Populism is the name of a global phenomenon whose definitional precariousness is proverbial. It resists generalizations and makes scholars of politics comparativist by necessity, as its language and content are imbued with the political culture of the society in which it arises. A rich body of socio-historical analyses allows us to situate populism within the global phenomenon called democracy, as its ideological core is nourished by the two main entities—the nation and the people—that have fleshed out popular sovereignty in the age of democratization. Populism consists in a transmutation of the democratic principles of the majority and the people in a way that is meant to celebrate one subset of the people as opposed to another, through a leader embodying it and an audience legitimizing it. This may make populism collide with constitutional democracy, even if its main tenets are embedded in the democratic universe of meanings and language. In this article, I illustrate the context-based character of populism and how its cyclical appearances reflect the forms of representative government. I review the main contemporary interpretations of the concept and argue that some basic agreement now exists on populism's rhetorical character and its strategy for achieving power in democratic societies. Finally, I sketch the main characteristics of populism in power and explain how it tends to transform the fundamentals of democracy: the people and the majority, elections, and representation.


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