Populism, as defined by my textbook for Political Science 113: Introduction to Comparative Politics, is a “political movement based on championing the rights and interests of the people in the face of the ruling elite.” Gamal Abdel Nasser, second President of Egypt, drew much of his power and support from his ability to connect with and represent the ordinary people — promoting ideologies of unity and strength in the Arab world, working to modernize the nation and increase the quality of life of his constituents.
In the past decades, we have seen a rise in the prevalence of populism around the world. From 1990 to 2018, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change observed a fivefold increase from four to 20 populist leaders in power.
Faith in the trustworthiness and ability of government to prioritize the interests of the people has steadily declined. As a result, we have an ascension to leadership by figures like Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, who relied heavily on campaign promises to personally rid the government of corruption to win his election in 2016.
Another example of this is Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro, a figure known primarily for his far-right ideologies and frequent offensive, prejudiced behavior, who capitalized on Brazil’s mid-decade economic crisis and an overall general distrust in government to win in 2018.
There is also the Five Star Movement (and, previously, Silvio Berlusconi) in Italy, which has utilized social media to take elitism out of politics and reach out to sects of the population that would normally not be involved in political affairs. There’s Hugo Chávez and Nicolás Maduro in Venezuela, whose populist economics led to mass redistribution of wealth and land. There’s Evo Morales in Bolivia, whose distinctive brand of populism focused on Indigenous and marginalized peoples. There’s Benjamin Netanyahu in Israel, Viktor Orbán in Hungary, Alberto Fujimori in Peru, Lech Wałęsa in Poland and Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey.
And, perhaps most prevalent in the minds of many reading this article, Donald Trump, the 45th president of the United States, is a notable case of using populist rhetoric to achieve power. Trump’s campaign focused on his vision to “Make America Great Again” and “drain the swamp.” These phrases have become more and more commonplace in the past few years, as discontent with the state of American politics and of political corruption and elitism have risen, leading to politicians such as Trump claiming to prioritize the American people by putting the interests of the nation first. Textbook populism.
All of these leaders have, at one point, capitalized on high levels of distrust or dissatisfaction with government, combined with a distinct focus on “the people” versus “the elite,” to gain traction for their respective movements and be elected to their nation’s highest leadership posts.
Benjamin Moffitt, Australian Research Council DECRA fellow and senior lecturer in politics at the Australian Catholic University, argues that populism is not the style of government a political movement advocates, but rather how these political movements and their leaders garner support through rhetoric — more of a political style, if you will. Moffitt equates populist leaders to performers, with the media, the nation’s state of affairs and the “establishment,” especially during times of crisis, as their stage.
Central to contemporary populism is the idea of “us versus them:” the common, ordinary people standing up to the political elite. This is the dichotomy that has been central to countless populist movements around the world — this is the play Moffitt’s performers put on for their audiences.
The Tony Blair Institute for Global Change outlines three key types that often make an appearance in populist rhetoric: cultural, anti-establishment and socioeconomic. Cultural populism prioritizes the culture of a nation by portraying outsiders as a threat and placing emphasis on identity, tradition and rule of law. Anti-establishment populism often portrays the state as one run by special interests and the political elite, who do not adequately represent the people. Socioeconomic populism, meanwhile, “claims that the true people are honest, hardworking members of the working class, and outsiders can include big business, capital owners and actors perceived as propping up an international capitalist system.” It is by exploiting one or more of these social rifts, and promising to do something about it that so many populist figures have been able to gain traction with a vast audience.
However, promises made are not always promises kept. Brookings writes of Duterte and Trump that “once elected, they then used their offices to further weaken institutional venues for combating corruption by bypassing them, co-opting them with political appointees and ousting critics.” Duterte’s administration has been characterized as one of fear and oppression amid his war on drugs, which has resulted in the deaths of over 12,000 Filipinos suspected of being drug addicts, according to a report by Human Rights Watch. And, after President Trump’s acquittal by the Senate in February 2020 following his impeachment by the House of Representatives the previous December, several key witnesses who testified against him were removed from their positions, with others leaving their posts by different means as well.
When looking at contemporary populist leaders and parties, one might be inclined to conclude that populism is bad for democracies. Several populist leaders today, such as Nicolás Maduro, Alexander Lukashenko and Vladimir Putin have been characterized as authoritarian leaders who have used the mandate of the people to increase their own power and control. Others — like Duterte, Bolsonaro and Trump — have weakened the trust and effectiveness of democratic institutions since coming into power.
So, is populism bad?
Fundamentally, no. In fact, it emphasizes a certain principle in politics many feel have largely fallen by the wayside: prioritizing and representing the needs of the people. While much of this article has focused on so-called “right-wing” populism, which often encompasses ideas like protecting a nation’s culture through the restriction of immigration, clearing the government of perceived corruption and elitism and bolstering law and order through stricter criminal penalties, populism can have socially progressive manifestations.
It’s important to understand that populism resides all throughout the political spectrum; Evo Morales, former president of Bolivia, is a prime example. Ordinary people, especially those in marginalized or Indigenous communities, were the primary focus of many policy initiatives put into motion by Morales’ administration and his party, Movement for Socialism (MAS) — poverty reduction foremost among them.
Even in the United States, we have our fair share of left-leaning politicians who subscribe to some populist ideologies, such as U.S. Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont, and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York. Like President Trump, Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez use social media to their advantage, often communicating directly with the American people to garner attention toward issues, mobilize movements and build traction for policy initiatives — all working toward the goals of combating ineffectuality and elitism in government, and representing the needs of the average American. That populist rhetoric is still there: Sanders wrote of his 2016 presidential bid, stating that his “campaign was never just about electing a president of the United States — as enormously important as that was. This campaign was about transforming America. It was about the understanding that real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up. It takes place when ordinary people, by the millions, are prepared to stand up and fight for justice.”
So, let us not do away with populism — it is a powerful tool that has repeatedly proved capable, in the right hands, of bringing about mass enthusiasm and political participation. Instead, we must ensure that those who come to power through claiming to support its ideals go on to govern with those same aspirations, the welfare of the many, guiding the way they choose to shape the world.
Ahmed Sultan is a freshman double-majoring in computer science and philosophy, politics and law.