Populism and the Elite Perspective

The current populist upsurges have seldom been analysed from an elite-centred perspective. Yet, as argued below, such a perspective – developed by the early 20th-century classical elite theorists (principally Vilfredo Pareto, Gaetano Mosca, Max Weber and Joseph Schumpeter) and revamped by their contemporary followers – proves analytically useful and theoretically fertile.
It focuses on leaders and elites, that is, the key power-wielding political actors; highlights the stylistic distinctiveness of populist leaders and structural features of populist-dominated political elites; and explains the dynamics and the political consequences of the populist upsurges. Importantly, contemporary elite analysis and theory maintains a realistic and critical angle inherent in ‘classical’ studies and is compatible with the popular mass and institutional accounts of populism.

The populist backlashes

Populist movements spread like wildfire in Europe and North America. Today, populist leaders are well-established political figures in over a dozen countries: the US (President Donald Trump), the UK (UKIP’s Brexiteers), the Netherlands (Geert Wilders of the Dutch Party for Freedom); Italy (Matteo Salvini of the League, and Luigi Di Maio of the Five Star Movement), France (Marine Le Pen of the National Rally), Sweden (Jimmie Akesson of the Sweden Democrats), Switzerland (Albert Rösti of the Swiss People’s Party), Denmark (Kristian Thulesen Dahl of the Danish People’s Party), Germany (Alexander Gauland and Alice Weidel of AfD and Lutz Bachmann of the Pegida movement), Greece (leaders of the Syriza movement), Poland (Jarosław Kaczyński of the Law and Justice Party [PiS]), Hungary (Viktor Orbán of the ruling FIDESZ), Czech Republic (President Miloš Zeman and Prime Minister Andrej Babiš), Finland (leaders of the True Finns), Slovenia (Prime Minister Janez Janša), and even in Canada (Doug Ford in Ontario), as well as in distant Australia (Pauline Hanson, heading the fractious One Nation Party). These leaders head political movements and protest parties, stoke political conflicts with emotionally charged demagogy and destabilize political regimes by widening elite and mass divisions in terms of right and wrong, and friend and foe, rather than between left and right.

Populist leaders pose as opponents and critics of ‘corrupt and unpatriotic elites’ and corrosive cosmopolitan liberalism together with its globalist policies, and as defenders of ‘ordinary people’, national identities and Christian traditions. Demagogic populists look like perennial creatures: they blossom where there is work insecurity, deindustrialization and influxes of alien migrants, and fade at times of stability and growth. They are master-demagogues and media-savvy users of new ‘means of manipulation’. Carrying the democratic mantle, they declare themselves the only genuine defenders of democracy, the latter understood as ‘people power’. They manipulate mass anxieties, fears and hopes, and transform the politics of negotiation and compromise into the politics of confrontation and warfare.

Yet, in spite of the prevalence of the populist propensity to contest, the phenomenon of populism remains poorly defined, understood and explained. There is no clear and widely accepted definition of populism; interpretations of populism give rise to controversies, and theoretical accounts are incomplete. The elite-centred accounts of populism – ‘classical’ and contemporary – may help in clarifying the picture.

Populist leaders and political elites

Who are populists and what is populism? It is defined here as a specific political style with a popular outlook and leadership type, not an ideology or a political programme. Populists share certain stylistic features assembled here as a Weberian ideal type: a set of empirically discernible characteristics of political leaders and their ruling styles. These characteristics include:

These features amount to a yardstick that is approximated, to smaller or greater (measurable) degrees, by various political leaders. This usage has little to do with popular deployment of the term whereby populism serves as shorthand for ignorant, prejudiced, simplistic, anti-democratic and nationalistic leadership styles and outlooks – in other words, as a term of condemnation.

At the core of a populist outlook sits the notion of political power that is seen as a tool of domination. Such a notion, as argued here, is derived from participatory-democratic sources and radical-utopian visions of the rule of the people, and portrays political contests as the people against the powers that be. Political power, from this perspective, is mobilized from below and exercised legitimately only by ‘faithful servants of the people’ (the sarcastic label coined by Max Weber). Therefore, the key political objective of populists is to subvert elite power (oligarchic domination) and assert people power and the popular will. This will, which the populist leaders claim to know exclusively, is best articulated through public opinion, mass referenda and popular plebiscites.

