The rise of populism: causes and consequences

At this time of year, my professional commitments are light, so I sign up for a number of short courses at the City Lit further education college in central London. My third such course of this summer was delivered by an American lecturer called Dale Mineshima-Lowe and it was titled “An introduction to populism: a view of America and Europe”.

This was an all-day course that was stimulating and engaging. It was new to the college’s programme and the lecturer was pleased with the involvement of the students.

What is populism? It is a reaction to and rebellion against established political parties and structures. It usually expresses the view that there are elites working against the interests of the common people and it is not rooted in any one part of the political spectrum.

Populism can be Right-wing (as with Trumpism in the USA) or Left-wing (as with Syriza in Greece) or even Centrist (as with Macron in France). It does not represent a political ideology so much as political style.

What are the causes of or triggers for populist movements? Factors include:

  • The economic recession of 2008 with unemployment and insecure employment plus declining real incomes and tough austerity measures
  • Growing inequalities of income in societies with the poor becoming poorer and the rich becoming richer while the middle-class is hollowed out
  • Unprecedented numbers of migrants arriving in a country over a prolonged period causing worries about control, culture and identity
  • A sense that the establishment has not been listening to the concerns of citizens but simply pushes its own agenda and interests
  • A breakdown in the trust in established political parties and figures and a weaking of traditional ideological commitment to such parties
  • The arrival of a charismatic leadership who offers a simplified vision of what needs to be done and demonises marginalised groups and political opponents

Our lecturer gave us a number of interesting articles on populism. In one of these, Professor Cas Mudde of the University of Georgia argues that: “populism is pro-democracy, i.e. popular sovereignty and majority rule, but anti-liberal democracy (democracy plus minority rights, pluralism, and rule of law)”. He suggests that: “Populists often ask the right questions, but provide the wrong answers”.

In an another article, Yascha Mounk – a lecturer on government at Harvard University – asserts that: “We’ve made real progress in understanding the nature of populism, moderate progress in analyzing its causes, and barely any progress in identifying its potential remedies”.



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