Brexit Betrayed Rally organised by UKIP in London on September 12, 2019. Photo: Rupert Rivett.

Are deindustrialization and European integration fostering populism?

Deindustrialization and deeper European integration seem to be two of the several hazardous factors leading to the development of populism in Europe. Considering that neither deindustrialization nor European integration is expected to cease, populism will likely remain on the political spectrum.

By Daniel H. B. Gamez*

This article focuses on two postulates and, making use of extensive literature, tries to shed some light on the reasons for the increase in support of populism in Europe. The first postulate is that if industrialization in Europe has brought democracy support and stability, then, deindustrialization could contribute to the rise of populism and political instability. This postulate rests on modernization theory, which suggests a causal relationship between economic development and democratization (Liñán, 2017).

The second postulate has to do with political internationalization and deeper European integration, considering that many populist movements have opposed the European Union (EU) (Rodrik, 2020). In other words, the more we advance in economic and political international integration, the more vertical leadership and less direct democratic control are required, and the more likely populism will emerge. 

Deindustrialization and international integration are two fundamental issues for democracy and stability in the EU. Because both are currently threatened by populism, the importance of these themes as an object of study becomes all the more significant.


The first postulate of this research article rests on the modernization theory, which suggests that “a gradual differentiation and specialization of social structures that culminates in a separation of political structures from other structures makes democracy possible” (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997). In other words, progresses in several areas such as industrialization, education, communication, mobilization, and the like, prepares society for democracy (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997). However, the assumption here is not that those countries that become economically rich will become political democracies. Rather, that economic development and industrialization are crucial to maintaining democratic support among the population, provided they have already achieved democracy.

As a matter of fact, Przeworski and Limongi have demonstrated that per capita income is a good indicator of democratic stability (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997). This is partly because the richer a country becomes, the more it is likely to invest in the education of its citizens, and more educated people are more likely to develop democratic values (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997). Moreover, poor countries that have established democracy are more likely to slide back into authoritarianism than those who have reached a certain threshold of per capita income, after which the chances of democratic survival grow significantly (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997). However, they also found out that the economic crisis remains the most common threat to democratic stability, and that democracies, particularly poor ones with weak institutions, are extremely vulnerable to bad economic performance (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997).

Moreover, over the last two centuries, industrialization has significantly reduced economic inequality and boosted political liberalization (Boix, 2015: 264). Society has also become healthier and, thus, life expectancy at birth has increased considerably (Boix, 2015: 264). Research suggests that it was industrialization along with liberalism that has “contributed to the gradual democratization of European politics, but that neither would have been sufficient by itself,” (Congleton, 2004). Support for democracy has remained remarkably stable throughout the EU. This lends credence to the notion that industrialized countries with established democratic institutions are more likely to maintain support for liberal democracy (Congleton, 2004).

Nevertheless, considering that there is already a deindustrialization process underway in certain parts of Europe, it is crucial to understand precisely what role industrialization plays in developing support for democracy in the first place. Researchers such as van Noort suggest that industrialization is central to the institutionalization of liberal democracy; it seems that a large industrial workforce tends to induce democracy (van Noort, 2020)

However, deindustrialization expands the share of the service sector in the economy. This and other factors consequently disrupt political stability. For instance, economies dominated by services face either increasing low-wage employment or a high level of unemployment (Hahn & Kodó, 2017). Yet, as the service sector increases in size, trade unions, which have long supported democracy, see their influence reduced (Rowthorn & Ramaswamy, 1997). Moreover, if there is a loss of bargaining power in a fast-paced environment led by technological change, it becomes almost impossible for the unions to negotiate wages on reasonable terms (Rowthorn & Ramaswamy, 1997).

In other words, the protection offered through collective bargaining is not available through the market. Consequently, the greater the coverage of this social protection, the fewer the risks of inequality and economic crises on workers (Keune, 2015).

Interestingly, Kaltwasser and van Hauwaert’s research on the populist citizen shows that citizens are more populist in Latin America (significant inequality and weak democratic institutions) than in Europe (Rovira Kaltwasser & van Hauwaert, 2020). Moreover, European citizens do not have a strong belief that the world can be divided into a binary of “good” people versus “corrupt” elites (Rovira Kaltwasser & Van Hauwaert, 2020). Instead, while being very interested in politics, they are rather indifferent to political parties (Rovira Kaltwasser & Van Hauwaert, 2020). Additionally, populist supporters prefer democracy over any other form of government. Their decision to look for populist parties indicates that there is a significant dissatisfaction with the current way democracy is currently functioning in Europe (Rovira Kaltwasser & Van Hauwaert, 2020)

In sum, we see theoretically that deindustrialization and automatization produce a relative expansion in the scope of the service sector, which due to several correlated factors, such as economic grievances, provokes political turmoil in turn. Having established this, we can now observe empirical cases of five countries to test these assumptions. 


Although populism in France has been present since World War II (Ivaldi, 2019), the actors have changed, and so have their demands. Nowadays, two parties dominate the populist scene in France, namely the Front National (FN) and La France Insoumise (LFI) (Ivaldi, 2019).

Regarding the FN, it can be said to be the typical radical right-wing populism. Its leader Marine Le Pen claims that the party authentically represents the will of the people and fight for France’s freedom from globalization and the EU (Ivaldi, 2019). On the other hand, the LFI’s leader Mélenchon adopts a discourse and ideology that presents the left as an alternative to the neoliberal hegemony (Ivaldi, 2019).

Both populist parties argue against economic globalization and neoliberal capitalism. They oppose capitalist elites and financial institutions. Furthermore, both parties try to gain Eurosceptic voters (Ivaldi, 2019). For instance, the FN discourse describes the EU as a totalitarian prison that impedes the expression of the genuine will of the French people, especially when it comes to immigration and the control of borders (Ivaldi, 2019). On the other hand, LFI’s Euroscepticism is driven mainly by economic concerns and a desire to support those left behind by globalization. 

Ivaldi’s research has shown that the rise of populist parties in France has been fueled by economic instability, inequality, and the electorate’s discontent with mainstream politics. Moreover, the data shows that young people that vote for FN favor authoritarianism and that the probability of voting for Le Pen decreases with age (Ivaldi, 2019). Lastly, young people that have a strong democratic ideology are more likely to vote for Mélenchon. Her research also shows that people with higher education are also less likely to support FN (Halikiopoulou, 2020). This corroborates what has been mentioned above concerning the modernization theory- namely more educated people are more likely to develop democratic values. 


Greece has also seen a rise in left- and right-wing populism in recent years. However, when we look closer at the data from the 2015 election, we can see a significant decline in support for the mainstream parties (New Democracy or ND and Pasok), the triumph of the radical left Syriza, and the far-right Golden Dawn entering parliament for the first time. 

This shows that the electorate wanted to punish mainstream parties for their failure to manage the effects of the crises(Halikiopoulou, 2020). In fact, the following election in 2019 saw the defeat of Syriza to mainstream party ND (Halikiopoulou, 2020).

Halikiopoulou has also shown that the reasons for the rise of Syriza are the prevalent inequality, austerity measures, and the challenging economic conditions affecting the working class (Halikiopoulou, 2020). Despite the support for the far-right group, it can be observed that most of the Greeks preferred a more democratic approach as an alternative to mainstream politics. Similarly, Golden Dawn’s presence also shows that a violent and authoritarian populism can emerge where there are weak democratic institutions (Halikiopoulou, 2020). As stated before, established democratic institutions are essential to maintain support for liberal democracy.


Since 2000, Italy has borne witness to the rise of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S) and the right-wing populist Lega party (formerly Lega Nord or the Northern League). The study of the last elections clearly shows that as greater inequality goes along with lower participation in the election, the dissatisfied and undecided voters are crucially targeted by populist parties (Pianta, 2020).

This is possible because, in recent decades, income inequality has been bringing with it disaffection with politics in general and, thus, mainstream political parties (Pianta, 2020). Moreover, the adoption of policies that protect the wealth of the higher classes while harming the working class has also impacted the political landscape (Pianta, 2020). Cleverly, the League abandoned its regionalism stance to adopt a more state-wide anti-Europe and anti-elite attitude to win the unsatisfied (Vampa, 2020).

Finally, the case of Italy shows that income and wealth inequality can have significant political consequences (Pianta, 2020). That is why events such as the widening of the service sector, which favors the better educated classes and the decline in the industrial workforce due to deindustrialization are so significant.


The rise of Podemos in Spain offers a practical example of populism as a discursive logic rather than as an ideological formation (Zarzalejos, 2016). Apart from that, Zarzalejos identifies the existence in Spain of factors that benefit populism, namely, inequality, high unemployment, declining middle- and working class, and shrinking incomes. Similarly, the financial crisis and the highly public corruption cases have aggravated the already weak trust of the people in mainstream politics (Zarzalejos, 2016).

