The Triumph of Populism

Over the past few years, there has been a surge of populism in the democratic world.  This is the first in a series of four articles that will look at the phenomenon of populism, and what it implies for the democratic process.

First, however, we need to define populism.  This is not as easy as it sounds;  indeed, it is easier to say what populism is not.  It is not, for example, the politics of extremes, either right or left:  while there are elements of far right policies in many populist movements, and equally similarities between populism and the many groups on the far left, it is quite possible to have a centrist populist movement, as we would argue Emmanuel Macron has shown in France.   In fact, it is usually the case that populism defies the simplistic left-right taxonomy altogether.

However, although populism can reside anywhere on the political spectrum and comes in many varieties, there are generally some common threads.  Perhaps the most common is an “Us and Them” mind-set, where society is portrayed as divided between “the people” and a common enemy.  Familiar “common enemies” for populists are either foreigners in general (the classic “other”), or a separate sector of society such as immigrants (a special case of decrying foreigners, with immigrants as “the foreigners within”), or an elite, often depicted as corrupt and oppressive or exploiting.

Populist movements also frequently concentrate on one or a few issues, where they usually claim to have straightforward one-dimensional answers to the problems of the day, while on large sections of political life they hold either very simple views or no views at all.  Often, but not always, they are also non-ideological – though this does not mean that all non-ideological parties are necessarily populist, or that all single issue parties are.

Finally, populist parties very seldom adopt the label of “populism” for themselves – they prefer such adjectives as “patriotic” or “national”.   Rather, it is an epithet usually given them by others;  as Francis Fukuyama notes, “‘Populism’ is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like” [1].

Beyond defining populism, the next question is, what gives populist movements their impetus?  Again, in spite of much writing on this topic, there is no straightforward, simple and agreed-upon cause, but rather a number of possible reasons.

One frequently quoted reason is economic downturns. This is partly true, the reasoning being that in any serious downturn, the general population often suffer for reasons they do not fully understand, and often see the elite not joining in the general suffering.   It is possible that this was a contributory factor to the UK EU referendum result, and perhaps also Donald Trump’s victory.  It is also the most commonly quoted explanation for the rise of Adolf Hitler in the early 1930s.

However, there are also clearly cases when a surge in populist support is not triggered by an economic downturn. Perhaps the best example of this is the rise of the UDCA (the Poujadist movement) in France in the 1950s, a period when France was experiencing substantial economic growth.  Here, the trigger was much more the trauma of defeat in two wars (the World War II occupation and Indochina) and the prospect of losing a third (Algeria).   This led to a general feeling that the elite had lost their way and were no longer able to solve the national challenges.

In a similar vein, Berlusconi’s rise in the early 1990s cannot be wholly attributed to economic underperformance in Italy, and is more likely to have been the result of exasperation at the corruption and general incompetence of the traditional political parties.

But perhaps the most interesting point about populist parties is how rarely they actually win elections.  If we look at the largest democracies, over the past 200 years or so, populists have won power at most five or six times through the ballot box:  Andrew Jackson in the United States in 1828 and 1832;  Louis Napoleon in France in 1848;  Hitler in Germany in 1933;  Berlusconi in Italy in 1994, 2001 and 2008;  Trump in the United States in 2016 and (arguably) Macron in France in 2017.

If we add referenda and smaller, less established democracies, we can add the 2016 Brexit referendum in the UK, the 2005 EU constitutional referenda in France and the Netherlands, recent elections in Poland, Hungary and the Philippines and repeated elections in Latin America.

One can quibble with this list and argue for including some more or excluding some mentioned.  But to repeat, the important point is that populist electoral victories are quite rare.

However, what tends to happen is that while populist parties do not win many elections, their ideas often triumph anyway.  Milton Friedman highlighted this when he noted (in 1980) that although the American Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in 1928 received less than 1% of the vote, “Almost every economic plank in its 1928 presidential platform has by now been enacted into law”, making it “the most influential political party in the United States in the first decades of the twentieth century” [2].  And there are strong grounds for putting forward Nigel Farage as the most successful current British politician – despite never even being an MP he has forced his country to accept his principal policy.

