It is obvious that populism has flourished in the 21st century, leading political scientists to evaluate the conditions that can lead to populism in specific settings and contexts. Explanations for populism fall into two general categories: demand-side (when groups of citizens ‘demand’ populist alternatives) and supply-side (related to the ‘supply’ of populist parties and leaders in representative democracies). It is important to understand that these theories of populism need not be mutually exclusive – they might all operate simultaneously – yet theorists tend to look to one explanation as a predominant reason for populism on a case-by-case basis.
Amongst demand-side explanations, Dani Rodrik (2018) suggests that populism appeals to the ‘losers of globalization’, the idea being that post-industrial capitalism and economic globalization have resulted in ‘winners’ and ‘losers’, and chief amongst the losers in affluent economies have been low-skilled workers. However, evidence from the 2016 US presidential election suggests that the relationship between economic outcomes and populist appeal is far from straightforward (Rothwell & Diego-Rosell, 2016). For example, the median household income for supporters of Hillary Clinton was about $61,000, while for Trump voters it was approximately $72,000 (Silver, 2016). In this case, it was perhaps not the actual socio-economic gap between the haves and have-nots that bred support for Trump but rather the perception that economic prospects were dimming. Despite their relative affluence, some Trump supporters perceived that America was in economic decline and were thus galvanized by his slogan to ‘Make America Great Again’. Another significant demand-side explanation is the cultural backlash theory, which suggests that populist appeal is strong amongst citizens who perceive that they are no longer able to recognize their own national or local community due to immigration and multiculturalism (Norris & Inglehart, 2019). Again, these explanations need not be mutually exclusive, and the same groups of voters can often have overlapping perceptions about economic injustice or deterioration and cultural backlash.
Supply-side theories about the appeal of populism have focused on party systems and party competition in national settings. A mainstream party centralization thesis suggests that the perceived ideological centralization of political parties can lead some voters to believe that there are no longer real choices in elections, thus making newer populist alternatives attractive (Kitschelt & McGann, 1995). Another supply-side theory pertains to issue salience, in which fringe political parties can capture the imagination of groups of voters by focussing inordinately on single issues, such as immigration or Euro-skepticism (Meguid, 2005). One can see these supply-side theories coming together with the decline of centre-left and social democratic parties in Europe. These parties have tended to suffer electorally when economic interests or identities (i.e., class politics) begin to compete with ethnic or communal identities (i.e., identity politics). National identity or immigration issues become problematic for the left because right-wing populist parties will remake themselves as more centrist and multidimensional in order to appeal to working-class voters (Berman, 2019). Sheri Berman and others remind us that it does little good to vilify populist voters as just losers or bigots because populism appeals to individuals that have very real grievances (which the left have not dealt with very well). The issue with populism, then, is not that it is a brief anomaly that will go away when populists fail to redress grievances with their oversimplified solutions to complex societal issues. The real problem is that populism often leads to less political participation over time, such that many grievances will not even be heard in the future.
Populism is here to stay because it correlates to representative democracy: as more countries around the world transition to and consolidate as representative democracies, populism will continue to grow globally. However, populism is also an intensely local and contextual ideology, so it is difficult to conceive of populism as being some kind of virulent idea that spreads from one country to the next. At most, populist success in one region might embolden populist leaders and voters in others. Some argue, rather hopefully, that populism reached its highwater mark in 2016 with Brexit and the election of Trump. Indeed, Marine Le Pen’s loss to centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron in the 2017 French presidential election was thought by some to usher in a ‘post-populist’ period later reinforced by Trump’s loss in the 2020 US presidential election. Yet, it is too early to draw such conclusions. Even if populist parties and leaders become less powerful or less electorally popular in the future, the effects of populism are still being felt. Right-wing populism has reflected (or perhaps spurred) increased feelings of nativism and anti-elitism in countries all around the world. This has now begun to influence conventional political parties and establishment leaders, as mainstream politicians read from the populist playbook to garner support amongst disgruntled voters. As political scientist Yascha Mounk observes, “the past two decades have represented not a populist moment but rather a populist turn – one that will exert significant influence on policy and public opinion for decades to come” (Mounk, 2014, p. 28).
‘The Rise of Populism – a different lens?’ by Monash University. This video discusses the big ideas in populism, and then looks at populism in Australia.
- In your opinion, does populism have more of a corrective or corrosive effect on democracy?
- Is Canada immune to the worst effects of populism? Why, or why not?
- What is the political antidote for right-wing populism? How can conventional politicians appeal to angry voters such that the allure of populism is not so strong?