An Enquiry Concerning the Ideational Relationship Between Liberal Democracy and Populism in the European Union

Student thesis: Doctoral ThesisDoctor of Philosophy


Across the West, many liberal democracies are put under pressure by the rise of populist movements. This development affects well-established democracies, such as the UK or the US, as well as comparatively young democracies, such as Hungary or Poland, and occurs across the left-right political spectrum. Given this, populism has come to receive increasing scholarly attention. Focussing on populism in the EU, this thesis contributes to the thus growing body of knowledge by offering a novel view on the ideational relationship between populism and liberal democracy at the nexus between abstract theoretical assessments and down-to-the-ground empirical analyses. For this purpose, a bi-partite argument providing a map of populism’s ideological contestations to liberal democracy is employed, which synthesises a political-theoretical analysis of concepts with a qualitative analysis of party discourses. The thesis is divided into three parts: In the first part, I provide the theoretical setup by depicting liberal democracy and populism (viewed through the ideational approach) and by theoretically establishing populism as being necessarily ideationally anti-liberal-democratic. In the second part, I engage in a content analysis of contemporary populist party discourse and shed light on populism’s current state. To safeguard the relevance of the cases selected for the content analysis, parties must have entered national parliaments (and securing at least 5% of the votes). Then, parties must score high regarding their populist attitudes based on the ideational definition of populism to qualify for selection. The latter is established through computer-based quantitative content analysis of party manifestos. Of the high scoring parties respectively low scoring parties a main sample and a control sample are selected, so that the samples cover different areas of the EU as well different party families. Having established those, I qualitatively analyse the content of the annual speeches of party leaders at party assemblies between 2015 and 2020. My approach to analysing the ideational dimension thereof is inspired by the Analytical Discourse Evaluation, a philosophical method of discourse analysis specifically developed to extract implicit assumptions from political discourse. For the task at hand, I amend this method to be suited for analyses of political speeches, which cover different subjects and areas. In the third part, I combine both analyses into an overarching narrative about the relationship between populism in the EU and liberal democracy, review a both prominent and rare case of populism leading a government (the PiS party in Poland) through the analytical lens thus developed and discuss the implications of the findings.
Date of Award1 Oct 2023
Original languageEnglish
Awarding Institution
  • King's College London
SupervisorJohn Meadowcroft (Supervisor) & Paul Sagar (Supervisor)

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