What Explains the Global Rise of Populism?

Medium Reads, Politics
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The dawn of civilization established and rooted hierarchies that from the very beginning pigeonholed humanity into various ordered groups, dividing it into extremes of economic, cultural and political power. Indeed, the vast majority of human history can be separated into that of ‘the elite’ and that of ‘the people’, with structures such as feudalism and aristocracy dominating entire communities from their conception to their conclusion. The ramifications have been manifold, from a material sense to an ideological one, stoking resentment and clamour for reform on often revolutionary scales. The most recent manifestation of populism, or the political movements and rhetoric that specifically claim to stand for the common man in a struggle against the upper strata, can largely be explained by the widespread feeling of political alienation that has proliferated across democratic countries.

Inherent flaws in the democratic system have contributed to such a rise. In democratic societies, the landscape of electoral politics is heavily determined by the actions and goals of the various political parties that possess relevance. In circumstances where individual politicians wish to gain power, they necessarily need to work within a wider party structure to pool resources and voters to more effectively win elections and enact policy on a national scale. The party ‘establishment’, consisting of wealthy donors, special interest groups, and the bureaucratic party organization itself, therefore have significant leverage to decide the stances and policy positions of its politicians, who require party endorsement and funding for legitimacy and reach, particularly in a world where citizens often have rooted partisan loyalties, a world of limited time and information where a politician’s party allegiance immediately signals their views and policy goals, increasing their likelihood of accessing a vote.

This has contributed to the rise of populism now and in the past for several reasons. Firstly, in many cases, voters have felt alienated by the very non-transparent structures that necessarily restrict the politicians they elect. A crucial and recent example of this has been the meteoric rise in popularity of Bernie Sanders, at one point during his 2020 Presidential Campaign the frontrunner in the Democratic Primaries before his eventual loss to Joe Biden[1]. Sanders was able to mobilize the young, progressive activists within the Democrat party against the far more mainstream party establishment with promises of more radical policies such as ‘Medicare for All’, and a broad message of discontent directed towards the party’s centrist leaders whom he accused of working for the top ‘1%’ (referring to America’s economic elite), as opposed to ‘all of the people’[2]. The power held by donors, unelected bureaucrats, and corporate media, an issue which have recently been vastly exposed using the vast information-disseminating power of social media, have fueled populist rhetoric that condemns such perversions of democracy, contributing to the enmity and resentment of individuals who do not feel as if their needs have been adequately addressed due to such a perverted system.

Second of all, it is crucially very often the case that parties operate utilizing game-theory strategies in order to maximize the likelihood of electoral victory, often compromising on their principles as a result. Presumably, parties inherently have incentives to pass policies that fulfil their ideological goals. However, these preferences can only be translated into meaningful action in the case of an electoral victory, necessitating that politicians find a balance between winning elections and choosing a platform that represents its ideology. As a result, parties have incentives to partially (but significantly) converge towards the position of its opponents, to win over a larger portion of crucial swing voters. In most democracies, this looks like the stances of all or most parties moving towards the political ‘centre’ as time moves on (Alesina and Rosenthal, 2003).

The result of this has been the post-WW2 ‘neoliberal consensus’ that has primarily advocated for laissez-faire, free-market economy in a context of regional and global integration. One example was the emergence of New Labour under Tony Blair, in many cases embodying what Corbynite MP Chris Williamson called “the Thatcherite ideology of privatization, cuts and deregulation”. Another was the decline of the Parti communiste français (PCF) in the 1980s and the subsequent shift of the Parti socialiste to the middle ground. From the very beginning, this has left those on both extremes feeling as if their preferences are ignored by the elites, pushing them towards populist alternatives, with the rise of the Front National in France and UKIP in the UK partly motivated by a perceived inadequacy of centrist parties.

