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The Nucleus of Populism: In Search of the Lowest Common Denominator

  • Matthijs Rooduijn

There are different area-based bodies of literature on populism, which generally define the concept in slightly different ways. As a result, the term ‘populism’ has been attached to a wide variety of political actors, from Perot in the US to Berlusconi in Italy, and from Perón in Argentina to Le Pen in France. Is it an unfortunate coincidence that the same word has been used for completely different parties and politicians, or is it possible to discern the lowest common denominator that these actors share? By means of a comparison of six cases, based on a most-different systems design, I demonstrate that populists in different times and places have four characteristics in common: (1) they emphasize the central position of the people; (2) they criticize the elite; (3) they perceive the people as a homogeneous entity; and (4) they proclaim a serious crisis. These four characteristics constitute the core elements of populism.

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Matthijs Rooduijn is a Lecturer and Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Amsterdam. Contact email:

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