Furthermore, as Podemos established itself, VOX, a far-right populist party, started to make gains with the electorate. Research into the April 2019 Spanish election shows that Podemos was more successful in provinces characterized by levels of deprivation and big cities, as well as those with an independent ideology (Vampa, 2020). In contrast, VOX succeeded where there was economic difficulty and a lack of independent ideological discourse (e.g., Murcia region) (Vampa, 2020). Considering that Podemos joined the Socialist Party to form a government after the elections, it can be observed that the Podemos vote came largely from voters seeking a bottom-up approach as an alternative to neoliberalism. 

The United Kingdom

Analyzing the United Kingdom local elections in 2016 and the general election in 2017, it can be observed that the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic and right-wing populist party, helped the conservatives to victory by splitting the opposition vote. This forced the incumbent prime minister, David Cameron, to make good on his promise to hold a referendum on EU membership (Fetzer, 2020).

Although much has been researched on the misleading and deceiving “Leave” campaign promises, it is important to consider that the UKIP party managed to convince working-age adults to vote for it to protest mainstream politics (Fetzer, 2020), especially around the issues of wages and working conditions, and of course, migration.

Fetzer claims that Brexit is a product of the specific features of British economic and political history but also adds that the erosion of unionization and collective bargaining, precarious employment, unemployment, and weaker employment protections were also relevant (Fetzer, 2020). These, it should be noted, are all effects of the process of deindustrialization and automatization. 

where populism has had electoral relevance
Rise of inequality Decrease in wages Disappointment with traditional parties Support for Democracy of populist electorate Support for authoritarianism of populist electorate Ruling party or part of coalition government

These five European countries have served as empirical examples to test the postulates that deindustrialization fosters populism. The analysis shows that by generating economic grievances, especially in the middle and working class, deindustrialization has significantly contributed to the rise of populism in Europe. Indeed, inequality, loss of wages, de-unionization, automatization, precarious employment, mistrust, and dissatisfaction are among the effects of deindustrialization that have pushed electorates to vote for populist alternatives.

Moreover, Vlandas and Halikiopoulou have shown that social policies can reduce support for the far-right among those exposed to social vulnerability. In other words, it is not only absolute impoverishment that drives people to turn to populism but also the perception of economic decline (Vlandas, & Halikiopoulou, 2021). Nevertheless, the government has the tools to shape political outcomes by addressing the right social policies (Vlandas, & Halikiopoulou, 2021). Similarly, Boix (2019) argues that while deindustrialization, automatization and technological change are inevitable, voters and governments can step in to apply policies that offer transfers to those left behind or permanently unemployed. Again, democratic institutions and elections enable voters to impose high-tax transfers to the affected groups (Boix, 2019).

In sum, the rise of populism is not so much due to citizens having populist attitudes, but rather to the loss of collective bargaining (social protection) resulting from deindustrialization. 

However, let us consider the second postulate-namely, that the increase in international political integration, (i.e., deeper European integration) is partly driving citizens’ dissatisfaction with democracy, leading them to populist alternatives.

Mesežnikov et al. (2008) suggest that there is a falling trust toward liberal parties across Europe, with such parties consistently losing vote share over time. However, when populist parties and leaders are seen as a real threat, liberal parties manage to mobilize more voters (Mesežnikov et al., 2008).

This sheds light on several challenges regarding responsiveness and responsibility uncovered by Mair (2009) -namely, governments are finding it increasingly challenging to be both responsive to voters and persuade them to back their policies. Subsequently, much of public policy today is delegated to state agencies and institutions, which constrains the responsiveness of governments (Mair, 2009). This problem is destined to increase given the integration within the EU and the internationalization of policy parameters (Mair, 2009).

Strøm has pointed out that these constraints can even obstruct representative politics because international parameters (e.g., the UN, the EU, etc.) either prohibit certain forms of agency or force behavior that otherwise would not have been freely chosen (Mair, 2009). Moreover, governments are limited by prior policy commitments, which can be enshrined in national legislation or international treaties. 

It is in this context of constraints to deliver solutions that populist parties have influence. Populism tries to occupy the vacuum left by traditional parties unable to provide adequate responses (Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012). Kaltwasser and Van Hauwaert (2020) show that citizens in Europe want to both express their dissatisfaction, and impact decision-making albeit without upending democracy. That means that this current gap between policies, democratic ideals, and their implementation eventually strengthen the rise of populist ideas and influence (Rovira Kaltwasser & Van Hauwaert, 2020)

At this stage, it can be observed that government constraints prevent citizens’ satisfaction and their impact on decision-making. The increasing European integration is working at the cost of the popular will. Rather often, official bodies ratify proposals made by public bureaucracies after these have been discussed with representatives of organized interests without the engagement of the average citizen (Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012).

As Dahl had already explained, the shift from city-states to nation-states meant fewer participatory opportunities in the decision-making for engaged citizens (Dahl, 1992: 271). Similarly, by shifting from nation-states to member states, parties have become less representative of the societies. Conversely, they now rely on regional integration as their source of legitimacy and authority (Bickerton et al., 2015).

As a result, policies are justified in terms of European obligations (Bickerton et al., 2015). Thus, to rule in Europe is to rule through transnational networks of governance. It could be said, therefore, that in Europe, bureaucracies external to the state intervene and assist societies (Bickerton et al., 2015). Consequently, to mobilize against national governments equals to mobilize against Europe. It is in these terms that the rise of Euroscepticism and anti-Europe populist parties can be understood (Mair, 2009). Moreover, by placing their legitimacy on regional integration rather than national sovereignty and citizen participation, nation-states in Europe are challenging the basic notions of democracy. In other words, political internationalization reduces citizen participation and influence in the political process (Lavenex, 2013: 108) and, consequently, undermines state institutions, political accountability, and the like. 

Despite the horizontal intergovernmental organization of the EU, where power and authority are established in their relations with one another (Bickerton et al., 2015), there is a great deal of power delegation which increases the verticality between EU states, institutions, and ordinary citizens. Importantly, democratic institutions should prevent the delegation from becoming a total and permanent alienation of control from the electorate (Lavenex, 2013: 133). However, this is what is happening, and this helps explain the growing gap between what citizens want their government to do and what the government can do, given constraints (Mair, 2009: 17).

In all the empirical examples mentioned above, populists have targeted dissatisfied voters with mainstream politics and the EU. For instance, the discourse of Greece’s Syriza emphasized a policy of ending the impositions of the EU and the IMF (i.e., the Troika) to carry out the will of the Greek citizens (Henley, 2015). Thus, Syriza carried out a campaign with different electorates and demands, yet, with a common enemy: the EU. Similarly, Spain’s Podemos came to prominence in 2014, adopting a discourse against the EU’s top-down fiscal rules and in favor of an open government where people can take direct control of major governmental decisions (BBC News, 2015). and more fiscal national sovereignty from the EU (Kadner, 2014).


In the light of what has been argued before regarding the initial two postulates, deindustrialization and deeper European integration seem to be two of the several hazardous factors leading to the development of populism in Europe. 

On the one hand, deindustrialization disrupts political stability and harms the middle and working classes. On the other hand, since the political and economic crisis of the 1970s, post-war Keynesian cooperation between business and labor was increasingly abandoned in favor of a neoliberal structural adjustment, thus, weakening national constraints (Bickerton et al., 2015). In doing so, citizens were taken away the promised protection from capitalism’s dangerous consequences that enabled in the past, democracy to flourish (Berman & Snegovaya, 2019)

Furthermore, as political parties become more integrated into Europe, they become less connected to civil society, which questions their authority as they are not able to fulfill their demands satisfactorily. This situation explains the rise of populism as a democratic alternative to either punish traditional parties or avoid liberal solutions. 

Finally, this essay’s findings suggest that both deindustrialization and European integration are interconnected when it comes to the development and rise of populism. Not only is deindustrialization caused by the advancement of the economy but also by international economic integration, trade openness, industrial relocation, and the financialization of the economy (Araujo et al., 2021). All these factors have been generated by deeper European political cohesion. Therefore, considering that neither deindustrialization nor European integration is expected to cease, populism will likely remain on the political spectrum.


Daniel H. B. Gamez is a final-year student enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program in Latin American Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden. As an undergraduate, he has developed research interests in political stability and social movements within Latin America and Europe. Being an active student involved with his university, he is editor-in-chief of the Stockholm Journal of International Affairs, a student magazine of the Stockholm Association of International Affairs (UF Stockholm or SAIA). Previously, he has been vice-president of the student council and student representative at the Department of Humanities at Stockholm University.



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Araujo, Elisangela; Araujo, Eliane; Peres, S. C. & Punzo, L. F. (2021). “An Investigation into Shapes and Determinants of Deindustrialization Processes: Theory and Evidence for Developed and Developing Countries (1970–2017).” Economia.March 9, 2021.

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Pianta, M. (2020). “Italy’s Political Upheaval and the Consequences of Inequality.” Intereconomics: Review of European Economic Policy. 55:1, 13–17.