While the most conspicuous populist figures are demagogic leaders, these leaders are invariably embedded in broader leadership groups, the populist elites, that include political loyalists and hangers on providing political support for the top leadership. The label ‘elite’ looks contradictory and ironic when applied to populist movements and leaders – both declaring themselves anti-elitist. Yet, when seizing governments, populists form their own ruling elites consisting of loyal supporters and followers of political leaders. Such situations, though, are rare. Typically, populist leaders enter political elites as radical rebels and vocal critics of (predominantly centrist and liberal) regimes, riding on crests of protest movements opposed to some aspects of current policies concerning immigration and globalization. As rebel critics, they typically form anti-elite minorities within established political elites, split the ruling groups and, importantly, widen political divisions: not the programmatic (left–right) divisions, but extreme morally charged right-versus-wrong divisions relating to the rules of political competition. Before we comment on this division, two short digressions are necessary.

All contemporary politics, democratic and non-democratic, includes demagogy, electoral manipulation and deception, simplification of arguments and emotional appeals. Populists do not monopolize, but rather combine and amplify, these characteristics. Importantly, populists do not reject democracy, understood as a principle of popular sovereignty or as the rule by majority, as its core political principle. They are democrats in a particular – though legitimate – sense of the word, meaning ‘direct democrats’. They seldom criticise elections and ignore the electoral mandating of political leaders. In fact, all populists see themselves as the only genuine democrats, the only representatives of ‘ordinary people’ who are responsive to the ‘popular will’ as articulated in current public opinion. Moreover, populists are typically illiberal democrats, critical of the rule of law and other constraints on their political leaders. They declare themselves, as Turkish leader Recep Tayyip Erdoğan stated, the followers of ‘justice and authentic democracy’, rather than the law.

This characterization of populism is not new, but is firmly rooted in the past. Its key elements were formulated by early 20th-century critics of populism, the sceptical liberals classified today as classical elite theorists. The ideal type of populism, as proposed above, is the influential legacy of the ideas developed by elite theorists (Higley 2016, Best and Higley 2018).

The elite theorists’ view of populism

The elite-centred perspective is particularly useful in analysing populism, for three inter-related reasons. First, it encapsulates the most radical philosophical critique of populist outlooks and actions. Secondly, it provides normative underpinnings for this critique together with the general criteria for assessing leaders and politics. Thirdly, it critically engages populism on a broad theoretical front, by portraying it as a crisis-generated and semi-rational form of political leadership and politics. Moreover, it offers not only a critical diagnosis of populist practices, but also critical assessments of the political consequences of populism.

Modern populism emerged as distinct political outlooks at the time of major political-ideological confrontations at the turn of the 20th century. It emerged together with its theoretical and political nemesis: the elite-centred view of politics (‘elitism’) and the ‘elite theory’ of politics and social change. Elitism holds that power in all complex societies is necessarily concentrated at the apex of the largest organizations; that political elites – the incumbents of top executive positions in the largest and most resource rich organizations, primarily the state, as well as business corporations, dominant churches, large trade unions, influential movements, etc. – are ubiquitous; and that elites dominate their societies through a mixture of manipulation, deception and force. This does not prevent some elites from becoming representative or democratic in the sense of accepting regular electoral competitions for leadership within the state and respect for the rule of law. Elite theory, in turn, focuses on political leaders and elites, and attempts to explain the major social and political outcomes of populist leadership, as well as the overall social dynamics of populist rule, by certain characteristics of those leaders and ruling elites.

Elitism developed as a critical intellectual response to the first wave of radical populism: principally Bolshevism and National Socialism (Bottomore 1993). Drawing on historical and contemporary evidence, elitism purports to be hyper-realistic about what is and is not possible in modern organized societies. In clear contrast, populism is situated in the stream of radical utopian thought that promises an egalitarian political order (people power) once elites are eliminated and proper (direct, responsive to the people’s will) democracy is restored.

