The Guardian (a UK newspaper) is running a series on populism. Among other things, it has a quiz, which places you in a 2-dimensional political map, with axes being how populist and left/right-wing. The map looks something like this:

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Regardless of what you think of the map (Evo Morales more right wing that Obama and Macron?...), I am curious if there is an antithesis to populism. In my vague understanding, it would be some sort of combination of liberalism, technocracy and globalism/internationalism? Is it? Is there a word that can capture the latter and be put in a 2D graph as the one above? Some references backing up a potential taxonomy would be very much appreciated.

  • Re Morales vs Obama, I suspect that “left–right” axis used here combines economic “left-right” and social “left-right”. And while economically Morales is to the left of Obama, that could be outweighed by a more authoritarian streak? I say this as no expert on Morales.
    – owjburnham
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 13:18
  • Macron on the left? Wut?
    – M i ech
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 9:07

9 Answers 9


One contender is technocratic, as in technocratic left.

A technocracy is characterized by expert leadership, which values long-term well-being of the country over short-term popularity.

If you look at the least populist leaders in the diagram, you'll find Merkel and Macron. They are indeed often described as technocratic leaders.

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    And they are also described as internationalists, as contrary to nationalists (an important dimension?). I wonder if technocracy is usually an internationalist phenomenon? It certainly is for neo-liberals and right-wingers (e.g. the hard-core Brexiteers in ERG have as a banner "Global Britain"). I am curious however about what is the technocratic left. Do you mean "social democrats" type of left? Sort of Tony Blair, Third Way "left"? To me this is just accommodated neoliberalism.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 8:55
  • @luchonacho well technocrats tend to have academic background (i.e. they are experts) and academics tend to be internationalists (statistically). Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 10:04
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    @luchonacho it's more that nationalism is often populist rather than technocratic-ness being inherently internationalist. Also has something to do with the fact that almost every economist will tell you that math and empirical studies show economies that are more open do better for most people.
    – David Rice
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 19:41

What is the opposite of populism?


Merriam-Webster's definition of populist (1):

2) a believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people

So the opposite would be a non-believer in the rights, wisdom, or virtues of the common people.

Which sounds a lot like elitism

1) leadership or rule by an elite

(1) The first definition is "follower of a populist party" (paraphrased) so doesn't contribute to this discussion.

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    You skipped the first definition, which I think it MORE akin to today's populism. ": a member of a political party claiming to represent the common people", which is important in some contexts. President Trump claims to understand the American people, but the average American has a completely different reality to President Trump. The common person buys toilet paper, I doubt Pre-President Trump has ever done such a thing. Therefore, he's CLAIMING to know the rights, wisdom and virtues of common people. His experiences do not reflect the values and virtues of the "common people". Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 0:04
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    @ShinEmperor The first definition is basically 'a member of a political party claiming to be populist,' which is why I skipped it.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 8:01
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    @ShinEmperor You make a big deal out of the 'claiming.' Every political party claims to be something, so your criticism is universal. And then you go on to make unsubstantiated claims about Trump.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 8:05
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    I think there is a core of truth on this in the sense that populist usually attack the elites, regardless of whether they transform into elite later on or not (see Paul Johnson's answer). There is a strong sense of "us the common people" vs "the elite".
    – luchonacho
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 9:04

I think Sjoerd's suggestion of elitist is the literally correct answer, but we can try to make it more specific, by asking which elite this refers to. One possible answer (given by MSalters) is that it is the technocratic elite. This leads me to suggest the perhaps almost synonymous term meritocratic.

Perhaps the following concise definitions are not too far off:

  • populism bases decisions on the common people's preferences, opinions, and ideas
  • meritocracy bases decisions on meritorious people's preferences, opinions, and ideas
  • technocracy bases decisions on scientific people's preferences, opinions, and ideas
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    The problem with meritocracy is that it refers to the "best" people. But what is 'best' in a political or moral context? Is Merkel's "wir shaffen das" better than "close the border"? The answer depends on whom you ask. And with that we're back to square one.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 16:30
  • Who is the best? Well... aristocracy. At least this word originally meant rule of the best.
    – Shadow1024
    Commented Sep 20, 2019 at 12:40

Populism as used in anglophone media discourse is vacuous. It has been used to describe movements of right-wing workers with reactionary politics that have been hegemonised by right-wing elites. (US tea party). It has not been applied to centrist (greens) or left-wing movements (“blockade” type politics, the Tarkine, Montreal, S11 etc.) despite mass working-class compositions of these movements. Populism is used as a dog-whistle by right wing media, particularly for violent reactionary and fascist organisations despite the non-mass composition of the think tanks that get media attention. In contrast reactionary and fascist mass-organisations of the working class such as /pol/ aren’t described as populist.

