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How to Steal the Populists’ Clothes

The continued electoral success of populists in Europe, Africa, Asia, Latin America, and in the United States shows that while their policy proposals may be fanciful, their mode of conducting politics is effective. To win at the ballot box, mainstream politicians should apply three lessons that populists have mastered.

OXFORD – “Don’t get mad, get even.” That aphorism needs to become the new norm in democratic politics across Europe, Latin America, Asia, and Africa. Rather than complaining about populist successes, established political parties should take a page from the populist playbook. Three lessons, in particular, cry out for attention.

The first lesson is to connect to the people you wish to represent by learning about them and winning their trust. The time when politicians could rely on party machines, focus groups, and traditional polling is over. The complacent assumption that people will always vote along party or class lines is obsolete. In France’s presidential and parliamentary elections last year, support for both the center-left Socialist Party and the center-right Républicains collapsed. Likewise, established political parties suffered humiliating defeats in Italy’s election last month.

After a decade of economic malaise, voters are skeptical of mainstream politicians who offer rote promises of growth and improved standards of living. In the eyes of disenchanted workers, those in power have simply been feathering their own nests. Even in many of the world’s strongest economies, workers are earning less in real terms than they did ten years ago. To quote the head of the OECD, they are “back at work, but out of pocket.” In the United States, 56% of households report declining household incomes. At the same time, the twin threats of automation and outsourcing have made employment more precarious, and sapped workers’ bargaining power.

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