The religiosity of populism: The sanctified and abused power of the People

Xin Mao


Populism, irrespective of its form as a political movement or ideological phenomenon, often has certain semi-religious characteristics. This article explores the religiosity of populism from two perspectives: the sacredness of the people, and the messianic character of the populist leader. Even within quotidian politics, the concept of "the people" within the national borders is generally given a prominent position; but it takes on a transcendental character within the context of populism. Similar to the absence of God in the system of signifiers, in populism the people is also an "empty signifier", equivocation on which is sanctified, and utilized for exclusionary purposes. Additionally, the people is often associated with a grassroots class, in many cases initiating an anti-intellectualist trend where "the people" are placed above secular, democratic political institutions. The leader, the other main actor in the various populist movements, is often seen as akin to a prophet who gives promises that outstrip reality and poses as a savior who will end all misfortune. The role of the populist leader can also be deemed religious, as he/she is described as the chosen one and often stands in direct relations of faith and love with each individual.


Populism, the people, anti-intellectualism, the empty signifier, Demagogue, Prophecy

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