The Resistible Rise of Populism

Populism has historically been a slippery phenomenon, sometimes focused squarely on economic grievances, but often exploiting such grievances to advance a chauvinist political agenda. That is also true today, when populist movements are gaining ground in Europe and the US, even as they and their leaders are being forced from power in Latin America.

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What’s behind the swelling tide of populism-cum-nationalism seen in almost every corner of the globe? Why do so many yearn for rule by strongmen (or, in the case of France’s Marine Le Pen and Peru’s Keiko Fujimori, strong women)? For Project Syndicate commentators, the question is not only what’s driving the phenomenon, but also what can and should be done to confront it.

What’s Popular About Populism?

Some people, says former Chilean finance minister Andrés Velasco, “blame runaway globalization; others blame income inequality; still others blame out-of-touch elites who simply don’t get it.” But the truth seems to be that all three have played a part.

That underscores a basic point made by Harvard’s Joseph S. Nye: The catalyst for populism lies as much in those being led as in the ideas and characters of the populist leaders. “A Russian public anxious about its status; a Chinese people concerned about rampant corruption; a Turkish population divided over ethnicity and religion: All create enabling environments for leaders who feel a psychological need for power.” Similarly, in the United States, “[Donald] Trump magnifies the discontent of a part of the population through clever manipulation of television news programs and social media.”

Status anxiety is also clearly at the root of Vladimir Putin’s sky-high popularity in Russia, which remains robust despite the country’s myriad economic travails. Indeed, Andrei Kolesnikov of the Carnegie Moscow Center argues that “Putin’s regime [through its annexation of Crimea] was able to create a sense of restored historical justice and revive expectations of a return to ‘great power’ status.”