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Understanding the populist backlash

Although populism is making headlines across the globe, there is a lot of confusion about what this concept really means and how we can study this phenomenon. Part of the problem lies in the usage of the term as a battle cry. Both academics and pundits often employ the term populism to denote all the political actors and behaviors they dislike. While there are good reasons to worry about authoritarianism, economic mismanagement, opportunism, and racism, we should not treat them all as equivalents of populism. Augusto Pinochet was an autocrat, G. W. Bush mismanaged the economy, the Italian Christian Democratic Party was highly opportunistic, and South Africa’s National Party was racist, but none is an example of populism.

So what is populism? We have developed a comparative research agenda on populism whose starting point lies in the construction of a definition that can be used to analyze the phenomenon across time and place. As we have explained elsewhere in more detail, populism is best defined as “a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic camps, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.” In this view, the establishment is a perverse entity that governs solely for its own benefit, while the people is a homogenous community with a unified will. Take, for instance, the following statement by Donald Trump, in his speech in Florida on 16 October:

Our movement is about replacing a failed and corrupt establishment with a new government controlled by you, the American People. There is nothing the political establishment will not do, and no lie they will not tell, to hold on their prestige and power at your expense. […] This is not simply another 4-year election. This is a crossroads in the history of our civilization that will determine whether or not We The People reclaim control over our government.

As with any other ideology, populism is espoused not only by specific leaders, but also by certain constituencies. This means that one needs to take into account both the supply-side and the demand-side of populist politics. Regarding the former, different political actors across the globe combine populism with some other ideological agenda (which we call the ‘host ideology’). Generally speaking, we can distinguish between two broader types of populism: right-wing populism usually combines populism with some form of nationalism, while left-wing populism tends to combine it with some form of socialism.

General mass of Indignados protesting austerity measures in Athens’ Syntagma Square in 2011 by Ggia. CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons.

While all forms of populism combine both exclusionary and inclusionary aspects, right-wing populism tends to be more exclusionary, while left-wing populism is usually more inclusionary. Today, exclusionary right-wing populism is characterized by the promotion of a populist rhetoric with a strong emphasis on xenophobia, traditional moral values, as well as law and order issues. Paradigmatic examples of this type of populism are political parties such as the National Front in France or social movements like the Tea Party in the United States. On the other hand, inclusionary left-wing populism uses the populist set of ideas to politicize existing inequalities and defend a radical model of democracy, which is aimed at empowering popular sectors. Chavismo in Venezuela and Podemos in Spain are exemplary cases of this type of populism.

Those who articulate a populist discourse do not operate in vacuum, but rather in countries with different grievances and historical legacies. This means that one should also consider the demand-side of populist politics. Although the populist attitudes are widespread among voters, it is only under certain circumstances that populist sentiments are activated at the mass level. One of the main triggers for the increasing demand for populism lies in the general feeling that the political system is unresponsive. If certain constituencies share the idea that existing political parties do not take their claims into account, we should not be surprised that these constituencies interpret political reality through the lenses of populism. In the words of one of protesters of the anti-austerity populist movement in Greece, “we are here because we know that the solutions to our problems can only come from us. […] We will not leave the squares, until all those who led us here are gone: Governments, the Troika, Banks, Memoranda, and all those who take advantage of us.”

Across the globe liberal democracies are challenged by populist forces of different political color. The key question is how to respond to this challenge. Those interested in answering this question should keep in mind that populism can have both positive and negative effects on democracy. While it is true that both populist leaders and followers harbor illiberal tendencies and propose simple solutions to complex problems, they are able to (re)politicize certain issues that are, either intentionally or unintentionally, not (adequately) addressed by mainstream political actors. This means that the establishment needs to reassess not only the ideas and interests it has been advancing, but should also reconsider if the attempt to depoliticize contested issues, such as immigration and economic liberalization through international organizations, is the best way ahead.

Featured image credit: Donald Trump at a campaign rally in Phoenix, AZ by Gage Skidmore. CC BY-SA 2.0 via Flickr.

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