in Political Polarization

The Rise of Populism

Populism has been delineated as a form of protest against the political establishment. “It is not about policy content”, scholars argue, but about the targeted appeal to voters’ sentiment. Though it has been the subject of much debate in recent years, populism is not a novel phenomenon. Charles-Louis Napoleon Bonaparte, ruler of France from 1848 to 1870 and nephew of Napoleon I, exemplified many of the characteristics we attribute to today’s populist leaders. Heavily drawing on propaganda and making untenable promises of prosperity and progress, Napoleon III eventually manipulated the electoral system and proclaimed himself Emperor of the French. But how come populism has experienced a recent revival in various countries across the globe? Drawing on our previously discussed tendencies to sympathize with particular ideologies and indulge in political tribalism, this article examines the reasons for the widespread populist upheaval and how we can explain its different manifestations.

Defining Populism

While there isn’t an exact rule book to the art of populist leadership, its main proponents typically share a set of common characteristics: reliance on the legitimacy of democratic elections to consolidate power, the claim to own a magnetic connection to what populists label as “the people” (oftentimes a narrowly defined ethnic group) and distrust towards established institutions that they fear can limit their powers, including independent media, the judiciary or nonpartisan bureaucracy. Prominent contemporary examples include Donald Trump, Viktor Orban or Jair Bolsonaro. However, even though these salient cases clearly depict populist strongmen on the Right of the political spectrum, populism can take up different shapes and forms. For instance, various southern European left-wing parties such as Syriza (Greece), Podemos (Spain) or the Five Star Movement (Italy) are equally considered to rest upon evident populist characteristics. 

In order to establish a connection to their electorate, the populist toolbox includes the use of ordinary language and the repeated claim to be a representative of the masses, who, as populist leaders argue, have been betrayed by corrupt mainstream leadership. This constitutes one of the many ways in which they make use of the Us vs. Them dichotomy, a clear distinction between what is supposedly “good” and “evil”. In sum, populism constitutes an ideology that firmly rests on three pillars: give the people that have not been listened to a voice, defend the interests of ordinary citizens and replace distant and corrupt elites.

Differentiating Populist Support

The origins of the recent populist wave are manifold. Much of the contestation in the literature concerns the influence of economic, cultural and political reasons, with many economists, sociologists and political scientists claiming the issue originates from their respective field of expertise. While there is certainly truth to be found in each approach, a holistic picture is needed that integrates the different elements. 

The first group traces the movement back to economic origins, arguing that economic deprivation resulting from decades of neoliberal reforms and wage stagnation of a significant share of the population, particularly in many Western countries, is the main driver of populism. To illustrate, take the example of the Brexit vote. Here, a link is often made between votes for the Leave campaign and austerity measures (essentially: budget cuts) that were implemented by the government in the aftermath of the Financial Crisis and resulted in significant economic disruption and deterioration of public health. Moving away from these correlations, the second camp discounts economic factors and emphasizes the role of social and ethnic change. In this view, the populist backlash is mainly linked to a sense of status loss by white, working-class males who reject multiculturalism and particularly, immigration. What further exacerbates the rage are the incisive restrictions to their way of life they feel are bestowed upon them by liberal elites, including constraints such as a carbon tax (the weight of which they often disproportionately carry, if living in rural areas) and politically correct language. Lastly, a third camp highlights geography and skills as main reasons for the emergence of populism. According to this view, the two mutually reinforcing trends of globalization and digitalization throughout the past decades have favored some groups over others. White-collar workers in the cities (that often tend to be liberal) have emerged as clear winners, whilst rural areas have not received their adequate share of the benefits. On the contrary, many previously thriving manufacturing hubs in Western countries are now in severe decline due to cheap imports from countries like China. 

While each side portrays a slightly different picture of the causes, they all center their arguments on a clear distinction: those who have benefited from the trends of recent decades and those that have not. Even though representing different socioeconomic backgrounds, the group of ‘left-behind’, be it through economic, cultural or political drivers, has formed loose alliances that ultimately account for a significant share of the votes for populist leaders. What further unites this group is a growing perception of estrangement from political elites. Oddly enough, this distrust in the political establishment is even prevalent in many countries that have had stable governing majorities for decades. 

Explaining the Populist Mosaic

In the spirit of an interdisciplinary approach, the main challenge now remains to find common ground between these diverging explanations and unravel the mystery of the different shapes that populism takes. In that respect, the German political scientist Philip Manow proposes a coherent narrative. According to him, populist protest is mainly connected to two processes: migration and trade. This roughly overlaps with the different camps that are mentioned above. However, the author links the differing manifestations and intensity of populism to the size and accessibility of the national welfare state. Migration results in populist protest on the Right in countries where a large welfare system is widely available (e.g. Germany and Northern Europe) or where the influx of migrants leads to pressure on the job market for a local population that is not otherwise sufficiently safeguarded through social security nets (e.g. UK and US). Conversely, in countries where the welfare state either isn’t highly developed or accessible to migrants (e.g. Southern Europe), migration does not induce a sociopolitical discussion on the question of distribution. Instead, it is the free movement of goods and capital driven by a neoliberal economic order and fiscal restraint of governments (austerity) that results in populist protest. However, given the disparate drivers, this time it manifests itself on the Left of the political spectrum. 

Be it on the Right or the Left, populism then speaks to a deeply-held desire for change that comes immediately instead of taking the slow-paced route of consensus-seeking policymaking that is based on reasoning and evidence-gathering. In the following article, we take a closer look at how this process has undergone recent changes and examine the impact this had on societal polarization. 

Bibliography/Further Reading:

  • Roger Eatwell & Matthew Goodwin – National Populism
  • Philip Manow – Die Politische Ökonomie des Populismus (German)