Populism vs Progressivism

The most important difference in populism vs progressivism is that populism is defined by an ‘us vs. them’ mentality in politics and society. And progressivism is based on multi-class collaboration with the aim of creating a more equal and fair society using legislation and technology.

Populism – “Life is miserable, and it’s all (group of people)’s fault!”

Progressivism – “Let’s all work together to make life better for everyone!”

But, of course, it’s a little more complicated than all that. So, let’s dive a little deeper.

A Brief Overview of Populism vs Progressivism

These two movements are quite different, but both seek political and social change. So, let’s break them down in turn.


Because the term populism has been implicated in many different movements, from extreme right-wing political activities to environmental rights groups, it can be a challenging idea to penetrate.

Populism as a collection of political thoughts and movements is based on the idea of common representation and empowerment and so attracts followers from across the spectrum.

Populism is not the exclusive domain of the left or right but can be appropriated by any group of people who have a problem with the perceived powerful segments of social and political society.

Populism is a reaction against feelings of disenfranchisement and the perception of skewed access to social mobility.


Progressivism is rooted in the belief that a rational, balanced set of social changes, political legislation, and legislative amendments can improve the human condition in modern society.

Progressives are optimistic about technology and government being a force for positive action that benefits the human kind across class lines. Progressives believe that monopolies and the elite-corporate complex suffocates the potential for a consensus of common humanity.

Progressives are advocates of social reform and welfare programs that serve to raise the minimum quality of life across all classes and races. Progressivism is rooted in the desire for social emancipation and political representation for ordinary people and seeks to establish equity across the classes.

The Beginnings of Populism vs Progressivism

No movement begins in a vacuum, so where did populism and progressivism start?


Populism, in all its myriad and nuanced forms, has been an inherent aspect of human social and political organization since the beginnings of human society.

Cas Mudde, a scholar intimate with populism, considers it to be ‘inherent to representative democracy.’

In some estimations, populism is a negative force working against democracy because of its emphasis on the rights of a homogeneous group and its dismissal of pluralism and compromise. Populism is energized by its oppositional nature; gaining momentum from its antagonistic relationship with competing classes and ideologies.

Populism, as a widely used word, began to gain a cultural foothold in the 1890’s when the American populist movement started in earnest, with its antagonistic perception of urban intellectuals. It was a radical farmer movement, spurred by poor crops, income inequality, and social isolation.

Poor farmer - populism vs progressivism


Progressivism had its infancy in the Enlightenment, a movement borne from the rapid technological changes that swept the Western world in the early 18th century.

More recently, in the early industrial period of the U.S., the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire, which claimed over 200 lives, is cited as one of the instigating events that culminated in the reform based Progressive movement. The fire shone an unflattering light on the inequalities and mistreatment faced by the lower and working classes of Industrial America.

Progressivism takes a firm position that the human experience will improve if technology and Darwinian human impulses are mediated by reasonable legislation and social programming.

The Anatomy of Populism vs Progressivism

Let’s break down exactly what makes each movement tick. You’ll find that, while there are a few similarities, the difference between populism and progressivism is quite striking.


It helps if you have a few populist movements from both the right and left political spectrum as you read through this list. Populism can easily be a tool of the right or the left.

A reactive mode of political organization.

Both political modes originate in dissatisfaction with the status quo and the establishment. And both movements are aspirational in nature with an eye to future change and the dissolution of the status quo.

While both movements have their roots in dissatisfaction with the establishment forces populism is an inherently reactive movement, motivated by the belief that political upheaval stimulated by a group of common people with common interests can overturn conventions and create a new social order.

Motivated by socio-political differences.

Populists are motivated by scapegoating either an elite, typically politically powerful, class of individuals or in many cases, a minority group.

They foster their identity through divisiveness; by starkly disassociating themselves from their oppressive enemies. It is a mode of thought invigorated by the real and perceived differences and antagonisms between opposing sectors of society.

Populism is rooted in a fervent need for collectivity, and the social identity that creating a menacing ‘other’ fosters. Populists tend to believe that their group of like-minded thinkers and activists have a superior claim to truth, authenticity and cultural currency.

Interested in their own interests, not necessarily the interests of society.

Populists, unlike progressives, do not seek sweeping reform and change across a plurality of groups. Instead, they try to protect and promote their own interests, often to the detriment of the groups they have willfully excluded.

Populism is controversial because as a movement it does not necessarily evaluate the equity or conscientiousness of its adhering groups. It is rooted in the concept that the collective majority must assert themselves, even if the platform they are promoting is racist, xenophobic, or hateful in nature.

Populism is a movement that privileges the feelings and experiences of one (often homogeneous) social group over others. Populist movements often force their will on other groups regardless of the consequences for said groups.

Those extraneous to their mission become redundant in their visions of social change. This is why many nationalist organizations are labeled as populist; they are suspicious of the established order and thrive off of creating a scapegoat in groups with different practices, beliefs, and associations. Populism differs vastly from progressivism in this regard.

Uses the trope of the working-class hero.

Populists are often rooted in the working class, espousing a belief in the agency of ordinary people and the commitment to working toward a society where those who have been left behind by technological changes and class struggles can re-assert themselves.

Populists are skilled at emotional propaganda; appropriating, or exaggerating, the trope of the struggling, working-class hero. These depictions can often forge a strong momentum of support and can arouse often buried feelings of class-based resentment and rage.

Populists, in this way, take real inequities and social fractures and dramatize them, creating a saga of good vs. evil and poor vs. rich. The intention of populism is not to mediate these differences as they are the lifeblood of the ideology; but rather to usurp the oppressors and create a new power struggle where their interests and their group are the ones calling the shots.

