemy, and this enemy should be almost
omnipotent with great power; therefore, populism is vulnerable to conspiracy theories. Finally,
populists support traditional values of the people against the immorality of the elite (Brewer 2016,
250-255). I think these five characteristics are commonly shared by almost all populists, and the
wide definitions of Wiles and Kazin are also compatible with Brewer’s detailed explanation. These
enumerated characteristics embody the important part of the definition of populism that I will refer
in this paper; however, in order to make the definition more concrete, I need to look at the positive
understanding of populism in American history.
The final definitional problem of populism, particularly in the United States, is historical.
After the Civil War, farm prices radically declined by 2/3, especially in the South and Midwest.
As a reaction, Farmer Alliances emerged both in the South and the North (Judis 2016, 15). From
1870 to 1890, the alliances tried to change the agenda of both major parties, however, they failed
to persuade the parties. Therefore, they decided that since the Democrats and the Republicans
“stood in the way of national reform”, farmers needed their own national party (Postel 2007, 139).
Eventually, in 1891, the People’s Party or the Populist Party was established in Cincinnati
(McMath 1993, 143). Occasionally even today, due to its name, even among the scholars it creates
confusion, whether to refer to the Populists as the People’s Party members or populists in general.
Unlike right-wing populists of the twentieth century, The Populist Party of 1891 was in favor of
increasing state power over the economy. The Populists were inspired by the postal system and
demanded nationalized railway system. Moreover, they wanted a centralized national bank,
currency expansion, such as silver money and greenbacks, and government loans to the farmers
(Postel 2007, 142-153; see also, Hofstadter 1969, 15-16; Worsley 1969, 220-221). In the 1896
elections, the Populists endorsed Democratic candidate William Byran and lost the election to the
Republican William McKinley (Zinn 2010, 295). After this defeat, the People’s Party declined
significantly and finally dissolved in 1908 (Kazin 1998, 42-45).
Some scholars see American populist tradition as an important force in democratization of
politics. As Kazin observes, Americans have used populism “to protest social and economic
inequalities without calling the entire system into question” (1998, 2). Also Peter Worsley argues
that populism and elitism can be understood as the opposite views in political spectrum, and as

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long as populism, despite its anti-pluralist and anti-individualist features, aims to improve the lives
of the majority, it is “profoundly compatible with democracy” (Worsley 1969, 247). Canovan
suggests that the populist view of politics is based on faith that if mobilized “popular enthusiasm,”
empowers the government – especially the executive branch – well enough, the society will be
better off. The main difference of “politics of faith” from “politics of skepticism” is that the former
believes that “such power can be safely entrusted to human beings” (Canovan 1999, 8). In sum, I
will use the following definition of populism: the five characteristics that were defined by Brewer
(2016, 250-255) along with three related elements that were highlighted by Urbinati, namely,
polarization (the many against the few), anti-liberalism (i.e. hostility towards individualism,
pluralism, and minority rights), and centralization of power with the presence of a strong leader.

The Standard Account of Representative Democracy


In the contemporary world, since all democratic countries function through political
representation, one may assume that democracy and representation are inherently related with each
other. However, representative democracy, or in Urbinati’s words, “the democracy of moderns,”
is a complex and modern understanding of governance which aims to connect “two distinct and in
certain respects alternative political traditions” (Urbinati 2011a, 23). Representative democracy,
therefore, is different from the ancient direct democracy of Athens where the city-state was ruled
“by the people” but not “by the representatives of the people.” Robert Dahl analyzes the history of
democracy and representation, and concludes that originally political representation was a non-
democratic institution but the merge of these two separate traditions has enabled the existence of
legitimate popular governments in larger areas that are inhabited by tens of millions of people
(Dahl 1989, pp. 28-30, 214-218).
James Madison, for example, classified representative government as a distinct form of
government, and contrasted it with democracy. In the Federalist 10, he argued that republic, in
which he means a representative government, is superior to “pure democracy.” Patriotic
representatives can better serve and act in the interest of the whole nation rather than a tiny faction
because political representation “refine and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the
medium of a chosen body of citizens” (Madison 2016 [1787], 56). He believed that in a direct rule
without representation, everybody would follow their own interests instead of caring about the
whole nation while representatives would tend to be in the center of political spectrum in order to

