How Did We Get Here?
It is clear to any observer of the daily news that populism is on the rise. While most would agree that this phenomenon is occurring in many countries around the globe (seemingly spreading each day), the reasons for why this phenomenon is happening now are not immediately clear. Populism is not a new phenomenon; it appears to wax and wane throughout the history of democratic life in many countries. To better understand the fundamentals of the political environment, this brief examination of the contemporary populist wave will aim to provide some tentative thoughts on why populist movements have appeared in many diverse countries, what they have in common, and how their rise might affect the future of politics.
To begin, one needs to define what populism is. The term first appeared in the nineteenth century and can be defined in many different ways. While it can be interpreted as a political movement, it is more sufficiently explained by considering it as a political style. This style features a number of key components. Most notably, it divides society into two major groups: a pure people which represents the majority of “ordinary citizens” and a corrupt elite. This antagonistic relationship is fundamental to the entire populist dynamic. Populist leaders – among them Duterte, Trump, and Bolsonaro – all claim to represent the “will of the people” against the evil machinations of a (usually) rich and out-of-touch elite. While populist politicians can appear on both the left and the right side of the political spectrum, it is far more common in our contemporary age to see successful right-wing populist movements.
Populism can be highly successful because the ambiguous nature of the terms “the people” and “the elite” allow adept politicians to maneuver their rhetoric in a way that represents their (potentially authoritarian or nativist) platform in a positive light. Populist rhetoric appears on the surface to be absolutely democratic; in fact, it sometimes appears to be a “hyper-democratic” phenomenon as it claims to stand directly for the will of the masses. However, below the surface their are usually currents of authoritarianism lurking. Populist leaders tend to be “strongman” types who capitalize on this hyper-democratic rhetoric by using it legitimize their own policy agenda.
Populism is likely on the rise now because it seems to provide people with a sense that they can be in charge of their own destinies (economic and otherwise) in the light of phenomena that seem confusing and uncontrollable (such as globalization and the economic and social disruption this can cause). The elitism of decision making at the highest level of political life and the difficulty of true social mobility in many countries in contemporary times are both prime targets for the rhetoric of populists. Strongmen have risen up who claim to be able to see through the corruption of “mainstream” politicians who have been perceived to be inept at controlling the stability and guiding the future of their country. These strongmen generally claim that they will prevent their country from being “overrun” by immigrants, or financiers, or both, etc., and that they will stand up for the true citizens of their country.
For example, one of the major concerns of those who voted for Trump was the influx of immigration into the United States and the possibility that this immigration is disruptive to American industry and the American job market. Similarly, the recently elected Bolsonaro essentially claims to speak for the Brazilian people and gives the impression that he is not concerned with political correctness. He is attractive to voters because he claims that he will be tough on crime and because his election is essentially a shake-up for the Brazilian political system. Duterte in the Philippines is also similar. He essentially speaks how he feels and gives little heed to whether his words will be received positively in the press. Similar rhetoric can be observed in the discourse of the FPO in Austria and of the AfD in Germany. Whether what these leaders say is true or not, their style of rhetoric is attractive to many voters because it projects a strength and no-nonsense quality that appears to be otherwise lacking in contemporary democracies.
Populist leaders and movements have also appeared in the past, especially during times of economic hardship. Near the beginning of the twentieth century, populism was strongly associated with agrarianism and rhetorically promoted an antagonistic relationship between rural farmers and urban bankers. This is one classic variant of the people/elite divide found in many populist movements. As mentioned, populist movements in the past have appeared on both sides of the political spectrum. For example, the most recent incarnation of populism on the left could be the Occupy Wall St. movement (which pitched the 99% against the rich 1%) or Syriza in Greece (who blend socialist policies with populist rhetoric).
While people do not necessarily “fall for” populist rhetoric, the kinds of people who are attracted to these movements tend to come from all walks of life. At the most basic level, people support a given populist party because they agree with the positions which that party represents. In the case of the right-wing populist wave we can observe in contemporary times, this includes people who have concerns about immigration, criminality, and cultural integration problems. If there is any pattern, the economically disadvantaged and those lower on the educational ladder seem to be more easily swayed by the emotion-based appeals of these leaders. People who support populist parties in general tend to be skeptical of the established political parties and likely believe that the system is a kind of “rigged game”. They likely believe that the technocratic elite that governs is disconnected from the reality of life for the average person. Despite these commonalities, well-educated people also vote for populists (see the case of the Trump election). Ultimately, there are many diverse reasons why voters find populist leaders and movements attractive.
Moving beyond the current status of populism and looking towards the implications of this trend, it must be said that populism – and especially the current populist wave – could have potentially damaging effects for the future of politics. For one, the anti-intellectualism that appears in many of the leading populist leaders’ rhetoric could be harmful to the role of experts in civic life. The current vocal denial of climate change by many of these figures is alarming (especially when this is in contradiction to established scientific consensus). While it is important for the average citizen to have a voice in deciding the ultimate goals of the country to which they belong, it is important to balance this participation with the kind of scientific detachment that expert advice can possess.
The danger also exists that populist movements can slip into authoritarian practices that violate the rule of law. This would be a fundamental violation of true liberal democratic rights and norms. Nevertheless, the arbitrary use of executive orders or governing by decree can appear to be legitimized in a time of heightened populist sentiment; however, this becomes increasingly problematic if human rights are violated or ordinary public life is systematically disrupted. One can see this at work in many countries today; for example, Duterte’s execution of drug dealers without a fair trial or Trump’s ban against citizens from “Muslim countries” from travel to the United States (among other examples).
Populism can also give way to more emotion-based (rather than evidence-based) policy-making. Trump’s zeal for protectionism is a prime example of this. While the behind-the-scenes dealings of the tariff war with China are perhaps unknown to the public, on the surface the protectionist policies seem to make little economic sense. They even appear to damage the very American industries which they are alleged to be protecting. Consequently, it seems reasonable to argue that these tariffs cause real domestic economic damage simply because of an emotion-based posturing on the international stage by Trump.
One positive aspect of populism is that it appears to increase the engagement of the masses in political life in an almost revitalizing way. (Some of) those who do not usually vote or those who are usually apathetic towards politics become activated during these springs of populist sentiment. The flip side of this coin is that increasing engagement can also lead to an increasingly polarized political life. In the United States, for example, the gap between left and right wings increasingly grows further and further apart. This gives rise to a number of problematic symptoms including legislative gridlock.
Populism is a complicated political phenomenon and it is likely to appear and disappear in democratic life again and again. Democracy is a system of checks and balances and perhaps populism represents a phenomenon that pushes the limits of these checks: as long as it does not violate other democratic norms, it can potentially increase political participation and improve the nature of political representation. However, if it does go to far, it can represent a threat to the tolerance, rights and freedoms that allow democratic life to flourish in the first place.