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Populism: democracy under pressure – a reading list

The storming of the United States Capitol in January 2021 showed people disrupting democratic procedure in the name of ‘real democracy’. Both elected politicians and the Capitol stormers claimed to act in name of ‘the people’. The incident illustrated the disruptive potential of populist politics, and conflicting claims to democratic legitimacy in the United States.

The US is, however, not the only country facing clashes between populism and democracy. Similar conflicts lie at the roots of the conflict between the European Union and nations like Poland or Hungary and inform various current conflicts in South America.

The relationship between populism and democracy is contested, both in politics and in academia. On the one hand, populism could be interpreted as quintessentially democratic because it mobilizes people otherwise detached from the political process. On the other hand, populist leaders - once in power – often do not seem to be very respecting of the democratic process. The relationship is a complex one and has inspired much research and debate.

Responding to developments in the US, the conflicts between the EU and Poland/Hungary, and developments in South America, we have drawn up a Reading List of six insightful and provocative studies on the topic held at Leiden University Library Libraries (UBL).

The UBL holds a substantial and diverse collection on the history and politics of populism. The list below is, therefore, only an incomplete selection from the hundreds of books the UBL owns on this topic. All books below are available for loan by following the link under the title or by searching our catalogue.

Margaret Canovan, Populism


Margaret Canovan was one of the most prominent authors on the relationship between populism and democracy. Her book Populism is a classic of political science: It shows the historical roots of the term populism but, at the same time, points to its undefinable nature – a warning to scholars who might otherwise use the term in a simplifying manner. Canovan argues that populism is an essential part of democracy that should be given more attention by scholars of democracy in the context of 1980s scholarly discourse.

Cas Mudde and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (eds.), Populism in Europe and the Americas: Threat Or Corrective for Democracy?


This edited work analyses the actions of populist parties and governments in Europe and the Americas to assess how populism and democracy relate to each other. According to the editors, populism is not inherently anti-democratic, but rather opposes liberal conceptions of democracy. It continues to ask under what circumstances populism can be beneficial or a threat to democracy. Lauded for their nuanced approach, the volume’s editors provide a ‘thin definition’ of populism that might be useful for students wanting to apply the concept in their own work.

Jan-Werner Müller, What is Populism?


In a short and accessibly written book, Müller offers a far more critical analysis of populism and populist politics. Drawing from examples from many different regions of the world, he argues that populism tends towards the construction of authoritarian states, which exclude all who are not considered part of ‘the people’. Müller, however, does not merely provide a sharp analysis, but also strategies for liberal democrats to defend democratic values and fight back against populism.

Chantal Mouffe, The Return of the Political


Chantal Mouffe is one of the most influential contemporary scholars on populism. Although her work provides a theoretical account, it is far from a dry read. Mouffe argues that liberal democracy is simply an agreed framework under which political groups can compete for power through rational argumentation. The classical ideal of such a deliberative democracy, however, often fails to acknowledge the emotional side of politics or the fact that politics at its core is not an argument, but a competition for power. This creates the vacuum commonly utilized by populists.

Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson, The Tea Party and the Remaking of Republican Conservatism.


Before Trump, there was the Tea Party. In their classic study, Theda Skocpol and Vanessa Williamson provided an early look into the powerful dynamics that were reshaping the Republicanism and conservative politics and the US. Based on interviews with Tea Party activists and visits to Tea Party meetings, Skocpol and Williamson show how grassroots populist energy was redirected towards more long-standing conservative goals such as the deconstruction of the American welfare state – the same welfare state which many grassroots members benefited from.

Michael Kazin, The Populist Persuasion


In this book, Kazin analyzes the long history of populism in the United States. He argues that the power of populism lies in its adaptable nature as people from every political persuasion have used populism’s strategy of lambasting ‘elites’ for betraying the interests of ‘the people’. In a fascinating reconstruction, Kazin shows how populism in America was originally a left-wing phenomenon but was later adopted by right-wing politicians and made into a mainstream and powerful political phenomenon that only few can actually control.

Contact your faculty liaison

Is a book missing on this list, or would you like UBL to purchase a book about populism or democracy that is not yet available in our collections? Contact our faculty liaisons.

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