Populist communication: content and style elements (Self-Presentation of Political Actors)





populism, political actors, style, key messages


Populist communication, in this entry, refers to the occurrence of a) specific messages that are seen as the expression of populist ideology and b) characteristic style elements that are often associated with these messages expressing populist ideology in political actors’ (or other actors such as journalists’ or citizens’) communication (Ernst et al., 2019; De Vreese et al., 2018).

Field of application/theoretical foundation:

Populism has been defined in various terms; e.g., as Ideology (Canovan, 1999; Mudde, 2004), set of ideas (Hawkins et al., 2018, Taggart, 2000), discourse (Laclau, 2005; Mouffe, 2018), political style (Moffit, 2016), communication style (Jagers & Walgrave, 2007), or political strategy (Weyland, 2017). Thus, there have been numerous operationalizations of populism or populist communication in content analyses that cannot all be accounted for here. This entry specifically follows a communication-centered perspective (Stanyer et al., 2016; De Vreese et al., 2018). Jagers & Walgrave (2007), in a pioneer study on populist communication, define populism as a political communication style “essentially displaying proximity of the people, while at the same time taking an anti-establishment stance and stressing the (ideal) homogeneity of the people by excluding specific population segments.” In a more recent study, Ernst et al. (2019) differentiate between populist communication content and populist communication style. Populist communication content refers to the communicative representation of the populist ideology (what is being said) that can be expressed in the form of populist key messages. Depending on the parsimony of the definition, populist ideology comprises three or four dimensions: people-centrism, anti-elitism, restoring sovereignty, and exclusion (e.g., De Vreese et al., 2018; Mudde, 2004; Jagers & Walgrave, 2007; Wirth et al., 2016). In distinction to the content, Ernst et al. (2019) define populist communication style as the use of populism-related style elements (how something is said) (see also De Vreese et al., 2018; Bracciale & Martella, 2018).

Communication-centered content analyses of populist communication are often carried out in three steps. First, specific characteristics of populist communication (e.g., populist key messages or stylistic elements) are identified. Second, the occurrence of these individual elements is then coded either on the statement level (e.g. Ernst et al., 2019; Wirth et al., 2016), excerpts level (Jagers & Walgrave, 2007), or on the text/article level (e.g. Blassnig et al, 2019). Third, the level of populism is determined using different indices for populist communication as a whole (e.g. maximum indices; Blassnig et al., 2019; Ernst et al., 2019) or for the individual dimensions separately (e.g., Jagers & Walgrave, 2007). Populism indices can be calculated at the statement level, text level, or actor level.

References/combination with other methods of data collection:

Whereas this entry focuses on quantitative and deductive approaches, populist communication has also been investigated using qualitative or inductive approaches (e.g., Wodak, 2015), especially in studies following a more actor-centered approach (Stanyer et al., 2016). Most studies on populist communication have used manual content analysis. Yet, some analyses have also applied automated approaches to investigate the occurrence of populist communication in texts (e.g., Hawkins & Castanho Silva, 2018).

Example studies:

Blassnig et al., (2019); Bracialle & Martella (2017); Ernst et al., (2019); Jagers & Walgrave, (2007)


Table 2: Summary of a selection of studies on populist communication



Unit of Analysis



Jagers & Walgrave, 2007

Content type: political party broadcasts (PPB)

Country: Belgium (Flemish part)

Political actors: six Belgian-Flemish parties

Outlets: 20 PPBs per party

Sampling period: 1999 - 2001

Sample size: 1,200 PPB excerpts

Unit of analysis: excerpts including ‘thin’ populism (references to the people)

Level of analysis: excerpt level and actor level

People-index: multiplication of the proportion and intensity of references to the people for each party

Anti-state-index: number of anti-state excerpts * average intension anti-state excerpts (1-5) per party

Anti-politics-index: number of anti-politics excerpts * average intension anti-politics excerpts (1-5) per party

Anti-media-index: number of anti-media excerpts * average intension anti-media excerpts (1-5) per party

Anti-establishment-index: anti-state + anti-politics + anti-media per party

Exclusivity-index: J-scores; (positive – negative evaluations) / (positive + neutral + negative evaluations of specific population categories)