Elite theorists supplemented their descriptive analyses with some normative underpinnings. Good politics is, above all, goal-oriented and rational and effective in sustaining order. Good politicians show, above all, political excellence (competence), vocational and leadership qualities; the latter are seen as a commitment to a cause (versus desire for power), realism (versus utopianism), innovativeness (versus conformism) and a sense of responsibility (versus opportunism). Populism and the populists’ anti-politicians are judged harshly according to those normative yardsticks.

In political sociology, elitism and populism respectively manifest politics-centred (top-down) and society-centred (bottom-up) schools of thought. The former depicts political outcomes as determined by influential political actors; the latter depicts outcomes as shaped by public opinion. Elitism favours responsible politics (what people need); populism promotes responsive politics (what people want). The two outlooks see-saw in intellectual dominance.

Populist and elitist outlooks were not the only rivals. At the time of major political and ideological confrontations, as Higley (2016: 4–6) points out, the political struggle also involved a third, liberal-democratic paradigm. It is a popular mixture of radical-idealistic and practical-realistic views on power, politics and democracy. Political power is seen as dangerous but contained and restrained within the state-administrative and parliamentary-representative institutions. These institutions – a constitutional state based on the rule of law, an open-and-fair electoral system and an independent judiciary – form an effective framework for constraining and sustaining broadly representative democratic polyarchies, in which multiple elite factions compete with each other and ‘check and balance’ each other’s influence on governmental decisions.

This outlook, while popular (even dominant) at the time of stability and growth, has always been criticized as an ideological gloss imposed on liberal-democratic political practice. Moreover, it has always been the proverbial meat in the sandwich, criticized by both radical populists, the advocates of people power and non-elite direct representation, and by elitists, who offer a more realistic, but less edifying and alluring, diagnosis of inescapable domination by organized minorities.

The major contours of original critical explanations of early populism are well known and described elsewhere (Pakulski 2018, Pakulski and Higley 2011, 2012, Pakulski and Korosenyi 2012). It is enough to mention here Weber’s analyses of plebiscitary leadership, leader democracy, protest movements and the accompanying transformation of political leadership (from charismatic to bureaucratic) in the process of a crisis-ridden ‘routinization of charisma’. The ‘half-way house’ of this transition was marked by the rise of demagogic critics of political establishments who wore the mantle of direct democracy and portrayed themselves as ‘servants of the people’. Their anti-establishment demagogy was vitriolic and emotionally charged, and their rule was invariably polarizing, chaotic and destructive – but also transient. Pareto portrayed populist-like politics as symptomatic of elite degeneration. The inflow of radical critics split and weakened established elites and started delegitimization cycles that lead to political decay, crises and the replacement of elites. Mosca provided historically anchored analyses of the ruling-class decay that accompanied radical disputes of authority. Schumpeter linked such radical outbreaks, which he experienced first-hand as a member of a short-lived liberal government in Austria, as symptomatic of progressive etatization (bringing under state control) and political-economic cycles of creative destruction. The contemporary elitist accounts of populism follow the ‘classical’ critical account of plebiscitary democracy (Weber), periodic elite degeneration and replacement (Pareto), ruling-class decay (Mosca) and political-economic cycles (Schumpeter).

Contemporary elite theorists (for example, Higley and Burton 2006; Best and Higley 2018) see populism through this elitist critical lens: as a specific leadership and elite configuration and the accompanying political style. They single out elite structure, mode of recruitment, internal relations (interaction) and political outlooks/ruling styles as key determinants of major social and political outcomes, such as stability or regime type. Stable orders and liberal-democratic regimes (that is, those with competitive leadership, respecting the legal framework and relying on periodic electoral mandating) are formed by broadly representative consensual elites.

