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Democracy and Populism


Admission requirements

Admission to one of the following programmes is required:

  • MA Philosophy 60 EC: specialisation Moral and Political Philosophy

  • MA Philosophy 120 EC: specialisation Philosophy of Law, Governance, and Politics;


In contemporary politics and political philosophy, the concept of populism has become unavoidable, seemingly indispensable, but also highly contested from both a descriptive and a normative point of view. Indeed, the success of populism as a political buzzword may be a function of the loose and indiscriminate way in which the term is now applied. Coming to terms with the concept of populism requires coming to terms with the meaning of democracy and specifically with the relationship between democracy and liberalism. Consequently, the first part of this course will be devoted to an analysis of democracy, with particular attention to the difference between liberal and republican models of democracy and the concepts of ‘the people’ and popular sovereignty. The second part of the course will examine recent theories of populism with a view to determining whether populism is a threat to democracy or, properly understood, has the potential to reinvigorate democracy. The course approaches the concepts of democracy and populism from a theoretical point of view, set against the background of the history of political thought. Political philosophers and theorists to be discussed will likely include Margaret Canovan, William Galston, Jürgen Habermas, Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe, Jan-Werner Müller, John Rawls, and Nadia Urbinati.

Course objectives

This course aims to equip students with the knowledge and understanding required to critically assess the relationship between the concepts of democracy and populism within the context of debates in contemporary political philosophy.

Students who successfully complete the course will have a good understanding of:

  • leading historical and contemporary models of democracy and the way in which they understand the concepts of ‘the people’ and popular sovereignty;

  • major approaches to the idea of populism within recent political philosophy;

  • fundamental debates about the normative significance of the populist challenge to liberal democracy.

Students who successfully complete the course will be able to:

  • knowledgeably discuss contrasting understandings of the relationship between democracy and populism;

  • think independently and critically about the nature and value of populism in the context of contemporary debates about the future of democracy.


Visit MyTimetable.

Mode of instruction

  • Seminars

Class attendance is required.

Assessment method


  • Midterm paper (40%)

  • Final paper (60%)

  • Participation and weekly discussion notes (pass/not pass) - a ‘pass’ is required to complete the course.


The final mark for the course is determined by (i) the weighted average of the two essays combined with (ii) the class attendance requirement.


The resit consist of an opportunity to redo either the midterm or the final paper. The grades for the other exam component remain in place. Students can only resubmit a failed paper.

Students who have obtained a satisfactory overall grade for the first examination cannot take the resit.
Attendance and active participation in class is required for admission to the resit.

Inspection and feedback

How and when an exam review will take place will be disclosed together with the publication of the exam results at the latest. If a student requests a review within 30 days after publication of the exam results, an exam review will have to be organized.

Reading list

The full reading list will be posted on Brightspace before the start of the course.

Recommended background reading

  • Moffitt, Benjamin (2020). Populism. Cambridge: Polity Press.

  • Miller, James (2018). Can Democracy Work? A Short History of a Radical Idea, From Ancient Athens to Our World. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux.

  • Kaltwasser, Cristóbal Rovira, Paul A. Taggart, Paulina Ochoa Espejo and Pierre Ostiguy (2017). The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Oxford: Oxford University Press, parts I and IV.


Enrolment through uSis is mandatory.
General information about uSis is available on the website.

Students are strongly advised to register in uSis through the activity number, which can be found in the timetables for courses and exams.

Registration Studeren à la carte and Contractonderwijs

Not applicable.


Dr. J.S. Gledhill


Not applicable.