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be elected. Madison also argued that in democracy the people should be small in number in order
to directly rule the country, and in a small society, one faction can rule without considering the
other opinions. However, in a republic, because of political representation, citizens can be bigger
in number, and in such a diverse society, one faction is less likely to win the majority. Thus, he
concluded, in a republic different factions would be forced to compete with one another, and
eventually compromise. For Madison, therefore, republic is inherently better form of government
than democracy for the protection of liberty and property since it is pluralistic, and it limits power
of numerous factions. In the Federalist 63, Madison emphasized that the main difference between
democracy and representative government “lies in the total exclusion of the people, in their
collective capacity, from any share in the latter, and not in the total exclusion of the representatives
of the people from the administration of the former” (Madison 2008 [1788], his emphasis).
As a baseline of representative democracy, political theorists suggest a standard account
“against which competing, often critical, democratic and representative claims can be assessed and
resilience of the original model tested” (Judge 2014, 2). According to Urbinati and Warren (2008,
389; see also Urbinati 2011a, 23), there are four main characteristics of the standard account of
representative democracy. First of all, the central feature of representative democracy is its
emphasis on the importance of principal-agent relationship. Constituencies, which are organized
on the territorial lines, elect their representatives, and the agents are supposed to act according to
the interests of their constituencies. By doing so, representative democracy separates “the sources
of legitimate power from those who exercise that power.” Second, this electoral political
representation “identifies a space within which the sovereignty of the people is identified with the
state power.” Third, to some extend the electoral representation should “ensure some measure of
responsiveness” to the people, and political parties, along with the elected representatives, play a
significant role in this process. Forth, political equality should be endowed to electoral
representation with the general suffrage. Contemporary analysis of representative democracy starts
with Hanna Pitkin’s The Concept of Representation (1967). In her book, she identifies three main
requirements for a democratic political representation, and “standard accounts” of contemporary
political theorists are generally based on Pitkin’s three principles (see Urbinati and Warren 2008,
393). First, the representatives has to be authorized by the citizens; second, the people should be
able to hold their elected representatives accountable by certain means; third, representatives
should be alike to their constituencies and should act in the interest of the whole people (Pitkin

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1967, pp. 38-39, 56-57, 60-61). The important feature of contemporary political representation is
that the individuals are only represented based on the territory, but not according to race, culture,
or economic interests (Urbinati 2011a, 23; Urbinati and Warren 2008, 389).
Free and fair elections are the central feature of representative democracies. Even Norberto
Bobbio describes representative democracy as a system “in which supreme power (supreme in so
far as it alone is authorized to use force as a last resort) is exercised in the name of and on behalf
of the people by virtue of the procedure of elections” (1987, 93). However, representative
democracy should not be reduced to the elections because so called electoral democracy does not
take other requirements of constitutional representative democracy into account, such as
accountability, and ongoing influence of the people to their representatives. Or in other words,
electoral democracy only focuses on “the will” of diarchic system while it ignores the other pillar
of the system, namely “the opinion.” For instance, Joseph Schumpeter suggested a minimalist
account of democracy in which he argued that democracy was nothing more than competition of
elites over votes of the people. He reduced democracy to the mere competition of the potential
rulers by famously claiming that “the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for
arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire power to decide by means of a
competitive struggle for the people’s vote." (Schumpeter 1965:269). This is a reductionist
approach to democracy because it depicts the people as passive masses who not only should be
excluded from the direct decision-making process, but also should not have any means to hold the
government accountable between the elections. Moreover, Schumpeter refused to accept any
intrinsic value in democracy; thus, he did not see democracy as an end in itself. He did not give
normative account of democracy because his main concert was being empirically correct (see,
Saffon and Urbinati 2013, 455-457). Schumpeter supported his argument mainly on the grounds
that with his definition one could easily classify which countries were democratic and which were
not. According to the minimalist definition of democracy, the citizens can only “punish” their
representatives in the ballot. However, representative democracy should be understood as “the
continuum of influence and power created and recreated by political judgement” (Urbinati 2011a,
25). It should be noted that Urbinati uses “political judgement” and “opinion” interchangeably (see
Urbinati 2014, 22); thus, the previous quote refers to the second pillar of representative democracy
or “opinion,” which means the extrainstitutional political activities that enable citizens to influence
the government other than regular elections.

