by Matt Musindi

Politics has become more divisive and polarised than ever, and it is the populists who have been the main beneficiaries of these political divisions. A populist is someone who consistently promises to channel the unified will of the people. Going off this definition, most political parties in liberal democracies are populist and yet this is not the case – why?

It is largely due to the fact that societies’ interests change and evolve quicker than the ideologies of political parties. The core Conservative values 30 years ago probably don’t align with what is socially acceptable now. Not only that but ‘ordinary people’ represent a broad and large sphere of society, meaning that there are going to be different beliefs within the same ‘constituency’. So, in the age of broken governments and divisions in society, how has an ideology based on unifying the majority and bringing people together managed to thrive in 21st-century politics?

populist groups target social issues directly in order to appeal to voters, disregarding wider picture policies and politics

For decades, Western elites have unequivocally conformed to and agreed on most major issues like free trade, immigration and climate change; Germany, for instance, has recently agreed to accept 25% of migrants to cross over by sea to Italy. The Paris Agreement was signed in 2016 with the aim to strengthen the global response to the threat of climate change. As a result of this seeming uniformity, any sceptics were pushed out to the political fringe – this is what has helped the likes of Trump, Farage, Salvini, and Le Pen. Populists have tapped into this pool of resentment towards the establishment which has been built up due to major political crises over the past decade. In a survey taken from Pew Research last year, over half of voters from 27 European and North American countries are dissatisfied with how democracy is working. This dissatisfaction has acted as a breeding ground for populist parties.

pew research democracy

Populists generally gather momentum after a major crisis which creates distrust towards the mainstream political parties. For instance, the distrust created after the 2008 financial crisis and the MP expenses scandal has steepened the cynicism towards our democratic government.

Populist tactics are more issue-based than that of a traditional catch-all party. Take Germany for example, where Saxony has emerged as the far-right’s heartland, as the populist AFD won 25% of the vote in the recent regional elections. They have targeted the coal mining regions where Merkel’s government has vowed to shut them down to meet carbon emission goals. What this illustrates is how populist groups target social issues directly in order to appeal to voters, disregarding wider picture policies and politics.

So, what exactly does it take to be a populist candidate? What sets the likes of Trump and Johnson apart from other politicians? What defines these politicians is their apparent commitment to their ideologies, be it socialism, neo-liberalism or authoritarianism, a populist candidate can fit in anywhere along the political spectrum. Right-wing populist candidates, such as Trump and Matteo Salvini tend to argue on a more ‘exclusionary’ basis. They focus on omitting ‘the other’ from their countries. Trump, for example, has showcased this with his promise to deport thousands of immigrants, as well as his persistent “Build the Wall” Rhetoric. This has been an appealing argument for some voters due to the recent Syrian refugee crisis. Sections of countries around the world have become more sceptical about immigration and populist candidates have not only acted as their voice on the political stage but has also been the cause of scepticism in many cases.

kamala harris fearless

via NYmag

On the other hand, left-wing populists such as Bernie Sanders and Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez tend to fight on a broader and more inclusive front. Notably, in the United States of America, there has been a wider populist turn in the Democratic party as a result of Trump’s victory in 2016. Kamala Harris launched her campaign with the slogan ‘For the People’, which is a classic populist phrase as it shows that she is trying to distance herself away from the establishment. Not only that but Harris has openly claimed to be carrying the mantle of “a new populism.” Left-wing European populists tend to disassociate themselves with this terminology.  The likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Jean-Luc Mélenchon believe that being associated ed with populism tarnishes their credentials, but perhaps we are entering a new phase in our politics where it is actually doing the opposite.

The distrust towards established political parties has facilitated the growth of cynicism towards Western democratic operations. However, too much cynicism undermines the legitimacy of these very same democratic institutions. Boris Johnson’s recent attempt to the prorogation of Parliament illustrates this, as well as Trump’s persistent labelling the media as ‘fake news’ and talk of ‘coups’. Populist tactics are superficial, it is a ‘thin ideology’ which is why these parties struggle to maintain their momentum.

As soon as populist lose their ‘appeal’, they have no core foundations to fall back on to revive their party.

In nearly all Western democracies, power is shared by a large number of people and institutions that have a long and rich history. Populist parties struggle to catch up with these parties as, eventually, the singular issue that the foundations of their parties are built upon becomes yesterday’s news. As soon as populist lose their ‘appeal’, they have no core foundations to fall back on to revive their party. If a populist candidate does gain power then in some cases it will galvanise their opposition and bring them together. Take a look at Matteo Salvini in Italy whose populist experiment came to an end in August 2019. He attempted to cash in on his lead in the opinion polls and win outright in a snap election, but he did not count on the possibility of his opponents teaming up to stop him.

In conclusion, then, we must acknowledge that as long as the mainstream and well-established parties are in power, some form of populism will live on alongside them. Whilst the current global political state seems to make it easier for populists to gain popularity, and with that, power, it will more than likely be too much power for them to withstand. Populism’s black and white views and uncompromising stand actually leads to a more polarised society. This is why populists are able to cause the odd major upset or make an indent in an election, but they cannot lead and take control of a democratic country.

Featured image CC BY-NC-SA 2.0 Philip Storry


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