Ten facts about “populism”

Trump Rally
Broward County, Florida
Nov. 26, 2019

You might have heard the word “populism,” often disparagingly, to describe the movement that helped elect President Trump. 

But it turns out populism isn’t only a Trump phenomenon in the U.S.: it’s a global trend.

Traveling Europe from Denmark to Greece, I spoke to political analysts, liberal and conservative politicians, and regular folks, to dig into populism and find out more. I learned a few things.

  1. It turns out there is no universal definition of what populism is.
  2. There are differences of opinion on whether it’s good or bad. Establishment politicians and media tend to describe populism in negative terms; non-establishment politicians and media see it the other way.
  3. Populism generally describes the popular uprising of voters against establishment politicians, both left and right, whom voters believe aren’t listening to them.
  4. Populism is upending politics as we know it in many countries. Some believe it has prompted an exodus from both main political parties in Great Britain and will ultimately lead to the end of its two party system.
  5. In the most recent national elections in Europe (2018), one in four votes was for a populist, according to one analyst. 
  6. Populist leaders have won elected government posts in 11 European countries.
  7. Outside Europe, populists have been elected to top spots in five of the world’s seven biggest democracies: the U.S.,Brazil, India, Mexico and the Philippines.
  8. One example of a political party that has benefitted from people fleeing the establishment parties in Europe is the “Green Party,” which is generally liberal and believes in viewing all political decisions in terms of strong environment protections. It also promotes social justice, gender equality and gay rights.
  9. In recent elections, the Green Party came in third in France, won nine out of 10 bigger cities in Germany, and took a block of 70 votes in European parliament. 

Eric Kauffmann is a professor of politics at Birkbeck College, University of London where he examines populist trends. He told me populism can be left wing, right wing, religious, secular or nationalist. “There are many different types of populism,” he says.  “Populism for me is just essentially about being anti-elitist and to some extent against the system. So I don’t think it implies right or left.”

Watch my TV cover story on populism at Full Measure.

Kauffmann sees the rise of populist politicians as the people’s response to rapid shifts caused by out of control immigration.

“Essentially we are going through very rapid demographic transformation in the West of ethnic change,” Kauffmann says. “For psychological reasons, some people are fine with that and some people find that to be unsettling. And that difference between the people who embrace and like it, and those who find it unsettling, is reshaping politics. My argument is essentially it’s reconfiguring the politics of Western countries, both in terms of increased support for right wing populist parties, but also polarization on value lines. So there’s also a sort of left wing response.”

The Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) actually held a scholarly forum earlier this year to try to come up a common definition of populism and populists. Many of the presenters at MIT seemed to view populists as negative. MIT political scientist Richard Samuels said, “They run for the people, [and] they run against the establishment…They run for themselves, above all.”

Other critics say populist politicians make empty promises that will further alienate voters when the promises can’t be delivered.

Where does this lead? Political analyst David Cowling told me, “I think it will get nasty before it gets better…I think how it will end will depend upon how the political class gets its act together, starts listening to people and addressing the issues that concerns them.”

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3 thoughts on “Ten facts about “populism””

  1. Populism? How about social media? If you can organize a flash mob, with time you can scale that up to almost anything.
    Perhaps one made the other, however, if we can’t get a handle on the internet, it will tear the world apart.

  2. Of course the political scientists disparage populism – they’re part of the elite. Tellingly, they’re also part of the political class that Cowling seems to look to for solutions to the populist “problem”.

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