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Demonstrators hold placards in support of Syrian refugees during a protest in Istanbul on July 27, 2019 against Turkish government's refugee policies. Photo: Huseyin Aldemir.

The populist zeitgeist in Turkey: A Cornelian dilemma ahead

Increasingly, Turkey is experiencing a deep wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment because of a rapid increase in refugee numbers and the populist rhetoric of political leaders. Anti-immigrant sentiment is shared by almost all political parties and regardless of political or ideological roots, people have increasingly defended an anti-immigrant agenda. The most pervasive arguments are related to the economy, unemployment, and cultural incompatibility.

By Fatih Karakus*

Turkey, hosting one of the largest refugee populations in the world with around 4 million, is experiencing a deep wave of xenophobia and anti-immigrant sentiment, a result of the last decade’s rapid increase in refugee numbers and the populist rhetoric of political party leaders. Anti-immigrant sentiment is shared by almost all political parties across the spectrum. However, the parties differ in their target groups. 

The main opposition Republican People’s Party (CHP) leader Kemal Kilicdaroglu announced that he will make sure that Syrian refugees will be repatriated if his party wins elections. In a more critical tone, the CHP mayor of Bolu municipality, Tanju Ozcan, declared that they will charge non-Turkish citizens ten times higher than ordinary residents to encourage them to leave their city, stating that “this hospitage has lingered too long.” 

In a similar vein, the leader of far-right Nationalist Movement Party (MHP) Devlet Bahceli also voiced his concerns over the permanent settlement of Syrian refugees, arguing for “safely sending back” all the refugees. Another nationalist party, the Iyi (Good) Party, also defends anti-immigrant policies. Its leader Meral Aksener promised to send 4 million refugees back to their countries if she was elected. 

However, none of these parties has defended repatriation as fervently as the leader of the newly established Zafer (Victory) Party, ex-academic Umit Ozdag. He incited violence against refugees (including recent Afghan immigrants) in both open and subtle ways. To this end, he even posted a photo of a corner store run by an Afghan refugee which resulted in the owner changing the store’s name to avoid potential attacks. As an example of a textbook definition of right-wing extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric, Ozdag alleged once that Syrian refugees will be instrumentalized in the upcoming civil war. Zafer Party, through its ideology, rhetoric, and activities, resembles Germany’s anti-immigrant AfD(Alternative für Deutschland – Alternative for Germany) Party and France’s RN (Rassemblement national – National Rally).   

President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s Justice and Development Party (AKP) has also kept a populist agenda but used a more religious tone. While its partner MHP and the opposition parties (except for the left-wing Peoples’ Democratic Party – HDP) maintain similar stances on immigration policies, AKP’s populism has targeted non-Muslims, including Turkish citizens such as Armenians, Jews, etc. Erdogan, on many occasions, has also instrumentalized Syrian refugees against the European Union (EU) by threatening to open the borders to Europe. In many cases, Erdogan proved that his stance on immigration is not an indication of humanitarian concerns, but a practical one.

At this point, we should note that citizens from each voter base, regardless of political or ideological roots, have increasingly defended an anti-immigrant agenda. The most pervasive arguments are related to the economy, unemployment, and cultural incompatibility. As far as the economic and employment-related anti-immigrant sentiments are concerned, there are studies supporting the claims of increased unemployment that is associated with increased immigrant flow in Turkey (Isiksal et al., 2020; Ceritoglu et al., 2017). When it comes to cultural incompatibility, Turkish citizens are perpetuating a widespread argument, which is also the case for the West (Huntington, 1996; Mondon & Winter, 2020) and accepted as “cultural racism” by many (Fanon, 1967; Bonilla-Silva, 2014), a subtle replacement of biological racism (Parker, 2018). Cultural incompatibility is especially raised against the Afghan refugees who fled from the Taliban regime and voiced mostly by secular and Kemalist circles based on their fears of Islamic extremism. 

Again, we should note here that while criticizing Europe and the United States for Islamophobia and Xenophobia, Turkey is no better in its approach towards immigration and foreign nationals. Greece’s recent pushbacks and violence against refugees, as reported by Amnesty International, have been criticized by all political parties including the ruling AKP and its opposition. On the other hand, Human Rights Watch (HRW) reported that Syrian refugees are being forced to sign “Voluntary Return Forms” by Turkish officials. 

Based on the economic variables, current figures of refugees hosted, potential for other waves of immigration within and across the regions, and increasing anti-immigrant sentiments among voters, we may project a similar agenda between major political parties during the upcoming presidential election campaigns. Even Erdogan’s AKP may change its tone towards refugees as well as Europe. As implied in the title, Turkish voters will probably have to choose between similar options that will all lead to problematic results in immigration policy. What makes it even worse is the lack of institutional and economic leverage that can benefit refugees as they struggle against the rising anger about their very existence in Turkey. The looming tension and pervasive anti-immigrant sentiment are causing refugees to be on tenterhooks. Policy makers and practitioners in the field should be hypervigilant about waves of immigrants at Turkish borders on the chance that Turkey decides to send them back to their home countries. 


 (*) Fatih Karakus is a doctoral student at the Criminology Program, the Faculty of Social Science and Humanities at Ontario Tech University. He is researching the impacts of right-wing extremist anti-immigrant rhetoric on the sense of belonging and integration of Muslim newcomer communities and the ways to build resilience. Previously, Karakus worked for the Turkish National Police Istanbul State Security Department as the Chief of Social Movements Bureau and Political Parties Bureau. He also served as the Chief of Bureaus at Immigration (Foreigners) Division at Diyarbakir Police Department and directed the in-take procedures of Syrian Refugees fleeing from ISIS threat.



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Reclaim Australia Rally against Islam in Australia held in Newcastle CBD leading to multiple arrests in Newcastle, Australia in 2016. Photo: Man Down Media

Islamophobia and the pandemic: How these two salient public issues have invigorated the contemporary Australian far-right

The anti-Islam groups have played a significant role in the trajectory of far-right activity in Australia. However, the way these groups operate signifies a shift away from traditional far-right tactics. By casting themselves as part of a populist defence against a threatening Islam they have sought to legitimate their ‘supposedly righteous action’. Thus, they have been able to connect with mainstream concerns, bringing these groups and their ideologies closer to the Australian public. Since these groups have tended to attack Muslims under the guise of liberal ideals and the ‘protection’ of Australia, they experienced a level of success in escaping being written off for being too extreme.

By Chloe Smith*

Far-right activities are influenced by prevalent mainstream discourse in society. This article will analyse how two highly salient contemporary public issues —Islamophobia and the COVID-19 pandemic —have functioned as catalysts for the evolution and visibility of far-right actors and groups.[1] Two distinct and arguably crucial phases of growth in the Australian far-right over the past decade are identified.[2] The first occurred in the mid-2010s when a number of anti-Islam groups and movements formed in response to widespread Islamophobia. The second phase encompasses the current surge in far-right activity and cohesiveness due to the COVID-19 global health crisis. 

The Australian far-right is quite disparate and has often been described as difficult to categorise because of the complexity and diversity demonstrated in its ideologies and organisation (The Australia Institute, 2021). Nevertheless, far-right groups and members in Australia share some fundamental ideological commitments[3] while tending to be, as Dr. Mario Peucker (2021) notes, in ‘fierce disagreement and competition with each other’. Consequently, the two aforementioned public issues are interesting to study because they have evidently triggered renewed far-right activity in Australia and have created a point of ideological convergence between traditionally disparate and contentious actors. 

Public discourse about Islam and Muslims in the mid-2010s (and more recently about the impacts of the pandemic) have also offered windows of opportunity for the far-right in Australia to connect with people and narratives in the mainstream. The global and domestic rise of populism has been a crucial factor in mainstreaming far-right narratives over the last decade. Populist politicians in Australia like Pauline Hanson[4] have demonstrated a capacity to popularise far-right ideas that were once discredited as ‘naive, taboo, backward, unscientific, isolationist or unethical’ (Fenton-Smith, 2020). 

This article employs the definition of populism as a ‘style’. Defining populism in this way is best suited to the Australian context, because of its ability to capture the range of political leaders, movements, and parties who use populism in the nation (Moffitt, 2020).[5] Moffitt writes that populism as a style encompasses appeals to ‘the people’ and the dichotomous division of society into ‘the people’ and ‘the Other’ (usually a racial or racialised minority) as well as claiming to be distinct from (or in total opposition to) the ‘establishment’ or ‘elite’ (Moffitt and Tormey, 2014). Importantly, this view of populism specifies the ways in which appeals are stylised via the performance of crisis, breakdown and threat, attempting to elicit emotions among the public (mostly anger and fear) that can be used to construct binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021). The weaponisation of heightened public emotions (e.g., fear of Muslims and distrust of the government) by populist politicians helps create and fuel the type of polarisation in society that bolsters far-right ideologies (McNeil-Wilson, 2019).