Today’s populist leaders and elites are the offspring of crisis circumstances and the accompanying fracturing and deterioration of ruling elites. Those crisis circumstances were triggered by lack of job security following the 2008 global financial crisis and the ensuing economic malaise. They were exacerbated by the sudden and large-scale influxes of culturally alien migrants caused by the opening of labour markets (for example, in the European Union), disparities in living standards and the need to flee violence and joblessness in non-Western countries and regions. Millions of such economic migrants, refugees and asylum seekers entered the most developed countries, triggering a massive political backlash that gave fuel to populist demagogues and spawned radical protest. The leaders of such backlash politics blamed arrogant and corrupt elites for the economic woes and portrayed mass migrations as elite-supported invasions. Such criticisms inflamed toxic passions of resentful egalitarianism and xenophobia directed against the immigrants and the liberal-democratic elites that welcomed them. Under the impact of these criticisms, the established political elites have been fracturing, their mutual trust has dwindled, political discourses and cultures have been degraded, governance has deteriorated, major political institutions have decayed and political order has started to crumble.

Mass and institutional accounts of populism

Surprisingly – considering the stylistic distinctiveness and high profile of populist leaders – the mainstream interpretations and explanations of contemporary populism in social science literature focus on both the mass and the structural-institutional conditions of populist mobilizations. They examine crisis circumstances as mass social circumstances, focus on those characteristics of populist leaders that are shared with (and mirror those of) mass supporters, analyse populist demagogy as representative of mass discourses and interpret the outcomes of populist mobilizations in terms of the destabilization and decay of major political institutions.

Thus Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris (2016) attribute the current populist upsurges (especially in the US) to (1) increasing economic and income inequalities that contribute to mass feelings of insecurity and vulnerability; and (2) cultural backlashes, mainly among older people, who are ‘seeking a bulwark against long-term [post-materialist] processes of value change’ made all the more disconcerting by rising numbers of alien immigrants and asylum-seekers (Norris and Inglehart 2016: 11–14). The authors conclude: ‘The rise of populist parties reflects, above all, a reaction against a wide range of rapid cultural changes that seem to be eroding the basic values and customs of Western societies’ (Norris and Inglehart 2016: 30).

This account raises a number of questions. Why is the populist upsurge so late (the post-material value shift started in the late 1970s and peaked in the early 1980s)? Why does it take such a radical form? Why are populists more prominent and successful in some countries than others? Focusing on cultural change (that is, the post-materialist value shift) does little to explain the nature, the time and the place of populist upsurges.

Cas Mudde (2018) takes a different view. He portrays populism as a political-ideological current, and he attributes its rise to the political failures of liberal democracy, especially under the conditions of liberal globalization: Against the popular interpretation that the current ‘populist moment’ is a direct consequence of the Great Recession, which assumes that it is a temporary, crisis-related phenomenon, I argue that the rise of populism is related to several structural social changes that have fundamentally changed European politics. On the demand-side of politics, cognitive mobilization and growing inequality have created a more dissatisfied and vocal population. On the external supply-side, a broad consensus on neoliberal economics and supranational politics has made mainstream parties less effective and more similar, while a radical transformed media landscape has provided more access and coverage for populist politicians. Finally, with regard to the internal supply-side, populist actors have become more attractive options because of better leaders, organizations, and propaganda. (Mudde 2018)

Political institutionalists, like Fukuyama (2016), suggest that populism should be seen as, primarily, institutional-political decay afflicting the key political institutions: the administrative state, rule of law and electoral system. Under the conditions of such decay, the state loses its effectiveness due to party nepotism (neopatrimonial staffing). The rule of law is eroded through destroying the independence of the judiciary mainly through the partisan ‘stacking’ (filling) of the top legal positions. Electoral processes decay through the pervasive manipulation of public opinion, skewed media reporting and waves of ‘fake news’ – a phenomenon analysed under the popular label of ‘post-truth’. Populist leaders are key perpetrators and beneficiaries of political decay, which is synonymous with the deterioration of liberal democracy.

The institutional accounts of populist-engineered political decay are strikingly without actors. Institutions are portrayed as changing according to some immanent regularities, and not as altered by political leaders and elites. Populist leaders, in turn, appear more as products, rather than the actor-perpetrators of destructive populist revolutions.

The accounts in terms of value shift, rising mass insecurity, democratic failure and institutional decay are, we argue, not so much incorrect, as incomplete. They are without actors, and they call for more actor/elite-centred and top-down accounts.

Incompatible or complementary accounts?

