9.4 Populism in the contemporary era

Dr. Conrad King

In practice, populism is localized and deeply contextual. Although we can identify abstract concepts that connect populisms around the world and throughout history, actual populists try to represent the values and interests of ‘the people’ in a specific place and time. For example, the earliest populist movements emerged in the late nineteenth century, and they all had a distinctively rural flavour. Louis Napoleon was the first elected president of France in 1848, and he immediately catered to the concerns of smallholding peasantry in the French countryside as well as implemented a modest kind of plebiscitary democracy. By 1852, he had dispensed with representative democracy altogether by declaring himself Emperor Napoleon III, which ushered in a period of populist politics in France known as ‘Bonapartism’. In late nineteenth-century Russia, a small group of urban elites tried to mobilize and politicize the rural peasantry. This Russian populist movement (called ‘narodnichestvo’) was an abject failure. Finally, the actual term ‘populism’ was born in the United States during the 1890s following the creation of the People’s Party in the American Midwest in 1891. This political party championed agrarian democracy and rejected the gold standard, financial power, railroad companies, and the political establishment. The People’s Party ran a candidate in the presidential election of 1892 (James B. Weaver) who obtained 8.5% of the national vote share, yet it fizzled out when many of its supporters backed the Democratic Party candidate in the 1896 election. In hindsight, the appeal of populism to nineteenth-century farmers in very different parts of the world is quite logical. Representative democracies were either very new (France), not yet formed (Russia), or else dominated by urban elites (USA). So, farmers in all these places might have had reason to feel neglected by the political establishment. These populisms conform to the patterns of populist democratization discussed above (i.e., early populisms being emancipatory projects), yet each movement was distinct in how it characterized ‘the pure people’ and ‘the corrupt elite’.

Populism seems to follow broad regional patterns as well. In part, this is due to variations in political opportunity structures that different types of representative democracies present to populists. In presidential democracies (Latin America, the USA, the Philippines), populism typically manifests through personalist leaders who try to appeal to the ‘pure people’ directly. Parliamentary democracies (all of Europe) will tend to incentivize new parties to emerge – or traditional parties to transform into populists – even when a strong leader might be part of this process. Thus, we can begin to recognize distinct patterns of populism on different continents. The section below discusses these patterns, beginning with the strongest (and in some respects, oldest) populisms in Latin America, followed by Europe, North America, and finally the newest arena for populism: Asia. It should be unsurprising that populism has emerged only recently in regions with the youngest democracies because populism is fundamentally a response to representative democracy. As such, Africa is not discussed here because populism has not yet become a meaningful force. One could argue that there were populist elements to the Arab Spring uprisings that began in 2011. One could argue that Nelson Mandela (president of South Africa from 1994–1999) was a populist and that his successors Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma tried to govern as populists, yet the core aspects of populism (a ‘pure people’ versus a ‘corrupt elite’) were not entirely central to these political movements. Nonetheless, populism is much more widespread than realized by most North Americans – who have been overly focused on Trumpism, a recent phenomenon. Yet it is necessary to exclude many populisms in order to focus on only the most seminal ones.


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Political Ideologies and Worldviews: An Introduction Copyright © 2021 by Dr. Conrad King is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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