This article will study each of these public issues in turn and demonstrate how members of the far-right are able to become more visible during these times because their objectives intersect with widespread anxieties and populist politics (‘us’ versus ‘them’, anti-establishment sentiment, and the purposeful elicitation of crisis).

The Formation of Anti-Islam Groups

In the first phase of growth identified in this article (the mid-2010s), many new anti-Islam groups formed in Australia. This was a time when the mainstream discourse was heavily invested in perpetuating fear about Islam and Muslims in Australia.[6] This discourse was intensified by national and overseas developments, including the increased securitisation of Muslim communities, the rise of ISIS, and domestic developments such as the 2014 Sydney Martin Place Siege,[7] an event that was immediately followed by the creation of new far-right groups in Victoria and New South Wales (Peucker and Smith, 2019). Pauline Hanson, Australia’s best-known populist politician,[8] has exploited these fears about terrorism, extremism and threats to dominant Australian culture as a way to spread the ‘rhetorical tropes’ of the global far-right and legitimise broader exclusionary politics (McSwiney and Cottle, 2017 & Fenton-Smith, 2020). For instance, during the height of anti-Islam activity, she claimed, ‘We will be living under sharia law and treated as second-class citizens with second-class rights’ if Islam is allowed to spread (Fenton-Smith, 2020). This statement was an extension of her party’s anti-Islam and anti-Muslim policies that revolved around an ‘absolute opposition to any more mosques, Sharia law, halal certification and Muslim refugees’ (Akbarzadeh 2016).

The perpetuation of Islamophobia in Australian mainstream discourse peaked with the opportunistic formation of new far-right groups such as Reclaim Australia, United Patriots Front, Rise Up Australia, Stop the Mosque in Bendigo and Aussie Angels against Shariah, which all define themselves in terms of explicit anti-Islam and anti-Muslim ideas and objectives, and disseminate narratives that position Islam and Muslims as a threat to the culture and/or safety of Australians (Peucker and Smith, 2019). For these groups, Muslim immigration and increasing visibility in Australian public life function as a metonym for broader cultural and demographic change (Pertwee, 2020). These groups hold much more extensive (and radical) ideological views, including opposition to immigration and multiculturalism and cultural and racial superiority. However, they have cunningly leveraged mainstream discourse about the rise of ISIS and the widespread vilification of Muslims to justify and legitimise their rhetoric (Lewis, 2017). Even though the overwhelming majority of Australians have no direct experience with the types of physical harm that extremist groups like ISIS perpetuate, these far-right groups have gained traction because of global and domestic fears about terrorism, extremism and foreign fighters[9](Lewis, 2017).

The anti-Islam groups formed in this period have played a significant role in the trajectory of far-right activity in Australia. The way these groups operate signifies a shift away from traditional far-right tactics to what Kristy Campion describes as a ‘more concerned citizen persona’ that is achieved via a reframing of stated objectives. Thus, by casting themselves as part of a populist defence against a threatening Islam, these groups have sought to legitimate their ‘supposedly righteous action’ (Campion, 2019). In other words, because they have mobilised around a salient public issue, the far-right has been able to connect with mainstream concerns, bringing these groups and their ideologies closer to the Australian public. Finally, because these groups have tended to attack Muslims under the guise of liberal ideals and the ‘protection’[10] of Australia, they experienced a level of success in escaping being written off for being too extreme (AMAN, 2021). 

This phase is defined by the construction of Muslims as the racialised ‘Other’.[11] However, anti-establishment messaging played an equally important role during this phase of mobilisation. The Australian far-right has used populism to attack the government, claiming that they allowed the interests of minority and religious groups to override the interests of the majority (‘the people’) (Lewis, 2017). Because of this framing, these groups were able to convey anti-establishment ideas without being dismissed as anti-democratic (Rydgren, 2005). Although intense hostility towards those ‘above’ has become a more defining feature of the far-right in recent years, these anti-Islam groups were sowing seeds of distrust through their insistence that Australia’s national interests are being diminished by international treaties about refugees and immigration (Lewis, 2017).

The formation and then dismantling and splintering[12] of these anti-Islam groups has played an instrumental role in the contemporary landscape of the Australian far-right. The recent CARR-Hedayah Radical Right Counter-Narratives (RRCN) project report highlighted the movement of members of anti-Islam protest movements to more extreme ‘fight clubs’ and neo-Nazi cells (Allchorn, 2021). The report also noted the radicalisation of narratives from the populist anti-Muslim rhetoric described in this article to more explicitly white supremacist and chauvinist narratives witnessed in recent years. One demonstration of the evolution of these groups can be seen in the 2017 formation of the Lads Society, from members of the disbanded anti-Islam protest group the United Patriots Front (UPF) (Allchorn, 2021). Although the UFP’s discourse was centred around the supposed threat that Islam and Muslims posed to Australian society, the CARR-Hedayah report noted that the Lads Society expressed a more overtly white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideology. In 2020 the Nationalist Socialist Network formed as an offshoot of the Lads Society (led by former UFP and Lads Society member Tom Sewell) and incorporates known members of the far-right group, Antipodean Resistance), promoting explicitly racial supremacist, anti-democratic and antisemitic ideas. (Besser and Whalan, 2021 & Allchorn, 2021). 

The study of these formal groups is important. However, it is also important to reiterate that the Australian far-right has characteristically diverse and disparate, particularly between these periods of mobilisation. A recent assessment of the structure explains that in Australia (even more so than the United States and Europe), far-right organisation is increasingly based on the leaderless resistance model, a framework of small, disparate cells and a large number of ‘loosely connected individuals, online communities and connections that occasionally spill into the offline world’[13] (Grossman, 2021). These highly networked, interconnected cells and individuals include populist politicians, alternative news representatives, and international movements (Gregoire, 2021). The discussion that follows will examine how the far-right have mobilised around the COVID-19 pandemic. It seeks to offer clear evidence of an evolution of the far-right from the formal groups of the mid-2010s to a more connected framework of small groups and leaderless networks. 

The COVID-19 Pandemic

The preceding discussion identified widespread Islamophobia as having created a conducive environment for far-right activity. Similarly, a range of disparate far-right ideas, groups and supporters have come together during the pandemic and attached themselves to fears and hostilities expressed in the mainstream. Civil agitation combined with dissatisfaction with government measures has ‘elicited a keen reaction by the Australian far-right’, with actors demonstrating a willingness to take these anti-establishment sentiments and exploit them to promote their own political agendas (Jones, 2021).

Australia’s intelligence organisation ASIO assessed that ‘COVID-19 restrictions are being exploited by extreme right-wing narratives that paint the state as oppressive, and globalisation and democracy as flawed and failing’ and further that the pandemic has ‘reinforced an extreme right-wing belief in the inevitability of societal collapse and a “race war”’ (Christodoulou, 2020). The far-right have opportunistically exploited government measures (such as closing borders and enforcing isolation) to support narratives that promote ethnic segregation and extreme immigration restrictions (Khalil and Roose, 2020). This is a fascinating and complex period of mobilisation and demonstrates a noticeable expansion from a predominant focus on the nativist-constructed ‘other’ (Muslims, people of African descent, and those of Asian appearance)[14] to also incorporating attacks on ‘The System’. Dr. Mario Peucker’s recent work (2021) details this shift clearly, noting that these new far-right narratives encompass attacks on the global elite, agencies and sources of information such as the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, as well as national ‘tentacles’ including the Australian government and the political elite, mainstream media and universities.

Populist politics have been re-energised by the circumstances of the pandemic and have mirrored the far-right in combining nativism with attacks on the government and ‘system’. An example is Hanson’s recent claims that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese laboratory and then ‘unleashed’ on the world (Sengul, 2021). She has also exploited the pandemic to further her populist rejection of the ‘elite’, attacking international organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the United Nations, claiming they are ‘corrupt globalist bureaucracies’ that are using the pandemic to‘squeeze more money from “struggling Australians” (Sengul, 2020). In addition, the promotion of distrust towards the national government has been evident in Hanson’s condemnation of introduced measures to counter the pandemic (e.g., lockdowns and social distancing laws) (Sengul, 2020). Political contemporaries have similarly been pushing similar ideas. For instance, the One Nation Party’s NSW leader Mark Latham claims that ‘our country’ has become ‘a dictatorship of the health bureaucrats’ (Sengul, 2020). 

During the pandemic, conspiracy theories have been a vital ideological and discursive tool. Different conspiracy theories have been recycled that convey antisemitic tropes of a global Jewish cabal running the world (Peucker, 2021) or promoting distrust and hatred towards Muslims and people of Asian descent (Macklin, 2020). The far-right has also been observed strategically expanding their narratives online, and consequently merging with existing conspiracy theorists and their subscribers in a way they had not before – such as QAnon, ‘anti-vaxxers’, anti-5G activists, and ‘sovereign citizens’, a broad membership that proclaim independence from state laws and regulations (Khalil and Roose, 2020). This expansion of narratives was demonstrated by the far-right Australian Protectionist Party—a group established on standard far-right ideologies of anti-immigration and white supremacy. A recent study found that the APP held one of the most active Australian Gab[15] accounts. Recent activity on this platform found that the group was combining its established ideological narratives with other QAnon, anti-vaccination and pandemic-related conspiracy theories, including the idea that global elites are supposedly seeking to annihilate large parts of the global population and that vaccines contain microchips (Guerin, 2021).

