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How Do Populists Win?

At first blush, a populist message of "us vs. them" might seem less effective than a message of "all of us together," given that elections are won with broad coalitions. But under conditions of widespread alienation and distrust, the political gamble of an exclusionary, anti-pluralist message can pay off big.

CHICAGO – In the Middle Ages, Italian city-states led the European “commercial revolution” with innovations in finance, trade, and technology. Then something strange happened. In 1264, to take one example, the people of Ferrara decreed that, “The magnificent and illustrious Lord Obizzo … is to be Governor and Ruler and General and permanent Lord of the City.” Suddenly, a democratic republic had voted itself out of existence.

In fact, this was not an uncommon occurrence in Northern Italy at the time. As Niccolo Machiavelli explains in The Prince, the people, seeing that they cannot resist the nobility, give their support to one man, in order to be defended by his authority. The lesson is that people will abandon democracy if they are worried that an elite has captured its institutions.

Medieval Italy’s democratic institutions succumbed to what we might now call populism: an anti-elitist, anti-pluralistic, and exclusionary strategy for building a coalition of the discontented. The method is exclusionary because it relies on a specific definition of “the people,” whose interests must be defended against not just elites, but all others. Hence, in the United Kingdom, the Brexit leader Nigel Farage promised that a vote for “Leave” in 2016 would be a victory for the “real people.” As Donald Trump told a campaign rally the same year, “the other people don’t mean anything.” Likewise, former Colombian President Álvaro Uribe often speaks of the “gente de bien” (the “good people”).

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