But all this aside, why should this be a problem?  We live in an age of democracy, where the will of the people should be guiding the state.  If populism means listening to the people, a people that has been excluded from the more orthodox political process, is that not all to the good?  And if populist measures get enacted, even if it is done by mainstream politicians without populist victories at the polls, is that not a triumph of the democratic process?

We would argue not.  In fact, there is ample reason to worry that populism is instead a major threat to liberal democracy.  To begin with, populism is generally anti-pluralist:  populists typically claim they stand for and define the only truth and refuse to accept the legitimacy of alternative or opposing views.  Indeed opponents are often labelled “enemies of the people”.

Secondly, the rise of populism is often accompanied by a deterioration of the public debate, with a rising level of falsehood and demagoguery, fake news and “alternative facts”.  Made-up stories, conspiracy theories, personal insults and hate speech proliferate, libel and lies abound, and every possible means is used to make people angry and create social unrest.

As a result, populism takes Voltaire’s great cry of tolerance “I disagree with what you say but I defend your right to say it” and turns it through 180 degrees.  Via the intermediate stages of “I disagree with what you say and I consider you wrong” and “I disagree with what you say and I consider you evil”, the populist has the approach “I disagree with what you say and I attack your right to say it”.  The vilification of those in the UK who voice doubts about both the imperative of leaving the EU and the wisdom of those who wish to, is a case in point [3].

Thirdly, by feeding on voters’ anger and resentment, populists also increase distrust of the political system in general.  And the almost inevitable failure of populism’s simplistic or “magic bullet” solutions helps further reduce the respect that the political class and political process is held in, often leading to the complete collapse of traditional centrist politics.

Lastly, while populism is not the only threat to a free society, it can act to reinforce other threats, particularly those coming from the increasingly global nature of the world.  The isolationist streak within most populist movements means that problems that could be better dealt with on a multilateral basis are more likely to be tackled piecemeal by individual countries, potentially exacerbating the downsides.

In summary, we argue that it is too simplistic to claim, as many apologists for populism do, that since democracy means the rule of the majority, and since populist movements encapsulate the will of the majority in its purest sense, then populism is the pinnacle of democracy.   On the contrary, populism weakens the ballot box, seeks to stifle political debate and undermines the freedoms (of speech, of action, of belief) that democratic societies currently take for granted.

More fundamentally, we would argue that even more than respecting the wishes of the majority, democracy stands for the protection of minorities.  In the very long run, it is difficult, if not impossible, to run a country – under almost any system of government – without the at least tacit support of the majority.  But it is a mark of healthy democracies that the rights of minorities are also protected. Without this protection of minorities, a democracy is only one step from becoming a majoritarian dictatorship, where the majority, however small, is always right and must not be challenged – as Abraham Lincoln did not say, “Government of the people, by the majority, for the majority” [4].

Populist societies are seldom known for their tolerance of minorities – the classic “Them” that the “Us” like to blame for all of society’s ills.

These then are some of the issues that the present strength of populist parties and sentiments give rise to.  We will be exploring them in the subsequent articles in this series.


[1]              Francis Fukuyama, “American Political Decay or Renewal? The Meaning of the 2016 Election”, Foreign Affairs Journal, July/August 2016, p 68

[2]              Milton & Rose Friedman, “Free to Choose”, p 196

[3]              There has probably never been a golden age of civilised political discourse.  Tactical use of communications has always played a role in politics, of course, and twisting the truth is no recent invention.  Politics in the Roman Republic was vicious, personal and often violent.  The Nazi party took the violence of the street gangs into the heart of the political system.  And for Americans who bemoan the current tone of the US political debate, the presidential elections of 1796 and 1800 (Adams v Jefferson) would make disconcerting reading and show that passions ran just as high then as they do today – see for example Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick “The Age of Federalism – The Early American Republic, 1788-1800”, or David McCullough “John Adams – a biography”.

[4]              The tendency for democracy to slide into majoritarian dictatorship is particularly pronounced in the developing world, where the gap between a very small elite and the mass population is often very large and the potential for alienation of the governing class is ever-present.  And when this is combined with politics run on tribal lines – as has been the case in much of Africa – the scope for the ruling party or faction to become entrenched and undismissable is considerable, leading to elections firstly being empty charades and then often abandoned altogether.

This is the first of a series of four articles, which is being co-published with Stein Brothers UK.  See their website here.