Populism versus democracy

K. Abts, Stefan Rummens

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleScientificpeer-review

355 Citations (Scopus)


This article provides a comparative conceptual analysis of the logic of populism and the logic of (constitutional) democracy. Populism is defined as a thin-centered ideology which advocates the sovereign rule of the people as a homogeneous body. The logic of this ideology is further developed in reference to the work of Carl Schmitt and is shown to generate all the characteristics typically ascribed to populism. The logic of democracy is analyzed on the basis of the work of Claude Lefort and defined as a regime in which the locus of power remains an empty place. This analysis replaces the widespread model of constitutional democracy as a paradoxical combination of a constitutional and a democratic pillar. This two-pillar model fails to appreciate the internal coherence and some of the main features of the (constitutional) democratic logic. Thereby, the two-pillar approach gives rise to an understanding of populism as continuous with the democratic promise of constitutional democracy. In contrast, our analysis explains populism as the closure of the empty place of democracy. This highlights the antagonistic discontinuity between the logic of populism and the logic of democracy.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)405-424
JournalPolitical Studies
Issue number2
Publication statusPublished - Jun 2007
Externally publishedYes




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