A recent answer to another question on politics.se referred to the Nolan Chart as a method for describing political affiliation. The version of the chart shown at that link describes two axes:

  • Left-wing ↔ Right-wing (defined in economic/distributional terms)
  • Libertarian ↔ (Totalitarian) Populist

I'm interested here in the phrase "(Totalitarian) Populist", in whose place I would have expected instead to see the word "Authoritarian" in the chart.

In my experience, "populist" is generally used as a pejorative term to describe a politician with the annoying (for their opponents) knack of securing popular support by giving the people what they want - or at least, of promising or appearing to do so.

I wouldn't, before seeing the chart, have thought to make a link per se between populism and totalitarianism, but instead, to the extent that "populism" has a non-pejorative use, that it describes the political actions associated with a "bread & circuses" approach. For example, Nero might be an example of the "circuses" aspect of this idea, and Evita of the "bread" aspect.

Some more modern examples of populist policies I can think of:

  • "Your boss should be taxed more highly so your kids can go to a better school" or "Your taxes are too high".
  • "We should stop letting immigrants steal your job" or "You (as an immigrant) should have the same rights as a natural-born citizen".
  • "You should be allowed to smoke pot if you want" or "Those dirty hippies shouldn't be allowed to smoke pot".

These don't, on their face, seem to be concentrated particularly at one end of a freedom↔control axis.

  1. Is there, then, a theoretical basis (or real world evidence) for a strong link between populism and totalitarianism?

  2. Are there examples of politicians using the term "populist" to describe themselves, rather than being described thus by their opponents?

EDIT: I've updated the examples, as on reflection they didn't previously illustrate my point very well.

  • Maybe the correct word you are looking for is demagogy? Commented Dec 16, 2012 at 13:14

3 Answers 3


First of all, if your complaint is that "populism" is not even remotely the best term to use for that quadrant of Nolan Chart, welcome to the club of pretty much everyone other than Nolan. Matter of fact, Nolan Chart Wiki entry explains:

Bottom left – the antithesis of libertarianism, corresponding with those supporting low economic and personal freedom. David Nolan originally termed this philosophy populism, but many later renditions of the chart have used the label statism, authoritarianism, totalitarianism, or fascism instead. Many libertarian groups have labeled that section as communitarianism.

Why? Precisely because, while you can possibly make a case that populism (as is usually understood today, and as you outlined in your question) has some correlations with statism, it is, indeed, a bad term under usual definition, since it does not clearly imply authoritarianism despite some correllations.

Here's a modern academic definition of "populism" from Wiki:

Nonetheless, in recent years academic scholars have produced definitions of populism which enable populist identification and comparison. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell define populism as an ideology that "pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who were together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice".

Now, to try and see why Nolan may have used the term, and answer your sub-questions:

Is there, then, a theoretical basis for a strong link between populism and totalitarianism?

Yes, though it's hard to prove it to be "strong". Short version is that any ruler needs support from some demographics as his power base, and lack of active opposition from the majority of the populace. Even if you are a strongman dictator, your power structures need to support you, and therefore need to be rooted in demographics that supports you. For examples of what happens when you fail to arrange that, have a chat with Hosney Mubarak of Egypt (once the bread prices he artificially kept low became impossible to suppress) or Al-Assad of Syria (once his Sunni patronage networks decided that they had more to gain from deserting Alawites).

Is there, then, a real world evidence for a strong link between populism and totalitarianism?

Absolutely. The quintessential example is Hitler, of course (he was a brilliant orator with highly populist policies - public works to fix unemployment, take property from Jews and give to everyone else, "you are the superior race", revenge for Versailles, etc...)

But many, if not all, dictatorships/authoritarian were the result of revolutions or transitions that had populist policies (Italian Fascism, Bolsheviks in Russia, Roman emperors, Putin's Russia, etc)...

Are there examples of politicians using the term "populist" to describe themselves, rather than being described thus by their opponents?

This is covered on the Wiki:

Populism, unlike conservatives or socialists, populists rarely call themselves ‘populists’ and usually reject the term when it is applied to them (src: Canovan, Margaret, 1981,Populism, New York and London: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, p.5)

Although "populist" is often used pejoratively in the media and in political debate, exceptions to this do exist, notably in the United States. In this case, it appears likely that this is due to the memories and traditions of earlier democratic movements (for example, farmers' movements, New Deal reform movements, and the civil rights movement) that were often called populist, by supporters and outsiders alike. It may also be due to linguistic confusions of populism with terms such as "popular". (src: Boyte, Populism and John Dewey)

  • Huh I've taken the "nolan chart" test a few times but this is the first I've heard of "populism" being on the opposite side of libertarian, interesting to know
    – Ben Brocka
    Commented Dec 18, 2012 at 20:51

In addition to the above answers, one issue with how populism is defined, even in academia, can be shown with the Oxford definition:

Populism : A political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups. -Oxford Lexico Dictionary 2020

With this definition, populism can pretty much apply to any political ideology based around opposing real or perceived 'elites' who keep the people down. Also, many movements that can be seen as populist with this very limit definition is also seen by certain people as being a threat to democracy. After all, many authoritarian movements or movements that claim to be about 'freedom' only to restrict someone if it isn't the particular brand of freedom most of the movement wants can be seen as populism: a group of people trying to fight the current 'elites' to enforce the rules they want 'for the people'. Thus, populism became a dirty word, especially when many insurgent groups that were willing to resort to violence to get their way starting using it or similar terms to talk about how they represented the common man:

Although the term "populist" can be traced back to populares (courting the people) Senators in Ancient Rome, the first political movements emerged during the late nineteenth century. However, some of the movements that have been portrayed as progenitors of modern populism did not develop a truly populist ideology. It was only with the coming of Boulangism in France and the American People's Party, which was also known as the Populist Party, that the foundational forms of populism can fully be discerned. In particular, it was during this era that terms such as "people" and "popular sovereignty" became a major part of the vocabulary of insurgent political movements that courted mass support among an expanding electorate by claiming that they uniquely embodied their interests[.]
-Political historian Roger Eatwell, The Oxford Handbook of Populism

tl;dr In practice, populism is usually used as an insult for a movement you don't agree with that has an 'elite' they plan to oppose and since the definition of populism is so flexible, it is technically correct when used in that manner.


One aspect of populism that also has to be taken into account is when a politician cater to a majority of a population and makes laws that border undemocratic for minorities in a population.

Some contemporary examples

  • Russia and gays
  • India and muslims
  • Turkey and non-muslims

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