Over the past decade, Western democracies have experienced a drastic upsurge of so-called “populism.” Establishment parties warn about it, while mass media bombards us with news broadcasts. The concept of populism is used so often that Cambridge Dictionary selected it as Word of the Year in 2017. All this begs the question of what populism really means and whether the concept has been trivialized.
Many scholars have tried to define populism. Most of them consider populism a thinly-centered ideology that emerges from a rejection of certain political elites, coinciding with campaigns of distrust and mobilization for public institutions. Populist movements tend to divide society, forcing a confrontation between two antagonistic blocks: people versus elites. In many instances, successful populist movements can be traced back to the emergence of a charismatic leader, despite their advocating for popular yet unaffordable policies. Although some controversy exists, the majority of experts agree that “demagogy” holds a similar pejorative connotation to populism.
Populism, although today debated as new and astonishing, is not unique to our current moment. Several populist movements existed before the 20th century. Naródnichestvo, a Russian populist movement that arose in the second half of the 19th century, locked the rural class, comprised of almost all the landless peasants, in a political debate against the Tsarist Russian Empire. Paradoxically, the leaders of this movement were intellectuals and, to a certain extent, urban elites.
Decades later, at the end of the 19th century, “prairie populism” emerged in the American Midwest. This movement comprised a clash between mostly free and independent peasants (also known as yeomen) against elite bankers and politicians, exhibiting a confrontation between the allegedly “productive” and the “corrupt parasite” classes.
Nevertheless, something looks new in today’s brand of populism: its fast-expanding nature. This may be attributable to a hyper-connected world. The speed with which populism is spreading globally implies its acceptance and consolidation within societies. Today, even in nations with a long tradition of democratic representation, populist movements have become a political reality.
The causes behind the emergence of populism are always the same: the despotism of certain institutions and/or elites, the increasing levels of economic inequality, and the adoption of insufficient or inadequate policies to counteract the mounting inequalities, among others. In other words, populism tends to emerge during periods of crisis and economic instability.
This is increasingly common nowadays in Western democracies. In Southern Europe, this manifests as fears over high unemployment rates (Italy: 10.5%, Spain: 14.5%, Greece: 18.5%), the ensuing consequences of austerity policies, and the precariousness of the labor market. These countermeasures are a direct result of the reconstruction of the labor market following the 2008 debt crisis. Indeed, it is precisely the debt crisis that accounts for the current levels of social polarization in many Latin American countries.
Populism emerges not only in impoverished regions but also out of a fear of impoverishment. This explains the rise of populism in nations with relatively steady, growing economies, including a number of Central European countries. In these countries, their fear manifests over the arrival of migrants and refugees, as well as the instability and precariousness of certain social structures.
The pattern follows a well-known logic: populism emerges when traditional parties are unable to address (or explain) periods of socioeconomic crisis. Consequently, the public perceives the leaders who led the country to crisis inadequate for finding a way out of the crisis. At this critical juncture, populist leaders emerge, seemingly providing the answers (and solutions), albeit in the short term. Their communication style is straightforward, accessible, and easy-to-understand. They instill hope in electors with speeches full of feeling, evoking sensations of nostalgia, fear, and illusion, among others. Nostalgia for the “good old times,” fear of an ever-present enemy, and an illusion of a better future.
The recurring discourse of fear brings about policies that break from the global economy paradigm. As a result, populist movements oftentimes impose protectionist policies, interrupt trade agreements, restrict the free mobility of both people and goods, establish barriers to immigration, and enforce permanent defenses against terrorism.
This discourse of fear, built entirely upon a common enemy, does not distinguish between traditional right or left ideologies. Immigrants, mass media, big corporations, tax cheaters, financial institutions are all frequently used common enemies, although general fears tend to differ across countries.
In Germany, Syrian refugees are deemed the common enemy. In the UK, the common enemy is the European Union, while in the U.S. it is China, globalization’s aftereffects, and Mexican immigrants. In Italy and France, the common enemy is both illegal immigration and Islam, while in Spain, the common enemy has emerged over territorial integrity fears and feminism.
