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Why Is Populism So Popular Again?

populism
Populist leaders climb to prominence by dividing society, by splitting it into two opposing factions: the people and the elite. HowStuffWorks

For years now, populists have been popping up all over the globe. From India and Europe to the Philippines and South America and of course into the United States, politicians with populist leanings — and those who have gone full-fledged populist in their quest for power — have been making a lot of noise. And a good deal of trouble.

Think Marine Le Pen in France, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, former Venezuelan president Hugo Chávez, India prime minister Narendra Modi ... and, yes, by many people's definition, Donald Trump in the U.S.

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But about that definition: What exactly is a populist? What is populism? And what's so wrong, if anything, with a movement that has become ... you know, popular?

A quick warning: Don't be fooled by the name.

"This is not about making poor people wealthy. This is not about punishing the elite and redistributing wealth," says political scientist Anna Grzymala-Busse, a professor at Stanford and the director of the school's Global Populisms Project. "There is almost nothing in the populist program that actually makes everyday people's lives better. Populists don't do that. They simply don't."

But what about the notion that populists somehow give voice to a needy and forgotten segment of people?

"It's not the people who have suffered the most who support populist parties," Grzymala-Busse says. "It's really sort of the people who fear dropping further down in societal prestige and economic status."

What Is Populism?

Populism is an idea, and not a particularly new one, whose definition is notoriously difficult to pin down. As a political theory, it has a couple of unwavering characteristics.

  1. Populist leaders climb to prominence by dividing society, by splitting it into two opposing factions: the people and the elite. "The key distinction between the people and the elite is not based on class or power," explained University of Georgia political scientist Cas Mudde in an article for Vice, "but on morality: It is always the pure against the corrupt!"
  2. The will of the people should be unchallenged. Majority rules. That's it.
populism
A protester wearing a mask depicting President Rodrigo Duterte takes part in a demonstration against the anti-terror law in Quezon city, Metro Manila, Philippines. Human rights advocates say Duterte could use the legislation to prosecute political opponents.
Ezra Acayan/Getty Images

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According to the Stanford project, populism is growing across the globe because of the failure of major political parties to address the thorny issues that people face in today's world: immigration, economic inequality and globalism, just to name a few.

But populism, the project finds, can cause more problems than it solves. The problems start with the idea of dividing people into good and bad. From "Global Populisms and Their Challenges," the white paper produced by the Stanford project:

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Populists redefine the people, often by excluding vulnerable ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants and marginalized economic groups. The result is majority rule without minority rights.

Once in power, populist leaders represent "a threat to liberal democracy" as we know it, according to the research, attacking not only the rights of individuals who don't fit into the majority, but the very foundations on which the country lies. That includes "the takeover and taming of courts and oversight institutions, and new laws that limit the freedom of the media and civil society."

We've seen it in the United States, with Trump calling the press the "enemy of the people," criticizing judges, resisting congressional oversight, claiming that elections are "rigged," flouting laws, and claiming that a "deep state" of bureaucratic actors is out to get him to deny the will of the people he represents. It happens with other populist leaders all over the world.

"'The opposition is the enemy of the people. Why would you listen to them? The media is the swamp. Why would you listen to them?'" Grzymala-Busse says. "Everything is fake. Everything is suspect. And no one is to be trusted except the populace."

And that populace, remember, does not include voices of the minorities or anyone who disagrees with the majority.

Populists, according to the report, damage democracies in other sinister, not readily apparent ways, too, by striking down or radically altering what has become accepted over years of building society; things like healthy debate, respect for opponents and civil discourse.

The Populist Leader

It's important to note that populists can come, it's generally agreed, from all parts of the political spectrum. There are leftist populists around the world who combine socialism with their populist message. There are those on the right who push anti-immigration and anti-LBGTQ platforms in their populism.

Perhaps strangely, populist leaders often do not spring from the working-class roots of what is thought of as "the people." Consider: Trump is a self-professed billionaire real estate investor; Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro is a longtime congressman and military leader; France's Le Pen is the daughter of a career right-wing politician; the Philippines' Duterte spent decades as a mayor and lawyer; and India's Modi came from humble beginnings, but he has been in politics for more than 40 years.

Whatever their origins, populist leaders are identifiable by their claim to understand "the people," by their us versus them rhetoric, and by their assertions that they, alone, are the answer to the people's problems. They often speak in brash, common, "of-the-people" talk, too, despite their often high-brow educations. They are considered, by many, charismatic.

"There's almost an art to it," Grzymala-Busse says.

That illusion of "telling it like it is" draws in those looking for a change or, as Grzymala-Busse suggests, not wanting to lose their grip on their place in society. But a populist leader's popularity is not forever.

Populists who rise to power, the Stanford project found, often are punished more heavily by voters in trying to hang on to their power, simply because they do not fulfill the promises they made. That's precisely why populist leaders do what they do once they assume power.

By dividing people into good and bad, by chipping away at society's institutions (courts, the media, the legislature), and by weakening norms (healthy debate, fair elections, respect for one another), populists can hang on to power and become all-powerful. "The result," the Stanford authors write, "is a gradual slide into authoritarianism, each step justified by the need to better root out 'disloyal' elements and better serve the 'people' (read: the partisan interests of the incumbents)."

Populism, Grzymala-Busse says, doesn't help the people it purports to serve. In the end, it's just politics.

populism
Despite having coronavirus, U.S. President Donald Trump removed his mask upon returning to the White House from Walter Reed National Military Medical Center on Oct. 5, 2020, potentially putting those he serves at risk.
Win McNamee/Getty Images

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