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Another important function of regular elections is that through them citizens and
government communicate “but never fuse” (Urbinati 2011a, 24). Representative democracy has
two inegalitarian features: (perceived) superiority of representatives and unequal distribution of
offices among the citizens (Manin 1997, 132-133). By its nature, therefore, representative
democracy is not stable because always there will be a tension between those who govern and
those who are governed. While political representation is supposed to lead to more open and
improved democracy where the elected representatives act in the interest of the people and are
responsible to their constituencies, representation may also lead to elitist democracy in which the
communication between society and government are limited only to the elections, and the system
does not have a responsiveness to the citizens. The two pillars of representative democracy – will
and opinion – should be balanced, and neither of them should be ignored. A populist democracy
does not value the “opinion” pillar of the diarchic system since populism accepts “the people” as
a single entity and sees pluralism inherently contradictory with its wrong understanding of the
people. The diarchic system of representation makes democracy an ongoing struggle for power
between official institutions and citizen participation, or between “institutionalized power [of
state] and extra-institutionalized power” of citizens (Urbinati 2011a, 26). Representative
democracy is a mixed form of governance in which the above-mentioned two sides negotiate and,
in some cases, even conflict with each other in order to acquire more power in this struggle, but
they never merge and always remain distinct (see Urbinati 2011b, 158).
Bernard Manin, who considers elections as “central institution of representative
government,” observes four main principles of representative democracies (1997, 6).
Representatives should regularly be elected by the citizens (1), elected rulers have a certain degree
independence from the people that elected them (2), the citizens can freely express their opinions
without being restricted by their representatives (3), and all “public decisions undergo the trial of
debate” (Manin 1997, 6). The second point is a crucial factor in a representative government
because it implies the difference between representation and delegation. Deputies of the people
are not mere delegates who can only “discuss and deliberate but do not have the last word”
(Urbinati 2011a, 37). Elected representatives, following James Madison’s ideals, should vote
against the will of their constituencies if the national interests are in stake. Besides, as Urbinati
notes, political representation is not the same as personal representation; this difference between
the two forms of representation “is reflected in the difference between law and contract” (2011a,

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42). Representatives can make laws that are binding for every member of that society, including
those who did not vote and do not support that particular representative; however, contract is more
egalitarian and it “presupposes a horizontal relation [rather than] a vertical one” (Urbinati 2011a,
42). Because of this crucial difference, political representation is a unique phenomenon in
democratic theory; thus, we should not apply the logic of the contract to representative democracy.
While comparing the representative regimes with Athenian democracy, Manin argues that
even in the ancient Athens “substantial powers (…) were assigned to separate, smaller bodies”
whose members were selected by lot (Manin 1997, 41). In representative systems, however, lot is
abandoned in favor of free and fair elections; therefore, he concludes, the main difference between
two forms of government is the “method of selection rather than (…) the limited number of those
selected” (Manin 1997, 41). Elections have inherently aristocratic features since representatives
have to be seen superior in order to be elected. This “aristocracy” and “superiority” are culturally
relative. For example, citizens can elect their representatives because they consider those particular
individuals superior in administration, politics, economics, negotiations, and related issues that are
considered important characteristics for a leader or a representative in that particular culture
(Manin 1997, pp. 141, 145-149).
Normative standard account of representative democracy may not reflect exactly how the
modern-day democracies function. Democratic theorists also recognize that “there has always been
a gap between the bold ideals of representative democracy and its complex, multi-layered and
defective real world forms” (Alonso et al. 2011, 8). Nevertheless, since my aim in this paper is not
to analyze the discrepancy between the reality and the theory, I do not focus on the question
whether the theory of representative democracy is feasible in the real world. My purpose is to
display that even though populists consider themselves the only true democrats and do not reject
political representation per se, their understanding of democracy and representation is radically
different from the normative account of representative democracy. Because populists do not aim
to create a direct democracy, their ideal form of government – a populist democracy – is neither
representative, nor direct democracy. It is a disfigured form of representative democracy.

