At its core, populism is defined as a political form of action that pits a disenchanted portion of the population against the government. It’s a “we, the people” against “the establishment” kind of ideology; this is the general concept of populism.
Then there is the type of populism that originated in the United States in the 19th century, reared its head in the 20th and 21st centuries and even migrated across to western Europe in the 1970s. Some political scientists feel this type of populism can’t be defined in terms of left, right or center because it isn’t as much an ideology as it is a way of thinking about politics. It includes Bernie Sanders, Donald Trump, Podemos in Spain, and the Front National in France.
How Can Populism Aptly Describe Such a Wide Range of Politicians?
Michael Kazin, a historian, explains in his book dealing with American populism that it’s a “language” spoken by people who consider ordinary folks to be a noble assembly with no class restrictions. On the other hand, they see their opponents as the elite who are completely self-serving. So, their goal is to mobilize the “noble assembly” against the elite. In other words, it circles back to the “we, the people” against “the establishment,” except that politicians spearhead the movement.
Cas Mudde gave a better definition that has gained more and more traction. He deems populism to be a “thin” ideology that creates a framework for other ideas with a larger number of moving parts, like socialism, racism, nationalism and so on. The framework is that of the people against the corrupt elite.
When treated as a framework rather than a single belief, populism is a vehicle that can be used to carry any ideology that climbs aboard. It explains how Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Hillary Clinton are just as populist as Donald Trump, though in different ways. Chavez and Hitler were also populists.
Interestingly, many considered populism a bad thing, until recently. In fact, according to historian Richard Hofstadter, it’s a “paranoid style of politics.” However, today there are those who believe that liberalism is outdated and populism should be at the core of democratic politics. Of course, the truth tends to be somewhere in the middle in that populism is neither all good or bad.
The good side of populism is that it brings to light problems that many care about but that the political elite would rather ignore. For example, right-wing populists are worried about immigration, while left-leaning populists are concerned about austerity measures. Donald Trump is a right-leaning populist, while Bernie Sanders leans left.
What’s scary about populism is that ignores the varying interests and opinions of “the people.” As such, it sees all opposition as being illegitimate; think Hitler.
Why Populism Is Spreading
Populist movements gain support when people feel the current political norms backed by the establishment are at odds with their hopes, fears, and concerns. This is very much the present sentiment in the U.S. and Europe.
Likewise, the global financial crash of 2007 that sent most of the world into recession only recently ceased to be a looming economic presence. And given that both the media and “Main Street” laid the crisis squarely at the feet of Wall Street, it was a powder keg waiting to blow. Except, now that the dust has settled we’re left with populism.
Of course, no matter how populist one claims to be, power corrupts. Hence, once in power populism is less about being “for the people” as it is for the leader.
Why We Should Be Concerned About Leftist Populism
On paper, populism almost makes sense. It would seem to be the very essence of democracy in that it supports the everyday people, allowing their grievances to be heard and put into action. Likewise, communism made sense too—in textbooks. It was supposed to create a utopia where all were equal. However, the reality is much different. In fact, a running joke in many communist countries is that “some people are more equal than others”; this describes the stark difference between how ruling class elites live vs. the impoverished populace.
What does the failure of communism have to do with populism? Namely, ideas that sound good in theory don’t always work in real life, especially when you factor in the human component.
In a sense, leftist populism is more dangerous because it is anti-democratic. In fact, when coupled with its egalitarian principles, it resembles communism. Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez is a great example. He started out a left-wing populist but his actions as president never aligned with his “of the people, for the people” rhetoric.
Fast forward to today and Venezuela is in the unenviable position of being so strapped for cash they must cut back on imports like food and medicine, even though Chavez is no longer in power. Hence, leftist populism tends towards authoritarianism. Furthermore, it pits different groups against one another. And perhaps worse, it calls into question the rule of law as it doesn’t trust the very institutions tasked to uphold order since they represent the establishment.
What We Can Do About It
First and foremost, better education is a must. We’re not just talking about what our kids learn in school. We mean a better education in terms of politics and the issues left-wing populists like to trot out every time they make a speech in front of a crowd.
Take Bernie Sanders demand for “Medicare for all” and a $15 per hour minimum wage. It sounds great and may even be “for the people.” However, it’s easy to make these statements when you don’t have to come up with a system to implement said ideas. But not all voters get it. Yes, people will always worry about their situation first, and this is natural.
After all, if you’re earning $8 per hour do you really care where the money comes from if someone tells you that the only thing standing between you and $15 an hour is a single vote? But things might look different when you understand that even the $8 per hour could be lost if the company cut half of its staff after being forced to pay $15 per hour.
So, better education certainly matters but so too does effective communication. And that goes both ways. Everyone is talking, but no one is listening, i.e., politicians have stopped listening to their voters while voters don’t listen to their politicians. Lack of effective communication leads to discontent which results in a rise in populism.
The key to blunting the impact of populist movements is removing the disconnect between the government and the people. Want to prevent a leftist populist from picking up where Sanders left off in 2020? If people feel that their leaders care about them, it will be difficult to fuel the fire of populist movements.