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Us V. Them: the Rise of Populism and Its Threat to Democracy


Fri, March 15

In an era of widening inequality, social anxieties, and a growing disconnect between citizens and institutions, populism has emerged as a major force reshaping the global political landscape. This ideology, characterized by its “us versus them” narrative and championing of the “common people” against the perceived elite, presents a complex paradox. Populism has the opportunity to highlight genuine public concerns, but its inherent tendencies often undermine the very foundations of stable democracies.

Populism transcends traditional left-right ideological divides. However, the current wave is often associated with right-wing movements with nationalistic agendas, defending a national culture against external “threats” like immigration or interdependence. In the Western world, right-wing populism is often coupled with anti-environmentalism, anti-globalization, and protectionism. In Europe, it frequently ties itself to anti-immigration and Eurospecticism (criticism of the European Union).

This trend may seem distant for some, but populist parties exist in all 27 European Union member states. Italy offers a prime example. Right-wing populist parties like Brothers of Italy have seen a surge in popularity, with four in ten voters choosing them in the 2022 election cycle, compared to just three in ten in 2013. Giorgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy party now serves as the nation’s prime minister.

Similarly, in Hungary, Prime Minister Viktor Orban, who ascended to power in 2010 using populist rhetoric, has solidified his authority by diminishing the influence of journalists and cracking down on immigration. In 2015, he constructed a barbed wire fence along the Hungary-Serbia border and a second one in 2017, ostensibly safeguarding his nation from what he deemed an “invasion” of asylum seekers. On top of that, during the 2018 elections, the government supervised the airwaves and media companies to ensure that any dissent or opposition to Orban’s party Fidesz, had minimal airtime.

Populism is not a uniquely European phenomenon; it has gained traction in various regions across the globe. Former President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro campaigned on promises to return power to the “forgotten man,” highlighting the “rift” between the political system and the working class. He targeted not only opposing political parties but also independent branches of government. By mobilizing his supporters through social media and live broadcasts, he sparked public rejection of the Brazilian Supreme Court, specifically justices who challenged his policies.

Rodrigo Duterte, the former president of the Philippines, is a unique contemporary illiberal populist figure, but a populist figure nonetheless. Like Bolsonaro, he relied heavily on the military, in contrast to President of Turkey Recep Tayyip Erdoğan who reduced military influence. Widely recognized for his ruthless anti-drug campaign, Duterte drew both domestic and international attention for instigating mass murder under the pretext of a “war on drugs.” Employing the strategy of penal populism, Duterte fashioned himself as a protector of Philippine citizens against the evils of drug-related activities. He used nationalism to deflect global condemnation and place his opponents on the defensive.

The allure of populism lies in its ability to tap into widespread public frustrations. Rising inequality, lower wages, and a sense of powerlessness in the face of globalization fuel fears that populist leaders readily manipulate. A study by the Centre for Social Justice in the United Kingdom, found a correlation between populist support and economic insecurity, with voters in deprived areas more likely to back populist candidates. This illustrates how populism capitalizes on economic hardship, and toys with real concerns.

A hallmark of many populist economic policies is a rejection of free trade and any form of globalization. Protectionist tariffs are enacted on imported goods, with the goal of shielding domestic industries and jobs. This can protect certain sectors in the short term but can also lead to higher consumer prices and decreased economic efficiency in the long run. In addition, national debt and inflation may rise under populist governments due to the prioritization of deficit spending on social programs to appease their base.

Media-wise, social media platforms have transformed into a breeding ground for populist rhetoric. These platforms’ algorithms favor sensational content, allowing for echo chambers where users are exposed primarily to information that reinforces their existing beliefs. Advocates of populism have skillfully exploited these dynamics to spread their misinformation.

Populist leaders often demonize opponents, simplify complex issues into digestible narratives and often contorted narratives, and instill distrust in established institutions like the media and the judiciary. Dr. Cas Mudde, a leading scholar on populism, argues that this approach clashes with the core tenets of liberal democracy.

“I define populism 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,” he stated in The Populist Zeitgeist. While moderate populism may not always be anti-democratic, extreme populism, especially right-wing, cannot work in tandem with liberal democracy for several reasons.

First, a fundamental aspect of liberal democracy is pluralism, which emphasizes coexistence and a heterogeneous society. Populists see society as being one people, one group, leaving little room for nuance or compromise. Additionally, democracy relies on evidence-based policy and research. Populists, however, tend to stray away from factual debate, usually resorting to insults and “alternative facts.”

Second, populist leaders habitually attack the press, portraying them as tools of the elite. This erosion of trust in institutions weakens the democratic process of checks and balances and creates an environment where facts become secondary to emotion.

Our world desires strong leadership, and for many, populism offers just that. It promises a return to the past and a restoration of power to a unified people. Yet, beneath the surface, populism risks fracturing the very societies it claims to represent. The future trajectory of this ideology depends on the ability of democracies to address the root causes of public discontent without succumbing to the divisive rhetoric of populism.

Neena Atkins
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Neena is an avid reader who enjoys a wide range of books, from classic Jane Austen to contemporary authors like Taylor Jenkins Reid. When she's not shopping with friends or lost in a good book, she can be found near the ocean, indulging in her many loves of running, walking, and scuba-diving.