Recent anti-lockdown protests in various Australian cities have also resulted in different groups in society intersecting. Although there are many ties between the protests and the far-right, senior research fellow in extremist Joshua Roose explains that these protests have attracted people from a broad section of society (Knaus and McGowan, 2020). Widespread fear, the impacts of long-term precariousness to income and business, and distrust in the government and medical industry have resulted in significant overlap between frustrated citizens, conspiracy theorists and far-right actors (Knaus and McGowan, 2020). This overlap is not accidental. For example, the Australian chapter of the Proud Boys became more active during the pandemic and engaged in anti-lockdown protests and vigilante-style activism against left-wing opponents[16] (Allchorn, 2021). Leaders of the Nationalist Socialist Network[17] have also been reported as being in attendance and attempting to recruit new members at a recent anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne  (Kelly, 2021).

There is also evidence of extremist far-right members using anti-lockdown protest groups to mobilise an online community[18] and gradually introduce more radical ideas. For example, known far-right actor Harrison McLean used an alias to run an anti-lockdown and ‘freedom’ group on the encrypted messenger app Telegram, gaining more than 2,000 followers and attracting hundreds of people to street protests (McGowan, 2021). The activities of this group may seem to revolve around democratic concerns about lockdowns and freedom rights. However, this group—and others like it[19]—operate in a space where conspiracy theories, anti-establishment messaging, antisemitism, Islamophobia, Sinophobia and other expressions of racism are readily shared (McGowan, 2021).[20]


This article tracked the ways in which salient public issues have granted the Australian far-right opportunities to become more cohesive in its activity, mobilise a broader audience, and converge with mainstream narratives and populist politics. Islamophobic and anti-Muslim discourses continue to be a significant component of far-right ideology. However, they are not the primary source of mobilisation, as witnessed in the mid-2010s. With the passing of time, research has been able to identify the impacts of this period of mobilisation, notably the splintering of these groups into more extreme cells and the normalisation of racial supremacist—and (to a lesser degree) anti-establishment—narratives. 

This article was written during the second salient public issue identified, the COVID-19 pandemic. It and the heightened anti-government and anti-establishment rhetoric around it, continues to unfold. The longer-term consequences of this period of far-right activity and increased interaction with the mainstream public will become more apparent with time and the intensified focus on the Australian far-right. 


(*) Chloe Smith recently attained a Master of Islamic Studies from Charles Sturt University, Australia. She also holds a bachelor of counterterrorism, security and intelligence from Edith Cowan University. Chloe’s research interests include radicalisation and extremism studies, Islamophobia, and populism.



— (2020). Mapping Networks and Narratives of Online Right-Wing Extremists in New South Wales. Macquarie University.

— (2021). “Submission and Proposals in Relation to the Online Safety Bill (Exposure Draft).” Australian Muslim Advocacy Network (AMAN). (accessed on July 23, 2021).

— (2021). “Hate Beyond Borders: The Internationalisation of White Supremacy.” Anti-Defamation League (ADL). (accessed on July 23, 2021).

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[1] The ‘far-right’ is applied in this analysis as an umbrella term that captures a range of populist political, radical and extremist ideas, narratives and actors.

[2] Dr Mario Peucker, referenced in this paper, has also identified these two periods of mobilisation as highly salient. He views the public debates (first around Islam/Muslims and then the pandemic) as providing new discursive opportunities for the far-right. 

[3] Similar to international groups, the Australian far-right mobilise around anti-Muslim, populist, ethno-nationalist, white supremacist and chauvinist narratives (Allchorn, 2021).

[4] Pauline Hanson is a good case study because of her strongly populist style – however the Australian political system is recognised as housing a number of controversial, populist figures that have current or former ties to the major parties (Dorling, 2020).  Ben Moffitt (2017) describes populism being diffused into mainstream discourse, because the nation is an ‘accepting home of populist, populist style, discourse and issues.

[5] Other well-established definitions of populism such as the ‘ideational’ and ‘strategic’ approach are more limited in their ability to describe the widespread presentation of populism in Australian politics. These definitions are recognised to be more accurate at describing populist parties like those in Europe (using the ‘ideational’ approach) or populist leadership prominent in Latin America (using the ‘strategic’ approach) (Moffitt, 2017). 

[6] The far-right has proven to be adept at mobilizing around a range of public fears and resentments, and this has been most noticeable in different nativist, exclusionary discourses towards ethnic and culturally defined ‘Others’ in recent history (Peucker, 2021). For instance, prior to the widespread targeting of Muslims in the 1990s, there was a growth in far-right political parties, social movements and groups that formed around anti-Asian immigration narratives, correlating with higher levels of immigration from Asian countries at the time Macquarie University, 2020). More recently, people of African descent have also been targeted because of media-led moral panics around ‘crime gangs’ (Peucker, 2021).  Far-right hostility towards Islam and Muslims in Australia (and globally) is recognised to be a distinct topic of research because of the prolonged nature, institutionalisation and normalisation in public discourse, and the unique opportunities it has afforded the contemporary far-right to grow Poynting and Briskman, 2018). 

[7] A hostage situation by a self-styled Islamic State supporter that gained a huge amount of media and political attention (Macquarie University, 2020). 

[8] Pauline Hanson re-emerged in 2016 after a long break from politics, re-energized by the global rise of populism, and a political environment that was becoming increasingly more tolerant of the xenophobia that is characteristic of her politics. Hanson’s populist style is also characterised by her claims that she speaks on behalf of the ‘everyday’ Australian, her unsophisticated and transgressive ’plain speak’, and using this style of communication to prove she is unlike other politicians (Fenton-Smith, 2020).  Hanson is a highly visible fringe politician – it was recently recorded that she has 340,000 followers on Facebook, which is the second highest following of any Australian political leader after the current Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Sengul, 2021).

[9] Australia’s media organisations have heavily influenced the public perception of fear and distrust towards Muslims. For instance, One Path Media observed five Australian media outlets during 2017 and found 3,000 news articles linking Islam or Muslims with words like ‘terrorism’, ‘radicalism’ and ’violence’ (Esposito and Iner, 2018). 

[10] For instance far-right groups and politicians stoked fears of an ‘Islamisation’ of society, a collection of conspiracy narratives that claim the visible manifestations of Islam (e.g., headscarves, halal products and mosques) are a threat to dominant Australian culture and the physical security of Australians (e.g., from terrorism) (Akbarzadeh, 2016). 

[11] As Laura Cervi (2020) explains, racialisation entails ‘ascribing sets of characteristics viewed as inherent to members of a group because of their physical or cultural traits. Islamophobia has emerged as ‘racial’ because it amalgamates all Muslims into one group and ascribes a set of characteristics supposedly associated with Muslims to the entire Muslim population’. 

[12] These groups are noted to have splintered into different, often more extreme, groups. For instance, in 2015 alone, Reclaim Australia formed then splintered into the United Patriots Front, which in turn splintered into the True Blue Crew. Similarly, the Australian Defence League (founded in 2009) later splintered into the Sons of Odin and also remained strongly anti-Muslim during this time (Macquarie University, 2020). 

[13] The authors of this report note exceptions to this model, such as the aforementioned National Socialist Network.

[14] This is not to suggest that racialised minorities and non-white groups have become less of a focus for the far-right. For example, the pandemic has been used to reinforce anti-Chinese, anti-Muslim, and broader anti-Asian agitations. (Peucker, 2021). 

[15] Gab is an alternative social networking platform with a reputation for hosting the far-right and being permissive of far-right content. 

[16] Far-right extremist researcher Dr Kaz Ross noted that the Proud Boys have become increasingly active during 2020 – growing in members on their encrypted channel on the Telegram app, and becoming more brazen in their protesting at anti-lockdown rallies (with some members being pepper-sprayed, arrested and fined at a particular event) (Ross, 2020). 

[17] In his detailed analysis of Australian far-right groups and networks, William Allchorn (2021) recorded the Nationalist Socialist Network to have a combined platform followership of 3,231 users. They have also gained some notoriety for offline activities including camping, burning crosses and Nazi symbology (Besser and Whalan, 2021).

[18] The globalization of violent white supremacy has been accelerated by social networking sites like Twitter, Gab, Minds, Telegram and message boards like 8chan, 4chan and Reddit, which have created an echo chamber where racist and anti-Semitic ideologies are seen, repeated and reinforced by like-minded people (‘Hate Beyond Borders’, 2021). 