The term has no meaning except in the immediate context of a statement by the media. A critical element of the definition is control over a movement by nomenklatura or bourgeois elites; precisely the professional-managerial-technocratic elite which populism is contrasted against. In this case the Guardian is using expert as the antonym of popular. Without any conception that expert advice can be rendered separate to expert rule. So it is contrasting ignorance and expertise. I enjoy my media insulting me.

I would suggest that this is poor terrain to develop theory on.

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    What is "blockade type politics"? Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 9:37
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    You say that "populist" is not applied to green or left-wing movements, but while most of the participants may be working class it doesn't follow that most working class people support them or are attracted by their programme. OTOH Hugo Chavez was left wing, and is generally considered to have been a populist. theguardian.com/commentisfree/2006/may/15/… Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 9:45
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    @PaulJohnson Actually, as far as I understand, the term was first used in its current form to describe left-wing Latinamerican governments.
    – luchonacho
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 10:26
  • @PaulJohnson I didn’t claim that most working class people supported any of the movements I talked about. I restricted myself to talking about the mass character of movements: that they exceed the petty ideologies of small smug intellectual groups; and about the class composition of movements: that the dominant class in terms of the force, drive and ideological gesturing of the movement was working class. Commented Nov 24, 2018 at 1:23

This BBC article describes populism as follows:

The true populist leader claims to represent the unified "will of the people". He stands in opposition to an enemy, often embodied by the current system - aiming to "drain the swamp" or tackle the "liberal elite".

It also notes that while the term tends to be attached to the political right in Europe, that is not necessarily the case everywhere.

However the logical corollary of being anti-elitist is that, once elected, only the popular leader has moral authority; anyone who opposes the leader is automatically an enemy of the popular will and therefore lacking in legitimacy.

The elected populist therefore has a dilemma: does he (its nearly always "he") work with the elite who he once condemned, or does he continue to fight them? If he works with the elite then he becomes one of them, so therefore the only path is to "drain the swamp".

However the work of government must continue; someone must do the work. If the populist leader sacks the elite who used to do this, he has to replace them with new people. Naturally they will be his supporters because his rule is the popular will and he isn't going to appoint people who are opposed to the popular will.

Likewise any legal restrictions on the leader's power are illegitimate because they were put in place by the old elite in order to shackle the will of the people, and enforced by a judiciary who are part of that old elite; as a true representative of the real popular will, the populist leader has the moral authority to sack the judges and override or repeal the laws, and since his supporters now run the government he has the practical authority to do so as well.

Hence it is a short step from being populist to being a straightforward dictator who abolishes the rule of law.

So to answer the question, the opposite of "populist" is "liberal democracy under the rule of law".

  • 1
    You start to make the point that the opposite is 'the elite', only to totally derail in the next paragraph with claims about dictatorship.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 8:08
  • No, a populist stands in opposition to the "elite" (as defined by the populist). The trouble is that once in power the populist must either work with the elite they once opposed (and thereby become one of them) or else throw them out along with the rules and processes by which they worked. The latter is what I was talking about. Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 8:11
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    None of which require the populist to become a dictator. Voting, referenda, and deregulation would work as well, as the 'common people' are, well, common, while the 'elite' is a minority by definition.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 8:21
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    @Sjoerd Should your local water company cut its prices, invest more in water purification, or invest more in sewage treatment? If the decision is to build a new sewage treatment works, where should it be built? How will "voting, referenda and deregulation" help make this kind of decision? Commented Nov 23, 2018 at 8:34
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    @PaulJohnson You are either ignoring or lacking knowledge in the democratic systems through History. Democracy has always been direct until 19th century. Even during 18th century, both French and English intellectuals supporting revolution knew that, and they never intended to build Democracy. If you can read french
    – P.Manthe
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 5:07

I tend to agree with Samuel Russel's answer: populism is a label which has no clear political definition. If we were to follow the meaning of the word, it should entail that populist leaders defend the "normal people" against some form of elite (as suggested in Sjoerd's answer). Sure, this is what these leaders say to their voters, but this does not describe the political reality when these politicians come in power (for instance Trump's cabinet is made of a wealthy elite).

But when looking at the persons labelled as populists by the Guardian and the values that they defend, one may realize that there is nothing new here; and the more standard word for these values is extreme-right/left or far-right/left.

