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Pitchfork Politics

The Populist Threat to Liberal Democracy

Flare-up: demonstrating at the European Parliament, in Brussels, April 2013. Reuters / Francois Lenoir

Since Roman times, virtually every type of government that holds competitive elections has experienced some form of populism—some attempt by ambitious politicians to mobilize the masses in opposition to an establishment they depict as corrupt or self-serving. From Tiberius Gracchus and the populares of the Roman Senate, to the champions of the popolo in Machiavelli’s sixteenth-century Florence, to the Jacobins in Paris in the late eighteenth century, to the Jacksonian Democrats who stormed nineteenth-century Washington—all based their attempts at mass mobilization on appeals to the simplicity and goodness of ordinary people. By the mid-twentieth century, populism had become a common feature of democracy.

But then, during an extended period of spectacular economic growth stretching roughly from the aftermath of World War II to the late 1970s, the political establishments of most Western democracies managed to banish their populist rivals to the innocuous fringes of political discourse. On

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