[19] Such as the Telegram Account ‘Australia Awakens,’ which describes itself as a channel ‘designed especially for your friends who are either on the fence or questioning the mainstream narrative’ about the pandemic. On the surface this may imply the activity on this channel is relatively benign, the content shared (memes, videos and posts) is often exclusionary, extreme, and racist (Sparrow, 2021).

[20] There are indications that these protests and groups have connected themselves to a global movement and agenda; recent anti-lockdown protests were not only branded as an opposition to Australia’s pandemic restrictions, they were also presented as a ‘World Wide Rally for Freedom’ (Bogle and Zhang, 2021). 

Caricature of Italian politicians Beppe Grillo, Matteo Renzi and Matteo Salvini in carnival parade of floats and masks, on January 2018 in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy. Photo: Kokophotos.

Prof. Pappas: We need creative leaders with realistic agendas against populism

Professor Takis Pappas: “I think that exactly as populism begins with some extraordinary leaders with radical ideas about how to reconstitute democratic societies, the liberal recovery requires creative leaders with realistic agendas of how to renew the liberal institutions and make them fit for contemporary political realities.”

Interview by Erdem Kaya   

Challenging ahistorical definitions Professor Takis Pappas, who is a professor and an associate researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and works for the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project “Populism and Civic Engagement”(PACE), views modern populism as a phenomenon emerging against political liberalism in the post-war Europe and the Americas. Pappas referring to a minimalist definition of democracy takes modern populism simply as “illiberal democracy” which stands as an unstable category between liberalism and autocracy. Pappas designed a causal model based on a detailed comparative analysis of prominent cases to develop a theoretical explanation of modern populism. In his perspective, in order to counter populist politics, we need creative leaders with realistic agendas as well as the adaptation of liberal institutions to present-day political realities of the democratic world. 

The following is the excerpts from the interview. 

Your research underlines the necessity of the clarification of the basic concepts and exposes the conceptual and methodological errors in populism literature. To begin with, how do you outline the common problems within the growing literature on populism?

The literature on populism has grown fast but also in a haphazard way. As a result, the concept of populism is being stretched to a breaking point. It was several decades ago that Margaret Canovan, among others, warned that, the more flexible this concept would become, the more tempted political scientists and others would be to label “populist” anything that doesn’t fit into previously established categories. This is what has actually happened. Today, “populism” is everywhere and almost everything is “populist.” 

This highly problematic situation has two main causes: On the one hand, there is in the generic literature of populism a tremendous lack of empirical knowledge about the cases classified as populist and, on the other hand, there is by now a very large number of attributes, or features, that are commonly attributed to populism while in reality they are quite common in other political phenomena, as well. 

What is, therefore, necessary in order to get out of such an impasse and be able to make useful and meaningful theoretical propositions, is to first focus on the core properties that are unique to the concept “populism” and, second, to acquire detailed historical and political knowledge of the cases that fit the definition of the concept and, therefore, ought to be classified as populist.

Populism Is Time- and Space-specific

Your argument specifies the concept of populism focusing on post-war Europe and the Americas as a spatiotemporal realm instead of searching for a timeless, one-size-fits-all definition. Can you please unpack your approach and explain the rationale behind it?

Populism, like all other political phenomena, is time- and space-specific. Think about “democracy” and how this concept applies in three different spatiotemporal settings: ancient Greece, 19th century Europe, and our own times in still early 21st century. The concept is the same but the ways it materializes across historical eras and places is entirely different. The same happens if you try to compare the populism of, say, the Gracchi brothers in the late Roman republic, the 17th century Levellers in England, and Hugo Chávez in Venezuela. In more than one senses, all three are expressions of a generic populism. So what? To study them comparatively is as meaningless as studying together ancient Greek democracy and, say, Germany’s post-war and contemporary democracy! 

What my work brings into focus, instead, is modern-day populism. More specifically, my interest in populism stems from, and addresses, a real historical and political puzzle, namely, the transformation of post-war liberal democracies into populist ones. I ask why, and how, certain societies with a previous liberal tradition may allow into power populist leaders who subsequently establish illiberal democratic regimes. Obviously, my work finds empirical resonance precisely in those countries in which liberalism became established, however feebly, in the aftermath of World War II. With no exception, those countries are to be found either in Europe or in the Americas.

Modern Populism Is Synonymous to Illiberal Democracy

Your definition of modern populism as “illiberal democracy” and “the rejection of liberal democracy” is quite straightforward. Modern populism is still democratic and not autocratic though it is clearly against the liberal canon. But you also take populism as an unstable category in the liberalism-autocracy spectrum. When does a populist party cross the Rubicon and cease to be democratic in this spectrum? Should we then drop the title of populism for nondemocratic autocracies, such as the Orbán government in Hungary?

My theoretical work hinges on just two pairs of clearly defined opposites: democracy vs. nondemocracy and liberalism vs. illiberalism. Now, if you agree with me that modern populism is synonymous to illiberal democracy, then we end up with only three basic political systems, or regimes: liberal democracy, illiberal democracy, and autocracy. In this view, populism stands midway between democratic liberalism and the rejection of democratic pluralism. Which way it will go eventually depends on a large variety of reasons including structural and agentic factors, external crises, and other conjunctural events. 

Telling when a party passes from one type to another is easy when we have clear and easily operationalized definitions of the basic political systems. The United Socialist Party of Venezuela, for instance, which was conceived as a populist force under the leadership of Hugo Chávez has in more recent years transformed into an authoritarian party under its current leader Nicolás Maduro. Quite the opposite is, for instance, the case of Greece’s PASOK—a classic populist party that in more recent years (and amidst the financial crisis that befell on that country in the early 2010s) recast itself as a liberal force. There are many other similar cases.

In your recently published book, Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis you argue that extraordinary or charismatic leadership plays a prominent role in the populist emergence. What does it take to be a successful populist leader in the first place?

Indeed, I know no case of successful populism that is not being led by a leader with charismatic qualities. To put it in a nutshell: No charisma, no successful populism. In contrast to ordinary, non-charismatic leaders whose rule is rather impersonal and procedural, charismatics display two different characteristics—the personal nature of their authority and the radicalism of the political goals they seek to achieve. Accordingly, I understand, and define, political charisma as a distinct type of legitimate leadership that is personal and aims at the radical transformation of an established institutional order. Under this definition, charismatic leaders are not identified as such by their electoral success, which would make for a tautological analysis, nor by any physical or personal characteristics, such as physical height, oratorial skills and the like. 

My definition of charisma requires leaders combining two characteristics: full personal authority and radical political aims. Come to think of it, this type of authority is both extraordinary and rare. For, in the reality of ordinary politics, most parliamentary democracies are ruled by collective decision-making processes in the pursuit of moderate and piecemeal reforms, not radical change. But then, when I looked at my cases of populism, I realized that, with no single exception, all had emerged out of extraordinary leadership action. Most typically, the charismatic populists have had founded their own parties (or, as in the case of Trump, taken full control over existing ones) and, by exercising full control over the party organizations, used them as their means to radically change liberal democratic systems into illiberal ones. 

Populist and Nativist Parties Constitute Different Classes

In your studies, you argue that nativism is often conflated or inaccurately identified with populism. What is the difference between nativism and populism

This question of yours takes us back to the quest for empirical data. Try to compare factually, for instance, Denmark’s Progress Party and Hungary’s Fidesz. Both parties are often classified as “populist.” But what makes them similar? The question is apparently rhetorical for the differences far exceed any similarities those parties may have. Simple comparison of the cases easily reveals that populist and nativist parties constitute different classes which should not be kept analytically separate. Populist parties depend on charismatic leaders, tend to develop in flawed liberal democracies and, when in office, pursue comprehensive illiberal political agendas. In contrast, nativist parties are mostly led by ordinary (non-charismatic) leaders, grow particularly strong in Europe’s most politically advanced and economically strong liberal democracies, aim at specific policies rather than entire political system overhauls, and, interestingly enough, have never won power singlehandedly. There are several other differences between populist and nativist parties, which I have presented in booksarticles but also in simple infographic form.

Your research on the theoretical and comparative study of populism fills a critical gap in the literature. What do you think is the main challenge in theorizing populism?

The real challenge is to understand what causes populism and how it then afflicts our liberal democratic systems. There are several gaps in our knowledge which my work tries to fill in logical order. You see, to establish causality, we need to do meticulous empirical research on the significant cases of populist occurrence. But to do so, we must previously have selected the cases carefully and organized them into coherent classificatory system. But this is a far from easy task, especially when our definitions are unclear and ambiguous. 

Everything Begins with a Charismatic Leader

You developed a causal model for the theoretical explanation of the populist emergence. How does your causal model work?

