JCU Logo


COURSE NAME: "Populism"
SEMESTER & YEAR: Fall 2023

INSTRUCTOR: Nicholas James Startin
EMAIL: [email protected]
HOURS: TTH 1:30 PM 2:45 PM
PREREQUISITES: Prerequisite: PL 209, Junior Standing
OFFICE HOURS: By appointment

This upper-level course will focus on the populism and populist politics which currently challenge Western liberal democracies and their party systems. While populism as a political style or ‘thin’ ideology is not limited to parties and actors classified as “populist,” populist parties and movements have seen a dramatic rise in popularity and electoral support in recent years. In the US core supporters of the Trump presidency self-identify as “populist”. In many European countries, populist parties have emerged as relevant challengers of both mainstream parties and established liberal democracy as a political system; in several cases these parties have become junior or senior partners in government as well. The seminar explores the nature and dynamics of this political phenomenon, the origins and causes of populist politics--as well as the conditions for its success. Situating the rise of various populist parties and movements in a comparative European, American and global context, the course will examine parties, cases, issues, cross-national similarities, variations--and implications of populist politics and the rise of populist parties. In search for explanations of what Cas Mudde has aptly called the “populist Zeitgeist” and the current transformation of political landscapes in Western democracies, we will also take broader socio-cultural changes and conflicts within Western societies into account—looking beyond party systems, platforms, and elections.

Drawing on both a comparative and case-study approach, the course seeks to unravel through a theoretical, empirical and academic lens, the complexities of the contemporary populist phenomenon. It focuses primarily on the European context but also draws on global comparisons including the US and Latin American contexts.  The following themes will be covered in the course:

- Definitions, concepts, theoretical/methodological challenges

- Historical and cultural narratives, charismatic leadership

- Issues, voters, activists

- State responses, Populism and Gender, Political Communication and the role of the Media,

- The challenge to liberal democracy


The course enables students to investigate in detail the increasingly relevant field of populism and populist politics. Students will have the opportunity to discuss relevant empirical, theoretical and methodological scholarly texts on populism in a variety of contexts - small groups discussions, readings questions and group presentations. Students will also gain valuable methodological experience designing a research paper and writing a response to an academic article as well as giving an academic presentation to their peers.


Students will: 


- become familiar with key, contemporary scholarship on populism

- develop the ability to synthesise in detail where and why populist parties have progressed electorally

- develop their methodological competences and research skills in political science

- advance their critical thinking competences in relation to the normative challenges posed by liberal democracy


Book TitleAuthorPublisherISBN numberLibrary Call NumberCommentsFormatLocal BookstoreOnline Purchase
PopulismMoffittPolity978-1-509-53433-3 E book or Hard Copy Near Corner Bookshop 

Assessment 1: Written reflection/response to academic article For this assessment students choose an academic article on the broad theme of populism and write a written reflection/response to this. The reflection, which is similar to a book review should be 1500 words in length and should include typically the following: A brief introduction to the text, a brief description of the author’s background, an overview of the main arguments/themes in the text, some reflection on what you liked (and potentially didn’t like) about the article, and whether you would recommend it as a read. The deadline for the submission of the article on Moodle is at the end of week 6 of the course. 25%
Assessment 2: In class presentationThis assessment will be an individual presentation on the topic of Populism in a European or global context and these will take place in weeks 11 & 12 of the course. The presentation will be for a duration of 20 minutes and will compare two populist parties or movements either in Northern, Southern, Eastern or Western Europe or in another global context. The presentation should cover areas such as the background to the parties’ formation, electoral performance, leadership, issues, voters and future electoral prospects. 30%
Assessment 3: Research PaperThis assessment will be a research paper of 2500 words which will look at one aspect of the course studied on Populism. The course convener will supply a list of potential titles for the research paper at the end of week 6 of the course. Students are also able to create their own title for the paper which they must clear with the course convener by the end of week 9. The deadline for the paper will be at the end of the course in week 14.35%
Assessment 4: Attendance and ParticipationRegular attendance and active participation in class is required. Students will not be penalized for three absences during the semester. If further unauthorized absences are recorded, grade penalties will be applied. The course instructor will give an overall mark for each student based on attendance and participation.10%

AWork of this quality directly addresses the question or problem raised and provides a coherent argument displaying an extensive knowledge of relevant information or content. This type of work demonstrates the ability to critically evaluate concepts and theory and has an element of novelty and originality. There is clear evidence of a significant amount of reading beyond that required for the course.
BThis is highly competent level of performance and directly addresses the question or problem raised.There is a demonstration of some ability to critically evaluatetheory and concepts and relate them to practice. Discussions reflect the student’s own arguments and are not simply a repetition of standard lecture andreference material. The work does not suffer from any major errors or omissions and provides evidence of reading beyond the required assignments.
CThis is an acceptable level of performance and provides answers that are clear but limited, reflecting the information offered in the lectures and reference readings.
DThis level of performances demonstrates that the student lacks a coherent grasp of the material.Important information is omitted and irrelevant points included.In effect, the student has barely done enough to persuade the instructor that s/he should not fail.
FThis work fails to show any knowledge or understanding of the issues raised in the question. Most of the material in the answer is irrelevant.



Class attendance is mandatory. Students will not be penalized for three absences during the semester. If further absences are recorded, grade penalties will be applied - See Assessment 4. N.B. You cannot make-up a major exam (midterm or final) without the permission of the Dean’s Office. Students who will be absent from a major exam must notify the Dean’s Office prior to that exam.

As stated in the university catalog, any student who commits an act of academic dishonesty will receive a failing grade on the work in which the dishonesty occurred. In addition, acts of academic dishonesty, irrespective of the weight of the assignment, may result in the student receiving a failing grade in the course. Instances of academic dishonesty will be reported to the Dean of Academic Affairs. A student who is reported twice for academic dishonesty is subject to summary dismissal from the University. In such a case, the Academic Council will then make a recommendation to the President, who will make the final decision.
John Cabot University does not discriminate on the basis of disability or handicap. Students with approved accommodations must inform their professors at the beginning of the term. Please see the website for the complete policy.



Week 1: What is Populism? (Definitions, Concepts & Methodological challenges)

Week 2: Theorising and Classifying populist parties (Right, Left & beyond)

Week 3: Populist parties at the ballot box (and beyond): Europe and further afield (An overview)

Week 4: Populist case studies and the relevance of national, historical & cultural narratives

Week 5: Radical Right populism in Europe – France as a case study (From the Front National to the Rassemblement National)

Week 6: Populism and the role of ‘Charismatic Leadership’

Week 7: What differentiates the populists? Issues and policies

Week 8: Populist party voters and activists: motivations and demographics

Week 9: Is there a gender gap? The Radical Right as a populist case study

State responses to populism and the mainstreaming debate

Week 10: European Populists opposing Europe: (Eurosceptic opposition in the European Parliament)

Week 11: The media as a driver of populism? The written press, broadcast & Social Media



Week 14: State responses to populism and the mainstreaming debate - Global populism and its relationship with liberal democracy 

As well as the textbook reading, there will also be weekly reserved reading for this course.