Open Access Journal

ISSN: 2183-2463

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When Populist Leaders Govern: Conceptualising Populism in Policy Making

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Abstract:  The rise of populist governance throughout the world offers a novel opportunity to study the way in which populist leaders and parties rule. This article conceptualises populist policy making by theoretically addressing the substantive and discursive components of populist policies and the decision-making processes of populist governments. It first reconstructs the implicit ideal type of policy making in liberal democracies based on the mainstream governance and policy making scholarship. Then, taking stock of the recent populism literature, the article elaborates an ideal type of populist policy making along the dimensions of content, procedures and discourses. As an empirical illustration we apply a qualitative congruence analysis to assess the conformity of a genuine case of populist governance, social policy in post-2010 Hungary with the populist policy making ideal type. Concerning the policy content, the article argues that policy heterodoxy, strong willingness to adopt paradigmatic reforms and an excessive responsiveness to majoritarian preferences are distinguishing features of any type of populist policies. Regarding the procedural features populist leaders tend to downplay the role of technocratic expertise, sideline veto-players and implement fast and unpredictable policy changes. Discursively, populist leaders tend to extensively use crisis frames and discursive governance instruments in a Manichean language and a saliently emotional manner that reinforces polarisation in policy positions. Finally, the article suggests that policy making patterns in Hungarian social policy between 2010 and 2018 have been largely congruent with the ideal type of populist policy making.

Keywords:  congruence; Hungary; policy making; political parties; populism; social policy



© Attila Bartha, Zsolt Boda, Dorottya Szikra. This is an open access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 license (, which permits any use, distribution, and reproduction of the work without further permission provided the original author(s) and source are credited.