theconversation | We are witnessing what I have termed The Global Rise of Populism. Populism, once seen as a fringe phenomenon relegated to another era or only certain parts of the world, is now a mainstay of contemporary politics across the globe, from the Americas to Europe, from Africa to the Asia Pacific.
Populism – a political style that features 1) an appeal to “the people” versus “the elite”; 2) the use of “bad manners” that are allegedly “unbecoming” for politicians; and 3) the evocation of crisis, breakdown or threat – isn’t going anywhere. It is here to stay. The sooner we acknowledge this, the sooner we can do something about it.
First, “the elite” is on the nose in many parts of the world. Mainstream parties are increasingly seen as incapable of channelling popular interests, governments are viewed as being in thrall to global finance, and experts are increasingly distrusted and questioned. In many cases, this cynicism is justified.
Populists posit themselves as representing a break from the status quo. They claim to be able to return power to “the people”. This message has great resonance at this particular historical juncture, where faith in institutions has been badly shaken.
Second, the shifting media landscape favours populists. In a time of communicative abundance, populists deliver a simple, often headline-grabbing message that plays to mass media’s desire for polarisation, dramatisation and emotionalisation.
This allows them to “break through” the constant noise and grab free media attention. There is no better example of this than Trump, whose single tweets inspire media frenzy, or, on a local level, the Australian media’s willingness to report every utterance of Hanson since her election.
Also, many populists have been at the forefront of using social media to communicate “directly” with their followers. The examples of Italy’s Five Star Movement, the US Tea Party and Hungary’s Jobbik are instructive here. This type of engagement is something on which mainstream parties have tended to be woefully behind the times.
Third, populists have become more savvy and increased their appeal in the past decade. In fields of candidates who often seem to be cut from a very similar cloth, populists stand out by offering a performance that seems more authentic, more appealing and often downright more entertaining than other politicians.