Political commentators concur that a tide of populism is on the uptick worldwide. Whether in Europe, the Americas, the Middle East or Asia, populist politicians (the likes of Marine Le Pen, Geert Wilders, Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, or Donald Trump) enjoy substantial popular support these days. Critics allege, however, that populist policies threaten the neo-liberal world order in place since World War II, and usher dangerous tension and discord into international relations. But what exactly is populism? What is the secret of its appeal? How bad is it really, and why?
The term populism refers to a superficial (“thin”) ideology (Mudde, 2004) depicting a major societal rift between the people and an elite. The populist narrative is heavily value-laden. Influenced by 19th century Romanticism, it portrays ‘the people’ (folk) in highly complimentary terms as pure, kind, and trusting (even if naïve). The elites, in contrast, are depicted as exploitative, corrupt, and immoral. They are alleged to oppress the people and do them harm. The populist narrative thus challenges the people to rise against the elites and depose them in the interest of justice.
Typically, the populist narrative addresses a circumscribed social category: a nation, an ethnicity, or a religion. The ‘people’ are members of that category: denizens of a state, co-ethnics, or fellow believers. The ‘elites’, in contrast, are characterized variously in different populist narratives: In the American context, the ‘Washington establishment’ has long been the evil elite of choice, the ‘swamp’ that Trump promised to drain. In other populist rhetoric, the despised elites are variously: ‘the federal government’ the ‘military-industrial complex’, ‘the capitalists’, the Big Banks, ‘East Coast intellectuals’, and so on.
Ironically, leaders of the populist “revolt” are typically members of the elites they purport to overthrow. Sanders is a Washingtonian insider, Trump, a billionaire. In an effort to downplay the distance between them and the ‘people,’ champions of populist causes often claim their own humble beginnings and suffering from disdainful elites. In this vein, Trump in a recent interview talked about how much he experienced being looked down upon a lot of his life. Sanders often evoked his working class background as apparent legitimation of his populist leadership, etc.
A typical populist narrative is rabble rousing. It alleges betrayal of the people by the elites. After all, any form of government (including monarchy) is expected to reliably shepherd its “flock”, protect it and provide for its needs. The failure to do so is to renege on the government’s sacred mission, and a reason for its removal, and replacement, peacefully or not.
The United States emerged as a nation on a tide of ‘populism’ directed against the British elite. It sought to create a government “of the people, for the people, and by the people,” in Lincoln's memorable words. Yet in recent decades, trust in U.S. institutions has eroded substantially, the income chasm has grown to an abyss, and the American Dream increasingly appeared an unattainable fantasy. These circumstances mobilized American voters to support elite-bashing populisms touted by Sanders and Trump, and commonly (albeit from opposing perspectives) decrying the economic and political ruling classes.
Populist leaders naturally seek to bypass the elites and establish a direct link to the people. Donald Trump’s tweets constitute such firsthand connection. Putin has an annual “direct line” through which Russian citizens may communicate directly with their leader. Relatedly, populist leaders tend to be authoritarian, and their style of governance is hierarchical, with the power concentrated in their own hands rather than shared with an elite of some kind.
Again, Trump is a poster child for these inclinations. He boasted that in matters of foreign policy he turns to himself first and foremost, as he did when deciding to withdraw from the Paris climate agreement, or in putting together the travel ban executive order.
Why is populism so appealing? The secret lies in its quintessential narrative: (1) It is simple, coherent, and tight, anchored in clear dichotomies between the pure and the depraved, the good and the evil, etc., and (2) it envisions a hopeful future for the people. Individuals should find populism attractive if (1) they are confused, disoriented and uncertain, suffering from a heightened need for cognitive closure, or (2) if they feel threatened, humiliated or insignificant, thus given to an intense significance quest.
Both characteristics describe the mindset of “globalization losers” who feel left behind in the quickly changing world where they no longer find a place. They are, thus, disoriented and confused. Their old ways of doing things seem not to work anymore. Technology has rendered their skills obsolete and taken away their jobs. They feel humiliated and undervalued. Seeking refuge in alcohol and opioids, they tend to die relatively young. In their desperation, they passionately welcome a populist narrative that (1) dispels their uncertainties, and (2) vows to “make them great again.” Thus, they flock to populist leaders who offer certainty and hope. Research by Inglehart and Norris shows that populist parties received significantly greater support among the less well off and among those who experienced unemployment.
All is not economics, however. The unprecedented waves of immigration, and the worst refugee crisis since World War II, confront people with massive otherness that unsettles them and upsets their cultural milieus. Add to it the tide of global terrorism that threatens to strike where you least expect it, and you begin to appreciate the vast uncertainty and insecurity that gnaw at people’s hearts these days and rule their preoccupations and concerns. This state of mind makes individuals particularly susceptible to the populist offers of certainty and hope. Ingelhart and Norris find that support for populism was significantly strengthened by anti-immigrant attitudes, mistrust of global and local governance and support for authoritarian values. In research by Gelfand and Jackson, concern about threat predicted a vote for Trump. Trump supporters desired a tighter, more rule-governed society, and voted for a strong leader that they believed could bring about stringent norms that offer guidance and sweep away chaos.
Intriguingly, young people impatient for action may be especially attracted to iconoclastic populist rhetoric cast in simplistic dichotomies. In France, in the first round presidential elections this spring, a plurality of young voters elected Communist-allied Jean Luc Melenchon, a far left candidate. Many among them, however, voted for Marine Le Pen, the far right candidate. In the U.K. millennials enthused about Labour’s Jeremy Corbyn, the British counterpart of our Bernie Sanders.
The intense motivational basis of the attraction to populism inspires its adherents to spare no effort and avoid no sacrifice in promoting its ideology. During the 2016 U.S. Presidential elections, we carried out a study comparing voters for Trump, Clinton, and Sanders, the first and third of whom are often referred to as populist. The findings of our research were intriguing! Voters for Trump and Sanders derived greater personal significance from supporting their candidate than did voters for Clinton. Strikingly, they also reported the willingness to sacrifice more for their candidate than did the Clinton voters.
The motivational flavor of the commitment to populism has significant psychological consequences as well. It prompts individuals to “freeze” on their initial attitudes and opinions and to be impervious to further relevant information or opposing points of view. This dynamic explains why Trump supporters are unshaken in their support for their idol, despite ample revelations that others find disconcerting. Trump himself remarked during the electoral campaign that he could shoot someone on Fifth Avenue and his supporters would still love him. In that, he probably was not too far off the mark: Our research reveals that the more significant Trump’s supporters felt after his victory, the more they declared support for his hostile actions against political opponents.
The dangers of populism are that it breeds autocracy, militancy, and a doctrinaire state of mind. Should it fail to deliver on its promises (e.g., in realms of economics, security, health, or education), it is bound to seek scapegoats rather than admitting its mistakes and correcting them. The harrowing 1930s and 40s of the last century bear terrifying witness to the havoc that unchecked populism can unleash. We must not repeat history’s mistakes. We must immunize the people against populism’s perfidious ‘siren call’. Understanding its dynamics should enable us to avoid it and seek better solutions to problems of our time.