"Any way the wind blows" - Queen, Bohemian Rhapsody
Populism, what is it?
I’ve recently written an essay on populism, a subject much in the news the past few years.In the popular media, this is often the result of migration or (unfair) trade relations, where the West is the victim.This is surprising, as one would think that we are in a world designed and dominated by the West…
Populism is a complex and contested concept.Movements considered right and left wing and / or with positions across the political spectrum have been considered populist.One explanation for this wide scope of policy positions ascribed to populists is the debate around the drivers of the phenomenon.Essentially, there are two approaches.According to Algan et al.’s analysis of Eurosceptic populism, “The first one is a cultural backlash against progressive values, such as cosmopolitanism and multiculturalism, and a shift toward national identity.The second explanation emphasizes economic insecurity, stemming from either globalization and technological progress (typified by outsourcing, increased competition from low-wage countries, and automation) or the sharp increase in unemployment in Europe in the aftermath of the recent global financial and economic crisis.” (2017, p. 310).Some have suggested that the two drivers are linked; e.g., Rodrik argues that the latter economic driver may make it easier for politicians to mobilize on the former nationalistic driver (Rodrik 2017).
Another reason so many political agendas can be called “populist” is that it might be more of an approach than a policy agenda.In their analysis of the literature, Elchardus and Spruyt note that, “Authors using a minimalist definition of populism focus on those elements of populism that are always present in discursive formulations of populist ideology and in populist rhetoric, regardless of context… They identify tow such elements that can be considered as the core of populism as a thin ideology.The first is the centrality and elevated status of ‘the people’ or more precisely ‘the ordinary people’… The second core trait of the thin ideology of populism is articulated on the basis of that vertical view of the social structure: the betrayal of the ordinary people by an elite that uses its power to its own advantage… (2016, pp. 113-114).This anti-elitism is important to take note of.Outside of the European context, Mead, for example, has argued that this is a key tenant of the United States’ Tea Party movement (2011, p. 34).Muller, in his overview of populism takes a similar line: “Populism is not just any mobilization strategy that appeals to “the people”; it employs a very specific kind of language.Populists do not just criticize elites; they also claim that they and only they represent the true people.” (2016, p. 40).
A range of studies have argued that there are links between the rise of populism and economic factors.According to Algan, et al., in the context of Europe, “There is a statistically and economically significant relationship between regional unemployment and a decline in trust toward the European Parliament and national parliament.” (2017, p. 312).De Vries and Hoffmann make a similar observation, noting that, “Our findings show that fear of globalisation is the decisive factor behind demands for changes away from the political mainstream… This effect is particularly evident when it comes to right wing populist parties, but is also present for left wing populist parties.” (2016, p. 3).In the US and the Tea Party, Mead has argued, “That federal deficits produce economic growth and that free trade with low-wage countries raises Americans’ living standards are the kind of propositions that clash with the common sense of many Americans.” (2011, p. 34).In the context of Australia, and the rise of the populist One Nation Party, Mughan, Bean, and McAllister argue that economic insecurity was a key driver of the rise of the party (2003, p. 631).
03.02.2020, Niamey, Niger.
Algan, Y., Papaioannou, E., Guriev, S., and Passari, E. (2017), “The European Trust Crisis and the Rise of Populism”, Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, pp. 309-382.
Rodrik, D. (2018) ‘Populism and the economics of globalization’, Journal of International Business Policy, 1, pp. 12-33.
Elchardus, M., and Spruyt, B. (2016) ‘Populism, Persistent Republicanism and Declinism: An Empirical Analysis of Populism as a Thin Ideology’, Government and Opposition, 51:1, pp. 111-133.
Mead, W. R. (2011), ‘The Tea Party and American Foreign Policy: What Populism Means for Globalization’, Foreign Affairs, 90:2, pp. 28-44.
Mughan, A., Bean, C. and McAllister, I. (2003) ‘Economic globalization, job insecurity and the populist reaction’, Electoral Studies, 22, pp. 617-633.
Muller, J-W., What is Populism?, Penguin Random House UK, 2017.
De Vries, C., and Hoffmann, I. (2016) Fear not Values. Public opinion and the populist vote in Europe, EUpinions, Bertelsmann Stiftung.
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