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The Dangers of Populism

Populism Defined

Cas Mudde is a Dutch political scientist. He has defined populism as “the idea that society is separated into two groups at odds with one another―‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’ ” (BBC, March 2018).

The Oxford English Dictionary defines populism as “Support for the concerns of ordinary people.”

However, as Uri Friedman of The Atlantic magazine points out: “No definition of populism will fully describe all populists.” He adds that it means taking down the existing political system but “doesn’t specify what should replace it.”

Examples of Populists

Most so-called populists seem to be on the right wing of politics; the label is frequently attached to former U.S. President Donald Trump. He vowed to “drain the swamp,” meaning to get rid of all the corrupt and ineffective parts of government.

Another person who has been called a populist is Ontario Premier Doug Ford in Canada. He says: “I govern through the people, I don’t govern through government.”

The word is often used as an insult by people on the left. But how can working to help the common people have a better life be anything other than good? And what about populist movements on the left?

Hugo Chavez was the populist leader of Venezuela from 1998 to 2013. His left-wing economic policies wrecked the country’s economy.

Hugo Chavez was the populist leader of Venezuela from 1998 to 2013. His left-wing economic policies wrecked the country’s economy.

The civil rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s in the United States was populist. It was led by Dr. Martin Luther King, whose politics were far from conservative.

In 2011, the Occupy movement burst onto the scene. Thousands of people around the world set up tent cities in public spaces and demanded a more equal sharing of wealth.

In Spain, the Podemos party is described as a far-left populist movement. It holds the third-highest number of seats in the national parliament. Until recently, Greece was led by Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose party is called the Coalition of the Radical Left.

So pinning down populism on the traditional left/right spectrum of politics is impossible. Populism is a political style rather than an ideology. Populist politicians constantly talk about how they follow “the will of the people.”

Most populists don’t like the rules and checks on power that come with democracy; they say it gets in the way of decisive action to solve problems. Eventually, if in power long enough, populists become authoritarian.

A Decade of Building Discontent

Populist leaders rise to the forefront when the general public is unhappy about the state of society. And that takes us to 2008.

Wealthy, elite bankers were taking risky gambles on shaky investments. Late in 2007, the dodgy loans that banks had made began to wobble. By September 2008, there was a full-blown crisis with one of America’s biggest investment banks, Lehman Brothers, collapsing. Other massive banks around the world started to fail and had to be propped up with government (taxpayers') money.

Bankers stopped lending money so businesses found it difficult to operate. The value of shares on stock markets plunged. Massive worker layoffs followed.

When the whole mess was sorted out, the people who suffered the most were the middle-class and those living in poverty. The bankers, who caused the crisis, walked away pretty much undamaged.

Populism is about using the political system to keep the powerful from abusing their power.

— American journalist Lee Stranahan

The struggle to recover has been long and hard and many have not been able to get back to where they were before the banking crisis hit.

The bankers, company executives, and politicians are doing fine, but many working people are struggling. Their wages have not risen but the cost of living has. Jobs have increasingly become temporary or contract with little hope of long-term, secure employment with benefits.

The cost of housing has risen to the point where it really hurts working people and they believe the situation is going to be even worse for their children.

Kenneth Roth is the Executive Director of Human Rights Watch. In his organization’s 2017 report he wrote:

“In the West, many people feel left behind by technological change, the global economy, and growing inequality. Horrific incidents of terrorism generate apprehension and fear. Some are uneasy with societies that have become more ethnically, religiously, and racially diverse. There is an increasing sense that governments and the elite ignore public concerns.”

Anxiety, fear, and resentment towards the elites follow. This is when the populist enters the scene with promises to fix everything.

Divide and Conquer

The standard tactic of all populists is to drive a wedge between groups of people. The favourite target of populists is “elites.” Somehow, highly educated people have been painted by populists as the enemies of the masses.

Here’s Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford: “ . . . I can’t watch the party I love fall into the hands of the elites. The elites have shut the door on the grassroots, the foundation of our party . . . I’m here to give a voice to the hardworking taxpayers of this province, people who have been ignored for far too long.”

And here’s former U.S. President Donald Trump: “ . . . the three most dangerous voices in America: academic elites, political elites, and media elites.”

Truth is a frequent casualty [of populism].

— Kenneth Roth, Executive Director of Human Rights Watch

There are other targets that populists like to single out for attention. Trump and several populists in Europe have picked out immigrants, especially Muslim immigrants, as enemies of the people.

