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Orban buttoning suit: Photo: “Viktor Orbán,” by Annika Haas (EU2017EE) licensed under CC Attribution 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0). Hue modified from the original.

Wade M Cole, Evan Schofer, Destroying Democracy for the People: The Economic, Social, and Political Consequences of Populist Rule, 1990 to 2017, Social Problems, 2023


The recent populist wave has raised questions about the implications of populism for democracy. Some scholars express optimism that populism may be a source of democratic revitalization, bringing about sweeping changes in accordance with the majority will. More often, populism is viewed as a threat to liberal democracy, combining calls for radical change with disdain for core democratic institutions and norms. We consider the possibility that these outcomes may not be mutually exclusive and develop a conceptual typology for understanding the consequences of populist rule. We then use cross-national panel fixed-effects models to analyze the effects of populist leadership between 1990 and 2017. We first examine whether populists have economic and social effects in line with their core aspirations. Left-wing populists are quite effective at implementing their agenda: they reduce income inequality, regulate markets, and incorporate marginalized groups. Right-wing populists are also fairly impactful: for instance, they raise tariffs, cut taxes, and restrict the rights of women and gay people. However, populists of all stripes are associated with the rapid and severe erosion of liberal democratic institutions. Populists, we conclude, often destroy democracy in the name of the people.

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.