Populism. A New Form of Government?

July 15, 2021

As the first event of the two-part “Challenges for Democracy” series to be held during July, the Santiago Center along with the Chilean think tank CEP and Columbia’s Institute of Latin American Studies (ILAS) hosted the webinar “Populism as a New Form of Government.”

During the event, Columbia Professor of Political Theory, Nadia Urbinati, presented the findings of her book entitled “Me, the People. How Populism Transforms Democracy.” She argues that populism should be understood as a new form of government based on the direct relationship between the leader and those defined as the "good" or "right" people, which, in the long run, stretches democracy to its limits, thus opening the door for authoritarianism.

Following welcoming remarks from Public Opinion Leader at CEP, Carmen Le Foulon (GSAS’14), Urbinati highlighted that although until recently there was an assumption among political scientists that populism was a phenomenon exclusive to unstable democracies, and practically non-existent in western nations, currently forms of populism are developing in almost all democratic countries. “Today, the paradox is that populism doesn’t grow when and where democracy is not stable; it can always develop in the process of democratic transformation to criticize and challenge different aspects of representative democracies,” she said, adding that the current rise of populist politicians around the world imposes challenges to representative democracies and in particular, political parties.

Urbinati then referred to populism’s most notorious traits, saying that its most relevant characteristic is its strong anti-establishment or anti-elite energy: “When populist leaders use expressions as 'the people,' they mean 'the people' minus a part of the population they don't consider to be the people. To do so, they must permanently be in an electoral campaign, demonizing the opposition and strengthening their strategic ability as leaders.” She warned that it is populism in power that requires attention which must be analyzed in relation to democracy.

Diego Rossello, Political Scientist and professor at Universidad Adolfo Ibáñez's School of Liberal Arts, then reflected on Urbinati's presentation and commented on the various types of populism – from inclusive forms to meet the needs of minorities, to more exclusionary and ethno-nationalist forms of it – as well as on the affective and passionate attachment that develops between people and populist leaders.

The following event in the series, “Political Coexistence in the Era of Rights,” will take place Wednesday, July 28 at 6:30 PM EDT and will feature Columbia Law School Professor Jamal Greene.