Theme Panel: Erosion of Democracy

Erosion of Democracy: Populism and Its Causes

The electoral success of populists in the advanced industrial democracies has brought new attention to a topic that was previously studied mostly in the developing world, especially Latin America. The sense of urgency is great. Populism is seen as problematic for democracy: populists often undermine liberal democratic institutions once they are in power, yet populists also respond to democratic failures, basing their appeal on an argument that institutions and politicians are systematically denying segments of the electorate their voice. Thus, populism is not just a problem for democracy but a symptom of its failures. This means that the study of populism offers political scientists a unique window into democracy. If we can identify the reasons why citizens support populist movements, we may also come to understand the ways in which liberal democracy sometimes fails in its promise of representation.

Happily, scholarly efforts to identify the causes of populism are growing more advanced. For the past decade, scholars studying populism have been locked in a debate over whether the causes are mostly economic, rooted in declining material well-being; or cultural, representing a reaction to changing values and identities. More recent work moves beyond this debate by studying the individual-level causal mechanisms by which distant structural forces activate citizen’s populist anger. Most of this work argues, not surprisingly, that the key mechanism underlying populism’s electoral success is one of resentment or anger over perceived failures of democratic representation. Impressively, findings based on these arguments are coming from multiple countries in different regions and historical periods.

In this panel we showcase these recent, synthetic efforts to explain the causes of populism. Not only do these papers offer more generalizable causal arguments, but they present data from various regions and levels of analysis using multiple methods.


Kirk A. Hawkins, Brigham Young University (Chair)