Few terms have had as sudden a resurgence in recent years as populism. It is used daily to describe a phenomenon visiting the developed world, as political leaders such as Donald Trump in the U.S., Nigel Farage in Britain, Marine Le Pen in France and the comedian Beppe Grillo in Italy take on the establishment. These individuals have varying political agendas, as did notable populists of the past. What unites them is a style of conducting politics.
1. What does it mean to be a populist?
Unlike socialism, fascism, liberalism, Islamism and pretty much every other “ism” in politics, populism has little content. Cas Mudde, an associate professor at the University of Georgia, has called it a “thin” ideology that amounts to the belief in a “pure” people and a corrupt elite. The simplest way to think about populism may be as a tool box for conducting politics of any flavor. There is little of substance connecting populist Hugo Chavez, the late radical socialist leader of Venezuela, with the U.K.’s Farage, whose economic preferences lean toward the conservatism of Margaret Thatcher.
2. Where did populism come from?
The first populist parties were the People’s Party in the U.S., often called the Populist Party, and the Narodniki, in Russia (narod being Russian for people). Both arose in the second half of the 19th century. The People’s Party, a movement of angry farmers opposed to the raw capitalism of the day, commanded about 10 percent of the U.S. vote nationwide in the 1890s. The Narodniki were urban intellectuals who tried to stir Russia’s peasantry, newly emancipated from serfdom, into revolt against the monarchy. They didn’t get far. Populism swept Latin America from the 1930s and parts of Asia in the 1990s. Notable populists include the former Argentine presidents Juan Peron and Carlos Menem; former prime ministers Silvio Berlusconi of Italy and Thaksin Shinawatra of Thailand; and the Philippines’ President Rodrigo Duterte.
3. How can you identify a populist?
Benjamin Moffitt, a fellow at Sweden’s Uppsala University, identified three core requirements after studying 28 populist leaders over history:
- An appeal to “the people” against the elite
- “Bad manners,” Moffitt’s coy term for the deliberate use of shocking language to establish that the populist leader is not one of the elite and is channeling “the people”
- The use of -- or manufacture of -- a crisis, to justify the call to revolt
4. Don’t all politicians appeal to ’the people’?
Yes, but by including everyone except the reviled elite, populists make a pitch that they alone represent the will of all ordinary people. Their opponents, then, can be cast as opposing “the people,” and thus as undemocratic and illegitimate. It’s what makes populists a particularly polarizing force.
5. Why do voters put up with ’bad manners’?
The party of Dutch politician Geert Wilders is topping opinion polls ahead of March elections in the Netherlands, despite his having described the Koran as Islam’s Mein Kampf. Even if few of his voters would agree with the characterization, it signals that he’s on their side in trying to shock the liberal establishment into treating immigration as a problem. Similarly, Trump gets cheered for statements that would destroy an ordinary politician’s career. When “the elite” criticize him for bigotry or sexism, he’s just confirmed as one of “the people.”
6. Why the need for a crisis?
A sense of crisis justifies what is essentially a call for revolution: to overturn the “elite” and all they stand for. Historian Niall Ferguson and others have argued that financial crises are among the factors that give rise to populist movements. Ferguson has written that the 2008 financial meltdown convinced many Americans there was “an unhealthy and likely corrupt relationship between political institutions, big business and the media” that needed tearing down. Populists often exaggerate to create the impression of high stakes. That may help explain why Trump, in his inauguration speech, characterized the state of the union as “carnage.”
7. How does popularity relate to populism?
Populists, even more than other politicians, need to be popular to succeed. Winning elections is important, but so is the size of their election victories, the crowds they can draw or their Twitter followings. Those factors support their claim to represent the people’s will. That helps explain the Trump administration’s devotion in its initial days in office to contesting low crowd estimates at the inauguration and Trump’s loss of the popular vote in November. But of course, Farage’s U.K. Independence Party managed to force a referendum on European Union membership without ever winning more than one seat in Parliament.
8. So are populists good or bad for democracy?
Not necessarily either. Some political scientists describe populism as a pathology of democracy, because it grows from it and can also destroy it. There is a reason populists tend to gain popularity when they do: They seem to offer a corrective to democracies that have lost their representative power. Claiming to represent the will of "the people," populists can promise a fresh start that’s appealing.
9. What happens when a populist gets into office?
Because populists make big promises to shake up society, they tend to bump up quickly against democratic checks and balances -- in particular the courts and media -- that were designed to limit what governments can do. The temptation then becomes to declare these institutions part of an elite conspiracy to block the people’s will and attempt to crush them.
10. Examples, please?
In Poland, for example, the Law and Justice Party came to power in 2015, promising to sweep out an allegedly corrupt ex-Communist elite. When the country’s constitutional court began to strike down laws the new government passed, it declared the judges partisan, ignored their rulings and legislated to neuter the court. Hungary’s populist Prime Minister Viktor Orban was rapped by the EU for similarly undermining the independence of his country’s constitutional court when it opposed him. In Trump’s first month in office, a federal judge blocked his order to suspend entry to the U.S. by refugees and anyone from seven predominantly Muslim nations, prompting the president to attack him as a “so-called judge.” Trump has also called the media "the enemy of the American people."
The Reference Shelf
- QuickTake explainers on Poland’s turn to populism, the rise of the Five Star Movement in Italy and the Philippines’ populist leader.
- Bloomberg View’s Francis Wilkinson argues that women delivered a blow to Trump.
- Benjamin Moffitt’s book,"The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style and Representation."
- Cas Mudde explains why populism "tends to get ugly when it gets into power" in this article in The Guardian.
- Bloomberg chronicles the Polish government’s battles with the constitutional court.
- Scholars analyze why populism is rising on Oxford University’s politics blog.