Author ORCID Identifier

Year of Publication


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)

Document Type

Doctoral Dissertation


Arts and Sciences



First Advisor

Dr. Eric Sanday


Populist movements have emerged the world over, appearing even in countries in which it had long been assumed that liberal democracy was unassailable. Scholars have been grappling with the concept of populism for decades, but as populists have won victories close to home, the research has taken on a heightened sense of urgency. Two of the common theses that have appeared in the recent literature are, (a) populism is opposed to liberal democracy, and (b) populism is linked to a democratic tradition of thought that originates with Rousseau. While I am willing to grant (a), I argue in this dissertation that populism, at least in the United States and some European countries, has a much stronger connection to the classical liberal tradition than many scholars would like to admit. More specifically, the populist notion of ‘the people’ is indebted to a notion of self-interest and an instrumental conception of government.

This dissertation examines the democratic and liberal traditions through their orienting metaphors. The most important metaphor of is that of mechanism, which guides both of their notions of government. While liberalism has advocated for a notion of good government as a well-balanced machine, whose impartial procedures yield either maximal liberty or equality, the supposedly democratic populism insists on government as a tool for the people as voiced by a single leader. But this conception of the people as using a tool has less to do with Rousseau’s notion of the general will and more to do with taking the economic conception of the individual as a metaphor for the people. Or in other words, populism treats the entire people as a single, self-interested individual writ large.

Underlying the approach to the problem through guiding metaphor is a concern with a notion of politics as involving public world-creation. That is, ‘politics’ as a technical term deals with the ways in which humans are spontaneous world-shapers who are not merely conditioned by the world but also can condition it in turn. I contend that the mechanistic metaphor, even in its liberal form, cannot adequately evoke this sense of public power as something to be preserved. This is because liberal theory often proposes a notion of good government as procedural, regulated, and divided by competing powers. Any spontaneity of the individual is relegated to the private sphere, while the public sphere remains the purview of elected representatives subordinated to ‘independent’ laws.

Digital Object Identifier (DOI)