What is Populism?

Updated on June 25, 2018
Rupert Taylor profile image

I've spent half a century (yikes) writing for radio and print—mostly print. I hope to be still tapping the keys as I take my last breath.

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.”

Source

Examples of Populists

Most so-called populists seem to be on the right wing of politics; the label is frequently attached to 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. | Source

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 being 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. Greece is currently 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 comes with democracy; they say it gets in the way of decisive action to solve problems. Eventually, if in power long enough, they 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 lay-offs 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.

Source

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 and smart 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 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. Mr. 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.” Mr. 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.

Source

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.

They also pride themselves on being tough. If the public finances are a mess, it’s because previous politicians and government bureaucrats are too soft to make hard decisions.

“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

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 found 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.

Sources

  • “What is Populism, and What Does the Term Actually Mean?” David Molloy, BBC News, March 6, 2018.
  • “What Is a Populist?” Uri Friedman, Atlantic Magazine, February 27, 2017.
  • “The Problem With Populism.” Cas Mudde, The Guardian, February 17, 2015.
  • “Trump: ‘Solutions That Are Simple, Clear and Wrong.’ ” Jay Bookman, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, December 1, 2015.
  • “Is Populism Really on the Rise? And What Actually Is it?” Ben Chu, The Independent, May 4, 2017.
  • “Trump’s War Against Elites and Expertise.” Cathleen Decker, Los Angeles Times, July 2, 2017.
  • “The Dangerous Rise of Populism.” Kenneth Roth, Human Rights Watch, 2017.
  • “Populist Party.” Richard Wormser, PBS, undated.

Questions & Answers

    Comments

      0 of 8192 characters used
      Post Comment

      • Rupert Taylor profile imageAUTHOR

        Rupert Taylor 

        2 months ago from Waterloo, Ontario, Canada

        Mr. Happy, you and I are singing from the same songbook.

        I included left-wing populism to point out that it is not a political ideology but a political style. When tied to tribalism and nativism it becomes very dangerous.

      • Mr. Happy profile image

        Mr. Happy 

        2 months ago from Toronto, Canada

        "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?" - Here from my perspective, I see the right-wing populism tainted with racism and nationalism. Otherwise, helping the common men and women is ideal. Hence, I see the need for healthcare for all people, for education up to and including college/university. That's what helping everyone means.

        "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." - The good old days, when I was camping out downtown with homeless people, people with mental issues, etc. That was enlightening in many ways.

        "Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras, whose party is called the Coalition of the Radical Left" - Radical Left? What's so radical about him when he caved-in to the neoliberals in Brussels? No, he's not radical at all. That is why Yanis Varoufakis resigned. Tsipras is seen by many on the Left as a traitor to their cause.

        "Other massive banks around the world started to fail and had to be propped up with government (taxpayers') money." - This is great, when we privatize the gains and socialize the losses. If people still don't see that it's the banksters who are the real crooks then, they're just blind.

        "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." - Soon enough only rich people will be able to live in cities. People are paying up to 70% of their income on their rent, here in Toronto.

        "Somehow, highly educated and smart people have been painted by populists as the enemies of the masses." - See, it's the right wing who does that. Leftists still agree that there are indeed intellectuals such as Noam Chomski who are worth listening to and paying close attention. On the right though, they just ignore facts, research, anyone intelligent. Trump did say he loved the "poorly educated" did he not? They're easy to exploit.

        "Here’s Ontario’s Progressive Conservative Premier Doug Ford" - Yes, another gem in the political sphere at the moment. God knows what he's going to do. It's going to be a tough four years for my province.

        “For every complex problem, there is a solution that is simple, clear, and wrong.” - I guess Mr. Mencken was a comedian as well.

        Informative article - thank You!

      working

      This website uses cookies

      As a user in the EEA, your approval is needed on a few things. To provide a better website experience, soapboxie.com uses cookies (and other similar technologies) and may collect, process, and share personal data. Please choose which areas of our service you consent to our doing so.

      For more information on managing or withdrawing consents and how we handle data, visit our Privacy Policy at: https://soapboxie.com/privacy-policy#gdpr

      Show Details
      Necessary
      HubPages Device IDThis is used to identify particular browsers or devices when the access the service, and is used for security reasons.
      LoginThis is necessary to sign in to the HubPages Service.
      Google RecaptchaThis is used to prevent bots and spam. (Privacy Policy)
      AkismetThis is used to detect comment spam. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide data on traffic to our website, all personally identifyable data is anonymized. (Privacy Policy)
      HubPages Traffic PixelThis is used to collect data on traffic to articles and other pages on our site. Unless you are signed in to a HubPages account, all personally identifiable information is anonymized.
      Amazon Web ServicesThis is a cloud services platform that we used to host our service. (Privacy Policy)
      CloudflareThis is a cloud CDN service that we use to efficiently deliver files required for our service to operate such as javascript, cascading style sheets, images, and videos. (Privacy Policy)
      Google Hosted LibrariesJavascript software libraries such as jQuery are loaded at endpoints on the googleapis.com or gstatic.com domains, for performance and efficiency reasons. (Privacy Policy)
      Features
      Google Custom SearchThis is feature allows you to search the site. (Privacy Policy)
      Google MapsSome articles have Google Maps embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      Google ChartsThis is used to display charts and graphs on articles and the author center. (Privacy Policy)
      Google AdSense Host APIThis service allows you to sign up for or associate a Google AdSense account with HubPages, so that you can earn money from ads on your articles. No data is shared unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Google YouTubeSome articles have YouTube videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      VimeoSome articles have Vimeo videos embedded in them. (Privacy Policy)
      PaypalThis is used for a registered author who enrolls in the HubPages Earnings program and requests to be paid via PayPal. No data is shared with Paypal unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook LoginYou can use this to streamline signing up for, or signing in to your Hubpages account. No data is shared with Facebook unless you engage with this feature. (Privacy Policy)
      MavenThis supports the Maven widget and search functionality. (Privacy Policy)
      Marketing
      Google AdSenseThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Google DoubleClickGoogle provides ad serving technology and runs an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Index ExchangeThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      SovrnThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Facebook AdsThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Unified Ad MarketplaceThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      AppNexusThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      OpenxThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Rubicon ProjectThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      TripleLiftThis is an ad network. (Privacy Policy)
      Say MediaWe partner with Say Media to deliver ad campaigns on our sites. (Privacy Policy)
      Remarketing PixelsWe may use remarketing pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to advertise the HubPages Service to people that have visited our sites.
      Conversion Tracking PixelsWe may use conversion tracking pixels from advertising networks such as Google AdWords, Bing Ads, and Facebook in order to identify when an advertisement has successfully resulted in the desired action, such as signing up for the HubPages Service or publishing an article on the HubPages Service.
      Statistics
      Author Google AnalyticsThis is used to provide traffic data and reports to the authors of articles on the HubPages Service. (Privacy Policy)
      ComscoreComScore is a media measurement and analytics company providing marketing data and analytics to enterprises, media and advertising agencies, and publishers. Non-consent will result in ComScore only processing obfuscated personal data. (Privacy Policy)
      Amazon Tracking PixelSome articles display amazon products as part of the Amazon Affiliate program, this pixel provides traffic statistics for those products (Privacy Policy)