What Is Populism?

Democrat Bernie Sanders and Republican Donald Trump are both described as populist candidates But the two are so radically different, how can they share the label of populism? What does it mean to be populist? Well, populism is the political belief that the underdog, hard working majority is undermined and exploited by a small, elite minority

Populist politicians claim to represent the interest of average or working class citizens, and work to unite the population against a common enemy For right-leaning politicians like Trump, that’s immigrants and the Republican establishment For leftist politicians like Sanders, it’s Wall Street, billionaires and campaign finance laws Throughout history, populist ideas have often coincided with charismatic demagogues, as these personality types are often successful at galvanizing the masses In fact, one of the earliest populists was Julius Caesar, who undermined Rome’s ruling aristocrats by appealing to the underrepresented working class

But populism isn’t necessarily good or bad Both FDR and Adolph Hitler were decisively populist politicians, by appealing to the frustrations of their respective countries Today, populist rhetoric is pervasive throughout the world In Europe, it is generally more popular on the ideological right, which believes that socialist or left-leaning policies negate the collective will of the people This was the idea behind the 2016 Brexit referendum, as many working class Brits felt that globalization provided by EU membership was not to their benefit

Similar populist sentiments have gained momentum throughout Europe in recent years, leading some experts to predict a string of other similar referendums and, perhaps, the gradual disintegration of the EU In the US, however, populism is widespread Liberal voters tend to resonate with issues that affect the poor and working class, like income inequality In fact, one of the most recent notable American populist movements was 2011’s Occupy Wall Street, which blamed corporations and the wealthiest one percent of Americans for creating economic instability for the rest of the country Conservatives like Trump, on the other hand, have used populist sentiments to tap into voters’ frustrations with bureaucrats and general distrust of the federal government

For instance, the Tea Party Movement formed in the wake of the 2008 global financial crisis as a protest against government overreach So whether it be in the US or abroad, populist politicians tend to operate the same way That is, they choose a popular enemy, like the establishment, immigration or criminals, and rally voters to get behind that cause Oftentimes this has led to popular movements and legal reforms Other times it has cultivated in widespread ultra-nationalism and nativism

Either way, populism is an extremely effective political tool

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