CUREJ - College Undergraduate Research Electronic Journal

Populism and Liberal Democracies: Why Palin's Populism Won't Work

Rebecca Greenfield, University of Pennsylvania

Division: Social Sciences

Dept/Program: Political Science

Document Type: Undergraduate Student Research

Mentor(s): Jeff Green

Date of this Version: 01 April 2010

This document has been peer reviewed.



Populism has characterized various political figures throughout time and throughout the world. To understand populism and its leaders, the term “populist” deserves clearer elucidation. This paper aims to present both an accurate overview of various academic attempts to define populism along with my own conceptions of the phenomenon. Instead of limiting populism to a specific ideology or time period, my approach analyzes populism as a movement that emerges under certain political conditions. That is, when a government fails to address the needs of a large enough constituency it creates conditions ripe for populism. After more clearly defining the populism, I look at its manifestations through contemporary movements. Specifically I look to Bolivia’s Evo Morales, Venezuela’s Hugo Chávez and former Alaskan governor Sarah Palin. I then address the question of whether populism is a mode of democracy. My analysis discusses the way populism approaches representation, as well as the idea that populist leaders represent the true will of ‘the people’. Via speeches, interviews and some secondary sources, I specifically look at how these leaders reference ‘the people’, in what contexts and how they later define ‘the people’. Looking closer at the ways these leaders believe they represent their people lends insight into the type of democracy populists perpetuate. I then argue that the populist ‘people’ differs from an American or liberal democratic understanding of this term. After making these comparisons, I relate my findings to Sarah Palin and populism in the United States, showing how Palin’s populism cannot succeed in America’s liberal democracy. I suggest that the United States adheres to a liberal democratic notion of ‘the people’ that fundamentally differs from the populist notion. Therefore, successful American leaders must also abide by this notion. For Palin to attain political success in the United States she would have to conform to the American notion of ‘the people’.



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