The Role of Populism in Agenda-Setting and Policy Impact

How useful is the concept of populism today

Populism is a political approach that is based on drawing a distinction between the ordinary and general populace and the elite and which strives to appeal to ordinary people rather than to elite groups. The populism approach is ideational and is based on the juxtaposition of the common people against the elite(Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017).Whether the approach is successful or not is sometimes measured by the number of votes that the party espousing populist policies is able to garner in election, which is the measuring of the electoral strength (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017). However, success of the populist approach can also be measured on the basis of the party ability to put “topics on the public agenda (agenda-setting) and their capacity to shape public policies (policy impact)” (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017, p. 98). In this respect, this essay argues that populism has proved itself to be a useful concept because many populist actors around the world have managed to play a role in agenda-setting and policy impact even if they do not garner votes in elections.


Although populism now has relevance to most polities of the world, it has also been thought of as a concept that is difficult to define or universalise because it does not have the features that are tangible and lacks a universal and comprehensive definition (Taggart, 2000). It has also been said that populism is not very impactful because it is generally ambivalent about representative politics and thus seeks to avoid habitual political involvement (Taggart, 2000). However, this is not an accurate description of populism at this time. Since the 2000s, at least in Europe, there has been a rise of populist politics with some right parties gaining significant support for their ideas and policy suggestions; examples of the Danish People's Party (DF) and the French National Front (FN) can be used here to explain the influence of these parties to get the agenda set which has also involved mainstream parties particularly on issues like immigration and multiculturalism that have now come to occupy important place in public debate and political discourse.

Not only that, the popular support to these ideas have led the mainstream parties to also adopt more restrictive asylum and immigration policies (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017). The French National Front did not win any elections but they have become influential and have played a significant role in the French politics since the 2000s when they became relatively more popular (Favell, 2016). In countries like France, Belgium and even the UK (where the British National Party has espoused similar populist ideas on immigration control), populism has been effective in at least forcing mainstream parties to adopt or respond to the ideas that are brought by them into the public discourse. So, it can be said that the populist approach is effective in setting the agenda or even guiding policy setting as seen in the case of France where immigration policies have become restrictive even though populist parties like the French National Front have not won major elections.

The reason for the success of populism may be linked to the support for populist ideas all over the world, because the general populations may have come to see the political elite as dishonest and self-serving, and as corrupt; general populace believes that the political elite are making decisions about the country without taking into consideration to the opinions of the majority (Mudde & Kaltwasser, 2017). Another reason why populism has become relevant is because of the limitations of democratic systems to achieve the promises of democracy (Muller, 2016). In other words, there are some areas where democracy has failed due to which populist movements have come up. Populists claim that the promises that democracy failed to achieve can be achieved if the political systems are changed or if what the majority of the people want is given more emphasis than what the ‘elites’ this is good for the society (Muller, 2016). Therefore, from this perspective, it can be said that the concept of populism is useful as well as relevant today. Recently, the 2008 recession has led to some

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support for anti-establishment messages and appeal of populist politics (Witte, 2018). The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement for example is the manifestation of the disillusion of the people with the elites (Witte, 2018). According to Francis Fukuyama, the attraction to or relevance of populism in the current time also comes from the economic angle and the growing inequalities caused by globalisation; many working class people lost their jobs in countries like the United States and this also had an impact on the populist support for populist ideas or populist actors (Witte, 2018).

it has not come to become relevant to the political discourse in many countries around the world. The support for populism comes from an increasing disillusion with the elite and mainstream political parties or actors and a general feeling that the elites are taking decisions without the consensus of the general people who are affected by these decisions. Populist parties may not be winning elections yet but they are influencing public debate and even policy decisions on issues like immigration and multiculturalism in western European countries. The economic costs of globalisation and perception of negative perceptions of immigration may also be responsible for this support for populist ideas. Therefore, it can be said that populism is today a useful concept to understand the political discourse in many countries.


Favell, A., 2016. Philosophies of integration: immigration and the idea of citizenship in France and Britain. s.l.:Springer.

Mudde, C. & Kaltwasser, C. R., 2017. Transformations in Modern Politics: Democracy, Conflict and Globalisation. In: Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press , pp. 97-118.

Muller, J., 2016. Transformations in Modern Politics: Democracy, Conflict and Globalisation. Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press.

Taggart, P., 2000. Transformations in Modern Politics: Democracy, Conflict and Globalisation. Buckingham: Open University Press.

Witte, M. D., 2018. The Great Recession has influenced populist movements today, say Stanford scholars. [Online]

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