• Peter Chai

An Introduction To Populism And Authoritarianism Based On Norris And Inglehart (2019)

This article attempts to outline Chapter 2 of Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism (Norris and Inglehart, 2019) with the aim of summarizing the authors’ minimalist approach to unpacking the concepts of “populism” and “authoritarian populism.” By listing and explaining their key arguments and integrating other relevant references, this article will provide a succinct overview of the rhetorical style and communication channels of populist leaders as well as the syndromes encompassing authoritarianism.

Defining Populism and Authoritarian Populism

Norris and Inglehart (2019) define populism in a more minimalist fashion as a form of discourse or style of speech targeting the first-order principles of governance. Based on their definition, populism tries to delegitimize established power structures and the role of elected representatives in liberal democracy, claiming that “the people” should rule. While various definitions of populism have been proposed by scholars, a minimalist approach to defining populism highlights that while populism attempts to challenge first-order principles about the electoral system, separation of powers, and constitutional checks and balances, it is rather lacking on second-order principles regarding specific government policies populism and measures.

The authors note that various forms of populism could exist simultaneously. The most widely recognized type of populism is labeled as “authoritarian populism” as opposed to “libertarian populism.” Authoritarian populism seems to focus on conservatism, traditions, order, conformity, loyalty, security, and stability. Norris and Inglehart argue that the polar opposite of populism is pluralism, which emphasizes that legitimate authority should be accorded to elected representatives, liberal democratic institutions, and veto players. There are three identifiable dimensions of the model of party competition or social cleavage; this multidimensional model includes populist-pluralist division oriented towards the legitimate source of governance, the left-right division over economic values, and the authoritarian-libertarian division over cultural values.

It is possible to create a structural map of party families and contestation spaces by applying a spatial model consisting of the “old” left-right economic cleavage and the “newly” emerged cultural cleavage at the same time. The economic axis would be divided between state or redistribution (demarcation) on one pole and the free market (integration) on the other. The newly created cultural axis would have authoritarian or communitarian (demarcation) on one pole and libertarian or universalist (integration) on the other. As illustrated in the two graphs below excerpt from their papers, Kriesi et al. (2006) and Roberts (2018) both show how party types can be approximately positioned along these two dimensions, demonstrating the extent to which populism creates a form of “opportunity structure” to mobilize those who seem to be disillusioned with established parties, existing institutions, and neoliberal inequalities. This can be considered a response to the post-2008 financial crisis and the refugee crisis induced by wars in Africa and the Middle East during the age of globalization. Cultural conflicts seem to have reconfigured party spaces, and populism could further politicize such cultural divides, challenging the Lipset-Rokkan “freezing party hypothesis.” Some examples of right-wing populist parties include the National Front in France, the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, and the Australian Freedom Party (Roberts, 2018).

Party Families in Two-Dimensional Space (Kriesi et al., 2006; Roberts, 2018)

The authors emphasize that the combination of authoritarianism and populism could pose the most serious risk to the liberal democratic consensus; it will corrode trust in the established mechanisms safeguarding democratic norms, including the protection of minority rights, the role of the free press, judicial independence, and diversity of the civil society. They also note that authoritarian populism could provide opportunities for strongman leaders with a defined image who claim to speak for “the people” to step into the power vacuum, especially during periods of crisis. These strongman leaders are likely to endorse social intolerance by emphasizing “in-groups” and “out-groups.” The “in-groups” or “insiders” are said to be “the ordinary people,” and the “out-groups” or “outsiders” are said to be both minorities such as foreigners, immigrants, sexual minorities and elites such as politicians, bankers, and academics.

Conceptualizing Populism and Its Rhetoric

Norris and Inglehart assert that populism resembles a rhetorical style of communication. This rhetoric is based upon the claim that first, the only legitimate democratic authority flows “directly” from “the people” and second, the established powerholders are deeply corrupt, self-interested, and self-serving, their betrayal of public trust implies they should be thrown out. Using this minimalist approach as a foundation, the authors argue that the populist narrative should be reduced to these core twin components. The first component represents an anti-establishment appeal and the support for a rather unconstrained majority rule or popular will. It constructs a symbolic “popular identity,” and claims that the voice of “the people” should outweigh all safeguards designed to protect minorities. The second component calls for hardline, non-corrupt, decisive leaders to come to power.