Populist Democracy: A Different Form of Representation


Populist understanding of democracy is radically based on a political representation
without factions where pluralism is considered a threat to the unity of the nation. The ideal unity

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of populism excludes pluralism because populist concept of the people is a homogeneous entity
which cannot be divided in accordance with political and economic interests, or cultural values. In
populist democracy, the people is always correct, and the will of the people has to prevail over
individual rights and the rights of minority groups because the core of populist democracy is “the
people” but not “the citizen.” However, representative democracy does not claim that all
democratically taken decisions are right and will benefit the society. It is purely proceduralist, and
perfectly democratic decisions which are supported by the majority of the representatives of the
citizens may lead to undesired outcomes. Furthermore, in representative democracy, the rights of
every citizen are protected against the will of the majority; therefore, unlike populist democracy,
in a representative system, “the people” or the vast majority of the society cannot violate
constitutional rights of individuals and minority groups. Since, for populism, any right that does
not derive from the popular will is unimportant, a constitution is considered a mere reflection of
the people’s will. The constitution, in a populist democracy, does not have to protect the
individuals’ rights if the majority consider those rights a threat to the national unity. Thus, populist
democracy is inherently exclusive and discriminatory against minorities, and it treats plurality of
opinions a threat to “the people” which practically means “the majority.”
As a result of its anti-liberal position, populism has a different understanding of
representation compared to liberal democracies. The central feature here is specific rhetoric of
populism which first, aims to divide society into two camps: the people and the elite. Urbinati
argues that “polarization between the many and the few” and the opposition to liberal
representative democratic institutions are “two important components of populism” (2014, 129).
In populist democracy, “the people” means “the majority.” Since populism conceptualize “the
people” as a homogeneous entity, it is inherently anti-pluralistic, ignores minorities and does not
tolerate the dissent “within the people.” Therefore, as Müller writes, populism is not against
political representation in principle, but it is against long deliberations and parliamentary factions
because from a populist perspective, the will of a homogeneous people cannot be divided into
special interests or classes (Müller 2014, 487). Another view on this uneasy relationship between
populism and representation suggests that by denying the principles of liberal understanding of
political representation, populists challenge with practical democracy in the name of imagined
democracy (Mény and Surel 2002, 8).

13
The creation of a fictional homogeneous people is the essence of populism. Based on
Claude Lefort’s analysis, Urbinati summarizes that deliberation about who constitutes the people
is an ongoing issue, and representative democracy “leaves this question always open” and
welcomes new debates on this question while “populism wants to close it” with anti-pluralism
(Urbinati 2014, 132). Lefort describes a possibly transition from liberal democracy to
totalitarianism as a process in which any kinds of dissent, different opinion, and plurality are
considered a threat to the state. The government creates “the fantasy of the People-as-One,” and
the goal of the government becomes “a state free from division” (Lefort in Laclau 2005, 165).
Although Laclau agrees that some of the characteristics of populism is similar to that of
totalitarianism and in some cases populism can be totalitarian, he criticizes Lefort on the grounds
that Lefort means only liberal democracy when he refers to democratic governments, and by doing
so Lefort’s analysis has serious limitations since it does not recognize “popular-democratic
subjects” within the framework of democracy (Laclau 2005, 166). As a result of this limitation,
while Lefort claims that in liberal democratic societies the place of power is empty, Laclau sees
this emptiness as “a type of identity” instead of a location and points out that populism aims to
produce “emptiness out of the operation of hegemonic logics” (Laclau 2005, 166). Urbinati also
acknowledges this correction to Lefort’s argument by Laclau and writes that the central features
of populism are concentration of power, denial of the legitimacy of pluralist politics, and the desire
to equalize the interests of state with that of public (2014, 132).
The core of populist democracy is a fiction – “the people” while for representative
democracy the central theme is the citizen. For example, in his book, Populist Democracy: A
Defence, Torbjörn Tännsjö uses populist and majoritarian democracies interchangeably; thus, with
his analysis populism becomes a meaningless concept without any distinct characteristics (1992,
32-33). Since he defines majoritarian democracy as an institution in which decisions are taken
according to the “will of the people,” which means the will of the majority, or in some rare cases,
unanimously expressed will of the people (Tännsjö 1992, pp. 14, 17, 37), his understanding of
democracy is different from the diarchic system of representative democracy. His concept of
democracy focuses on “the people,” which means the majority of the society, instead of ‘the
citizen.’ Thus, a majoritarian democracy, or in Tännsjö’s language, a populist democracy is
vulnerable to violating liberal constitutional principles on the grounds that the individuals’ rights,
at best, have a secondary importance compared to “the will of the people.” Because Tännsjö

