PARIS – For at least the past year, populism has been wreaking havoc on Western democracies. Populist forces – parties, leaders, and ideas – underpinned the “Leave” campaign’s victory in the United Kingdom’s Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election as President of the United States. Now, populism lurks ominously in the background of the Netherlands’ general election in March and the French presidential election in April and May.
But, despite populism’s seeming ubiquity, it is a hard concept to pin down. Populists are often intolerant of outsiders and those who are different; and yet Geert Wilders, the far-right Dutch populist leader, is a firm believer in gay rights. In the US, Trump’s presidential campaign was described as an anti-elite movement; and yet his administration is already practically a subsidiary of Goldman Sachs.
While today’s populist resurgence comes from the nationalist right, some of the leading populist exponents in recent decades – such as Venezuela’s late president, Hugo Chávez – were firmly on the left. What they share is a zero-sum view of the world, which necessitates the creation of scapegoats who can be blamed for all problems. Moreover, because populist leaders claim to embody the uniform will of a mythical “people,” they consider democracy to be a means to power, rather than a desirable end in itself.
But populists have more in common than an obsession with cultural boundaries and political borders. They also share a recipe for economic governance, one that Project Syndicate commentators have been tracking since long before today’s brand of populism began dominating the world’s headlines. Guided by their insights, we can begin to understand the origins of today’s populist resurgence, and what is in store for Western countries where its avatars come to power.