Populism, Put Simply

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By Senior Campaign Agent Guinevere Poncia 

2016 was the year which transformed how we see populism. Events such as Brexit and the election of Donald Trump in America evince populism’s ability to undermine well-established political structures around the world.

Accordingly, populism is now a staple of contemporary political discourse. ‘Populism can be stopped’ proclaimed Jesse Klaver, of the Dutch ‘GreenLeft’, after surging forward in the election polls in March 2017. Shortly after, ex-UK Prime Minister Tony Blair ‘return[ed] to political fray’ by founding the Institute for Global Change, a “new policy platform” aiming to counteract “frightening authoritarian populism” (to quote Blair).

So, what is populism?

Populism is a notoriously vague term, and as such, difficult to define. Generally, its use is defamatory, hence, few politicians ever self-characterise as ‘populist’.

Today, the most widely-used definition is that of Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde. He described populism in 2004 as a ‘thin-centered ideology’, delineating two ‘antagonists groups’, normally, that of a ‘pure people’ and a ‘corrupt elite’. In this scenario, populism describes the will of the ‘people’, hence, populism is regarded as a means of gaining power through popular backing. This echoes Eric Hoffer’s idea in ‘The True Believer’ that a ‘desire for change’ from people who have little or no faith in existing power structures fuels ‘enthusiasm’ for mass movements.

However, it has been argued that populist movements, whilst purporting to uphold the will of the people against dysfunctional or corrupt institutions, also attack democratic institutions that seek to hold those in authority to account, such as the press and judiciary.

It’s use as a political term dates back to as early as the 1890s. From the 1950s, however, its use spanned the political spectrum to describe both left and right-wing movements. This is due to the fact that populism rarely exists in a pure form, it is normally coupled with another ideology (religious, nationalist etc.), usually under the auspices of a charismatic leader. Broadly speaking, populism is not pluralist, and as such, can be described as ‘anti-liberal democracy’.

Populism today

Until recently, populism was a marginal aspect of politics in Europe and America. The cause of its recent resurgence is due to a number of factors.

Arguably, there has been a perceived deficit amongst major political parties to adequately address the most challenging and complex political issues, such as immigration. This lack of perceived action fuels the idea of established governments as being unwilling, or unable, to affect meaningful change. Hence, the need for an ‘outsider’ to tackle these issues. Said outsiders, the pattern has shown, go on to spearhead populist movements, with varying degrees of success. Paradoxically, however, often the leaders are just as much part of the establishment as those they claim to differ from.

Another popular explanation for the populist phenomena is globalisation. Specifically, the lack of tangible improvements in quality of life, pay, and prospects that leaders such as Obama and Blair have argued would be the result of an outward-looking economic policy. Instead, whilst the rich seem to get richer, many feel ‘left behind’, in the wake of not the promised economic boom, but a slow recovery from the economic crash of 2008. A lack of tangible improvements to living and working conditions fuels isolationist, inward-looking sentiment, the bedrock of current populist ideology. Clearly, only by addressing the roots of populism can its effects be mitigated.

The media’s fascination with political outsiders means that so-called populist leaders have received more attention than ever before, Donald Trump and Nigel Farage being two key examples. This in itself highlights the importance of appearance and perception to populism. How things are perceived by society, as opposed to how they are (read Michael Gove “people… have had enough of experts”), now has increasing power to disrupt political operations around the world.

In short, populism’s recent ability to undermine established political forces is a lesson in the unpredictability of politics. It is a lesson to all to not take for granted the status quo.

Sources and further reading:

Image rights: Gage Skidmore @ Flickr

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