Can mask itself as an inclusive concept.

Where progressives believe in harnessing the power of democratic politics for social equity and reform, populists are often hostile towards institutions such as established laws and civil and social protections for minority groups or those who are not part of the populist cause.

By asserting themselves as representing all people, populists diminish the political integrity of those that oppose them; minimizing them and dismissing them as external to the project of the real people. In this sense, populism can mask itself as an inclusive concept when it actually requires the divisions it creates to thrive.

It begins to operate like a privileged morality wherein one group can claim righteousness and dominion over the rights of the social body as a whole.


Now let’s move on to the moving gears of progressivism. You’ll notice some stark differences in the comparison of populism vs. progressivism. Progressivism is an entirely different beast than populism, despite often being supported by the working class.

Power in plurality.

Progressivism, as opposed to populism, leaves room for pluralism; the belief that disparate groups and interests can come together and coexist in a political society when guided by just law and a formidable social welfare system.

Divisions are not vital to the foundation of progressivism; as a political perspective, it relies on a unified effort towards a mutually beneficial social goal.

Progressivism is more intimately founded upon collective human integrity. It is less preoccupied with differences and more dedicated to forging a just social order based on human integrity.

Progressivism, in contrast to being purely reactive, is reformist in nature and intent. Progressivism takes a longer view of human improvement and is fortified by the conception that lasting and equitable social change can occur gradually through a concerted, dedicated course of action among a cross-section of different social interests.

Cautiously optimistic about institutional change.

Progressivism is rooted in the struggle for the emancipation of the members of a given society, particularly the working classes.

As a political mode of thought, it is optimistic that different classes can create a coalition focused on forming a more equitably distributed society. Progressivism sees government and more prosperous classes through a less antagonistic, and more hopeful lens.

Progressives envision a world where social classes, under the banner of a more balanced and socially motivated government, can collaborate to forge social change. Progressives are not inherently suspicious of government and often advocate for a stronger, more cohesive political structure with more safety nets and power balances in place.

Populist ideology, on the other hand, often calls for a less robust government structure. Populists can be ambivalent, and sometimes hostile, to a strong established government; viewing it as undermining the interests of the common populist cause.

Seeks to improve society as a whole.

Progressives, unlike populists, are focused less on the demands of a single group and are committed to improving conditions for society as a whole.

Political affiliations and nationalist agendas are less fundamental to the progressive cause. Exerting a political strategy is less important than creating a political structure that supports human success and quality of life.

Progressives believe in individual emancipation through collective effort and visualize a successful political system as one where individuals can incite change at local and government levels.

While populism can be an overwhelmingly political belief system, progressivism firmly encompasses economics and sociology within its scope of concerns.

Progressives see the unbalancing effect that money has on fair political distribution and seeks not to abolish money or total the establishment but rather to transform these institutions, so they can be used for the good of everyone.

Progressivism is adaptable.

Progressives can take a universalizing approach to social problems; advocating for the rights that are relevant on a broader scale for a given social population. This approach enables a high degree of flexibility as social concerns and sensibilities change through the generations.

The populist approach remains more static in its persistent distrust of authority and its tunnel vision approach to the voices and expectations of one group. As society becomes more pluralistic and social problems evolve populists can remain remarkably steadfast and stubborn in their singular obsession with their own group’s interests.

A constant evolution.

Modern-day progressivism continues the legacy of its historic goals but is continually morphing to suit the needs and challenges of the present political atmosphere.

Modern progressives are occupied with how an equitable distribution of resources would enable safer and more accessible health care, the growing income inequality gap, and affordable education.

Progressives are also engaged in a variety of cross-discipline reforms in areas such as immigration, environment, and gender equality. This is not to say that every individual who identifies them as progressive is involved or passionate about all of these issues. Instead, this demonstrates the broad scope of the progressive sensibility.

The Importance of Remaining Open-Minded

This brings us to one crucial point about both political modes of thought. It must be kept in mind that even though someone identifies themselves as either a progressive or a populist, they are still individuals with unique ideas and frames of reference.

Within the broader ideologies of progressivism and populism are many more intricate streams of thought. We must refrain from making sweeping generalizations.

Although the information provided here offers insight into some of the foundational elements of each perspective it is by no means conclusive, nor does it apply to every individual who subscribes to either thought system.

The Future of Populism vs Progressivism

Progressivism can be perceived as having a more holistic perception of the struggle between a perceived common person and established social-political forces: foreseeing a future that fulfills a set series of expectations.

Progressives believe that the marriage of a more cooperative labor elite and more protective legal provisions with the benevolent use of technological improvements will lead to a society where values of inherent human worth will penetrate society.

Progressivism as a political body of thought demands that various aspects of a society, like education and access to health care, become salient focuses to ensure that working people can experience equal benefits.

Populism leaves us with a more ambiguous vision. After we replace the condemned elite, what should we replace them with? How does a populist envision political Eden? Because the umbrella term houses so many disparate motivations and inclinations, it does not offer us a conclusive blueprint of the world beyond the advancement of the group the populists represent.

Here are some more pages you might like:

Toward vs Towards – Which one should you use? We’ll tell you. Do they both have the same meaning? Yep.

Agnostic vs Atheist – Learn what makes these two outlooks on religion distinct.

Sushi vs Sashimi – Find out the difference between these often confused foods.

Canola Oil vs Vegetable Oil – Which should you use for which dish? We’ll tell you!