I'm from India, the world's largest functional democracy. We often hear of political opponents criticizing each other for being 'populist' and for 'forgoing good governance'. And we also hear the term 'vote-bank politics' in which politicians are accused of pandering to a specific voter niche with their statements or policy-stances.
My question is : Isn't all of Democracy based on the idea that Populism will lead to good governance ? Why is the term "vote-bank politics" viewed so negatively ? The very essence of Democracy states that you must adopt the position that a sizeable majority of the people believe in.

  • 1
    Democracy: the majority chose someone you like. Populism: the majority chose someone you don't like. Nov 14, 2016 at 10:02
  • The current wave of populism is an appropriate illustration of the difference
    – Probably
    Nov 14, 2016 at 13:58
  • Welcome to Philosophy.SE. Can you explain how this is a complete answer to the question?
    – commando
    Nov 14, 2016 at 18:07
  • There is a reason why (pure) democracy has been and is considered one of the worst political systems and why there is not a single actual pure democracy I am aware of. Most of them are representative (either presidential or parliamential) republics. There is huge ambiguity hidden in the little word "democratic". And India is no "democracy" in the sense of a political system. The real sovereign is the parliament. And it is exactly this that is a defence against populism.
    – Philip Klöcking
    Nov 14, 2016 at 19:18
  • You're right. I probably shouldn't have posted this as an answer. I came across this thread upon googling the same question in the wake of Trump's victory. It's just my conclusion that there's no institutional difference betwen the two but a value judgement on the result of the selection. Nov 15, 2016 at 6:06

7 Answers 7


Both democracy (in its purer forms) as well as populism are ideologies involving a rule of the people by the people or representatives chosen/ selected by the people.

  • Democracy focuses more on the assignment of governance to the people regardless of class
  • Populism focuses more on the struggle between the common class and the elite class

Populism also lends its name to the practice of formulating policies and political (and other) maneuvers around the nurturing and harvesting of support among the most populous sections of a given population. This may be exercised in a democratic country.

"Vote-bank politics" involves populist maneuvers to gain the favor of a given sizable portion of the population to assure election over an entire population.

As such - populism can be exercised as a means to gaining or retaining power over minorities through gaining the favor of majority stakeholders. This may lead to 'Tyranny by majority' - a situation where the wishes of the many outweigh the wishes and needs of the minority.

One last comment on the matter is that while a system of governance or rule may be popular - it may not necessarily be right - and can often fall a long way short of perfection.

A lot more could be said on the subject - but would fall outside the scope of your question.


It is an interesting distinction, because they are in some ways related but in some cases can be opposite.

As one example, Venezuela's President Chavez was considered "populist," but not many people would consider the government democratic. (See, e.g, this article, or searching for "Venezuela populism" on Google).

As another example, consider the Roman consul Marius. He was a "populist" in his speeches and agenda, but he gained his seventh consulship in large part through violent (non-democratic) means.

More generally, "democracy" is when the people have authority, but is usually in the form of formal institutions governed by established (in modern days, usually written) laws. "Populism" is not so much a form of government as it is a type of rhetoric, especially one that appeals to base motives and (as Avestron pointed out) class differences.


Populism is methodology how to achieve your personal political goals by manipulating general population.
Democracy is form of government that allows people to govern themselves, through elected politicians or other means. Which to be understood that politicians are elected to serve interests of public, and not those of their own.

Populism is form of manipulation it is unlikely to lead to public benefit, such politician would promise to improve lets say healthcare and elected would make contracts with private medical companies that would belong to his associates, and then sink billions of Ruppes with little benefit to public. Such politician would also use 'they will limit your freedoms' tactic to deal with political opponents, even if limiting those 'freedoms' is beneficial to you.

I hope this answers why populism is viewed negatively.

  • You may wish to look up a definition of populism. How you define it here is incorrect (Cf. en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Populism)
    – virmaior
    May 17, 2014 at 0:50
  • 'Academic definitions of populism have varied widely over the centuries'. What is wrong my definition. May 17, 2014 at 8:59
  • The specific error is that you don't mention what makes populism populism. You mention why politicians might employ this strategy but not what the strategy itself is -- which is an appeal to popular but mistaken policy views.
    – virmaior
    May 17, 2014 at 9:10

Democracy is a system. Populism is one of the methods how to have your way in this system. The nasty one. You promise things you can´t deliver, and you know it. That is populism.

