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What Is Really Behind the Populist Surge?

It’s not about “economic anxieties.”
A voter casts a ballot during the general election in Amsterdam, Netherlands, March 15, 2017.
A voter casts a ballot during the general election in Amsterdam, Netherlands, March 15, 2017.Cris Toala Olivares/Reuters

It seemed to begin, of all places, in Toronto: After a brash suburban politician named Rob Ford was elected mayor of Canada’s largest city in 2010, a cascade of self-styled populist firebrands seemed to emerge from the liberal democracies of North America and Western Europe. Then came the Brexit, and the shocking election of Donald Trump here in America. In Europe, we are seeing the rise of the Swiss People’s Party, the Austrian Freedom Party, the Swedish Democrats, the Danish People’s Party, Matteo Salvini’s Northern League in Italy, and Greece’s Golden Dawn. Although Geert Wilders lost last week in the Netherlands, his Party for Freedom managed to pick up five seats, and there’s a chance France could elect Marine Le Pen.

It seems something has gone awry in the West. The question of what’s fueling this populist uprising often centers on the issue of economic anxieties, but political scientists Ronald Inglehart of the University of Michigan and Pippa Norris of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government have arrived at another answer.

In a detailed study, the researchers take close look at the rise of populism across Europe and the United States. They follow the political theorist Cas Mudde in defining populists has sharing three key characteristics. They are anti-establishment, having faith in “plain talkers” and “ordinary people” as opposed to the “corrupt establishment” of business, government, academia, and media. They are authoritarian, favoring strong leaders over democratic institutions and traditions. They are nativist, putting their nation first.