Global populism is on the rise. Initially associated with Latin America in the 1990s and new post-communist democracies in the 2000s, populist parties and politicians have now gained support—and power—in established democracies as well. The United Kingdom, Italy, Germany, Netherlands, Belgium, Poland, Hungary have all seen populist surges in the last few years — with the election of Donald Trump in the United States as perhaps the most striking of these gains.
This surge demands explanation, and requires careful thinking. Populist parties are a threat to liberal democracy. Their defining characteristic is a claim to represent an “organic” people or nation, rather than specific interests or groups. Such representation has two worrying implications: first, the nation has to be defined, usually in terms that exclude vulnerable groups from the definition of the “people.” This is majority rule without minority rights. Second, those who disagree with populist representation of “the people” are obviously not the “real” nation. The opposition (whether elite or popular) is considered treasonous and treacherous.
Among most dangerous of populism’s consequences is the erosion of formal democratic rules and liberal institutions. These destructive effects of populist rule include the takeover and taming of courts and oversight institutions, and new laws that limit the freedom of the media and civil society. These legal and formal maneuvers erode public criticism, transparency, and accountability.
Just as importantly, however, such governments have also made a point of undermining informal democratic norms, such as conflict of interest laws, financial transparency, or respect for opposition. Here the damage may go deeper and be far less reversible: such norms and informal rules are the product of decades of elite and popular interactions. Once such trust and consensus disappears, it is not be easy to bring it back.
The Global Populism project has four broad themes: the diversity of populisms, the context of party competition, the role of immigration, and the role of international linkages in fomenting populism.
Diversity of Populisms. Populism takes very different forms across the world, and we need to both catalogue and understand these contexts. Our foremost task will be documenting these distinct populist upsurges and long-term historical and economic processes that lead to them. For example, in Latin America, left-wing populism sought redistribution and state control of the economy. In South-East Asia (Thailand and Philippines), it has taken the form of a backlash against perceived corruption and disorder. In East Central Europe, right-wing populism opposes both immigration and EU regulations. In France, the Netherlands, Belgium, Sweden, and Finland, the populists blame immigrant and minority populations for exploiting welfare systems and undermining cultural unity. In Spain and Greece, by contrast, new populists tend to take a traditional redistributionist left-wing form. Finally, populism is largely absent from the developed democracies of East Asia—Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan. So why does populism take on such different forms?
A Failure of Mainstream Parties? A notable aspect of the populist upsurge is the failure of elite competition, and especially the center-Left, the traditional representatives of vulnerable classes and sectors. The center- Left has made two controversial moves: first, starting in the 1990s it pursued “third way” economic policies. These left trade unions behind and created an elite consensus with little attention paid to those left behind. Second, the center-Left has focused on identity politics that, in their critics’ eyes, privilege increasingly rarefied group demands at the expense of a uniting language of equal rights and opportunities for all. The center-Right is also hardly blameless: it was unable to stop a candidate the party elites did not want (the United States) and relied on feckless promises of plebiscitary democracy (the United Kingdom.) How, then, have mainstream political parties opened up a path for populist critique?
The Role of Immigration. What is the impact of globalization and immigration? One salient aspect of populist rhetoric in Europe, for example, is a critique of EU regulation as taking away national sovereignty and failing to respect local cultural and political specificities. Electoral data shows that populists sharply gained as European integration took off. Another catalyst for European populists has been the rise in immigration. In contrast to earlier patterns, immigration in the 21st century has come in multinational waves and individual countries have been far less able to manage it. EU integration here has meant greater labor mobility (not just immigration from outside of the EU, but within: an estimated 1 million Poles live in the UK), and a far greater backlash against a perceived impotence of domestic governments to manage and control this immigration. What role has immigration played both in changing labor competition, and in shaping the political opportunities for populism?
International Linkages. The populist upsurge of the 21st century has been notable for its international linkages. On the one hand, it is clear that Russia has been an active supporter of populist movements, whether funding the French Front National, propagating Putinism, or attempting to influence US elections. Russian money, Russian propaganda, and Russian hacking efforts have not gone unnoticed. On the other hand, we see populists assembling in an “illiberal international.” The leaders of Poland and Hungary, for example, have publicly supported each other. Poland has also followed the Hungarian template for the deliberate erosion of democratic institutions since 2015. These are more than simply elective affinities: these linkages and networks are organized and funded, both formally and informally. We need a more serious and systematic examination of how international linkages and forces have influenced domestic populism.
Our project is first and foremost empirical. We seek to explain the historical processes that underlie populist politics, through an analysis of both domestic and international factors, and deploying a variety of methods.
We seek to examine the diversity of global populisms, and the causes behind their rise. The rise of populist politics in numerous countries does not necessarily share the same characteristics or the same causes. Are different factors in individual countries producing what appear to be similar outcomes regarding the strengthening of these nationalist, populist parties? Equally importantly, why have populist parties arisen in some countries but not others? For instance, why is there no Trump-like leader of movement in Canada? Just as importantly, the emergence of an “illiberal international” anchored in Moscow appears to have won many allies throughout Europe and the United States, yet the connections between these politicians and parties are not clear.
At the same time, we have a normative agenda that is closely linked: to defend liberal democratic values of pluralism, rule of law, and an active political opposition and competition. Better explanations of this growing phenomenon around the world, and primarily in Europe and the United States will help to identify policies and solutions for mitigating the pernicious effects of the rise of populism to democracy within countries and the liberal international order more generally.