Populist conceptions of the “people” and multi-party democracy

Author: JL Pretorius

ISSN: 1996-2193
Affiliations: BComm BA(Hons) LLB LLD Extraordinary Professor, Free State Centre for Human Rights, University of the Free State
Source: Stellenbosch Law Review, Volume 33 Issue 2, 2022, p. 3 – 24


Although conceptual approaches to populism differ, there is a high degree of consensus that the ideological distinctiveness of populism lies in the unique way it constructs its core concept, the “people”. This article assesses the implications of populist understandings of the people for the constitutional endorsement of multi-party representative democracy. Regardless of its many manifestations, populism structures peoplehood around a distinct brand of ideologised popular sovereignty, in combination with another dominant host ideology, which, depending on the context, can be drawn from any of the main ideologies on the left‒right spectrum. This combination invariably produces an opposite “other”, an “anti-people”, as a necessary co-constituent of the populist people’s cohesion and identity. The homogenising and exclusionary construct of peoplehood associated with populism holds profound implications for multi-party representative government. It challenges the pluralist notion of multi-party representation by advocating for representation as the embodiment of a homogenous popular will instead. Representation as embodiment fosters extreme majoritarian attitudes and, as histories of populists-in-government have shown, tendencies towards authoritarianism. Populist conceptions of the people ultimately dispute core features of multi-party representative democracy, such as inclusive democratic citizenship, pluralist representation, oppositional political rights, the recognition of opposition parties as standing alternatives to incumbent governments, and accommodation and compromise as inclusionary democratic practice.