What is Populism?

Every now and then, a highly recognizable but not well understood term sidles into our discourse and becomes a household word, invoked by everyone from candidates on the trail to analysts who we rely on to explain complex social and political systems. We’ve seen this happen with words like “recession” and “healthcare reform”, and any number of “isms” that are used as an insult in one sentence and a proud political identity in the next.

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Right now, a dangerous form of populism appears to be on the rise in vulnerable areas of Europe and South America. But before we can attempt to understand these trends or determine what they foretell, we should agree on what the term means.

And the most important thing to recognize about this word is simple: It doesn’t really mean anything. There is no concrete or specific definition that ties the word to any political agenda. A “populist” is not a fascist, a conservative, a liberal, or an anarchist. A populist is not “popular”. The term doesn’t refer to any specific location on the ideological spectrum from left to right; rather, it refers to a strategic approach to a political goal, not the goal itself.

No matter what they hope to achieve, populists target their appeal to what they see as “the people”, or the many, instead of the “elite”, or the few. They often strive to ingratiate themselves with large majority factions that believe they have been overlooked or ignored by policy makers. Populists are not pluralists. Instead of embracing a multicultural audience, they target a single group within the audience and reassure the members of that group that they have value, often promising to restore a sense of identity and influence that the group members believe they have lost.

Why is this approach so problematic? What could be dangerous about promising to dismantle elite, exclusive institutions that benefit the rich at the expense of the poor? Because this strategy often turns the destructive, dismantling energy of “the people” against two entities that are easily vilified: minorities and the rule of law.

The populist approach also historically brings out the worst in all of us. Populism tends to leverage and exploit some of the weaker elements in our souls: fear of outsiders and immigrants, fear of those who don’t look like we do, distrust of the media, and distrust of anything aligned with “the elite”, including higher education and seemingly oppressive institutions (like banks and courts). If we are members of the target audience, populism promises simple solutions that will fix all of “our” problems. The solutions seem easy to understand and easy to implement, and they often appear to be rooted in a kind of homespun common sense. Unfortunately, these simple fixes place the blame for complex societal and economic problems at the feet of easily-maligned systems and people—like immigrants, women, vulnerable minorities, the disabled, and the very poor, as well as more abstract entities that still make easy targets, like “science”, “politicians” and “the rich”.

How do we avoid falling under the sway of populist appeals? We can start by distrusting quick fixes that seem too simple to be true. And how do we recognize the rise of populist leaders in areas and countries that are not our own? We can look for certain hallmarks, like direct appeals to members of threatened majority groups, easy promises that soothe personal fears and grievances, and passionate speeches that are long on fear-mongering and short on policy and substance. All of us are vulnerable to the influence of populist messaging—regardless of our personal group identities or our position on a wealth or political spectrum. We all have a responsibility to stand guard against the flawed and dangerous implications of these types of appeals. Learn more by clicking here, here, or here.