Yes, I have developed a model including the causal chain of populism informed by the detailed comparative analysis of significant cases over long periods of time. It is based on the interplay of three factors: political structures, individual agency, and the activation of micro- and meso-mechanisms that are absolutely necessary to produce the populist outcome. Everything begins with a charismatic leader who emerges against major crises of democratic legitimacy, often involving the collapse of entire party systems. That leader then is able to activate a chain of mechanisms including the politicization of resentment, the forging of “the people” as an inclusive social category, and active social mobilization against established constitutional legality. It is interesting to see how similarly this model works in ostensibly dissimilar countries with strong populism such as Italy and Venezuela or the United States and Hungary.

There is also the political significance element you refer to. You do not choose Japan or Australia as negative cases where populism has not turned into a major political force though these are liberal democracies. What makes Brazil and Spain negative cases and different from Japan and Australia?

Japan and Australia (which, not unimportantly, are island nations) are solid liberal democracies with no populism worthy of serious consideration. But Spain and Brazil present an altogether different but very interesting puzzle. Given the strong populism in other countries in their respective neighborhoods (Italy and Greece in Southern Europe, Argentina in Latin America) why did populism come so late in Spain and Brazil? Remember that the Spanish PODEMOS was founded as late as 2014 and had never had the success of contemporary populist parties in Greece or Italy. As of Brazil, it remained paradoxically free of populism at least until the 2018 election of Jair Bolsonaro in the presidency of this country. In my book, I dedicate separate chapters in each of these two countries trying to address this paradox. 

The historical phenomenon of modern populism in your perspective excludes the varieties of populism in non-Western parts of the world where liberal democracy has not turned into an overall political tradition. There are flawed but functioning democracies such as South Africa, India, Mongolia, South Korea that are outside Europe and the Americas but definitely meet Przeworski’s minimalist definition. Do you see a possibility to extend the comparative study of populism to include the non-Western cases where there is a steady progress towards liberal democracy

My research focus is, indeed, on western-type democracies that have already experienced modern liberalism but made a switch from liberal democracy to populism. My interest does not extend, therefore, to states which, even if they allow elections, lack any liberal tradition. Russia and Turkey are such representative cases. Also here belong the various pre-liberal faulty democracies examined by Fareed Zakaria in his 1997 essay on the rise of illiberal democracies. With the exception of South Korea, the other cases that you mention would belong in this group of non-western and non-liberal countries along with the cases mentioned by Zakaria including Belarus and Kazakhstan, Sierra Leone and Ethiopia, the Islamic republics of Iran and Pakistan, the Palestinian National Authority and Haiti. 

Liberal Democracy Needs to Remodel Itself

Liberal democracy in the post-war period has spread and gained global acceptance under the US hegemony. So, in a similar way, how do you think a possible unraveling of democracy in the US would affect of the fate of liberal democracy in the Western world?

Unsurprisingly, populism tends to grow strong where liberal democracy becomes weak or inefficient. After decades of continuous self-advancement and expansion, liberal democracy has reached a point at which it needs to remodel itself. Institutions need both to be respected and become more congruous with new social realities, including identity politics; politicians must find new ways for achieving consensus on critical issues rather than serving polarized policies; and markets also have to become more controlled by benevolent states intent to fend off inequalities. Populist leaders, like Trump and his political kin, thrive precisely in environments of institutional inefficacy, political polarization, and economic inequality. In such situations, liberal democracy may indeed unravel, as it happened in the US under Trump’s presidency. It is perhaps no coincidence that it was during his presidency that some of the biggest countries in the world—including India, Brazil, Turkey—saw their electoral democracies deteriorate and even turn to authoritarianism.

And, as my last question, I am wondering how you would define the best way to counter populist politics. Do you think “liberal mind” or liberal democracy the only antidote to modern populism?

Populism is not inevitable, of course. But nor has liberal democracy been carved in history’s marble. In fact, history has never ended and is full of surprising twists. I believe that today we are living through an era in which democratic states reconsider whether they want to stay liberal or take an illiberal path without abolishing their democratic semblance. I also believe that the liberal states are reconsidering their “liberalism.” Immigration has posed to them a real challenge, which is how to stay liberal while also accommodating within their national borders (and their societies, their economies, and their politics) significant numbers of illiberal others. In short, the real question is: What are the limits of liberalism? Or, put in another way: How much of illiberalism are liberal states able to bear? In all those cases, it would be naïve to say that the “liberal mind” or some liberal ethos would be sufficient to counter the foes of liberalism. I think, instead, that, exactly as populism begins with some extraordinary leaders with radical ideas about how to reconstitute democratic societies, the liberal recovery requires creative leaders with realistic agendas of how to renew the liberal institutions and make them fit for contemporary political realities.

Who is Takis Pappas?

Takis Pappas is a trained political scientist with a Ph.D. from Yale University and an expert on populism, democracy, and political leadership. Currently, he is a professor and an associate researcher at the University of Helsinki, Finland, and works for the EU-funded Horizon 2020 project “Populism and Civic Engagement” (PACE). Having extensively published on populism in English and Greek, Pappas is a frequent keynote speaker at many academic and non-academic events, and a regular op-ed contributor in Kathimerini, Greece’s major newspaper.

Pappas has authored five books, the last of which is Populism and Liberal Democracy: A Comparative and Theoretical Analysis (Oxford University Press, 2019) and coedited two. He has also authored Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece (Palgrave 2014; also translated in Greek), and co-edited European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (ECPR Press, 2015). 

His articles have appeared in American Behavioral Scientist, Comparative Political Studies, Constellations, Government and Opposition, Journal of Democracy, Party Politics, West European Politics, and the Oxford Research Encyclopedia among others. 

Russian President Vladimir Putin, in a virtual interview from Moscow with news agency Press Trust of India (PTI) on June 5, 2021, addressed a number of pressing issues. Photo: Nick Raille.

The Contours of Populism in Russia: An Elite Strategy to Preserve the Status Quo

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West applies unproblematically in Russia. Being different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues.

By Ilkhom Khalimzoda

Few scholars would concur with the assumption that populism as we conceptualize it in the West (Western Europe and North America) applies unproblematically in Russia. Although Russia has a very long history of populism dating back to the Narodniki of the late 19th century, the renewed focus in the West means that populism in Russia is again in the spotlight. This renewed attention requires a clear idea of what Russian populism is and how it manifests through the political system.

Minayeva (2017: 130) has described the differences between populism in the West and Russia as follows:

For Europe and the United States, populism is a technological component of liberal democracy, which at the present stage is more competently used by opposition parties. In Russia, populism does not entail a change of political elites while maintaining the political system but is a way of preserving the existing state of affairs. The current President of the Russian Federation decided the issue of countering the Populist movement, effectively leading it as the leader of the country.

Of course, scholars have long recognized distinct regional forms and manifestations of populism. We can now turn to unpack that idea in more detail.

How Should We Understand Populism?

As is well understood, populism remains a contested concept in political communication research and is studied heavily in political manifestos and the mass media (Engesser et al., 2017: 1109). For some, populism is a political style or logic, and for others, it is an ideology, discourse, or a strategy of governance (Burrett, 2020). In sum, there is no broad consensus concerning the conceptual definition of populism, which is inherited chiefly from the democracies, because— as noted above— it is described as a component of liberal democracy that is most skilfully used by opposition parties (Minayeva, 2017). One scholar has even described it as a “slippery slope” that escapes precise definition (Ylä-Anttila, 2019). Nevertheless, there is a core of at least five key elements that comprise populist communication. Thus, populist discourse manifests in advocacy for the people, attacking elites, ostracizing others, invoking the heartland (Engesser et al., 2017: 1111), and making unfeasible promises to the electorate (Kynev, 2017).

The Contours of Populism in Russia

Populism manifests itself differently depending on contextual conditions (Priester, 2007). Its appearance may also change depending on the needs of the actors (right- or left-wing) and the political system (democratic or authoritarian). For example, in Western Europe, it is opposition parties that adopt populist rhetoric the most, while in Central European countries like Hungary and Poland, populists have acquired sufficient support to gain power and govern. Naturally, populism differs in Russia. Populism is undoubtedly used both by the establishment and the opposition. Indeed, Mamonova (2018) speaks of “populism in power” in Russia, “where governmental leaders use populist rhetoric and practices to gain popular support and maintain their positions.”

In Russia, populists spread their message through party press, mainstream mass media, and also more recently, through digital platforms. The most intensified media visibility of the populists is seen close to election time. In his investigation on electoral populism, Kynev (2017) has found that both the ruling party and oppositional actors adopt populism in practice. For example, he notes that mediatized public discourse—or, indeed, any political demand that enters the public domain—forms part of the ruling class’ populism. The opposition, however, promises more legislative achievements, such as raising salaries and pensions or ensuring prices remain low and stable, neither of which, needless to say, are ever implemented. Readers can find plenty of case studies in Kynev’s work.