The authors explain that populism asserts a “true” or “genuine” democracy for and by the excluded, neglected, or underrepresented “silent majority” , emphasizing its “grassroots credentials.” In the populist view, legitimacy originates from the direct popular expression reflecting majority references although they may override minority interests. They note that for the populist framing, the voice of the majority is valued even when at odds with professional specialists (“Britain has had enough of experts”), legal authorities and government officials (“so-called judges”), mainstream media and press commentators (“fake news”), scientific experts (“climate change/COVID-19 is a hoax”), and elected politicians (“just out for themselves”). These elites are seen by populists as the “enemies of the people” who are out of touch with or detached from the “real world, and populist leaders often attack big corporations and banks (“They stole all the money”).

The populist narrative therefore identifies two groups of scapegoats or imaginary enemies and blames both in a downward direction, minorities who could be “terrorists” and upward, toward the “morally corrupt” political, commercial, and professional elites who may be “criminals.” By presenting these strong claims and exaggerating certain threats, populist leaders aim to appeal to those who resent the wealthy and the politically privileged. They also target those who have seemingly lost hope and confidence in the existing system so expect hardliners to implement radical change to “fix” or “correct” the system. As a result, political inexperience could be regarded by populists as untainted by the elected office (“inside the Beltway”) and as a badge of honor than a disqualification.

Identifying Populist Communication Channels

Norris and Inglehart state that populism seeks to appeal to collective actions and favors plebiscites, referenda, demonstrations, mass rallies, and opinion polls, and populist leaders seem to prioritize television talk shows and modern social media networks such as Twitter. The old-fashioned rallies and more recent online communication channels are seen by populist leaders as convenient and powerful platforms to mobilize support as they could provide direct and unfiltered links between the leaders and their followers, bypassing the scrutiny by journalists. They explain that the populist language is simple, repetitive, and emotionally powerful. It tries to articulate the “authentic voice,” virtue, wisdom, and experience of “ordinary folks”. On the other hand, it liberally employs derogatory insults to describe opponents and vulgar slurs for racial minorities. By praising “the people” and attacking the minorities and elites, populist language seeks to convey simple but strong claims to the public of non-elites, especially individuals who are less educated blue-collar workers living in rural areas (those standing for a kind of “welfare chauvinism”). It targets a diverse range of the population by proposing a “symbolic unification” of unmet heterogeneous grievances toward the existing system.

According to the authors, populist leaders seek a radical revolution to restore “the real democracy” by “the real people.” To come to power, they are likely to use the abovementioned rhetoric, speech style, and communication channels to draw a line between “us” and “them” and in this “us-them divide,” elites become symbolic villains and “the commoners” become righteous and hard-working heroes like in a drama setting. All these are to build hero worship and personal cult. Again, they emphasize that populist leaders seem only to criticize existing social problems and propose quick-fix reforms rather than suggesting coherent blueprints or substantial programs and long-term action plans. By avoiding making pledges and laying out specific plans during campaigns, populist leaders can minimize their chances of being held accountable for their policy failures because their responsibilities become more difficult to identify.

An Example of Donald Trump

The authors use Donald Trump as an example of an authoritarian populist leader who ran as an authentic outsider to Beltway politics (“not one of them”), a self-made billionaire who led an insurgency movement on behalf of “forgotten” Americans disgusted with unresponsive systems, incompetent politicians and bureaucrats, dishonest lobbyists, reckless Wall Street speculators, fake media, arrogant intellectuals, foreign powers exploiting America, and politically correct beliefs. He made full use of Twitter to convey simple messages and mobilize support and applied a long list of classroom bully nicknames to belittle his opponents (“Crooked Hillary” “Sleepy Joe”). In blaming professionals and intellectuals, he denied the legitimacy of the established authority, scientific evidence, and reasoned deliberation. Instead, he celebrated the “authenticity” of direct experience (“Believe me…”, mass opinions’ representation (“Many people say…”), proposed quick fixes (“Build a Wall”), and used applause lines (“Make America great again” “America First”), and gave a muscular image (“I alone can fix it”).

