Three Lessons of Contemporary Populism in Europe and the United States

By Bonikowski, Bart | The Brown Journal of World Affairs, Fall 2017 | Go to article overview

Three Lessons of Contemporary Populism in Europe and the United States


Bonikowski, Bart, The Brown Journal of World Affairs


Populism has become a salient topic in U.S. public discourse, as commentators have sought to make sense of Donald Trump's presidential campaign and of related developments in Europe, from Marine Le Pen's electoral gains to the Brexit referendum. Most observers have interpreted these events as driven by outsider politics that vilify elites while promising to restore political power to ordinary people. Some have gone further, arguing that populism is not only an ideology of insurgent politicians, but also a worldview of the voters who support them.1

The proliferating analyses of populism have attracted criticism for applying the term too loosely. During a visit to Canada in June 2016, for instance, President Obama dedicated part of a press conference to challenging media portrayals of Trump as a populist. The president's argument rested on a distinction between opportunism and sincere populism: "[candidates] don't suddenly become populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes. That's not the measure of populism; that's nativism or xenophobia, or worse...just cynicism."2 The primary goal of these comments was presumably to delegitimize Donald Trump, not to contribute to the scholarly debate about the meaning of populism. But the critique raised an important point: analyses of populism are often conceptually vague and have the tendency to conflate populism with related but distinct political phenomena, such as nationalism, social and economic conservatism, and anti-immigrant discourse. This confusion has an analytical cost. If we are unclear about the meaning of populism, we will have difficulty understanding its implications for political change.

A sizeable academic literature in political science, history, and sociology has been grappling with populism for over 40 years, generating important insights about the phenomenon and its role in electoral and legislative politics. These insights have become more consistent in recent years as scholars have come to recognize that populism is a common feature of democratic politics that spans ideological positions and world regions. Drawing on this literature, this article will suggest that in order to understand populism we need to reconsider three assumptions commonly found in journalistic and academic accounts: that (1) populism is an ideology deeply held by political actors, much like liberalism or conservatism; (2) populism is inherently tied to right-wing politics; and (3) populism is a new feature of political culture. Contrary to these narratives, I will argue that populism is a discursive strategy selectively employed by political outsiders on both the leftand right extremes of the political spectrum to challenge the political status quo. By conceptualizing the phenomenon as dynamic and ideologically variable, we can better understand the causes and implications of the populist turn in contemporary politics.

Defining Populism

To ground the discussion, it is useful to begin with a simple definition of populism that captures its most fundamental features. Most scholars would agree with political scientist Cas Mudde that, at its core, populism is a form of politics predicated on the juxtaposition of a corrupt elite with a morally virtuous people.3 Studies of populism are not concerned with adjudicating whether such moral judgments are accurate, but rather with understanding when this form of politics becomes prevalent, why it is able to garner public support, how it affects existing configurations of political power, and what impact it has on political institutions and policy.

While a binary moral classification is common to all populist rhetoric, the identities of the vilified elites vary. They frequently include political actors- either elected representatives or civil servants-but also journalists, academics, and business leaders. The boundaries placed around "the people" are often less specific so as to maximize the scope of populist claims. …

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