The Triumph of Populism

  • Populism has very old roots; and it comes and goes in waves
  • In modern times, populist parties rarely win elections. Their ideas triumph anyway. The populist victories in 2016/17 make this a very unusual time
  • Populism is not the ultimate expression of a democracy. On the contrary, it is a threat to democracy and freedom.

Over the past few years, there has been a surge of populism in the democratic world, both form the left, from the right and from the centre. This is the first in a planned series of four articles that attempts to look at the phenomenon of populism, and how it fits into downside risks to the future.

First, however, we need to define populism. This is not as easy as it sounds. Francis Fukuyama notes that ““Populism” is the label that political elites attach to policies supported by ordinary citizens that they don’t like.”[1] However, although populism comes in many varieties, there are generally some common threads. Perhaps the most common is a Manichean mind-set, where society is divided into “Us vs. Them”, split between “the people” and a corrupt and oppressive/exploiting elite. In the United States in the 19th Century, this was very much a juxtaposition of the “common man” against “money power”.[2]

Populist movements also frequently concentrate on one or a few issues, where they usually claim to have simple straightforward answers to the problems of the day. Often, but not always, they are also non-ideological, an important point to keep in mind when populist movements are frequently referred to as ‘right-wing’ or ‘left-wing’. In fact, as M. Macron’s victory in the 2017 French presidential election shows, populists need not be of the right or the left, they can be of the centre as well.

Regardless of ideology or the lack thereof, there are some views that tend to be held by most populist movements. They tend to be nativist; protectionist; favour inflation; be suspicious of banks and big business and frequently favour higher public spending, sometimes combined with lower taxes.

There are numerous exceptions to these generalisations; there are big differences between populist movements (for instance, in the 1950s, the French UDCA supported the Algerian War; while in the 1970s, the Danish Progress Party proposed replacing the armed forces with an answerphone saying – in Russian – “We surrender”); and not all ‘non-ideological’ parties are necessarily populist.

Populism has a very long history. Arguably, it was the default operating system in the late Roman Republic. More recently, populism has come and gone in waves over the past 200 years.

But perhaps the most interesting point about populist parties is how rarely they actually win elections. If we look at the largest democracies, and ignoring for a moment the substantial differences between some of the events mentioned, over the past 190 years, populists have won power five or six times through the ballot box: Andrew Jackson in the United States in 1828 and 1832; Louis Napoleon in France in 1848; Adolf Hitler in Germany in 1933; Silvio Berlusconi in Italy in 1994, 2001 and 2008; Donald Trump in the United States in 2016 and (arguably) Emmanuel Macron in France in 2017.

If we add referenda and smaller, less established democracies, we can throw in 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. (Latin America is a very interesting case. The continent used to be the home of populism; but, in the current wave, absent possibly Venezuela and Bolivia, populists are not in power anywhere, nor likely to get there.)

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 populist ideas triumph anyway. Milton Friedman highlighted this when he (in 1980) noted that although the Socialist Party’s presidential candidate in 1928 received less than 1% of the vote, “[A]lmost 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”.[3]  And there are very strong grounds for putting forward Nigel Farage as the most successful current British politician – despite never being an MP he has forced the country to accept his principal policy.

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. But it is not the whole truth. For one thing, in a severe economic downturn, populists initially tend not to gain ground, perhaps because their potential supporters are too busy trying to deal with the impact of the recession/depression on their lives. Instead, their support tends to rise later, as conditions begin to improve.

However, there are clearly cases when a surge in populist support is not triggered by an economic downturn. Perhaps the best example of that is the rise of the UDCA (the Poujadist movement) in France in the 1950s, when France was experiencing substantial economic growth. Here, the trigger was much more the trauma of losing two wars (World War II and Indochina) and looking like losing a third (Algeria). So perhaps a complementary explanation to the economic downturn is, a national trauma (leaving aside the difficulties of how to define that).

In fact, Karen Horn quotes studies showing that the empirical evidence for economic reasons behind a populist upsurge is inconclusive, and that cultural reasons are more persuasive.[4]

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 alienated from a global, liberal, bien-pensant elite, is that not all to the good?

No, it isn’t. In fact, there is ample reason to worry that populism is a major threat to liberal democracy. To begin with, populism is generally anti-pluralist. The populists stand for and define the only truth and refuse to accept the legitimacy of alternative or opposing views.

There probably never was a golden age of civilised political discourse. For Americans, who (rightly) 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 as today.[5]

Even so, Horn finds that the rise of populism is accompanied by a deterioration of the public debate. “One thing that the extremists have brought in is an appalling degree of falsehood and demagoguery. Fake news, “alternative facts”, made-up stories, conspiracy theories, libel and lies abound, and every possible means is being used to make people angry and create social unrest.