14
equalize populism with majoritarianism, he does not claim that in a populist democracy every
decision that is accepted by the will of the people ought to result with the desired outcomes. In this
respect, although Tännsjö’s definition of populist democracy has some differences with the
populism that we defined here, still his concept of democracy has a significant anti-liberal and
anti-proceduralist bias because it overemphasizes “the will of the people” by ignoring the clear
division of powers and individuals’ rights.
Despite its significant differences from constitutional representative democracy, populism
still is a part of democratic family because it polarizes the society into the majority and the
minority, and creates an alliance with the former (Urbinati 2014, 147). The ideal of populism is
democratic in the sense that it aims to eliminate or significantly limit power of parliaments and
political parties in favor of the people. Populists claim that ordinary citizens have lost their power
to influence the decision-making process because of these intermediary bodies, corrupted
politicians, and the elite. The underline implication of populism is that the will of the people cannot
be negotiated, accommodated or compromised in the parliamentary deliberations. It is what
Canovan calls “the paradox of democracy” (2002, 26-29). After any major decision and election,
politicians and the media declare “the victory of the people;” however, this oversimplified image
of politics is far away from the reality. The democratic procedures are complex, and since one of
the most important goal of democracy is to give a voice to every individual who would be
influenced by the decision of the government, power of each individual to influence the
government becomes minuscule. As a result, there is a major discrepancy between how democracy
works and how it is depicted by politicians. This gap between the reality and the rhetoric or a
simplified view of politics open the door for populism in democracies. Despite the rhetoric of
politicians, indeed, “the people made its decision” simply means “the majority voted for X.”
Populist expectation is that the will of the majority should be regarded the will of the whole nation,
even if it is 51% of the votes, and all the demands of that majority have to be realized by the
government regardless of the will of the 49%. Populists, therefore, are against any kind of
compromise in politics and see political factions the creation of the corrupted politicians who want
to break the national unity.
The diarchic system of representative democracy can only function with strict
constitutional limitations and procedures. In this complex and time-consuming process, the
citizens are supposed not only to vote in elections, but also to express their opinion through

15
extrainstitutional activities, such as demonstrations, engaging in public discussions, deliberations,
and other forms of direct actions as a means to influence and check the government between
regular elections. Therefore, both intermediary bodies of both state and citizens, such as
parliament, political parties, and non-governmental organizations play a significant role in this
deliberative process. Populist democracy, however, “has a deeply statist vocation; it is impatient
with government by discussion and with parlimentarianism because it longs for limitless
decisionism” (Urbinati 2014, 152). Populist rhetoric, especially in the case of the U.S. history, can
play a democratic role by mobilizing the unorganized majorities against the corrupted government;
nevertheless, if this popular movement comes into power, instead of changing the corrupted state
officials, it ends up being a “popular movement” and becomes populism with a strong leadership.
The paradox of this populist government is that it gained popularity and acquired power with the
promise that it would give voice to “the people;” however, its understanding of mass participation
of the people in the democratic process is the “plebiscitarian forms of participation” in which “the
people end up playing more the role of a reactive audience than of a political actor” (Urbinati 2014,
152). In other words, populism destroys the procedures. While citizens in representative
democracy can express their opinions with long and detailed deliberations with others and with
the government, in populist democracy, the role of citizens in political decision-making are
reduced to yes or no choices. In the former, citizens can discuss any issue that can possible
influence their lives, in the latter, they can only react to the questions which are chosen by their
government.

