A Comparison of Elites Role in Nationalist and Populist Movements


Elites play a significant role in nationalist or populist movements or theories depending on where they stand or on which side of the struggle or debate they are placed.

For the purposes of this paper, a comparison between the roles of elites in both nationalist and populist settings at the theoretical and organizational levels is emphasized.

The main focus is to highlight the power relations that exist between elites and the others in both populist and nationalist settings and how they come to lead, to influence policy making, including the societal forces that instigate social movements seeking for political change that affect elites control and influence in society. 

This paper provides perspectives on the elites in populism and nationalism with some embedded comparisons and will conclude my laying out the main comparisons between elites in populism and nationalism.

Comparative analysis

The elites in populism: When facing populist movements elites tend to often be on the defensive, keen on protecting their economic and political interests and power control.

They are placed in this position of defense and suspicion because the elites are considered the perpetrators of injustice and inequality in society underpinning the sufferings of the people en masse.

By the strength of this, us vs. them binary reasoning, the ordinary people are thought of as good and honest while the elites are branded as corrupt (Margaret Canovan. 1981. Harcourt, Brace, Jovanovich; Robert Barr. 2009. ‘Populist outsiders and anti-establishment politics.’ Party politics 15 (1): 29-48). 

Elites are suspicious of and targeted during populist uprisings because as the name populism depicts, it is an ideology that emphasizes the liberation of the interests of the common people from the grip of the corrupt system.

As Cas Mudde indicates, three features of populism are authoritarianism, anti-establishment and nativism. (Cas Mudde. 2007 Populist Radical Parties in Europe NY: Cambridge University Press). From the analyses of this paper, two of these features; authoritarianism and anti-establishment come to take center stage during populist movements.

This is significant because it helps illustrate how a movement once deemed populist and on the left can be rebranded as authoritarian and on the right as is the case with Nicolas Maduro whose government is becoming increasing hostile to dissenters (Fabian Boser and Federico Finchelstein. 2015 Open Democracy, Free thinking for the world).

During populist movements, elites tend to assume more authoritarian posture employing force through the army or police as well as using other tactics to keep protestors and other demands that tend to disagree with their own position in check.

Since elites often have control and/or influence over government, wealth, and by extension over the security apparatus they can quickly influence or circumvent the policy making mechanisms and utilize available resources and connections to quell dissent or to adapt to the changing environment (Bruce J. Dickerson. 2005. Populist Authoritarianism: The Future of the Chinese Community Party).  

The elites in nationalism: However, populism is not uni-linear. It does not only point to how the people can be converted into anti-establishment elements or a particular group or a political party, it is complex (Cas Mudde. 2007). 

This complexity encompasses how populism can be exploited by elites (intellectual, economic, political) to rally sentimental support to pursue objectives (based on nativism, and violent attitude toward migrants, xenophobia, and political self-determination) considered national and /patriotic.

In this case, the goals of the elites who drive the nationalist movement are very significant. John Breuilley in his three prong typology states that nationalist movements may seek secession, reform, or unification (Breuilly 1993:1).  

John Nairn posits that the development of nationalism lies in uneven capitalist development and that “periphery elites had to invite the people into history and write the invitation card in the language and culture of the masses—that is their inherited ethnic, speech, and folklore,” (Nairn, 2003: 327–328).

This indicates that elites under nationalistic fervor had to use popular appeal to galvanized support for the economic or political liberation. But there is a rising trend of reverse nationalism from the periphery to the core with the emergence of populist leaders like Nigel Frage, Marie Le Pen, and Donald Trump (Cas Mudde. 2007 ‘Fighting the System? Popular radical rights parties and party system change; Party Politics 20 (2): 217-226). 

The reverse nationalism is as a result of current global economic push-pull issues which seem to be thinning the relative high income and living standards of citizens of the core countries leading to anti-immigration and xenophobic tendencies. Under such conditions, elites will not necessarily be coherent in their approach as their difference of interests will interplay to divide them.

For an example, Donald Trump before his becoming President had been an economic elite and Hillary Clinton having stayed in the political limelight for more than 30 years was a political elite.

But as the politics would show, Trump chose an anti-establishment, nativist populist approach and through this rhetoric appealed to national patriotic sentiments by attacking immigration, Wall Street, and ‘corrupt’ politicians in Washington, DC, et al, as not being in the interest of the people. Trump projected himself as the representative of the common, everyday American who would fight for their physical and economic security. 

Such politics can be successful as was the case with Trump which can also be credited “to racist reaction to the election (and reelection) of the first African-American President to the White House,” but one of the dangers is that such populist movements with nationalistic objectives often tend to be characterized by authoritarian behavior because the people’s ability to scrutinize candidates are overshadowed by charismatic character (D. Milband. 2016 Washington Post). 

In view of the foregoing, when faced with nationalist movements especially with a nativist outlook, political elites in control of the status quo tend to employ the idea of concept cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism as a counter to anti-foreigners politics which locate their claims in culture and economics (Ronald Inglehart. 2011.

odernization, Cultural Change and Democracy: The Human Development Sequence. New York: Cambridge University Press; Pippa Norris). 


From my analyses, elites may have varying roles based on what their interest are and what they stand for thus there may be no straight jacketed comparisons to what they role of the elites in populist or nationalist movements is because it can be quite fluid at times.

The case of Venezuela in which Hugo Chavez was elected democratically by a majority of the Venezuelan people based on his charismatic and populist credentials soon changed after his ascendency to political leadership it became apparent that populist rhetoric was quite thing quite different from working with others in the system of states and crafting realistic policies to deal with real challenges (Fabian Boser and Federico Finchelstein. 2015 Open Democracy, Free thinking for the world). 

One point of convergence worth noting is that elites both in populist and nationalist settings tend to play leadership roles of some kind in the processes that decide the future and fate of their fellow countrymen.

On another note, a difference would be in this form; elites who have achieved political, economic and intellectual power may tend to be comfortable with the status quo and would work to protect or restore their dominance using their wealth, education, connections, among others.

In anti-establishment populism elites are considered collaborators of multinational corporations because they control the policy, bureaucratic and administrative structures that make it possible for multinational firms to continue to operate.

Baba Sillah, Contributing Writer