Face the facts: populism is here to stay

Benjamin Moffitt

Tea Party supporters have been demanding to be heard for a long time. Valerie Hinjosa/flickr, CC BY-SA

This article is part of the Democracy Futures series, a joint global initiative with the Sydney Democracy Network. The project aims to stimulate fresh thinking about the many challenges facing democracies in the 21st century. Benjamin Moffitt will appear in SDN’s “We the People” populism slam on September 2 as part of the annual Festival of Democracy.


When it comes to politics, 2016 has been a very strange year to say the least. Things that aren’t “supposed to happen” – well, they just keep happening.

Pauline Hanson, written off as a serial electoral pest whose best days lay back in the late 1990s, has returned to Australian politics with a vengeance, roaring into the Senate with three other One Nation senators by her side.

Donald Trump, previously dismissed as a joke candidate, is one of two main candidates for perhaps the most important position of power in the world.

And let’s not forget Brexit. Turning expert opinions and most opinion poll results on their heads, it turned out in the referendum that 52% of UK voters did indeed want out of the European Union (EU), allegedly willing to “commit economic suicide”.

What has been the reaction to such strange events? Shock. Gasps. Grief. Shaking of heads. And, perhaps worst of all, the “tsk-tsk-tsking” at “the people” who are supposed to know better than to fall for such populist tricks.

In all of these situations where “the people” were supposed to “know better”, media pundits, mainstream parties, pollsters and experts of various stripes have been stunned by outcomes that seemed inconceivable.

Populism has gone global as a political style that’s working in many political and cultural contexts. Stanford University Press

My contention is that these are not blips on the radar, not weird one-offs. These events are happening across the globe, where “the people” are spitting in the face of “the elite” and rejecting what is being offered to them.

We are witnessing what I have termed The Global Rise of Populism. Populism, once seen as a fringe phenomenon relegated to another era or only certain parts of the world, is now a mainstay of contemporary politics across the globe, from the Americas to Europe, from Africa to the Asia Pacific.

Populism – a political style that features 1) an appeal to “the people” versus “the elite”; 2) the use of “bad manners” that are allegedly “unbecoming” for politicians; and 3) the evocation of crisis, breakdown or threat – isn’t going anywhere. It is here to stay. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can do something about it.

What explains the rise of populism?

First, “the elite” is on the nose in many parts of the world. Mainstream parties are increasingly seen as incapable of channelling popular interests, governments are viewed as being in thrall to global finance, and experts are increasingly distrusted and questioned. In many cases, this cynicism is justified.

Populists posit themselves as representing a break from the status quo. They claim to be able to return power to “the people”. This message has great resonance at this particular historical juncture, where faith in institutions has been badly shaken.

Second, the shifting media landscape favours populists. In a time of communicative abundance, populists deliver a simple, often headline-grabbing message that plays to mass media’s desire for polarisation, dramatisation and emotionalisation.

This allows them to “break through” the constant noise and grab free media attention. There is no better example of this than Trump, whose single tweets inspire media frenzy, or, on a local level, the Australian media’s willingness to report every utterance of Hanson since her election.

Also, many populists have been at the forefront of using social media to communicate “directly” with their followers. The examples of Italy’s Five Star Movement, the US Tea Party and Hungary’s Jobbik are instructive here. This type of engagement is something on which mainstream parties have tended to be woefully behind the times.

Third, populists have become more savvy and increased their appeal in the past decade. In fields of candidates who often seem to be cut from a very similar cloth, populists stand out by offering a performance that seems more authentic, more appealing and often downright more entertaining than other politicians.

This is something that often gets skirted past in the panic over Trump: much of his appeal stems from the fact that he is entertaining and often quite funny, no doubt a byproduct of years on reality television and media training.

Although being entertaining and amusing may seem trivial when we talk about politics, these things matter. Populists understand that contemporary politics is not just a matter of putting forward policies for voters to deliberate rationally upon as some kind of Homo politicus, but rather of appealing to people with a full performative “package” that is attractive, emotionally resonant and relevant.

Fourth, populists have been remarkably successful at not only reacting to crises, but actively aiming to bring about and perpetuate a sense of crisis through their performances.

Populist actors use this sense of crisis, breakdown or threat to pit “the people” against “the elite” and associated enemies, to radically simplify the terms and terrain of political debate, and to advocate (their) strong leadership and quick political action to solve the crisis.

In an era where it seems that we pinball from crisis to crisis – the global financial crisis, the Eurozone crisis, the refugee crisis and an alleged widespread “crisis of democracy” among others – this tactic has proven very effective.

Finally, populists are often good at exposing the deficiencies of contemporary democratic systems. Populism in Latin America and Asia has in many cases been an understandable reaction to corrupt, hollowed-out and exclusionary “democratic” systems. In Europe, many populist actors’ opposition to the EU or the demands of the European troika has brought to light the “democratic deficit” at the heart of elite projects.

Similarly, populists have often posited themselves as the only true voice standing up to the economic and social forces of globalisation, which many mainstreams parties by and large support. This means the populists can effectively appeal to those at the pointy end of such processes.

A 2011 poster for a citizen intervention rally in Washington, DC. outtacontext/flickr

So, why the shock?

If we take these factors together, it is little surprise that populism is on the rise across the globe. People have very valid reasons for following and voting for populist actors and are doing so in increasing numbers.

As such, let’s drop the surprise. Instead of being dumbfounded every time a populist does well: when Donald Trump is the GOP nominee, when Rodrigo Duterte is elected president of the Philippines, when Pauline Hanson is elected to the Senate, when Nigel Farage’s UKIP dreams become reality, when Austria comes close to electing a far-right president – a list from only the past couple of months – we need to face reality.

These are not mistakes, not outliers, not weird anomalies. It’s time to drop the “tut-tutting”, the shaking of heads in disbelief and the disapproval of those who vote for such characters. At its worst, this smacks of dangerous anti-democratic elitism.

Such actions are merely self-serving and ultimately paralysing. The first step in combating populism is acknowledging that it is not an aberration, but rather a central part of contemporary democratic politics. Only after we face that fact can we begin do anything about it. When it comes to the global rise of populism, acceptance is the first step to recovery.

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Benjamin Moffitt does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.