References to the people: terms referring to the population (as a whole or population categories), that cover the people “in political terms”, meaning the “political entity”

Anti-state: failure of the state with regard to (1) single failure, (2) systematic failure, (3) public service should be abolished, (4) all public services are criticized at once, (5) the system

Anti-politics: criticism directed towards (1) policy measure or present situation, (2) policy, (3) politician, (4) party, (5) group of parties, (6) all parties. (7) the system

Anti-media: media targets of criticism; (1) newspaper/ magazine/ tv channel, (2) group of media, (3) all (the) media

Evaluation of specific population categories: positive, neutral, negative

(for further restrictions for the individual variables and more detailed instructions see the methodological appendix by Jagers & Walgrave, 2007)

Reliability is not reported

Ernst, Blassnig, Engesser, Büchel, & Esser (2019)

(See also Ernst et al., 2018; Ernst, Esser et al., 2019; Wirth et al., 2016)

Content type: statements by politicians expressing either a political position, an elaboration on a political issue, or an evaluation/ attribution of a target actor

Countries: CH, DE, IT, FR, UK, US

Political actors: 98 politicians from 31 parties

Outlets: political talk shows (2 per country), politicians’ Facebook and Twitter accounts

Sampling period: April through May 2015

Sample size: n = 2’067 (n = 969 talk show statements, n = 734 Facebook posts, and n = 364 Tweets

Unit of analysis: a single statement by a politician on a target actor or an issue

Level of analysis: statement level and actor level

Populism index: Maximum index based on the nine populist key messages and seven stylistic elements (0/1)

Populist key messages:

Anti-elitism: discrediting the elite, blaming the elite, detaching the elite from the people

People-centrism: stressing the people’s virtues, praising the people’s achievements, stating a monolithic people, demonstrating closeness to the people

Restoring sovereignty: demanding popular sovereignty, denying elite sovereignty

Populist style elements:

Negativity: negativism, crisis rhetoric

Emotionality: emotional tone, absolutism, patriotism)

Sociability: colloquialism, intimization

(all items were coded as dummy variables based on more detailed sub-categories)

Brennan & Prediger’s kappa average = 0.91 (³0.65)


Blassnig, Ernst, Büchel, Engesser, & Esser (2019)


Content type: election news coverage about immigration and adjacent reader comments

Countries: CH, FR, UK

Actors/Speakers: politicians, journalists, and citizens

Outlets: 6 online news outlets per country

Sampling period: six weeks before the respective election days. CH: September to October 2015; FR: April to May 2017; UK: April to May 2015

Sample size: n = 493 news articles and n = 2904 reader comments

Unit of analysis: news article / reader comment

Level of analysis: article level

Populism index: Maximum index based on the twelve populist key messages (0/1)

Populist key messages:

Anti-elitism: discrediting the elite, blaming the elite, detaching the elite from the people

People-centrism: praising the people’s virtues, praising the people’s achievements, describing the people as homogenous, demonstrating closeness to the people

Restoring sovereignty: demanding popular sovereignty, denying elite sovereignty

Exclusion: discrediting specific social groups, blaming specific social groups, excluding specific social groups from the people

(all items were coded as dummy variables)

Brennan & Prediger’s kappa average = 0.75

Bracciale & Martella (2017)

Content type: politicians’ tweets

Country: Italy

Political actors: 5 party leaders

Outlets: leaders’ Twiter timelines

Sampling period: 1 January 2015 to 1 July 2016

Sample size: n = 7,772

Unit of analysis: tweets

Level of analysis: tweets, actors


Populist ideology: three additive synthetic dichotomous indices adding together the indicators for each of the three dimensions of populism (sovereignty of the people, attacking the elite, ostracizing others)

The variables for political communication style were summarized using multiple correspondence analysis (MCA) into two dimensions: communicative mode (positive vs. negative) and communicative focus (personalization vs. political/ campaign)


Political communication style:

Stagecraft: emotionalisation; informality, instrumental actualization, intimisation, negative affect, simplification, storytelling, taboo breaker, vulgarism

Register (communicative tone): referential/ neutral, aggressive/ provocative, humorous/ ironic, conversational/ participatory

Topic: political issues, policy issues, campaign issues, personal issues, current affairs