By definition, extreme parties reject the traditional political "game". They define themselves as more or less revolutionary compared to the "old guard". Thus to describe the opposite of "populism", I would suggest to use terms such as moderate, center or traditional politics.

Side note: I think using the word populism for these movements is a convenient but misleading way to represent the fact that there is a surge on both (extreme) sides of the political spectrum (though the extreme-right side has been much more successful so far). It is misleading because in terms of ideas there's little in common between the two; it also prevents using the appropriate terms for describing the extreme-right movement: ultra-nationalism and authoritarianism. In this case the opposites are well known: liberal and democratic.

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    I would say "populist X" are more often "mainstream X" than "extreme X". Extremists are very often anti-populists, because they demand radical changes people are not (yet) convinced of. Even their ideology may be based on that. For example, revolutionary communists saw themselves as the vanguard that led the people to communism, instead of listening to them. Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 4:10
  • It's a matter of perspective imho: the ideas defended by populists nowadays would have been categorized as "extreme" a few decades ago. In fact what is called (right) populist ideas in Europe nowadays used to be called extreme-right ideas. It is true that extreme parties have changed themselves to become more mainstream (there are many other factors of course), but imho we shouldn't stop calling their ideas "extreme" because they became more popular.
    – Erwan
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 12:22
  • But what is 'extreme'? Allowing nobody into a country is extreme, as is allowing everyone (it can't get more extreme than that, can it). The moderate position is somewhere in-between: allowing only a subset of people in. Which is the usual populist position. So the populists are more moderate than the traditional politics. Therefore, IMHO, 'moderate' and 'center' are not useful (though 'traditional' might be).
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Nov 26, 2018 at 16:36
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    @Erwan in other words: "moderates" are "moderates" according to the "moderates" themselves. Clearly they have a vested interest in labelling other viewpoints as "extreme." Please don't fall for their labelling.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Nov 27, 2018 at 18:46
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    @Ewan Trump is not a stereotypical Republican, but that doesn't make him not moderate. The labels you use might be common in your bubble, but that doesn't make them universal. For example: your definition labels Stalin as far-right, which is ridiculous.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented Nov 28, 2018 at 16:29

I think that any ideology be it left or right, that is grounded in the set policies of any party could be considered the opposite of populism. Simplistic I know, but literally any politician on either side of the political spectrum could embrace populism without shifting political ideology and the reverse is also true.


Student on the cusp of a BA in Financial Economics here, and perhaps I can provide some insight through concepts I haven’t found addressed in this thread. Populism, it seems to me, can be described within a framework of organizational architecture. The issue populism addresses is one of decision rights and their distribution (i.e if I own my car, I get to decide when I sell it, to whom, who gets to drive it, etc under the law) at a national economy level.

Inherently, populism advocates for an architecture classified by decentralized decision-making, as people at the bottom of an organization/hierarchy get a fair amount of authority over decisions which must be made.

However, the embodiment/realized form of this ideal tends to divide on political lines: the left tends to believe that the government has already achieved such an organization and thus advocates funding it, the right believes the government to be inept and advocates business/corporate organization as a better alternative. With that said, I would classify populism as more an economic term than a political one since populist discourse tends to touch on politics as a means of achieving an economic end, so i’m not sure it’s possible to put it on a left-right spectrum.

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    Can you add some sources to support your answer?
    – JJJ
    Commented May 5, 2019 at 19:16
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    "The left tends to believe that the government has already achieved [decentralized decision-making]". I doubt that - the left usually want things to be centralized, and is opposed to individualism, which is a very decentralized form of decision-making.
    – Sjoerd
    Commented May 6, 2019 at 19:34

The problem with meritocracy (or one problem) is that it very quickly comes to reinforce the status quo, allowing an elite to protect their place of advantage through measures that appear to be meritocratic. Take the internship process so common in the US today. Supposedly you get a coveted internship at a top law practice, newspaper, nonprofit org, because you merit it - you have worked hard, gotten top grades, etc. etc. But when more than of the population doesn't have access to the best education or parents who have time or money to have them take part in all the extra-curricular activities that position kids for the best internships, or have parents who have the connections with the people who own/direct/manage the places with the best internships, "meritocracy" becomes a self-reinforcing club for the elite. That doesn't even touch on family culture that prioritizes education and channels kids from their earliest years to excel, vs. a family culture that has to prioritize getting food on the table and keeping a roof over the kids' heads - and therefore only furthers the so-called "meritocracy" that protects the best for the elites.

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