Populism – What is it?

You’ve probably heard the term a hundred times before. Perhaps from some smug dude condensing the entire US 2016 elections to “populism, man”, or from next to every media source or article in the past five years. Regardless, you would have to be living under a rock to have never heard the term.  

The issue with populism, is that it is a “chaotic, confusing, catch-all concept”, as described by political academic Drahokoupil, and is often misunderstood. There is no shame in not properly understanding a term that seems so prevalent today, and I hope to explain this in a more accessible manner. But, as a more pressing reality, populism is a massive force in the world today, and it is very important that people understand it properly. 

The first thing to get out of the way for all of us young people: populism hasn’t just recently appeared, it has been around for nearly a hundred years in many different forms. Its origin can be traced back to the US Agrarian Populist group in 1982. The group comprised of agricultural workers, called the ‘People’s Party’, and arose at a similar time to a group called Narodnkiki in the Russian Empire. Since then, there have been many different groups, parties and movements which could be termed ‘populist’. Also note the word itself can be used in multiple ways it can describe a group, a movement, a leader, or even just rhetoric itself. 

The next common misconception is that Trump is the only Populist leader right now. Just to name a few in the past years: Bernie Sanders (yep, everyone’s favourite socialist lefty), Rodrigo Duterte (the Philippines President), Marine Le Pen (French leader of an opposition party), Jair Bolsonaro (current Brazilian President), and even Emmanuel Macron (the French president) can be considered populist leaders. Populism has also been seen recently in Britain, with Brexit, as well as through Europe, Indonesia and India. These are only some of the many times populism has propped up, and this is only in the past few years.  

This leads us to another major misconception: populism is exclusive to the right wing. Conversely, these views can also be held by the politically left and centre. Moreover, in the same way populism is not exclusive to richer countries in the Global North, it can appear in many forms and nearly anywhere in the world. 

Another misconception is that populism is always bad. Typically, populism has been branded as the looming threat to the world order, but in reality, this is not necessarily the case. Rather, it is usually the way in which leaders or movements utilise populism which can be exploitative and manipulative the emotions of those with lower education, and other vulnerable groups. On top of that, populist rulers often further propagate divide between people, rarely fix the issues that they based their election campaign on, and generally damage the nation further. 

A famous Argentine political theorist claimed populist discourse is, “a system of equivalences articulating the totality of society around a fundamental antagonism”. Now to make that tortuously complicated sentence more understandable, he is basically saying that populism creates a system or a narrative, in which the entire society is based around a fundamental difference, between one group and the other. This is usually in the form of an “us and them” or “good and evil” rhetoric. At its most basic level, this is the idea of populism but to further complicate the issue, there are very diverse reasons for populism, and also different types of populism. The reasons for populism to arise can be split between the Global North and Global South. And as for the different types of Populism, we’ll explore them as we go. 


The Global North 

 The Global North, for those who might be confused, is the modern version of ‘First World’, and makes up the ‘wealthier’, ‘developed’ countries (U.S, Europe, Japan, South Korea, Australia, New Zealand, etc.). The typical reasons, at least recently, for the spread of populism in this domain, are an economic dissatisfaction and destabilised cultural identity. The predominant type of populism could be described as ‘anti-elitist’ and ‘fear based’. 

The first reason comes mainly out of the failure of the Neo-Liberal economic order. This was an economic order that was pushed worldwide after the fall of the Soviet Union, mainly by U.S President Reagan and British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, which was founded on capitalistic free market systems, deregulations, little to no state intervention, and comparative advantage economics. To simplify, it is a system that attempts to allow the market to operate autonomously; it does not want states or international establishments controlling it, and it will always opt for the cheaper option. Much of this led to manufacturing moving from the U.S and Europe, or the ‘richer countries’, to poorer Asian countries, where labour costs were significantly lower. From this, outsourcing and other diverse factors, such as the global financial crisis, the ‘middle class’ status, the so called ‘dignity of work’ and wages, generally all declined. This is one of the reasons for the massive wealth disparities in rich countries. From this, many people who once had stable jobs and could pay for basic livelihoods for themselves and their families, became disenfranchised and lost faith in the economic system. At the same time, this system, unsurprisingly, made the rich much richer, which created a general distrust in the ‘elite’ and consequently made people distrust institutions generally. This type of populism can be seen in Brexit and with Trump, as many disenfranchised people thought that these movements or leaders could return them to their better lives, and often a ‘charismatic’ or ‘anti-establishment’ leader was necessary to bring these people together, against the ‘evil elites’. 

