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Why Populism?

At least since 2016, politics in Western democracies has been reshaped by a widespread backlash against “elites” and the rise of “anti-establishment” demagogues. But why do some countries resist such a politics, while others succumb to it?

In this Big Picture, Daron Acemoglu and James A. Robinson, the authors of Why Nations Fail, explain that populism is a ready-made electoral strategy that generally succeeds only when specific political conditions prevail. Sounding a similar note, Ismaël Emelian and David Amiel, two former advisers to French President Emmanuel Macron, show how strategic mistakes by mainstream political parties have created a space for insurgent movements and candidates. And Andres Velasco of the LSE, noting the presence of populist governments in countries with sound economic conditions, argues that the phenomenon must have its roots in politics, and specifically in failures on the part of elites. 

By contrast, Raghuram G. Rajan of the University of Chicago points out that populism is often a necessary response to the effects of unbridled capitalism. MIT’s Simon Johnson also traces the phenomenon to failures of economic policy, but notes that populists also rely on a breakdown of public trust and commonly held truths. Finally, Harvard’s Dani Rodrik argues that cultural and economic explanations of populism are not mutually exclusive, as their advocates often assume.

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