When Populist Leaders Govern: Conceptualising Populism in Policy Making

Open Access Journal | ISSN: 2183-2463

Article | Open Access

When Populist Leaders Govern: Conceptualising Populism in Policy Making


  • Attila Bartha Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre of Excellence, Hungary / Department of Public Policy, Corvinus University of Budapest, Hungary
  • Zsolt Boda Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre of Excellence, Hungary
  • Dorottya Szikra Centre for Social Sciences, Hungarian Academy of Sciences Centre of Excellence, Hungary


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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

Published:   17 July 2020


DOI: https://doi.org/10.17645/pag.v8i3.2922


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