Function: campaign updating, self-promotion, setting the agenda, position-taking, call to action, opposition/ violence, endorsement, irony, request for interaction, pointless babble

Populist ideology:

Emphasizing sovereignty of the people: refers to the people, refers to ‘ad hoc’ people, direct representation

Attacking the elite: generic anti-establishment, political anti-establishment, economic anti-establishment, EU anti-establishment, institutional anti-establishment, anti-elitism media, anti-elitism intellectuals

Ostracizing others: dangerous others, authoritarianism

(all individual indicators were coded as dummy variables)

Krippendorff's Alpha > .83




Blassnig, S., Ernst, N., Büchel, F., Engesser, S., & Esser, F. (2019). Populism in online election coverage. Journalism Studies, 20(8), 1110–1129. https://doi.org/10.1080/1461670X.2018.1487802

Bracciale, R., & Martella, A. (2017). Define the populist political communication style: the case of Italian political leaders on Twitter. Information, Communication & Society, 20(9), 1310–1329. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1328522

Canovan, M. (1999). Trust the people! Populism and the two faces of democracy. Political Studies, 47(1), 2–16. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9248.00184

Cranmer, M. (2011). Populist communication and publicity: An empirical study of contextual differences in Switzerland. Swiss Political Science Review, 17(3), 286–307. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1662-6370.2011.02019.x

De Vreese, C. H., Esser, F., Aalberg, T., Reinemann, C., & Stanyer, J. (2018). Populism as an expression of political communication content and style: A new perspective. The International Journal of Press/Politics, 23(4), 423-438. https://doi.org/10.1177/1940161218790035

Engesser, S., Fawzi, N., & Larsson, A. O. (2017). Populist online communication: Introduction to the special issue. Information, Communication & Society, 20(9), 1279–1292. https://doi.org/10.1080/1369118X.2017.1328525

Ernst, N., Blassnig, S., Engesser, S., Büchel, F., & Esser, F. (2019). Populists prefer social media over talk shows: An analysis of populist messages and stylistic elements across six countries. Social Media + Society, 5(1), 1-14. https://doi.org/10.1177/2056305118823358

Hawkins, K. A., Carlin, R. E., Littvay, L., & Rovira Kaltwasser, C. (Eds.). (2018). Extremism and democracy. The ideational approach to populism: Concept, theory, and analysis. Routledge.

Haswkins, K. A., & Castanho Silva, B. (2018). Textual analysis: big data approaches. In K. A. Hawkins, R. E. Carlin, L. Littvay, & C. Rovira Kaltwasser (Eds.). Extremism and democracy. The ideational approach to populism: Concept, theory, and analysis (pp. 27-48). Routledge.

Jagers, J., & Walgrave, S. (2007). Populism as political communication style: An empirical study of political parties' discourse in Belgium. European Journal of Political Research, 46(3), 319–345. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1475-6765.2006.00690.x

Laclau, E. (2005). On populist reason. London: Verso.

Moffitt, B. (2016). The global rise of populism: Performance, political style, and representation. Stanford University Press.

Mudde, C. (2004). The populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39(4), 542–563. https://doi.org/10.1111/j.1477-7053.2004.00135.x

Stanyer, J., Salgado, S., & Strömbäck, J. (2017). Populist actors as communicators or political actors as populist communicators: Cross-national findings and perspectives. In T. Aalberg, F. Esser, C. Reinemann, J. Strömbäck, & C. H. de Vreese (Eds.), Populist political communication in Europe (pp. 353–364). Routledge.

Taggart, P. (2000). Populism. Concepts in the social sciences. Open University Press.

Wirth, W., Esser, F., Engesser, S., Wirz, D. S., Schulz, A., Ernst, N., . . . Schemer, C. (2016). The appeal of populist ideas, strategies and styles: A theoretical model and research design for analyzing populist political communication. Zurich: NCCR Democracy, Working Paper No. 88, pp. 1–60. https://doi.org/10.5167/uzh-127461

Wodak, R. (2015). The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean. SAGE Publications.



How to Cite

Blassnig, S. (2021). Populist communication: content and style elements (Self-Presentation of Political Actors). DOCA - Database of Variables for Content Analysis, 1(4). https://doi.org/10.34778/4b



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