The New Year and the New Populism

Protest movements throughout history have furnished ideas and leaders that eventually became part of the political mainstream. The populist campaigns that gained so much ground in 2016, most notably in the UK and the US, are different, because they categorically deny the establishment’s legitimacy.

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OXFORD – The word “populism” was everywhere in 2016. Political leaders claiming to speak for the people have achieved significant victories in Europe, Asia, and, with the election of Donald Trump, the United States.

Populism first described the late-nineteenth-century protest by American farmers against banks and railroad monopolies. Now, the term describes the anger and resentment felt for privileged, powerful elites in the public and private sectors alike. In Italy, Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement takes on the “establishment,” broadly defined to include everyone from journalists to industrialists and politicians. Likewise, in the US, Trump has promised to “drain the swamp.”

The new populism has more diffuse aims, and makes more sweeping claims, than its nineteenth-century predecessor. Today’s populist leaders are generous with their hatreds, but parsimonious with respect to specific policies. They tap into left- and right-wing politics, often simultaneously: Trump, for example, promises paid maternity leave and an increase in the minimum wage, together with tax cuts for the rich and financial and environmental deregulation. Political orientation is unimportant in populism, because it does not deal in evidence or detailed proposals for change, but in the manipulation of feelings by charismatic leaders.

Unlike traditional conservative or socialist parties, the new populism does not appeal to socioeconomic class, but to identity and culture. Populists’ target audience is anyone who feels economically threatened by globalization, worries that immigrants are taking their jobs and changing the composition of society, or is simply unhappy with a perceived loss of status (a sentiment reflected in hostility, especially among white men, to “political correctness”).