Populism in the Russian Media

In a recent paper, Burrett (2020) examines the Russian media from 2000 to 2020 to analyze whether the label “populist” is appropriately applied in the case of President Vladimir Putin. The study uncovered a range of different political communication strategies used by the president during his 20 years in power. For example, Putin’s first term in office covered the war in Chechnya and the discourse around that, as well as his initial attempts to paint himself as an anti-elite president, ready to fight for the country against a corrupt elite. However, according to the study, once he became the core of the new Russian elite, he changed his rhetoric to position himself against the global elite. In all this, his control over the media has allowed these shifting (and somewhat contradictory) messages to be disseminated to large audiences in Russia. Overall, Burrett finds that Putin can be described as populist in discursive terms only since he has consistently deployed some aspects of populism while avoiding others.

Populism and Popular Culture

In a chapter titled “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet,” Vera Zvereva (2020) has analyzed in depth the way populist messages have been crafted strategically for maximum impact with Russian audiences. She notes how in Russia, “political messages are often … expressed in the language of popular culture.” As a result, populists translate “complicated ideas—i.e. the workings of modern social systems—into simple categories that are clear to everyone, while its arguments are often based on the ‘politics of fear’.” She further points out that populist messages are often overly “simplified, black-and-white constructions around ‘the people, their ‘enemies’ and the ‘dangers’ they bring are borrowed from the genres of popular culture, with noble heroes and innocent victims, scheming enemies and evil powers” (Zvereva 2020: 236).

Populists Love Affairs

As many scholars have noted, a central element of populism today displayed in the media is the idea of the virtuous “heartland” set against the villainous Other (immigrants, globalists, liberals, etc.). Russia is no exception. In their recent edited volume, The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism, Tumbler and Waisbord (2021) bring together several chapters that show how anti-immigrant disinformation has a long history across the globe and how a diverse network of actors pushes anti-immigrant disinformation, bolstering and promoting anti-immigrant attitudes among the wider public. This sort of disinformation is strongly associated with the ideology of exclusion and nativist supremacy that underpins right-wing populism and far-right extremism. The modus operandi is to spread fake, incomplete, or manipulative information on given topics through social and mass media. In this regard, scholars stated that “anti-immigrant disinformation is part of a culture war in which an ecosystem of actors (far-right, alt-right, populist, and conservative) reinforces a common opposition to a pluralist worldview” (Culloty & Suiter, 2021: 10).

Also, on the Russian media sphere, among others, political actors like Vladimir Zhirinovsky (leader of the Liberal Democratic Party) have normalized anti-immigrant disinformation, blending populist and nationalist rhetoric, often in cahoots with sympathetic media outlets. Another very intriguing example is a Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny (now in prison), who released YouTube videos describing himself as a “certified nationalist” and advancing thinly veiled xenophobic ideas (Luxmoore, 2021). Although he has retreated from his ultra-nationalist stance in recent years, it is still interesting to observe how populism is an appealing strategy.


As we can see, different than in the western European countries, populism is played in the Russian media sphere not to mobilize but to depoliticize the population and remove politics from the public discourse (Zamiatin, 2018) when the powers that be feel under challenge. Here, the message is that politics and governance are not the business of the ordinary people and that the authorities will take care of complicated issues. As Zvereva (2020: 234) puts it, “the state authorities try to present politics as either too complicated for ‘ordinary people, or as a battleground of malevolent forces, or a stage for eccentric individuals. This strategy helps to marginalize the political voices of the opposition and exclude the very possibility of critical public discussion of domestic and foreign policy issues.”



Burrett, T. (2020). “Charting Putin’s Shifting Populism in the Russian Media from 2000 to 2020.” Politics and Governance. Vol 8, No 1 (2020): Leadership, Populism and Power. DOI:

Culloty, E.; Suiter, J. (2021). “Anti-immigration disinformation.” In: T. Howard and W. Silvio (Eds.). The Routledge Companion to Media Misinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Engesser, S.; Ernst, N.; Esser, F. & Büchel, F. (2017). “Populism and social media: how politicians spread a fragmented ideology.” Information, Communication & Society. 20:8, pp.1109–1126, DOI: 10.1080/1369118X.2016.1207697

Kynev, A. (2017). “Elektoralnyy-populizm-na-rossiyskih-vyborah [Electoral-populism-in-Russian-elections].” Вестник общественного мнения. No. 1–2 (124). P.65–84. (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Luxmoore, M. (2021). “Navalny’s Failure To Renounce His Nationalist Past May Be Straining His Support.” Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty on September 1, 2021).

Mamonova, N. (2018). “Vladimir Putin and the Rural Roots of Authoritarian Populism in Russia.” Open Democracy (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Minayeva, A.V. (2017). “Russian Populism: Political Reality or Perspective? [ROSSIYSKIY POPULIZM: POLITICHESKAYA REALNOST’ ILI PERSPEKTIVA?” Вестник Пермского университета. ПОЛИТОЛОГИЯ. 2017. NO 4. (accessed on September 2, 2021).

Priester, K. (2007). Populismus: Historische und aktuelle Erscheinungsformen. Frankfurt a. M.: Campus.

Scoones, Ian; Edelman, Marc; M. Borras Jr. Saturnino; Hall, Ruth; Wolford, Wendy & White, Ben. (2018). “Emancipatory rural politics: confronting authoritarian populism.” The Journal of Peasant Studies. 45:1, 1–20, DOI: 10.1080/03066150.2017.1339693

Tumber, Howard, and Silvio Waisbord, (Eds.). (2021) The Routledge Companion to Media Disinformation and Populism. Abingdon, Oxon; New York, NY: Routledge.

Ylä-Anttila, T. (2019). “Populismista, eli meistä ja muista.” Media & Viestintä. 42(2). Noudettu osoitteesta

Zamiatin, Alexandr. (2018). “Depolitizatsiia: kak nas otluchali ot politiki.” Colta. July 3. (accessed on September 3, 2021).

Zvereva, V. (2019). “State propaganda and popular culture in the Russian-speaking internet.” In: M. Wijermars, & K. Lehtisaari (Eds.). Freedom of Expression in Russia’s New Mediasphere. (pp. 225–247). Routledge. BASEES/Routledge Series on Russian and East European Studies.


Environment and Populism by Dr. Kai Bosworth

How are scholars considering the relationship between populist social movements and the politics of climate change? What are the terrains and spaces through which populism is performed? This talk and discussion consider historic and emergent forms of “populist environmentalism” from a performative, social movement perspective. The session distinguishes the populist constructions of “the people” that social movements produce from the popular analyses of political scientists of “populist leaders.” Next, it examines case studies of progressive climate and environmental activism which attempts to produce a pluralistic, transnational people. Dr. Bosworth examines the promise and pitfalls of such movements, and how they sometimes understand themselves as “populist.” Finally, he examines why we must understand “populist environmentalisms” in relation to other forms of environmental ideology.


Gender, Race and Populism by Dr. Haley McEwen

This session will examine the emergence of ‘anti-gender’, or ‘pro-family’ ideology and transnational countermovement building against sexuality and gender-related rights. The lecture will trace the historical emergence of the so-called ‘pro-family’ movement, and show how key concepts and ideologies informing this movement are informed by white supremacist and heteropatriarchal geopolitical interests. The lecture will focus specifically on ‘antigender’/‘ profamily’ activities in African contexts, but will also highlight some of the movements activities at global scales. The lecture will consider the following questions in its interrogation of the intersections of race, gender, sexuality and geo-politics within ‘pro-family’ discourse and ideology: What geo-political interests are at stake within anti-gender/pro-family discourses of ‘gender’ and ‘family’? What does anti-gender/pro-family discourse and ideology reveal about the intersections of white supremacy and heteropatriarchy? How does the ‘profamily’/‘ anti-gender’ movement relate to other right-wing populist movements?


Populism and Religions by Dr. Jocelyne Cesari

Throughout the January 6th 2021 "Save America" March, also known as the Jericho March, and the ensuing attack on the Capitol, crosses and American flags were brandished side by side and religious slogans were on full display. The attention paid to this "spectacular" religious display by media has highlighted the scarcity of studies on the interactions between religion and populism. This session will offer a comprehensive mode of investigating the interactions between populism, religion and nationalism to foster comparison across countries and religions. It will present findings from an ongoing investigation based on three case studies: Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin and Recep Tayyip Erdogan.


Populist Discourse and Digital Technology by Dr. Majid Khosravinik

The session starts out by providing a brief overview of notions in critical discourse studies. It elaborates on how discursive power has commonly been envisaged in/behind media and how digital technologies of participatory web may have changed such power dynamic between media and society. The lecture then explains the view in which social media is primarily defined as a paradigm of communication which may occur across endless and various digitally facilitated platforms, spaces, including but not limited to Social Networking Sites. After setting up the parameters for a social media approach to critical discourse studies, the lecture explores how technological context of digital discourse is related to populism. It elaborates on the business model of (production, distribution, and consumption of) online meaning-making content and how the algorithmically regimented values of popularity, attention economy and political expressions can collaborate in re-emergence of populist discourses.