The mass and institution-centred accounts of populism are different but not incompatible with each other. In fact, they can be seen as complementary – focusing on different aspects of the populist upsurge: the former on the crisis circumstances that make established elites, especially the liberal elites, vulnerable to populist disputes; the latter on the consequences of these disputes.

Populists usually join the elite on the crest of a wave of discontent represented by a political backlash and the accompanying protest movements that are triggered by crisis circumstances. They emerge as the radical critics of leaders and elites, those very elites that make unpopular – and poorly legitimized – decisions, and that do not buckle under pressure from the popular backlash and counter-elite critics. These critics are not only radical and angry, but also incompetent in the art of ruling. They are recruited to the political elites in a specific way: as reflectors and amplifiers of mass anxieties, fears, frustrations and hopes. What makes them popular – and electable – is their skills in stoking these emotions, especially popular fear and hope, and not their political talent (skills for negotiation, collaboration and compromise), knowledge, experience or policy expertise. Most populist demagogues are political novices, famously described by Weber as ‘dilettantes’ and ‘anti-politicians’ who undermine the rationality of political process. Pareto described the inflow of such people into the elites as ‘elite degeneration’ that deepens the crises and weakens the political effectiveness of leaders.

The contempt that the populist critics voice for other persons and groups belonging to the elite is both indicative of, and contributing to, a deep intra-elite fracturing. This trend is also encouraged by the demagogic manipulation of fear and hope that is facilitated by new media of mass persuasion, especially the social media. This manipulative conduct, in turn, deepens internal divisions within elites, undermines trust and further degrades both the political culture (norms of political competition) and political discourse. It also degrades the key political institutions. Populist challengers transform the political game into political warfare – a crusade against the corrupt and anti-democratic elites. In this warfare all norms of the political game (restrained competition) – even constitutional rules and long-established ruling conventions – are ignored and undermined. The rule of law – a principal institutional foundation of liberal democracy – is usually the first victim of populist challenges ‘in defence of democracy and justice’. The effectiveness of the state administrative apparatus is weakened by partisan nepotism – mass replacements of bureaucrats by loyalists, while electoral competitions lose their neutral (non-partisan) umpires, thus degrading another foundation of liberal-democratic rule. In a nutshell, rational and positive politics give way to irrational, negative and virulent anti-politics; political leadership gives way to opportunistic ‘followship’; liberal democracy transforms into unstable public-opinion driven plebiscitarian leader democracy.

A clarification is necessary. The intra-elite relations are never friendly and collaborative. Even under normal circumstances – and in the united and consensual polyarchy – elite-power competitions are rough and often brutal. They resemble the game of rugby, rather than cricket. But, under consensual elites, they are still normatively regulated competitive games, and not pub brawls or a Hobbesian ‘war of all against all’. Fractured elites are in danger of internal warfare and are losing the battle for rational and restrained politics and its institutional supports.

This is where elite-centred analysis meets – and complements – institutional analysis of political decay. The inflow of populist demagogues fractures the ruling elites, weakens the rules and conventions of political competition and changes this competition – normally described as a peaceful rivalry, a restrained game of give-and-take – into no-hostage warfare. It is accompanied by manipulation of public opinion and neopatrimonial (one should say ‘partymonial’) nepotism – the processes described by Fukuyama (2016) as ‘political decay’.


Populist leaders and their workforce are, as most observers agree, the proverbial offspring of insecurity and chaos. And they breed chaos and further insecurity. They adopt a specific political style that divides and weakens the ruling establishments. When in power, populist leaders and elites deeply fracture the ruling establishments, degrade politics, erode trust in the elites and undermine key political institutions. Their entry into – and in some cases their takeover of – of moderate, centrist and consensual political elites causes disruption and degrades governance.

This critical perspective on contemporary populism, together with its normative underpinnings, is partially inherited from the original critical interpretation inherent in the analyses of classical elite theorists. It is further elaborated by contemporary elite theorists, who extend the classical accounts of populism to embrace new aspects and domains. These extensions are not only improving our capacity to understand and explain populism, but also help in bridging the divide between the elite perspective-cum-theorising and that of (still predominantly mass-oriented and institutional) mainstream political sociology.

Jan Pakulski


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