Conclusion
Populism cannot be precisely defined as a normative concept, such as representative
democracy, because populism does not create a distinct political regime but, rather, it disfigures
proceduralist democracy. Populism can both be a movement and a form of democracy based on
different or anti-liberal forms of political representation. Without giving a simple definition to this
social phenomenon, scholars have defined some elements of populism. According to the populist
view, society is divided into two groups, the people and the elite, with the former having lost its
power to influence the political system, and the latter ruling the government by exploiting the hard-
working, moral people. Besides, populism is vulnerable to conspiracy theories and anti-intellectual
sentiments. Populist democracy aims to use democratic institutions in order to gain more power

16
and weaken constitutional limitations. By doing so, populists in the government abuse the
normative value of democracy because the original purpose of institutional arrangements in
modern democracies is to limit state power and check the government. However, populism always
is in search for a strong and charismatic leader, and it functions through the politics of faith, thus,
having a statist bias. The underlying assumption of this faith is that with the good individuals in
the government, state power does not need to be checked by constitutional limitations. On the
contrary, from the populist point of view, when the “true representatives” of the people acquire
power, liberal principles of proceduralist democracy, such as division of powers, checks and
balances, minority rights, etc. create obstacles for the popular will.
Representative democracy, unlike the populist one, emphasizes the importance of liberal
principles, constitutional limitations, and procedures. Although democracy is a complex concept,
its normative or standard account is much clearer than the definition of populism. Representative
democracy, as defined by Nadia Urbinati whose ideas are the core of this paper, is founded on two
distinct pillars – will and opinion. While the former includes the formal rules regarding how
collective decisions should be taken in the society, majority rule, and free and fair elections, the
latter deals with the extrainstitutional arrangements which empower citizens to influence the
decision-making process indirectly, mainly between the elections. Representative democracy,
therefore, is an ongoing power struggle between the state and citizen participation or between the
government institutions and the citizens’ organizations. The central difference between two forms
of democracy is that populist democracy puts “the people” into the center while representative
democracy acquires its power from its citizens. Populism depicts a homogenous people, making it
hostile to individualism and pluralism. Since opinion is one of the two pillars of representative
democracy, pluralism is inherent in the representative system, and every faction or social group in
the society should be represented in the parliament. Moreover, since in representative democracy
the question about who constitutes “the people” is always open, nobody can know “the will of the
people,” making parliamentary and extraparliamentary discussions and deliberations essential. As
a result of this fundamental difference, in populism the majority can rule by ignoring minorities.
However, in the representative system, the majority has to recognize and protect the rights of
minorities, and in most cases the majority should compromise in order to rule.
Even through populist democracy still is a form of democracy, it is neither a direct
democracy in which the people would not need any intermediary body such as representatives and

17
parliament to rule the country, nor is it a representative democracy in which constitutional
limitations and procedures should be respected. Populist democracy, in fact, is a disfigured form
of representative democracy where the division of powers is attacked in favor of the executive
branch, and liberal principles such as individuals’ rights, formal procedures, and parliamentary
deliberations are considered a threat to the national unity. In this respect, a populist democracy
opens the way for a plebiscitarian democracy: the citizens lose their deliberative means and are
reduced to be a reactive public. Instead of public discussions, political decisions are accepted by
popular acclamation. Although populism claims to represent “the people,” it significantly limits
the latter’s influence on the government, and ignores the complex social and economic interests
within the society by depicting a fictional homogeneous nation. This oversimplified view of
democracy, and polarization result in more centralized government which is not strictly limited by
the parliament, and more a hierarchical society where the leaders rule with public acclamation
without protecting individuals’ rights.

18
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