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Few terms have been more repeated for the past months within Europe and across the Atlantic. ‘Populism’ has become one of the most used terms by the citizens and the political class. Although there is no an exact definition of it, most scholars’ literature agrees in pointing out to a group of common characteristics: it is not a matter of political dichotomy among left or right wings; it offers simple solutions to complex problems; it requires a charismatic leadership; it creates a division between ‘the people ‘ or the political class; and it grows on those countries tired of the ‘political establishment’. It is precisely the political capitalization of this discontent which allows to these populist movements to obtain their electoral benefits which open to them the political institutions’ doors, during those periods when a democratic system coexists and widespread the society’ discontent for a relatively long time.
The neo-Marxist, interventionist, or simply populist postulates, have spread over the last few years. This is a very disturbing factor, because it has shaped the idea in a large percentage of the world population that of capitalism and globalization have been a serious mistake. In addition to these disenchantment, the economic decline of the middle classes, the xenophobia, the technological revolution and the welfare state’ crisis, are the triggers in this ideological boom. The growth which these ideas are globally experiencing, is a sign that the system might be failing. As a result, the support for these populist formations is growing in Europe and the US. Another factor must do with the tension generated in our western societies by the increasing migratory flows, and the economic crisis suffered in recent years. The discontent and inefficiency of the traditional actors in proposing and introducing solutions to the 2008 economic crisis, and the continuous migratory flows in Europe from Middle East during the last two years, has opened the window of opportunity for the growth of these new leadership styles.
Is Populism really the solution to the Western democracies’ crises? There are certain realities which are inherent to populism: it arises in democratic systems; it responds to the interests of a political minority; it is a global phenomenon and finds accommodation both on the right and on the left. In fact, the rhetorical strategy is a resource nowadays used by almost every political party, whatever the spectrum in which it moves, and it is used as a discursive strategy aimed at convincing and obtaining electoral revenue. It is a new form of demagoguery, and not just for those populist parties. Different issue and a tragedy for society is moving from words to facts: the creation of a proper populist regime, halfway between a democracy and an authoritarian political system.
Another characteristic which underpins the populism is the dichotomy between so-called ‘the people’ and those who are not the people. Cas Mudde, a Dutch political scientist, university professor and one of the greatest scholar and experts in the field, says that “populism is an ‘ideology’ that divides society into two antagonistic groups: on the one hand, ‘the pure people’ and, for another, ‘the corrupt elites”. It seems appropriate to ask the following question: Who are the people? The Populism is intolerant because it decides who the people are and who does not: For example, for the National Front in France, the people are the French born in France, nobody else.
Another feature of populism is the economic protectionism which often has serious consequences and entails deep geopolitical risks. Most troubling is the nationalist and protectionist drift which underlies political discourse, as is happening right now in the US, giving the measures taken by the President Trump. For the time being, the markets have positively reacted to the lower taxes, less regulation and a huge fiscal stimulus, but let’s see the impact of those in the future. The economic protectionism has no winners only losers, lower economic growth and higher inflation are some of its deadly consequences in the medium term.
When last June the United Kingdom voted in favour of “Brexit” although with a slight difference of votes, something staggered in the Old Continent. Although many polls pointed to a victory of “Stay”, finally 52% of voters chose to leave the ‘Community Club’. The common project seemed to begin to break. Matteo Renzi’s failed referendum in Italy, or the escalation in polls of these populist parties in France, the Netherlands, Austria and Spain, are for many analysts the first effects of this nationalist and anti-establishment sentiment which begins to settle throughout all the western countries.
Some yet argue that the emergence of these policy options could be beneficial. For Mudde, a point in favour of Populism is “It could serve as an incentive to include in the political agenda issues which are of interest for the electorate, but often dodged due to their controversial character, such as immigration or austerity plans.” According to Mudde research: “Populism could allow the participation of people who were previously excluded and had no voice,” citing the example of indigenous people in Latin America. “It can also serve for the re-moralization of public life.”
Populism has an old tradition which comes back in a cyclical way, although it never reached the present extended magnitude. One of the greatest difficulties to combat it, is its appealing to the most exacerbated instincts of the human beings, the tribal spirit, distrust and fear of the other, to that of different race, language or religion, xenophobia, and ignorance, as it has pointed out the Spanish-Peruvian literature Nobel award Mario Vargas-Llosa. When we wake up to the reality, we will see the failure of those irresponsible policies, which will not have solved any of the social and economic issues of the unsuspecting countries that surrendered to the populist’ spell.