Investigating the Rise of Populism – A Perfect Definition?

This article and the next focuses on the “rise of populism”, the second explanation given for two of the major recent political and geopolitical surprises – i.e. the Brexit and the election of Donald Trump as U.S. President.

Populism and its rise are potentially at the heart of a possible crisis in Europe, and world-wide, should “populist” and anti-European parties be successful enough in the 2017 elections to be able to implement their program. The fear is high enough in Europe to lead in the Dutch parliamentary elections held on 15 March 2017, their opponents to astonishingly hail as a “terrific” victory the loss of eight seats by the centre-right VVD party,  remaining nonetheless the first political force in the country with 33 seats, while the “populist enemy” won five seats to reach 20, becoming the second force in the country ex-aequo with the Christian Democrats (CDA) (BBC News, “Dutch election: Wilders defeat celebrated by PM Rutte“, 16 March 2017; Reuters, “Top Merkel aide welcomes ‘terrific’ Dutch result“, “France’s Macron hails Dutch stand against ‘extreme right‘, 16 March 2017; AAP, “Hollande congratulates Rutte on election“, 16 March 2017, SBS). The concern is not limited to Europe but is also major, for example, in China, including because of the Chinese holding of euro bonds and wishes to promote a multipolar world, even though the Chinese ambassador to France underlines they are ready for all scenarios and, valuing bilateral relations, will maintain strong relations with France for example, in all cases (Wendy Wu & Laura Zhou, “How could a win by far-right French candidate Marine Le Pen cost China?“, 11 March 2017, South China Morning Post).

Whatever the result of these 2017 elections, the conditions that led to citizens’ discontent and to the so-called “rise of populism” cannot be ignored. Failure to do so could lead to even worse consequences in terms of polarization, instability, and spreading multi-level violence, not only domestically but also internationally. For example, the March 2017 diplomatic crisis, fraught with many dangers, and the accompanying high level of tension between the Netherlands, some supportive European member-states including Germany, on the one hand, and Turkey, on the other (e.g. BBC News, “Turkey-Netherlands row: Dutch warn citizens after Erdogan threat“, 13 March 2017), are most probably heavily related, on both sides, both to this “rise of populism” and to the conditions that made this rise possible.

It is thus crucial to understand better what is meant by this “rise of populism” and to find out what it covers to be able to anticipate potential evolutions and impacts.

This article is part of a broader series, where we identify emerging new elements that should allow us reducing political and geopolitical uncertainty regarding most particularly the international order and the main socio-political systems inhabiting it. Using the largely unforeseen populism, Brexit, May, Trump, Strategic Foresight and Warning, scenarios, geopolitical uncertaintyBrexit and President Trump victory and their aftermath as case studies, we seek to understand the deeper forces and processes at work and their potential longer-term impacts. We previously addressed the “anti-globalisation” framework and identified, behind it, the emergence of a possible trend towards a revised “nationalised globalization” supported notably by large American financial and corporate interests.

Here, starting to investigate what is meant by “the rise of populism” and in which way it applies to the current and ongoing situation, we shall present first the scholarly definition of “populism”. We shall then point out that that definition indeed fits many of the explanations given not only for the Brexit and the election of President Trump and their aftermath, but also for the success of Turkish President Erdogan. Finally, we shall underline that, nonetheless, if facts are examined, the definition of populism is finally less representative of reality than thought at first glance. We shall turn to further complete the definition of populism and to other explanations for the cases at hand with the next articles.

Consensual definition and cases of populism

If nationalism is a well researched and understood political phenomenon and process, populism does not benefit from the same accumulated knowledge and understanding. Neither “populism” nor “populist” are even entries in the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (search for ‘populism’, for ‘populist’, 14 March 2017).

Yet, the beginning of the 21st century, witnessing the rise of new political parties and movements, which became dubbed as “populist”, has seen a renewed interest in the idea.

As a result of this academic effort, as pointed out by Deiwiks (“Populism“, Living Reviews in Democracy, CSS-ETH Zurich, 2009), following Panizza (Populism and the Mirror of Democracy, 2005), a consensus on what is populism has started emerging, as shown by the two definitions below. Populism is thus defined as:

“An ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’, and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”(Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist“, 2004: p.543)


“An ideology which pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity and voice. (Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell, “Introduction: The Sceptre and the Spectre“, 2008).

According to Deiwiks, the historical cases usually considered as exemplifying “populism” – or which populist “credentials” are discussed – are narodnichestvo, an agrarian socialist movement in populism, Brexit, May, Trump, Strategic Foresight and Warning, scenarios, geopolitical uncertainty, Russia, NarodnikRussia among the intelligentsia in the 1860s and 1870s (e.g. Walicki 1969, Canovan, 1981; Taggart, 2000); the American People’s Party  between 1891 and 1919 (e.g. Hofstadter, 1969; Canovan, 1981; Ware 2002); Peronism in Argentina starting from 1946 (e.g. Butler, 1969; James, 1988; Weyland 1999 and 2001).

The end of the 20th century and beginning of the 21st century saw a multiplication of cases and interest as stressed above: the Bolivian Movimiento al Socialismo of President Evo Morales, the Venezuelan Movimiento V República of President Hugo Chávez (Mudde and Kaltwasser, 2011); in Europe notably the Freiheitliche Partei Österreichs (FPÖ) in Austria, the Schweizerische Volkspartei (SVP) in Switzerland, the Lega Nord in Italy, the German Republikaner, the Front National in France, the People’s Party’s in Denmark, Vlaams Blok in Flanders (e.g. Mudde and Kaltwasser, Deiwiks, bibliography of Albertazzi and McDonnell ed. 2008; Hubé and Truan, 2016).

A perfect definition not only for the Brexit and the election of U.S. President Trump, but also for the success of Turkish President Erdogan

The definitions outlined above fit quite well the popular or widespread understanding explaining not only the happenstance of the Brexit and the victory of President Trump, but also the risk weighing upon the European Union. A sample of these explanations may be read in the following texts: Ronald F. Inglehart and Pippa Norris, “Trump, Brexit, and the rise of Populism: Economic Have-Nots and Cultural Backlash“, Faculty Research Working Paper Series, Harvard Kennedy School, 29 July 2016; Anatole Kaletsky, “Trump’s rise and Brexit vote are more an outcome of culture than economics“, The Guardian, 9 Nov 2016; Catherine De Vries, “Populism on the rise? The Brexit and Beyond“, OxPol, December 20, 2016; Oscar Williams-Grut, gathering a compendium of financial analysts judgement in “Brexit and Trump are just the start — populism will strike Europe next“, 10 Nov 2016, Business Insider UK; Léonie de Jonge, “First Brexit and now Trump: what is populism and how might we view it?“, 24 Jan 2017, University of Cambridge Research, etc.

populism, Brexit, May, Trump, Strategic Foresight and Warning, scenarios, geopolitical uncertainty, Erdogan, Turkey, AKPBeyond Europe and the U.S., these definitions are also used to explain, for example, the success and strengthening of President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey, as shown by Jan Werner Mueller, “Erdoğan and the Paradox of Populism“, Project Syndicate, 11 August 2014, when he states, for instance:

“Such figures [populist leaders] start out attacking their opponents’ corruption and accuse them of hijacking the state for a self-serving political establishment that excludes the interests of ordinary people” (Mueller, Erdoğan and the Paradox of Populism”).

We also find as another example, S. Erdem Aytaç and Ziya Öniş “Varieties of Populism in a Changing Global Context: The Divergent Paths of Erdoğan and Kirchnerismo“, Comparative Politics, October 2014) who seek to identify and characterise different strands of populism at work in what they call “the age of the post-Washington Consensus” in the “emerging South”. They use as definition “A mass movement led by an outsider or maverick seeking to gain or maintain power by using anti-establishment appeals and plebiscitarian linkages” (Barr, 2009), which may be broadly seen as belonging to the same family of definitions, although with a different focus (there on ideology and its content, here on movement and leader).

Cracks under the surface

However, in the Brexit case, how are the consensual definitions of populism to account for the fact that many “members of the establishment” supported the Brexit, indeed part of the Conservative party, as well as populism, Brexit, May, Trump, Strategic Foresight and Warning, scenarios, geopolitical uncertaintysome peers and wealthy individuals (Marta Cooper, “A quick review of the UK Conservative party psychodrama that spawned the Brexit vote“, Quartz, 22 June 2016); “Europe. How Conservative MPs break down. Final Remain estimate – 185 Tory MPs, 91 on the payroll, 94 not,” Conservative Home, 23 June 2016; Nick Clegg “Brexit Lords have a cheek to complain about EU democracy“, 6 June 2016, Evening Standard; Adam Lusher, “More than half of donations to EU referendum campaigns came from just ten wealthy donors“, 6 October 2016, The Independent)?

In the U.S. case, the less than adverse interactions between the financial and business leaders and the Trump administration we identified previously are also puzzling from the point of view of the definition of populism.

populism, Brexit, May, Trump, Strategic Foresight and Warning, scenarios, geopolitical uncertaintyNonetheless, the definitions focusing on the ideological component of “populism” fit obviously Donald Trump’s discourse, as candidate then President, as exemplified by his inaugural speech (20 January 2017, Full text, The Guardian):

“We are transferring power from Washington DC and giving it back to you, the people. For too long, a small group in our nation’s Capital has reaped the rewards of government while the people have borne the cost. Washington flourished – but the people did not share in its wealth. Politicians prospered – but the jobs left, and the factories closed. The establishment protected itself, but not the citizens of our country….” (President Trump Inaugural Speech, 2017).

It is however less clear that we are faced with populism and not rather nationalism with the following sentence:

“At the bedrock of our politics will be a total allegiance to the United States of America, and through our loyalty to our country, we will rediscover our loyalty to each other.” (President Trump Inaugural Speech, 2017).

Indeed, here, it is unity within the nation rather than antagonism is stressed.

Thus, could the above definitions however consensual and practical they appeared at first, would it be only because they give us a foundation for trying to understand a phenomenon, actually miss something? Should these definitions be revisited, maybe completed, or should we abandon considering populism as a valid, useful and explanatory concept to examine the phenomenon at hand? If so, then what should we choose, how could we proceed, and most importantly what could it tell us about the future?

This is what we shall examine with the next article.

Featured image: Trump Rally at US Bank Arena, Cincinnati on 10/13/2016. By Bill Huber from Goshen, United States (IMG_20161013_195654) [CC BY 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons.

About the author: Dr Helene Lavoix, PhD Lond (International Relations), is the Director of The Red (Team) Analysis Society. She is specialised in strategic foresight and warning for national and international security issues.


Abridged bibliography for references not fully given in the text

Albertazzi, Daniele; McDonnell, Duncan, Twenty-First Century Populism: The Spectre of Western European Democracy, ed. Palgrave MacMillan, 2008.

Barr, Robert R. “Populists, Outsiders and Anti-establishment Politics,” Party Politics, 15 (January 2009), 29–48.

Butler, David J., “Charisma, Migration, and Elite Coalescence”, Comparative Politics 1 (3) 1969: 423-439.

Canovan, Margaret, Populism. New York: Harcourt Brace Javonovich, 1981.

Dahrendorf, Ralf, ‘Acht Anmerkungen zum Populismus’, Transit. Europäische Revue, 25, 2003.

Deiwiks, Christa, “Populism”, Living Reviews in Democracy, Center for Comparative and International Studies, ETH Zurich and University of Zurich, 2009.

Hofstadter, Richard, “North America”, In Populism – Its Meanings and National Characteristics, edited by G. Ionescu and E. Gellner, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.

Hubé, Nicolas and  Naomi Truan. “The Reluctance to Use the Word Populism as a Concept. Populist Political Communication in Europe. A Cross-National Analysis of European Countries”, Routledge, 2016.

James, Daniel, Resistance and Integration – Peronism and the Argentine Working Class, 1946-1976, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988.

Mudde, Cas,  “The Populist Zeitgeist”,  Government and Opposition, 2004: 541-563.

Mudde, Cas, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, “Voices of the Peoples: Populism in Europe and Latin America compared,” Working Paper #378, Kellogg Institute, July 2011.

Panizza, Francisco, “Introduction”, In Populism and the Mirror of Democracy edited by F. Panizza, London, New York: Verso, 2005.

Taggart, Paul, Populism, Buckingham PA: Open University Press, 2000.

Walicki, Andrzej, “Russia”, In Populism – Its Meanings and National Characteristics, edited by G. Ionescu and E. Gellner, London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969.

Ware, Alan, “The United States: Populism as Political Strategy”, In Democracies and the Populist Challenge, edited by Y. Mény and Y. Surel. New York: Palgrave, 2002.

Weyland, Kurt, “Clarifying a Contested Concept: Populism in the Study of Latin American Politics,” Comparative Politics 34 (1) 2001: 1-22.

Weyland, Kurt, “Neoliberal Populism in Latin America and Eastern Europe”, Comparative Politics 31 (4) 1999 :379-401.

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