His campaign speeches (“I’m with you, the American people. I am your voice…I am with you, I will fight for you, and I will win for you.”) and Twitter posts reflected the style of talk shows, tabloid headlines, and everyday language. With such populist discourse, Donald Trump and his supporters felt united by a common conviction of what they stood against, which was the dominant, evil establishment, depicting themselves as true heroes. Moreover, Donald Trump places a strong focus on a kind of myth of the “unified whole” and exaggerated external threats to the national sovereignty and in-group solidarity[p1] , rejects cosmopolitanism, globalization, and collective efforts, and made symbolically decisive responses to “security threats” and external interventions by denigrating the UN, NATO, NAFTA, TPP, and Paris Accord which represent the broad international established framework of international law and human rights. Interestingly, he combined pro-market domestic tax cuts with anti-free trade protectionist actions.

Authoritarianism and Varieties of Populism

As a result, populism is a political ideology centred more on challenging the established orders of power, which can be both domestic or international than on implementing substantial policies or a vision for holistic reforms. Finally, Norris and Inglehart note that the form and style of populism and the social movements to which they could lead vary considerably across countries and historical periods, and “hyphenated populism” or “populism with adjectives” exist. From my perspective, if we contrast populism in the U.S. and China, while populism in the U.S. appears to be on the authoritarian “New Right” and anti-establishment, populism in China seems to be on the socialist “Old Left” and pro-establishment.

They claim that while authoritarian and libertarian populism may seem similar in the rhetorical styles, they represent contrasting cultural values and goals. Loosely speaking from a non-empirical perspective, the former may be somewhat associated with conformity, rigidity, social conservatism, security, and loyalty as well as nationalism, nativism, ethnocentrism, unilateralism, racial prejudice, xenophobia, homophobia, sexism, and islamophobia and even was referred to for understanding fascism, the alt-right, neo-Nazis, and extreme hate groups. The latter may be somewhat connected with social liberalism, personal freedom, social justice, human rights, minority rights, gender equality, peace, postmaterialism, multiculturalism, cosmopolitanism, globalization, European integration, feminism, and environmentalism.

To be more precise, as summarized by Adorno and colleagues (1950), the authoritarian personality is characterized by the following items: authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission, support for conventional values, mental rigidity, and a proclivity to engage in stereotypical thinking, a preoccupation with toughness and power, cynicism about human nature, sexual inhibition, a reluctance to engage in introspection, and a tendency to project undesirable traits onto others. In other words, on a daily basis, authoritarian value holders tend to view their environments as unstable and threatening places, find it difficult to trust other people, and stick to a set of customary norms. They tend to attack minority groups and political elites (authoritarian aggression) and submit to authorities (authoritarian submission) at the same time. Importantly, we should note that although this hypothetical nexus between authoritarianism and political conservatism seems to have a general empirical foundation, more attention needs to be paid to the separate authoritarian syndromes, ideological subtypes, and contextual factors (Nilsson and Jost, 2020).

As concluded by Norris and Inglehart, the combined threat of populism and authoritarianism in long-established liberal democracies may weaken social inclusion, tolerance, and diversity and diminish public confidence in representative institutions. It may also allow strongman leaders to harm human rights, curtail freedoms, manipulate elections, and pocket resources. Authoritarian populism may be extremely dangerous for some so-called hybrid and mixed regimes. Therefore, it is key not only to clarify the definition of populism and its varieties but also demonstrate how populist leaders can apply certain speech rhetoric and communication channels to mobilize support, challenge established systems, and erode malfunctioning democracies.


Adorno, T. W. et al. (1950). The Authoritarian Personality. Political Psychology.

Inglehart, R. and Norris, P. (2019). Cultural Backlash: Trump, Brexit, and Authoritarian Populism. Cambridge University Press.

Kriesi, H. et al. (2006). Globalization and the Transformation of the National Political Space: Six European Countries Compared. European Journal of Political Research.

Nilsson, A. and Jost, J. T. (2020). The Authoritarian-Conservatism Nexus. Current Opinion in Behavioral Sciences.

Roberts, K. M. (2018). Left, Right, and the Populist Structuring of Political Competition. In Routledge Handbook of Global Populism. Routledge.


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