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Populism on top

Populism is on the march on both sides of the Atlantic. At its core, populism is a revolutionary movement, but unlike its 20th century predecessors—such as communism and fascism—it eschews violent rebellion and favors a democratic replacement of incumbent governments.


Author: Janusz Bugajski

23 November 2016



Populism has two core components: anti-elitism and nativism. The first is manifest in an anti-establishment rebellion by a political party or movement claiming to represent ordinary, disempowered citizens. The second places the narrowly defined interests of the nation above all international commitments.

Economically speaking, populism is usually protectionist since it seeks to strengthen the national economy by challenging the principles of globalization, international competition and free trade. Politically, it is invariably isolationist in seeking to ensure and defend national sovereignty from the purported restrictions of international institutions and regional alliances. And culturally, it is usually conservative in claiming to defend national traditions from an alleged global multicultural melting pot.

Beyond these basic commonalities, populism in practice can blend with various ideologies and policies and one must be careful not to simplistically equate all of its manifestations in disparate countries. Indeed, populists differ significantly on some basic policy prescriptions.

Populism can be pro-authoritarian in a democratic system or pro-democratic in an authoritarian system. For instance, modern rightist populists—unlike their ultra-right predecessors—claim they are defending popular democracy from a corrupt and elitist government. They can either campaign against liberalism by opposing state-imposed secularism and what are viewed as deviations from traditional social norms. Or conversely, they can claim they actually defend liberalism by opposing immigrants who are intolerant of liberalism, such as ultra-conservative Muslims. As an example, the Dutch Freedom Party and its equivalents in Austria, Denmark and elsewhere assert they are promoting basic human rights against an anti-democratic Islamic onslaught.

Populism can be ethno-nationalist domestically or primarily xenophobic against foreigners, but not necessarily exclusivist against various well-established ethnicities within the country. Contemporary rightist populism tends not to focus on ethnic minorities as racial scapegoats but on recent immigrants who, they claim, take jobs and government benefits away from natives and subvert national identity. For instance, one of the key actors in the Brexit campaign was the UK Independence Party, which seeks comprehensive restrictions on immigration but does not have an explicitly racist platform against a multi-ethnic or multicolored British society.

Populism may have either leftist or rightist prescriptions for the national economy, or it may contain a mix of both ideologies. Both varieties tend to rally against the economic establishment, particularly big business and multinational enterprises they depict as damaging the middle or working class by moving industries abroad and investing overseas. Hence, they view global economic competition as hurting the native population.

Leftist populism seeks to redistribute the economy, with high taxes for the wealthy and a more intrusive government role, while rightist populism seeks tax breaks for the indigenous wealthy and business deregulation to stimulate the national economy. Such commonalities and divisions were visible during the U.S. presidential election campaign between the leftist Bernie Sanders “progressives” and the rightist Donald Trump “America firsters.”

On the international front, populism in Europe may be anti-American and pro-Russian or the exact opposite, or it may oppose both American and Russian influence and veer toward national neutrality. A number of Western European populist parties, whether leftist or rightist, seek to limit U.S. influence over their countries, viewing this as a form of economic dominance and “cultural imperialism.” Instructively, several of these groups actually supported a Trump presidency, not only because this makes populism more credible and electable but also because they believe Trump’s White House will curtail U.S. involvement in European affairs and support the EU’s dissolution.

Populism may be anti-EU and pro-NATO, or it can reject both international alliances, viewing them as expensive commitments and unacceptable constraints on national sovereignty. In Central and Eastern Europe, populist-veering parties in Poland and Hungary may seek a lessened EU role in domestic affairs but they do not support leaving NATO. In contrast, nationalist populists in Bulgaria and Serbia view Russia as their patron and oppose the NATO alliance.

At a time of strong anti-establishment sentiments, the durability of the populist wave in Europe and the United States cannot be determined. However, any government elected on an openly populist platform will ultimately be judged by its economic results—not on its political rhetoric. Indeed, its vehement anti-establishment positions and expansive economic promises during the election campaign will necessitate higher achievements than a previous non-populist government if it is to remain popular and in power.

Without economic successes, some populists may veer toward ethno-nationalism, and instead of bread they will offer their people circuses. Hence, in some countries populism can be transformed from a potential threat to an outright danger to democracy and inter-ethnic coexistence.

The traditional or mainstream political parties need to learn lessons from the populist wave rather than simply condemning it and bemoaning their election losses. Ultimately, populism may contribute to democratic development by exposing the fissures, frustrations and failures in Western societies, by involving new players in the political process, by reconnecting politicians with the populace, and by energizing the electorate to view politics as the responsibility of every citizen.



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