1st Edition

Populism, Punishment and the Threat to Democratic Order The Return of the Strong Men

By John Pratt Copyright 2023

    This book traces the rise of contemporary populism in Western democracies, marked by the return of would-be 'strong men' politicians. It seeks to make sense of the nature, origins, and consequences of their ascendancy—as expressed, for example, in the startling rise of the social movement surrounding Trump in the US, Brexit in the UK and the remarkable spread of ideologies that express resistance to ‘facts,’ science, and expertise.

    Uniquely, the book shows how what began as a form of penal populism in the early 1990s transformed into a more wide ranging populist politics. This has had the potential to undermine or even overthrow the democratic order altogether. It examines the way in which the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted on these forces, arguing it threw the flailing democratic order an important lifeline, as Vladimir Putin has subsequently done with his war in Ukraine. The book argues that contemporary political populism can be seen as a wider manifestation of the earlier tropes and appeal of penal populism arising under neo-liberalism. The author traces this cross over and the roots of discontent, anxiety, anti-elites sentiment and the sense of being forgotten, that lie at the heart of populism, along with its effects in terms of climate denial, ‘fake news’, othering, nativism and the denigration of scientific and other forms of expertise. In a highly topical and important extension to the field the author suggests that the current COVID pandemic might prove to be an ‘antidote’ to populism, providing the conditions in which scientific and medical expertise, truth telling, government intervention in the economy and in health policy, and social solidarity, are revalorised.

    Encompassing numerous subject areas and crossing many conventional disciplinary boundaries, this book will be of great interest to students and scholars of criminology and criminal justice, sociology, political science, law, and public policy.


    1 The Return of the Strong Men

    2 Penal Populism and Public Protection

    3 The Rise of Populist Politics

    4 COVID-19 as an Antidote to Populism

    5 Fragile Reprieve



    John Pratt is Emeritus Professor of Criminology at Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His research interests are in the areas of the sociology and history of punishment, and criminological and social theory, and comparative penology. Professor Pratt has published extensively in these areas, including 'Law, Insecurity and Risk Control' (2020); 'Contrasts in Punishment. An Explanation of Anglophone Excess and Nordic Exceptionalism (2013, with Anna Eriksson); Penal Populism (2007); 'Punishment and Civilization' (2002)

    "A very professional and slick book, expertly charting the way in which neo-liberal governance sowed the seeds from which populist "strong men" have come to threaten the viability of the democratic order itself - only for two unlikely saviors - COVID-19 and Vladimir Putin (via Russia Invasion of Ukraine) to provide it with a fragile reprieve."

    -Professor Adebowale "Ad" Akande, University of British Columbia

    "If you can only read one book in the large library of books on penal populism, John Pratt's Populism, Punishment and the Threat to Democratic Order is the one to read. It is expansive, casting its net broadly from Finland to New Zealand. It is comprehensive, integrating findings from a host of disciplines; history, political science, sociology and criminology to account for the appeal and rise of strong man politics and penal populism. It is daring, reflecting on collective responses to the Covid pandemic and the surprising resilience of the Ukrainian people as powerful antidotes to both populism and cynicism that paves the way for penal extremism. This book should be widely read by opinion leaders, criminal justice scholars, and students politics and social problems. A masterpiece."

    Malcolm M. Feeley, Jurisprudence and Social Policy Program, School of Law, University of California at Berkeley

    "John Pratt vividly traces the genealogy of populism – and its punitive implications – from its inception up to the present time. The book illuminates and further develops the understanding of the complex, multifaceted relationship between populist ideologies and punishment. It offers, at once, a compelling socio-political investigation and a perceptive penal policy analysis, discussing lessons learned and identifying challenges looming ahead for modern democracies."

    Alessandro Corda, Senior Lecturer in Criminal Law and Criminal Justice, Queen’s University Belfast (UK)