Populism part two: Populism’s relationship to nationalism

This post is the second part of a three-part series on populism. The first part of the series defines populism and provides some historical case studies.

Populism part two: Populism’s relationship to nationalism

In both explicit and implicit terms, populism is often confused with nationalism. The two political movements share similarities, such as gearing policy and messages towards the average citizen. Additionally, both movements can – but not always – negatively affect business due to a tendency to focus on their respective nation-state first.

Populism and nationalism differ, however, due to their positions on power: populists believe that a nation is at its strongest when the people have more power to affect change, while nationalists believe that an individual’s rights and power can be limited by the government in defense of a nation’s status.

Defining Nationalism

Nationalism can be defined as a political movement that acts to promote the cultural interests of a nation. Nationalism relies on tangible symbols such as flags and patriotic messages to promote a message of cultural superiority, while national borders serve as a symbol of sovereignty to be defended. Nationalist movements often rely on historic events and famous citizens in a nation’s history to promote a message of cultural superiority. For example, the Nazi movement of the mid-Twentieth Century promoted German music as a part of its propaganda.

Populism and Nationalism: Similarities

Both movements need the active support of the average citizen to survive and promote policies and laws designed to encourage mass participation.  Both populism and nationalism promote a sense of pride in the culture one’s country, often cultivating a desire to return to a time when the country was prosperous and a singular culture was dominant. Both movements also identify an adversary that is holding their country back from achieving greatness.

Populism and Nationalism: Differences

The main differences between the two movements comes from the allocation of power and the adversaries they identify. Populism tends to look inward, believing that elites of various types are to blame. Any outward enemies are often portrayed as allies of the elites and, by giving the average people more power, they limit the influence these outside entities have on the government.

In contrast, nationalism tends to look outward for its adversaries:  towards other countries, immigrants, or global organizations. The solution is often simple: stop immigration or exit global organizations and partnerships and the country will return to prosperity. This can – and has led- the rise of totalitarian leaders who use a singular adversary to maintain and grow their control over a country, often at the expense of individual rights that give the average citizen power. They argue that it is reasonable to limit or roll back individual rights in pursuit of national greatness.


Despite sharing similarities, populism and nationalism have different views on power. Populist movements survive by maintaining support for the average citizen, while nationalist movements survive by promoting policies and actions that support national greatness. When individuals begin to lose their rights in pursuit of national greatness, a populism begins to morph into nationalism.


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