Populists claim that human rights only protect vicious criminals, terror suspects, and asylum seekers while putting the security of law-abiding citizens at risk.

There is also the enigmatic “they.” Trump frequently suggests “they” form a mysterious and secretive collection of people whose goal is world domination. It’s classic conspiracy theory rubbish, but it works with some people.

Having poured scorn on the enemies of the people, the populist then sets himself or herself up as the one person capable of taking them on and defeating them.

How Liz Truss Discovered that Governing Isn’t Easy

Running a complex industrial society is very difficult, but populist candidates for office say it’s simple. They campaign on emotion, not on well-thought-out policies.

Populists do not trouble themselves with thick briefing books outlining the complicated nature of policy decisions. They pride themselves on knowing in their gut what is right.

Here we have Liz Truss riding the populist wave to become prime minister of the United Kingdom in September 2022. To shake the country out of its economic doldrums she abandoned financial orthodoxy and the advice of experts and announced massive, unfunded tax cuts for the wealthy.

Andrew Coyne in Canada's Globe and Mail newspaper wrote that, “To populists like Ms. Truss, the consensus of expert analysis on any subject is something not only to be ignored, but contradicted; not in spite of their expertise but because of it.”

It turned out the experts/elites were right, and the value of the pound crashed and with it Liz Truss's dreams of right-wing conservative governing. With just 45 days in power she was forced to resign, setting a new and unenviable record as the shortest serving British prime minister in history. This was an unusual case of a populist being unmasked as incompetent early; usually, it takes a while for their feet of clay to emerge.

Again, Andrew Coyne explains the populist's playbook: “Whatever course might be suggested by the evidence and knowledgeable opinion, the populist will take, quite deliberately, the opposite tack. That, indeed, is the point. It isn’t even about the issue. It is about being seen to defy the experts, to create one’s own set of 'alternative facts.' ”

Populism offers only short-term solutions. For example, when a populist party rises to power and becomes a party of government, it usually rapidly loses support.

— Finnish political scientist Elina Kestilä-Kekkonen

Trumpist Populism

Unlike Liz Truss's brief rime in the limelight, former U.S. President Donald Trump has a limpet-like grip on his followers. Despite his epic failures, Trump's populist and simple solutions to complex problems show few signs of fading.

Jay Bookman of The Atlanta Journal-Constitution summed up Donald Trump’s simple solutions as follows:

  • “Immigration? Deport ‘em.
  • Climate change? Ignore it.
  • ISIS (Islamic extremism)? Bomb ‘em.
  • Taxes? Cut ‘em.
  • Health care? Repeal it.
  • Competitors? Crush ‘em.”

Such messages about how easy it is to fix what’s wrong have enormous appeal to masses of people who don’t pay much attention to world affairs. They don’t want to hear about how interdependent nations have become, they want to be told that their well-paid factory jobs are going to be brought back.

However, the great observer of the American political scene H.L. Mencken (1880-1956) observed that “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, clear, and wrong.”

To bring about the changes needed, the populist leader says she or he needs to be freed from the shackles of checks on power that is part of democracy. Here’s Jay Bookman again, “ . . . strong leaders do not allow themselves to be bound by restraints that lesser mortals might face―matters of law, treaty, arithmetic, practicality, morality. Because you know who abides by the rules?

“Losers do. And what we need are winners.”

Bonus Factoids

  • The Populist Party in America was founded in 1892. Its core supporters were farmers in the Midwest and South who opposed the Republican and Democratic parties because they felt ignored by them. The party was pro labour and against railroad interests and banks. It merged with the Democratic Party in 1896. A few diehards kept campaigning under the Populist Party banner, but they finally gave up in 1908.
  • James B. Weaver was the presidential candidate for the Populist Party in 1892. He received more than a million votes, about 8.5% of those cast. He won five states―Nevada, North Dakota, Colorado, Idaho, and Kansas. At the same time, says The Public Broadcasting Service: “The party elected several members to Congress, three governors, and hundreds of minor officials and legislators, nearly all in the Midwest.”
  • In 1896, William Jennings Bryan, nominally a Populist Party man, ran for president on the Democratic ticket. This put the Populists in a tough spot; if they ran their own candidate they would split the anti-Republican vote. They decided to support Bryan and voted for Populist Thomas E. Watson to be his running mate, even though Arthur Sewall, another Populist, had already been picked. Bryan was coy about which one of the two he would name as Vice-President if he won. In the end, it didn’t matter because Republican William McKinley won handily.


This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2018 Rupert Taylor