As for cultural identity, this came down mainly to progressing societal values, and increased immigration. As nations progressed socially, many people believed that ‘traditional’ or ‘family values’, often conservative in nature, were becoming forgotten. Ultimately, as a form of identity crisis, it became a fear that their ‘views and way of life’ were becoming ‘eroded’. Thus, for example Trump identifying with these values and the ‘common folk’, created a unified base that passionately voted for him. Another factor, one which is incredibly prevalent in Europe, was immigration. The fear of terrorists entering the country, the fear of immigrants taking jobs that people were already struggling to maintain, and a fear that these people would destroy their ‘national values or cultures’, all culminated in the perfect storm. Many populist leaders present the issue of immigration in an ‘us-versus-them’ manner, to appeal to people who are misinformed about the reality, thus forming the ‘fear based’ model of populism, which is represented best by Marine Le Pen. 

It should be mentioned that this political technique is not exclusive to the Global North, as the election of Narendra Modi in India, and General Abdel Fattah al-Sisi in Egypt are considered to be based on populist models similar to those discussed above. 


The Global South 

These forms of populism are often omitted from media sources and are rarely understood very well; yet at the same time, they are often much more diverse and complicated than the Global North’s. Although there are inevitably many exceptions to this, populism in the Global South usually arose through an ‘anti-colonial model’, a religious model, and a penal model.  

The first model has an extensive history through Latin America, as many leaders would use rhetoric of the ‘people versus the colonists’, or imperialists, often as a way to create a collective, national ‘we’, in which people could find unity and vote together. This form is easier to understand, as both colonialism, and neo-colonialism (modern colonialism that uses less overt forms to control countries, trade agreements, economic sanctions, political pressure – usually conducted by the U.S), are understandably bad for a nation and its sovereignty. Therefore, it makes perfect sense to create a unification against a common enemy, this being the colonists, or Westerners. Hugo Chavez, expresident of Venezuela, was considered a populist, but more recently, Nicolas Maduro (De facto dictator of Venezuela) continuously used anti-colonialist rhetoric to save his presidency against Juan Guaido, who is the popular incumbent presidential opposition, as Guaido has been backed by many Western nations. For some nations, a similar cultural crisis, as mentioned above for the Global North, can lead to populism. People fear that Western influence will destroy traditional culture and ways of life, sometimes through colonialist acts, but also through general Western market domination Nike, Apple, McDonalds etc. – thus people turn to a collective we to fight against them. 

Theocratic populism is another commonly misinterpreted discussion point. It has occurred less than the ‘anti-establishment’ version discussed above, but in the past 50 years it has been a massive force. This is usually in the form of de-secularising (making religious) states or groups of people, and using that difference as a way to win or gain favour from voters. This has recently occurred in Brazil, with the Rio De Janeiro mayor being a bishop of a large Christian church. It has a massive influence in Indonesian politics and Indian politics, and is continuing to become a force in Turkey with the semi-autocratic Recep Tayyip Erdogan. But if we look a bit further back in history, we find the largest example in the resurgence of Islam throughout much of the Middle East. This issue is obviously extremely complex, but in relation to populism, many theorists believe the Iranian revolution was a form of “Shi’a populism”, and the Arab Spring led to more individual Islamic populist movements to spur throughout the region.  

The final form is penal populism. This has mainly been seen in crime-ridden nations such as the Philippines, Brazil and Mexico. Again, this form can be relatively simple: it is about creating a unified group of ‘us’ against ‘them’ – the criminals and thieves. The issue with this form is that it usually comes with a ‘hardline’ attitude towards crime, which often leads to police brutality, corruption and fear. Duterte is a prime example of this, as he has allowed police to kill drug suspects without investigation. 


Breathe a sigh of relief – if you’ve got this far without becoming bored, well done. Even with all this being said, there are still infinitely more complicated and chaotic issues associated with populism. This is the most common issue: there are so many different ways it can manifest, yet the actual understanding of what it is, is often very shallow. Hopefully, this article can help anyone who may have been feeling confused, and it may even give you the tools to shut down ‘that dude’ who mentions populism like he is the god of political understanding. But most of all, this concept is important, as Australia very may well be the next victim of ‘populist hysteria’. Fortunately, the recent Victorian elections showed our resolve against a ‘fear based’ form that the Liberal Party attempted to utilize, quite pathetically at that. However, understanding that populism can be very diverse and very specific makes us more educated as to how to interpret and respond to it, should the need arise. 


Lea Rae

The author Lea Rae

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