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Democratic Efficacy and the Varieties of Populism in Europe

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Countering the populist threat: policy recommendations and educational tools

Populist sentiments and politics are spreading across Europe, dividing society into ‘Us’ and ‘Them’. An EU-funded project addresses this challenge, thereby ensuring stability of liberal democracies.

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Populism is present in our societies as a specific mindset of people, as a communication style by both citizens and political actors, and as a political strategy represented by populist leaders and movements. Populist and extremist actors have also emerged in politics with some success in radicalising it. “So while populism has a strong democratic potential, its political practice is often at odds with the norms and institutions of liberal democracy, therefore, it is also a potential threat to the latter,” reflects Zsolt Boda, coordinator of the EU-funded DEMOS project. To better understand populism and to address the challenges it brings, DEMOS studied the phenomenon from a multitude of perspectives and disciplines through the lens of democratic efficacy. This is an idea inspired by the notion of political efficacy, which captures citizens’ subjective attitudes towards politics.

Unmasking populism: new insights

Having examined 17 European populist parties and movements across the continent, DEMOS argues that while they all adhere to the standard populist framework, there is not one but four types of populism in contemporary Europe. These are radical right-wing populist parties, radical left-wing populists, illiberal (post-communist) populist parties, and anti-establishment populists and political entrepreneurs. The project also supports, while studying populism at the individual level, that the emotion of anger is a strong predictor of populist attitudes. “However, we also proved that the strength of populist attitudes is moderated by certain democratic capacities, especially for those who have strong internal efficacy feelings,” highlights Boda. DEMOS further found that the media landscape is witnessing a process of normalisation of populism in news coverage and that there are no national answers to populist ‘threats’ that are effective everywhere, every time. Further project insights can be found on the DEMOS website.

How to address the populist challenge

Given the continued support for populist extremist parties, dealing with the populist challenge is important for the stability of liberal democracies. In this context, DEMOS developed a model of populist policymaking, policy recommendations and practical tools to provide key insights and help counter the populist threat. The conceptual model of populist policymaking was developed along three dimensions: policy content, policy procedures and policy discourses. “This model was well received by the academic community. Today it may be a thesis in an academic paper, but tomorrow it will shape policies,” notes Boda. Several educational tools were also developed. “For instance, Wing is a game about populism and social change. It aims to help players learn about a possible path to becoming active citizens, to raise awareness of the skills needed to stand up against an authoritarian regime,” explains Boda. Supporting educational material for the game was also developed. The project expects that the educational tools will see some success. “So far, the website of the Wing game has got more than 300 000 hits and several thousand visits,” confirms Boda.

“We expect some of the research findings will have a lasting effect on how we think about populism. We also hope they may be translated into new legal ideas, interpretations and ultimately decisions,” concludes Boda.


DEMOS, populism, politics, populist parties, extremist actors, liberal democracy, Wing game

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