A sociohistory of democratic representations of populism

A global and connected approach

The sociohistory of democratic representations of populism: a global and connected approach project is the 2021 laureate of the "Populism and democracy" theme of the Emerging Research call for projects.

The scientific debate on populism has tended, in recent years, to be polarized around two antagonistic positions: one makes populism the manifestation of all the pathologies that threaten our representative democracies, the other sees in populism the main virtuous dynamic which crosses our democracies enslaved to neoliberal political rationality. This polarization of the scientific debate is the starting point of this project. First of all, it proposes to question it from an epistemological point of view: how to explain such a binary confrontation? The epistemological decryption will show that, despite their binary confrontation, the supporters of populist "democratic pathology" and populist "ultra-democratism" paradoxically share the same empirical categorization of the phenomenon.

In order to overcome this pitfall, the project proposes a return to historicity. The main commonality of contemporary populism research is its claimed "presentism": the idea that the populism of our time is a radical novelty in the democratic systems of the 1980s. In order to understand the relationship between populism and democracy, this project proposes to take a step back from our current events, and to return to the founding manifestations of populist ideology, never invited to contemporary debate: Russian populism (narodnischestvo) between 1840 and 1880, the American People's Party at the end of the 19th century, and the national popular regimes in Latin America (1930-60). To these events may be added others, but on the condition of constructing, through social history, the "populist" character of the object, or to show obvious circulations of protest ideologies, political imaginaries, activist repertoires, based on these founding experiences. We will also endeavor to show that the search for control of regimes of political representation was born with their very emergence, as a consequence of the sovereignty of the people. In this project, it will then be a question of returning to the projects and practices which conceived the intervention of the people not as a corruption, a degeneration of democratic systems, but as a set of demands coming from below and aiming, on the contrary, to avoid oligarchic abuses.

Porteurs du projet

Federico Tarragoni

  • Paris Institute of Humanities, Sciences and Societies-University
  • Scientific field:
    Sociology of revolutionary processes and social conflicts (Europe / Latin America)
    Popular movements, populism and democracy (Europe / Latin America)

Research thesis

Sociological theories of the individual
Historical sociology of political ideas
Sociology and political philosophy

Scientific output

Federico Tarragoni, L'esprit démocratique du populisme. Une nouvelle analyse sociologique, Paris, La Découverte, coll. "L'horizon des possibles", 2019, 372 p.
Federico Tarragoni, Sociologies de l'individu, Paris, La Découverte, coll. Repères, 2018, 124 p.
Federico Tarragoni, L'Enigme révolutionnaire, Paris, Les Prairies ordinaires, coll. L'histoire rejouée, 2015, 320 p.

Scientific activities

Member of the expert committee of the Belgian Scientific Research Fund
Member of the ANR expert committee
Member of the HCERES expert committee
Evaluator for Oxford University Press, Presses Universitaires de Rennes and Presses Universitaires de Strasbourg Member of the editorial boards of 4 journals (Traces, Participations, Writing History, Tumults)

Déborah Cohen

  • Institution: Rouen University
  • Scientific field:
    History of representations of the popular (18th century and French Revolution)
    History of democratic oversight

Scientific output

Déborah Cohen, La nature du peuple. Les formes de l’imaginaire social, éditions Champ Vallon, collec. La chose publique, Seyssel, 2010
Déborah Cohen, Peuple, Anamosa, 2019
Déborah Cohen, La politique hétérogène du peuple in Chloé Gaboriaux et Arnault Skornicki, Vers une histoire sociale des idées politiques, Presses universitaires du Septentrion, 2017, p. 295-306.

Scientific activities

Member of the reading committee of La Révolution française. Notebooks of the French Revolutionary History Institute
Member of the scientific committee of the journal Sensitivities and Expertise

Team members


FNRS (Scientific Research Fund) researcher - Center for the Study of Political Life (Cevipol) - Brussels Free University


Lecturer and researcher - Walras Pareto Center for Interdisciplinary Studies of Economic and Political Thought (CWP) - Lausanne University

Etienne FERRER

PhD student, Paris University

German Rodrigo AGUIRRE

Populism and democracy

Beyond its historical and geographical avatars, the notion of populism is generally defined on the basis of the threefold principle of anti-elitism, the belief in a homogeneous people and the preference for an unmediated popular sovereignty. (Akkerman, Mudde et Zaslove 2014 ; Schulz et al. 2017).

Parties meeting these criteria have now become established in both young and consolidated democracies. By 2019, they were involved in the governments of eleven European countries, with one in four voters having voted for a populist party in the last major national election (Timbro Authoritarian Populism Index, 2019). Populist parties thrive as the gap between democratic aspirations and the often disappointing workings of liberal democracies widens (Rooduijn, van der Brug et de Lange 2016 ; Rosanvallon 2000). By putting forward a radical demand for popular sovereignty, populist parties appeal primarily to an electorate that is dissatisfied with representative democracy, and even questions the very principle of representation as an effective means of translating the will of the people into political decisions.

Populism can thus be seen as both a threat and an opportunity for democracy. Exclusive populism - often associated with the radical right since it limits the people to those born in the country and readily combines with xenophobic elements - can undermine democracy and lead to illiberal democratic regimes through its anti-pluralist component, by privileging an organic conception of the people that leads to the rejection of the rule of law, minority rights or the separation of powers. (Urbinati 1998).

On the other hand, a more inclusive populism - typically associated with the radical left, since it combines populist markers with left-wing ideological markers such as a better distribution of wealth - can deepen democracy by pushing political elites to take better account of popular demands. It can also empower social democratic parties and associative organizations with consensual narratives, which can increase the electoral participation of the working class and even unify their grievances (Mudde and Kaltwasser 2013) by constructing the people as a political subject (Laclau 2002).