Discussion paper

DP13306 Populism and Civil Society

Populists claim to be the only legitimate representative of the people. Does it mean that there is no space for civil society? The issue is important because since Tocqueville (1835), associations and civil society have been recognized as a key factor in a healthy liberal democracy. We ask two questions: 1) do individuals who are members of civil associations vote less for populist parties? 2) does membership to associations decrease when populist parties are in power? We answer these questions looking at the experiences of Europe, which has a rich civil society tradition, as well as of Latin America, which has already a long history of populists in power. The main findings are that individuals belonging to associations are less likely by 2.4 to 4.2 percent to vote for populist parties, which is large considering that the average vote share for populist parties is between 10 and 15 percent. The effect is strong particularly after the global financial crisis, with the important caveat that membership to trade unions has unclear effects.


Boeri, T, P Mishra, C Papageorgiou and A Spilimbergo (2018), ‘DP13306 Populism and Civil Society ‘, CEPR Discussion Paper No. 13306. CEPR Press, Paris & London. https://cepr.org/publications/dp13306