“Drastic tactical communication has always played a role in the business of politics, of course; twisting the truth is no recent invention; and everybody wants to be heard. But the present level of this is unseen. And when the lies are finally detected and the outrage denounced, nothing seems to change.

“Apart from falsehood and demagoguery, but connected with it, is something else that the extremists have brought in: personal insults and hate speech.”[6]

This point is also made by others. Timothy Snyder refers to Victor Klemperer’s analysis of language in Nazi Germany, to show how the populists distort the language, e.g., how ‘the people’ always refers to some people, but not others.[7]

Indeed, populism turns Voltaire’s great cry of tolerance “I disagree with what you say but I defend your right to say 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 now 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.

Amichai Magen, of the Inter-Disciplinary Centre in Herzliya, Israel, has further developed the characterisation of populist movements, particularly with a view to showing how they help nurture terrorism.[8]  According to his taxonomy:

“1. Society is sharply separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: “the pure people” and the “corrupt elites” (“the establishment”). Right wing populism often includes fringe groups at the bottom of society – immigrants, recipients of social-welfare, and religious minorities – in the castigated “out group” or “parasites” feeding off decent folk. The “pure, innocent, hard-working people” have been downtrodden and deprived of “their rights” by the corrupt elites and/or the “parasites”. They must rise and take what rightfully belongs to them.

2. Internationally too, society is divided sharply into “us” and “them”. Economic, cultural, and security threats emanating from outsiders endanger “us” and deprive the people of their prosperity, equality, safety, “traditional values”, culture, identity, and voice. Protectionism, nationalism, xenophobia, antagonism, propensity for conflict and militarism follow.

3. There is no legitimate middle-ground or opposition. Populism is essentially anti-pluralist. Whoever opposes, or is suspected of not supporting the populists, is castigated as not being “part of the people” and, in extremis, to be “the enemy of the people”.

4. Conspiracy: The corrupt elites and outsiders (including immigrants) have conspired against “the people”. The enemies are everywhere. There is something vast and shadowy going on behind the scenes. The political system is rigged and so is the economy (“corporations”, banks, and “globalization” are especially culpable). The world is dangerous and hostile. Democracy is a sham, the security organizations that are meant to protect us are failing, the media lies. The populists are the only one who (bravely) expose the conspiracy and can fix it. “Political correctness”, an oppressive tool of the elites, must be cast aside and “the truth” revealed. There is a permanent state of crisis and an apocalyptical confrontation between the forces of good and evil is coming.

5. Solutions are simple. The singular common good of the people (the volonté générale) is clear and commonsensical, capable of being defined and implemented by “a strong leader” or “the party”. What needs to be done is obvious and decisive, “no debate about values or weighing of empirical evidence is required. “Whoever opposes “the solution” harms the people and is therefore a traitor.”

Although the populists frequently claim to wish to protect society from outside threats, Magen shows that their behaviour actually increases the outside threat. By marginalising certain groups, they create incentives for them to radicalise; while the combination of preying on public fears and the almost automatic failure of “magic bullet” solutions help erode democracy and the rule of law in the pursuit of safety.

This is also an economic issue. The protectionist/nativist cast of most populist movements go back to the perception of a zero-sum society, where someone’s gain by definition means someone else’s loss. By contrast, liberalism (classical liberalism in the European sense, not what Americans call liberalism), is very much a positive sum or win-win view, where everybody can improve their situation.[9]

Populism is not the only threat to the free society. But it can act to reinforce of other threats. The isolationist streak within most populist movements means that problems that could be better tackled on a multilateral basis, are more likely to be dealt with piecemeal by individual countries, potentially exacerbating the downsides.

Some of these issues will be explored in the second article in this series.

This is the first in a series of articles written together with John Nugée and published jointly on this website and on the Laburnum Consulting website .


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

[2] See, e.g., Karen Horn, Me, the People – Western Societies under the Sway of Populist Leaders, paper prepared for the Special meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society in Stockholm, November 2017, pp 7-8

[3] Milton & Rose Friedman, Free to Choose, p 196

[4] Horn, pp 13-14

[5] See, e.g., Stanley Elkins and Eric McKitrick, The Age of Federalism – The Early American Republic, 1788-1800, or David McCullough, John Adams.

[6] Horn, p 5

[7] Timothy Snyder, On Tyranny, Twenty Lessons from the Twentieth Century, The Bodley Head, London 2017

[8] Amichai Magen, The Terrorism-Populism Threat to the Free Society, Paper prepared for the 2017 Special Meeting of the Mont Pèlerin Society, Stockholm November, 2017, p 7

[9] Deirdre Nansen McCloskey, Populism is Zero Sum Under Majority Rule, Paper for Mont Pèlerin Meetings, Stockholm, 2nd November 2017