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Pacewicz, J. (2023). When Is Populism Good for Liberal Democracy? Sociological Theory41(2), 129-153.


Debates over populism pit those who see it as dangerous for liberal democracy against those who view it as necessary for mobilizing the marginalized. This article flips the question and asks whether and how populist rhetoric supports liberal democracy. I synthesize accounts of voting behavior, poststructural Marxism, and pragmatism to develop a cognitive theory of populist resonance focused on how people use rhetoric to solve conceptual problems and illustrate it with interviews from the American Rust Belt during the Obama elections. In the main, voters use populist rhetoric to simplify political decisions when cross-pressured. Therefore, many traditional partisans, who saw party politics as rooted in blue- and white-collar identities, routinely made populist claims to sideline anti-pluralist appeals, whereas those alienated from politics were given to illiberalism. The analysis provides micro-sociological foundations for the intuition that populism is democratically functional in a stable party system, whereas illiberal populism is a symptom of enfeebled political parties.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.