Between populism and democracy: ‘the People’ in election discourse

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A global trend of populism affects established democracies in Europe and around the world. Instrumental to this wave is the notion of the People, harnessed by populists’ rhetoric to their political advantage. Yet only little is known on the various, even contradicting meanings of the People in political discourse. Drawing on popular sovereignty theories and representation studies, in this paper I develop a theoretical framework of four key facets of the People—political, national, spatial, and abstract, and their two dimensions—concrete and diffuse. I argue that while elections are associated primarily with the political facet of the People, cross-temporal approaches to electoral representation highlight the People as a multifaceted construct. I explore these theoretical conjectures with computational text analysis of news media coverage of the 2016 American election. I find that the People is a multidimensional construct, with temporal dynamics that connect the political facet with the broader political agency of the People. However, this connection holds only before the 2016 election, and not after them. The results are discussed in relation to populism and the challenges democracies are facing.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)359-377
Number of pages19
JournalEuropean Political Science
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 2022
Externally publishedYes

Bibliographical note

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© 2021, European Consortium for Political Research.


  • Popular sovereignty
  • Populism
  • Representation
  • The 2016 US election
  • The People
  • Time horizons


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