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The rise and the nature of populism is becoming increasingly relevant to political scientists and citizens alike. By building on recent contributions in political theory by Nadia Urbinati, Michael J. Sandel, and Chantal Mouffe among others, this article aims at exposing its roots and core. Populism is complex and composite and, as a global phenomenon, it has as many manifestations as contexts of appearance. From Russia to the US, from Italy to Latin America, populism reacts to the disempowerment of masses brought about by globalist neoliberal politics, to increasing elitism sustained by economic disparities, to changes in the methods and forms politics take, and in the needs politics is required to respond to.
While dismissing, together with Mouffe, an ‘essentialist’ quest for definitions, the article identifies as a crucial common trait the rhetorical or authentic instauration of a renewed relationship between the populace and the governing power, while bypassing hypertrophic élites. These latter are blamed for stalemates in political reforms required by historical processes such as globalization, for hollowing out the democratic process through the crystallization of an establishment behind superficial and oftentimes symbolic party differences, and for pushing forward a hegemonic agenda – oftentimes, a neoliberal one - that the electorate perceives as no longer or not fully responding to its exigencies.
Populism presents itself in right, left, or even centrist incarnations, but this central component remains one of its defining features, and is intertwined with both circumstantial and inherent dynamics of politics affecting inequalities in wealth and power.