These differences are also apparent at the intra-country level. In developed countries’ rural areas, the major threats are globalization’s effects and immigrant competition in the labor market. In larger cities, the threat of international terrorism is a constant presence. Alternatively, corruption is a key issue in many countries, but it is utilized as a common enemy only during crisis periods.
More recently, fears have started shifting beyond tangible boundaries. Automation and artificial intelligence are threatening a range of jobs, some of them in labor sectors that had not been threatened until now.
Selecting an appropriate “enemy” requires certain skills on the part of the populist party, which tailors their enemy-rhetoric to their specific needs. They spread inculpatory speech, with a degree of consistency, in order to divide society based on any given public threat.
One striking example is the Italian Lega of Matteo Salvini, which is a part of the current government. This political party became very popular after an ideological conversion of its objectives. The party shifted its stance from the independence of the historic Padania (North of Italy) to a strong and unified Italy. This required modifying the main characters of its inculpatory discourse: from Southern Italians to African immigrants, the EU, and globalization. The party’s reconstruction came after a financial scandal in 2012, which brought the Lega Nord to its lowest point: it only managed to receive 4% of votes in the 2013 national elections.
The party even modified its name, changing it from “Lega Nord” to “Lega.” During the 2018 national election, Lega became the most important party within the center-right coalition, obtaining approximately 17% of votes. Expectations for the party now are even higher with recent polls placing them at 37%. Lega governs in coalition with the Five Star Movement, which is also considered a populist movement.
It is striking how successful the common enemy rhetoric has been so far in some of the most recent relevant elections and referendums. Brexit in the UK, Trump in the U.S., Bolsonaro in Brazil, just to name a few.
Populism’s emergence seems to be an obvious human reaction to fear of the unknown. However, we must delve deeper by evaluating whether everything that is “anti-Establishment” should be identified as populism.
Many have trivialized the very concept of populism for its emotional agenda and instilling fear in electors. As a result, we oftentimes underestimate populist leaders’ ability to gain power. The anger and frustration faced by electors in the absence of a solution is not to be taken lightly.
Traditionally, populist leaders have utilized clear and sharp rhetoric to connect more closely with the actual problems of people. Their political discourse, although utopic, connects to the surrounding context. These populist leaders don the image of themselves being “common citizens” with a natural, familiar aesthetic.
Recently, however, a new trend has emerged where populist leaders prefer to be introduced as popular characters totally immersed in the current society spectacle, with no credentials to lead responsibly. One example of this occurred in the 2019 Ukrainian election where Volodímir Zelensky, a former comedian, received over 73% of the vote.
The rise of populism in some countries can be observed from yet another perspective. In some cases, traditional parties have themselves become inefficient power structures and disconnected from society. The economic and political systems are showing symptoms of exhaustion. Populist parties are tapping into this frustration and providing hope to society with short-term solutions. Indeed, some recent studies even guarantee the effectiveness of populism, under certain circumstances, in reducing inequality.
Establishment parties have not been effective thus far in addressing the populist challenge. In fact, the opposite is true: populism’s influence extends far beyond the populist parties themselves. Traditional parties run the risk of adopting populist strategies themselves to confront populism, ironically turning them into “new populists.” This explains why some traditional and moderate parties are adopting increasingly extreme positions.
So far, no one has provided a clear answer of how to combat populism and the rhetoric of fear. In societies today, where people expect instant solutions to fundamental problems like unemployment, the main challenge for non-populist parties is devising a long-term plan to gain back public opinion and communicating their plans in a credible way. A radical approach to populism, on the other hand, is counterproductive, giving validity and further visibility to the populist discourse instead of fighting it.
José Balsa-Barreiro is a research affiliate at the MIT Media Lab. His research interests include a number of issues ranging from politics, collective behavior, geography and mapping, among others.
Elia Rossi is a graduate of the University of Modena and Reggio Emilia in Italy. Both authors have previously been published in Foreign Affairs (Hellenic Edition) and Harvard International Review.