  • I think it would be more accurate to say that you promise things that most people want, regardless of deliverability, and regardless of the consequences. If you promise something most people want then you are a populist, you may be able to deliver it or not, it may be the right thing to do or not. The point is that it is what most people want.
    – Jens
    Apr 7, 2018 at 16:06

This is a pears and apples comparison, has no sense.

If you want a difference, populism (on the sense you ask) is a way of getting adherents, among other forms of campaigning. Democracy is a form of government, among other forms of governance.

Regarding conceptualization, all 'kratos' are forms of government (democracy = demos + kratos, government of the people). Populism (populus + ism, orientation to the people) is an ideological trend, sustaining that the people's voice has the priority amongst other factors.

Regarding their relationship, populism is a weakness of democracy. If the majority is ignorant, democracy will be the government of the ignorance. This is precisely the thesis that conservative groups fear throughout all the world.


Democracy is "the rule of the people" and Populism is doing what is popular.

So in an ideal democracy it's a self-governance of the people by the people for the people.

Now if you want to implement this ideal, one of the simplest ideas might be numerical plurality. Which would be pretty synonymous with popularity, like popular is what finds many followers, so the most popular thing would likely be what the majority favors. So there is an overlap between democracy and populism and depending on the context the word populism might even be positively connoted when it's confused for democracy.

But democracy goes beyond simple majority rule and could also feature further means to decrease positions of privilege (equal rights), universal active and passive suffrage, direct or at least sufficient representation of people and ideas, discussions and compromises, individual rights and so on.

While populism is really just a legitimization by popularity. So if a king or dictator can make a majority cheer for them, that would be an example of populism it would however have nothing to do with a democracy.

The whole agency of the people or even the agency of the individual within the people, angle of it would be missing. The sovereign of the state would not be the people, but the autocratic leader.

Now some might push the narrative that "but if the leader does what the people want, then it's really the people who rule and thus it's a democracy". But in reality that's usually not what is happening, it's rather the autocrat who is deciding everything by themselves without any input by the people.

So it's not really the people who rule, populism is rather about putting the people in a favorable mood.

And good and agreeable politics is just one way to do it and quite frankly possibly the hardest way. Other ways are to just lie, make empty promises, oversimplify, provide a compelling but not necessarily true narrative, place the burden of your policies on a minority who lacks visibility, support and the ability to effectively defend themselves, deal out favors and boost your short term ratings even if that is completely build on sand and unsustainable in the future, summon a common enemy/scapegoat to unite people and to have a legitimation to crack down on dissent.

None of that is democratic. It's not by the people, it's not for the people and it's a house of cards that can collapse at any moment, but as populism is usually short-sighted and only interested in getting into power and not maintaining it, it can nevertheless be effective. "FREE BEER" is a popular slogan until you realize you're still going to pay that indirectly and that the person saying that passed some pretty shitty legislation while you were partying.

So not every good decision is popular and not every popular decision is good. Democracy would be the ability of a people to make a direct and informed decision by themselves, while populism is the attempt to sell an idea to a majority of people whether it's good or not.


Democracy is a political system comparable to monarchy, republicanism, and despotism. In other words, these determine who and how has influence in the political process. The idea of democracy is that everyone gets a vote. Switzerland has for instance started to practiced "direct democracy" for many issues. Most other countries that are democratic practice a "representative democracy" where the people vote for representatives who decide issues.

Populism is an approach to politics. Populism sets up a struggle between the people at large and some nefarious class. Thus, protests in America about the 1% are populist. Complaints about East Coasters are populist. The problem with populism is that there's often a complete lack of understanding of the issues involved in setting this up. Populism is not restricted to democracies. Venezuela, Thailand and North Korea all have populist features in their ruling politicians despite not being democracies.

The general problem with populism is that it pushes people towards counter-productive policies for emotional reasons. Thus, it becomes an objection to the politics of others as well. If we think the issue is real, we call it justice. If we think it is merely a manipulation that sets people against the popular class, we call it populism.

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .