This article 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, and a major concern for many regarding the future evolution of Europe, the EU, and more largely the liberal paradigm in its globalisation guise.

Previously, we presented the current scholarly definition of populism, and suggested that it was less representative of reality than thought at first glance (“A perfect definition?“). Here, we shall focus on a too often forgotten aspect of “populism”, the way the word is actually used to disparagingly brand a protest movement or party and reinsert it within a larger political science framework. We shall explain how this practice of “populism-labelling” is actually fraught with three main dangers, which, furthermore, interact.

First, we shall show how it actually leads to the very spread of this “populism” it sought to avoid. It could thus constitute one of the main root causes for the “rise of populism”. Second, we shall point out that it leads to missing very important clues about the global ideological system. If, on the contrary, we step back and consider both the contents of “populism” as well as why the stigmatisation is done, we shall obtain crucial insights into the evolution of neoliberalism and globalisation, seen as a belief-system and worldview. Finally, we shall outline possible consequences for polities once “populist-branded” parties and movements reach the stage of being in power, should democracy and societies be too weak not to stop brandishing their “tool of illegitimacy” to use Taguieff words (Hubé & Truan, 2016: 1, translating and quoting Taguieff, 2002: 21).

Favouring the rise of “populist-branded” movements

As pointed out by Albertazzi and McDonnell (2008), building upon similar observations made by many students of populism, such as Peter Wiles in 1969, more recently Cas Mudde in 2004 and 2011, or Frank Furedi in 2016, “populism” is most of the time a disparaging label applied to one’s adversary. It is not only, as stressed by Ralf Dahrendorf that ‘the one’s populism, is the other one’s democracy, and vice versa’ (2003: 156, quoted by Mudde, 2004: 543), but something much worse. At least in Western Europe, labelling a political movement or a political leader as populist is brandishing  a “tool of illegitimacy” against them (Hubé & Truan, 2016: 1, translating and quoting Taguieff, 2002: 21), i.e. declaring them fundamentally illegitimate, dangerous, if not evil.

Even though, as stressed by Mudde (2004: 560-562; 2011: 31-32), “populist” parties are more reformers within the democratic process than extremists outside it, declaring them illegitimate allows for negative consequences.

First, by allowing for a simplistic labelling of a political opponent and movement, which is, ironically, usually considered as characteristics of the very “populist” ideology (Mudde, 2004: 542), understanding of what gives rise to the birth of the adversary party or parties and then fuels the capacity to mobilise is forbidden.

Political parties in power, and this is even worse if a party with governmental responsibilities acts similarly, thus deprive themselves of crucial means to understand their citizens (which does not mean to condone all demands blindly but to truly listen and address grievances). Such a case starts being documented in the instance of the 2016 U.S. presidential elections. As voting for then candidate Trump was increasingly seen as not “socially desirable”, some voters did not share their preferences, which, in turn, led the Democrats not to consider them and thus not to address their grievances and wishes (Steven Shepard, “Democrats burned by polling blind spot“, Politico, 27 March 2017). Furthermore, a “non response bias” could also have been at work, also caused, among others, by poor cellphone coverage (ibid.). This, de facto, shows that some citizens indeed have been left out by the system as the so-called “populist ideology” is meant to allege, save that here, we are not in the realm of ideology but of reality.

As understanding and even existence of any problem is forbidden by invective and illegitimacy labelling, the problem expressed through the “populist” grievance and mobilisation not only persists but increases. Meanwhile, because people are not heard, their revendications increase in scope and intensity (see for an abridged explanation of the dynamic and process at work Helene Lavoix, “Protest Movements, Mobilisation, Geo-Temporal Spread: Some Lessons from History (1)” & “Stabilising a Protest Movement? Some Lessons from History (2)“, The Red (Team) Analysis Society, 11 and 17 December, 2012; and Helene Lavoix, Nationalism and Genocide, 2005: 146-153). Note that the process at work here is not specific to populism but the dynamic of interactions between protest movement and political authorities.

As a result, not only the “populist” movement is neither eradicated nor even reined in, but, on the contrary it grows, being able to mobilise a growing range of people. We obviously had the case in the U.S.. As another example, as reported by The Financial Times, “The party [the Front National] is the most popular in France with those in the 18-24 age bracket, capturing 39 per cent of the votes, according to one recent Ifop poll. That is compared with 21 per cent for centrist candidate Emmanuel Macron and 9 per cent for centre-right rival François Fillon.” (Michael Stothard, “Economic frustration drives young French voters towards Le Pen“,  18 March 2017). The choice of the French youth is explained by economic duress (Ibid.). Similarly, Jean-Luc Melenchon and its “La France Insoumise” (e.g. “Débat sur le populisme“, Le Blog de Jean-Luc Mélenchon: L’ère du Peuple, 2 Nov 2016) rose in the polls for the French Presidential elections from around 10% at the start of February to 15 to 18%, close to being in the third place, leaving the traditional left-leaning “Socialist Party” far behind below 10%, and about to overtake the traditional right-leaning “Les Républicains” (see all polls, Reuters, “French presidential election“). Those are indeed only polls but they are indicative of trends and interests by potential voters.

The illegitimacy brandishing thus achieves exactly the opposite of what it sought to do. This identifies one of the major root cause of the actually fundamentally unsurprising rise of “populism”.

Missed clues on global ideological evolutions

As long as “populism” is used as a “tool of illegitimacy” with its implied cohort of biases, including sometimes by analysts, interesting variations and differences on various types of such protest movements are missed.

For example, using Mudde and Kaltwasser (2011) comparative study of “populist parties” in Latin America and Europe*, we learn that Latin American “populist partis are seen as practically critical of neoliberalism”, while European populists are guided by nationalism and not neoliberalism, as a result perceiving neoliberal globalisation as a threat. Belonging to the in-group (the people) tends to be more addressed through ideas of indigenousness in Latin America, while in Europe nationalism is used (nativism, according to Mudde and  Kaltwasser***). European populists tend to be more exclusive and to a point right wing because of their link to “nativism”, while Latin American movements are more inclusive in their vision of who should be part of the in-group, and left wing because of their close connection to “Americanismo.” As pointed out by Mudde and Kaltwasser (Ibid.: 6-7), populism is a “thin-centered ideology”, with often a “chameleonic” character Taggart (2002: 70; 2003: 14-15). Position along the various dimensions vary according to time. Finally, European populism would tend to be “nativist first” and populist second, while the reverse would hold true for Latin America. All prompt a “repoliticization” of political life, stressing that governing elites do not pay attention to the problem of real life and real people.

Interestingly, in terms of the larger ideological evolution, Mudde and Kaltwasser’s study stresses that these political groups and movements are fundamentally opposed to neoliberalism and globalisation. Even the “repolitization” of political life which is common to all the cases they studied, can be perceived as a threat to an ideology that promotes and believes in the primacy of economics, and the end of history (Francis Fukuyama “The End of History?”, The National Interest, Summer 1989 – pdf). By offering a different worldview and by their very existence, the various populist movements threaten the belief-system they oppose, and which, as all belief-systems, tried to impose itself not as an idea but as an ineluctable truth. Here, the very fact that opposing ideas are castigated as “populist”, with all the negative connotation this implies, by opponents becomes a valuable indication for analysts of the nature of the political struggle at work between two ideologies: on the one hand neoliberalism and globalisation, and on the other, something else, branded populism. Beforehand the world was thought as forced to live through the ineluctable trend of globalisation, the question being then how to handle or harness it at best. It is thus the very way we see the world that is changed, while new previously unthinkable options are suggested.

We may also wonder if we are not here also benefiting from a supplementary indication. The level of castigation wielded by the challenged opponents – those upholding neoliberalism and globalisation in the case of the second decade of the twenty-first century – and the inability to listen to and integrate part of the “populist” agenda could be inversely proportional to the strength of the dominant ideology and its supporting political actors and parties. Indeed, Mudde (2004: 550-551) points out that, in the 1990s, the fear to see a new “populist contender” winning and displacing current established political parties led the latter to also adopt so-called “populist measures”. This was noted, for example in the case of Britain and Tony Blare as well as Belgium and Steve Stevaert (ibid.). Such options may not be available anymore to the current actors upholding neoliberalism because the overall neoliberal and globalisation belief-system has weakened. Assuming that David Cameron’s decision to hold the Brexit referendum was an attempt at listening to “populist” demands to better defeat them, in a “1990s fashion”, the adverse result obtained shows both the weakening of the neoliberal ideology and to a point of the political actors supporting it. The lessons may only be learned by other similar actors, which then would see the range of actions available to them narrow, in the framework of ideological inflexibility, while ideological and political strength declines.

The probable emergence of a new “nationalised globalisation” we saw previously (see “Beyond the End of Globalization“) would tend to further support this hypothesis. Actors which depend upon the continuation of the neoliberal and globalisation belief-system and are not strong enough to redefine its terms or not clear-sighted enough to see its change and evolve accordingly see their survival endangered and thus behave in a highly polarised way.

Favouring escalation towards an exit of the democratic process, while weakening the country internationally

Should the “populist-branded” protest movement reach such a size that it becomes a final contender in elections, such as in the U.S. in 2016 or in the U.K. Brexit case – although here we are in the instance of a referendum and not of general elections – or in the French 2017 Presidential and Legislative elections, the “populist” movement may either lose or win the elections.

A repeatedly losing yet growing “populist-branded” protest movement

Should such a movement repeatedly lose, not because of a fair electoral battle over substantive content, or even more positively because problems have been not only heard but truly addressed, but because of labelling, scapegoatism, affairs or institutional practice purposefully upheld to stop the emergence of any systemic opposition (for example the absence of any type of parliamentary proportional representation as in France), then it is most likely that two further phenomena will progressively start to take place.

Hope to ever be heard and to see grievances considered democratically will progressively be crushed while feeling of injustice will rise. Because, as Moore (Injustice…, 1978) has shown, feeling of injustice is a trigger of moral outrage and then revolt, and because absence of hope narrows the funnel of choice pushing people towards increasingly extreme actions, then the likelihood to see the initially democratic protest movement becoming revolutionary or to the least exiting the democratic process heightens.

A winning yet still “populist-branded” movement

In case the populist-branded movement wins elections, as in the U.S. in 2016 or in the U.K. with the Brexit, even though their opponents have lost, the castigated illegitimacy of the victor allows the loser(s) not to respect a democratic choice yet to feel self-righteous in doing so. The possible second order impacts are momentous.

Democracy is endangered, which also has the potential to further reinforce the “populist” movement and to drive it towards violence, leading to a dangerous polarization of society. This is what was quickly expressed in Great Britain after a court ruling perceived to be against the Brexit, as exemplified by this article of the Daily Mail: “Enemies of the people: Fury over ‘out of touch’ judges who have ‘declared war on democracy’ by defying 17.4m Brexit voters and who could trigger constitutional crisis” (3 Nov 2016).

In the UK, by end of March 2017, it would seem that democracy and reason had taken over and that the situation was stabilized and not escalating, as shown by the the 29 March 2017 YougovAttitudes to Brexit: Everything we know so far” (see figure from the survey below).

If we run the escalating dynamic to the extreme, should power be confiscated to the initially winning “populist movement”, then the initially reformist agenda located within democracy could lead to three main options. First, the initially democratic reformist new power could be transformed into a more authoritarian type of power, necessary to implement the policies forbidden by the self-righteous opposition of the electoral losers. Second, it could be transformed into a violent and more revolutionary movement located outside democracy and much closer to civil war consider the dispositions of the opposition. Third, it could fall into apathy and inaction, with serious consequences for the country in terms of non-governance.

Meanwhile, and we may wonder if this is not a phenomenon starting to impact the U.S. in early 2017, domestic dissensions show weakness to the international world. As a result, international influence may be lost. Furthermore, bad decisions may be fostered as the serenity – as well as potentially the peaceful and constructive check and balance process in the American case –  necessary to deal with complex international problems cannot be present, which is highly likely to also lead to loss of influence, or worse.**** This is exemplified by the illegal, in international law, U.S. strikes on Syria on 6 April 2017 (see Statement by President Trump on Syria, White House, 6 April 2017, see also Scott Rider (“Wag The Dog — How Al Qaeda Played Donald Trump And The American Media“, The Huffington Post, 9 April 2017), while the danger of another highly dangerous move against North Korea looms as the U.S. seems to be sending its Carl Vinson strike group towards North East Asia (e.g.  David B. Larter, “Korea crisis deepens as the US dispatches the Carl Vinson strike group to the region“, NavyTimes,  9 April 2017; Xinhua, “U.S. aircraft carrier may cause Pyongyang’s hasty responses: Russian official“, CCTVNews, 10 April 2017).

The external pressure (including war) for homogeneity, as shown by Fred Halliday (Rethinking International Relations, 1994: 94-123), and which has most certainly been operative in Greece since 2011,  as well as classical international power games according to national interest, should also not be underestimated in what may or not happen.

Although the idea of “populism” is dangerous and counter-productive politically when used to brand adversaries with a “tool of illegitimacy”, considering this very castigation, besides scholarly comparative study of the phenomenon, in the framework of the early 21st century, helps understanding not only the very rise of populist-branded movements, but also gives us indications on competing global worldviews and belief-systems. Finally, it allowed us to briefly outline possible evolutions for polities dealing with strong “populist-branded” movements.

However, methodologically, we also needed to step back and consider how “populism” was wielded and for which reason. We further needed to bring in more classical concepts and knowledge located outside the usual primary focus of study of populism. Further in-depth study would need to fully consider nationalism and nativism for example, which As a result, we could reinsert the phenomenon within a dynamic framework which is crucial for anticipation, thus obtaining building blocks for understanding and mapping the issue, first broad-based indicators and first outlines of possible scenarios.

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.

Featured image: NOT MY PRESIDENT DAY MARCH en route to the White House on 15th Street at Pennsylvania and New York Avenue, NW, Washington DC on Monday afternoon, 20 February 2017 by Elvert Barnes Protest Photography from Baltimore, Maryland, USA (IMG_1832) [CC BY-SA 2.0 ], via Wikimedia Commons


*Wiles, Peter, “A Syndrome, Not A Doctrine”, In Populism – Its Meanings and National Characteristics, edited by G. Ionescu and E. Gellner. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1969; Margaret Canovan, Populism. New York: Harcourt Brace Javonovich, 1981. A. Collovald, Le Populisme du FN, un dangereux contresens. Bellecombe-en-Bauges, France: Éditions du Croquant 2004; Cas Mudde, “The Populist Zeitgeist”, Government and Opposition, September 2004.

** can be classified according to various categories, such as left (state intervention) versus right (free market), economic versus identity or exclusion versus inclusion.

*** “Nativism refers to a combination of xenophobia and nationalism and must be understood as an ideological feature, which ‘holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (‘the nation’) and that nonnative elements (persons and ideas) are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state’”. (Mudde 2007: 19). Considering the wide-ranging literature on nationalism and nation-ness, this perspective could and should be further discussed.

**** These lines were written on 4 April 2017, i.e. 2 days before the U.S. strikes on Syria.


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