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The Populist Vision of Contemporary Democracy: A Cross-European Examination

Pepijn Corduwener

As a result of the continuing rise of populist parties in Western Europe, scholars have increasingly attempted to come to an understanding of Populism and itscompatibility with contemporary liberal democracy. However, a consensus has not been reached; the lowest common denominator is the characterisation of Populism asan anti-elitist movement striving for cultural homogeneity. The populist critique of contemporary Western democracy has been largely ignored in these analyses quot;which is surprising given the political apathy and dissatisfaction among large parts of the electorate.This comparative paper suggests that a stronger focus on the populist vision of democracy allows us to reach a more elaborate and extensive definition of populism.Based on extensive primary source research on populist parties from the Netherlands, Belgium and Austria in the period from 2001 to 2011, the study demonstrates thatnationalism and anti-elitism are indeed important features of Populism, but that these parties have other significant aspects in common. The most distinguishing aspectsof a ‘populist democracy’ are a focus on equality as the defining aspect of democracy with a consequent cancellation of unequal power relations; the disputed neutralityof state institutions as a result of the dominance of traditional political parties; the stress on the importance of a common Weltanschauung in a society to counter aperceived lack of moral coherence and last, but not least, a focus on popular sovereignty quot; other than universal human rights for example quot; as the corelegitimating aspect of democratic governments.

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