Aside from theoretical Downsian models, the specific configuration of policy outcomes that has resulted has uniquely been able to incubate populism. Regardless of the overall, dispersed benefits of the innovation and efficiency created by comparative advantage and a competitive free-market economy, the harms have been focused and concentrated. For example, the process of convergence previously described resulted in bipartisan support within the United States for international free-trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership[3] and the North American Free Trade Agreement. Whilst the United States as a whole might have benefited from reduced prices, the flight of jobs from manufacturing centres and long-standing industries, such as the loss of 150,000 jobs in the primary metals industry alone from 2000 to 2003[4], have left the towns and cities dilapidated as the nuclei of local economies collapsed, with a significant example being the decline and fall of Detroit’s automobile production sector.

Marginally more accessible goods do little to compensate for the disastrous ripple-effects that reverberate through cities like Detroit, leaving individuals feeling disillusioned by successive governments that have ‘left them behind’. Donald Trump was able to capitalize on this, promising to return jobs en masse, winning him crucial support in swing states such as Pennsylvania, in which the city of Pittsburgh had seen its manufacturing decline ever since the loss of its steel industry in the early to mid-1980s[5].

It is arguably the case that policies of laissez-faire capitalism and global interconnected markets caused the 2007-2008 global recession, which, similarly to other financial crises in history, substantially contributed to the spread of populism. The proliferation of structural unemployment and economic destitution against a backdrop of steadily increasing inequality legitimized and fueled the rage directed towards traditional political elites. This was utilized by populist parties across Europe, with the crisis prominently featuring in the rhetoric of the Jobbik party in Hungary, Law and Justice in Poland, the AfD in Germany, Golden Dawn and Syriza in Greece, and Five Star Movement in Italy (Algan et al., 2017).

These were all populist parties that were able to exploit feelings of alienation in which broad swathes of the electorate began to feel that their states were far more responsive to the needs of an educated, globalist intelligentsia than those of the ‘common man’, primarily due to the harms created by the crisis. The Occupy Wall Street movement was partly motivated by the decision to bail out large banks- the non-transparent, routinized procedures of government, such as political lobbying, according to this narrative disproportionately benefited elite, connected groups. The pro-Brexit movement in the United Kingdom successfully decried the vast power held by unelected technocrats and bureaucrats thanks to the EU institutions that supposedly had failed to bring economic prosperity. A final example involves the independent courts that oversee democratic politics around the world: controlled by an unelected, elite, educated judiciary, they have recently come under attack in Hungary[6] and Poland[7] by populist leaders.

There has been no single, overriding consideration that has led to the global rise of populism. Rather, it has been the intersection of various inherent and circumstantial factors that have successfully culminated in an outpouring of resentment and enmity towards elites. In my opinion, the dismissal of the concerns that have motivated populist support is symptomatic of liberal arrogance- the ‘rule of law’, the electoral politics and the due processes that govern our societies may be fundamental in principle, but in practice, they have left many behind: no wonder these people turn to the only sources of hope that are offered to them.


Alesina, A. and Rosenthal, H., 2003. Partisan Politics, Divided Government, And The Economy. Cambridge [England]: Cambridge University Press.

ALGAN, Y., GURIEV, S., PAPAIOANNOU, E., & PASSARI, E. (2017). The European Trust Crisis and the Rise of Populism. Brookings Papers on Economic Activity, 309-382. Retrieved June 8, 2020, from www.jstor.org/stable/90019460

[1] https://drive.google.com/file/d/1OpQxzzYY4MXgQMfo2j_XicB_tEUtt7eI/view

[2] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/03/03/politics/democratic-establishment-reaction-bernie-sanders/index.html

[3] https://www.nytimes.com/2015/04/22/opinion/obama-and-republicans-agree-on-the-trans-pacific-partnership-unfortunately.html

[4] https://www.thetrumpet.com/2061-the-death-of-american-manufacturing

[5] Pennsylvania. Office of Employment Security. (1982). Harrisburg: Pennsylvania Dept. of Labor and Industry, Office of Employment Security.

[6] https://www.hrw.org/news/2018/12/14/hungarys-latest-assault-judiciary

[7] https://edition.cnn.com/2020/01/24/europe/poland-assault-on-judiciary-intl/index.html

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