Populism is a style of doing politics, and also a set of attitudes and beliefs about politics and society. The substantive goals of populists vary from country to country, but the basic message of populism is clear.
Populist leaders describe politics as a conflict between two groups, with elites (people with economic and political power) ruling over the Real People. Populists say that elites must be swept away, leaving government to be led by someone who truly represents The People. Only The People have legitimacy, and little or nothing should stand in the way of a leader who represents them.
Populism is sometimes conflated with other attitudes that frequently come with it, like anti-immigration sentiment, or economic anxiety. The relationship between these different sets of attitudes is important, but it’s also important to distinguish populism. Not every xenophobe is a populist, and vice versa.
So why is populism a problem for democracy? Isn’t democracy supposed to be about the People?
Yes, democracy is about all people and a healthy democracy requires much more than an election every four years. A healthy democracy requires regular engagement from a wide swath of citizens or it does, indeed, become a plaything of the elite.