Dutch MP Geert Wilders

Angela Merkel’s announcement of resignation as leader of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union has signaled an end to her 13 year reign as Germany’s chancellor and de facto leader of the European Union. It has also marked a victory for Germany’s populist politics, effectively claiming its biggest scalp yet.

Germany’s far right populist Alternative for Germany is now Germany’s official opposition, largely on the strength of railing against Merkel’s immigration policies. Similar gains — or greater — by populist parties have been made elsewhere.

Brazil has just elected as president right-wing populist Jair Bolsonaro; Rodrigo Duterte remains a popular president in the Philippines despite overseeing the murder of more people than were killed during the Philippines’ Communist insurgency. Vladimir Putin has ruled Russia effectively uninterrupted since 2000, while Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan can also be added to the list along with Poland and Slovakia’s populist turns. This is to say nothing of Dutch Party for Freedom leader Geert Wilders, France’s Marine Le Pen, the UK’s vote to leave the EU and, not least, the ascendancy of Donald Trump.

The list goes on, in Europe, Latin America and, increasingly, Australia. This is the age of populism, increasingly put forward as the antidote for the failings, real and perceived, of liberal democracy.

What is populism, really?

There is some confusion about what populism actually is, with a common error of confusing it with popularity. Popularity tends to win approval in politics, usually through the adopting of a position based on an ideological preference; populism, by contrast, tends to manufacture sentiment, while its methods do lend themselves most readily to varieties of authoritarianism.

Populism is primarily defined as the homogenised “people” against the corrupt and self-serving “elite”. This manifests in Australia (and elsewhere) as “all politicians are corrupt”. It can also be understood as tribalism juxtaposed with reason.

Why the rise?

Populism has arisen for a number of interrelated reasons, but all of which can be understood as a sense of powerlessness in the face of what is perceived to be negative change. There is little doubt that the world is increasingly “disrupted” and the pace of change is more than many feel comfortable with, or can adequately adapt to.

The pace of globalisation assisted by transformative technologies and the uncompromising character of neoliberalism’s breaking of the social contract have created not just stagnant wages and a growing wealth gap, but greater job insecurity and the creation of a new, global underclass — one which has been referred to as the “precariat”. Being left behind, or fear of it, are powerful drivers to want to take back control.

Added to record numbers of globally displaced peoples, terrorism and wars often, if inaccurately, defined in terms of a “clash of civilisations” and there is fertile ground for fear-mongers to reap political reward.

Populism has manifested most prominently in Europe and the US, where economic disruption and cultural change are felt most keenly. However, populism has also taken hold in developing countries, as a response to economic decline or stagnation, or challenges from other ethnicities.   

How does populism work?

Populist responses typically manifest as denialism (e.g climate change) and scapegoating under the rubric of being “anti-politics” and seeking “direct” or “authentic” connection between “the people” and a usually charismatic or non-mainstream “anti-politician”.

Populist political leaders commonly identify — or create — domestic problems as rooted in conspiracy theories concerning political correctness or the “corrupt elite”, with external causes including refugees, Muslims; in Brazil, “blacks”, and in the Philippines, drugs. Unskilled immigrants are blamed for “taking jobs”, refugees are seen as a threat, and some groups become marginalised or targeted —  Muslims today, Chinese/Asians in the late 20th century, Jews in the earlier 20th century.  

By way of response, populists often retreat to identity politics, commonly around an exclusivist national identity. Open societies are, as identified by US political scientist William Galston, being confronted by “growing public demands for … economic, cultural, and political closure”.

By aiming at “the establishment”, conventional political critiques of populism only serves to prove the point that “the establishment” or “the elites” are disconnected from the people or, worse, involved in a conspiracy against them. Expertise is decried and evidence, including scientific evidence, is claimed to be nothing more than opinion, with all opinions viewed as equally valid.

Populist leaders tend to exaggerate or manufacture fears that are unrelated to the structural social challenges that give rise to susceptibility to such fears. Populist leaders are, consequently, weak on policy specifics, instead offering vague promises, such as “drain the swamp” (“drenare la palude”, first used by Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini).

The growth of populism reflects, in short, people seeking simple — or simplistic — answers to complex questions. It also reflects, in Australia and elsewhere, political leaders prepared to take advantage of that hunger for simplicity.

Why do you think populism is back? Write to [email protected] and let us know.

Damien Kingsbury is Deakin University’s professor of international politics and author of Sri Lanka: Politics, Ethnicity and Genocide.