Why populism has taken off worldwide

When the Great Recession shook the economy in 2008, a wave of anti-establishment messages emerged that has led to a rising appeal of populist politics, according to three political scientists.

Over the past decade, people from across the political spectrum have increasingly questioned how in touch elected officials are with the concerns of ordinary people and whether Wall Street influences them more than Main Street interests. Known also as populism, these “us vs. them” sentiments have inspired new political movements in countries across the globe, including the US, UK, Brazil, France, and Sweden.

Here, three Stanford University scholars—Francis Fukuyama, Anna Grzymala-Busse, and Neil Malhotra—discuss how these political movements have gained momentum and their influence in contemporary politics.

Fukuyama is a fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies and the Mosbacher Director of the institute’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. Grzymala-Busse is a professor of international studies and a senior fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute. Malhotra is a professor of political economy at Stanford Graduate School of Business.


Populism can mean different things to different people. How would you define populism? What does it look like in America today?


Fukuyama: Populism often involves a politician who claims to have direct charismatic connection to the people, which gives him/her special legitimacy in pursuing the “people’s” interest. This presents a challenge to democracy, since such leaders tend to be anti-institutional: They oppose courts, the media, bureaucracies, and any check-and-balance institution that stands in their way.

Grzymala-Busse: Populism is an ideology that consists of two main claims: first, that the political and economic elites act in their own corrupt self-interest, and neither care about or respond to popular concerns. The second claim is that as a result, the “people” need to be represented by the populist party or movement, so that their interests can finally be served. In the US today, these claims take the form of calls to “drain the swamp” and of attacks on “disloyal” opposition, media, or citizens.

Malhotra: Broadly, one way to think of populism is a political movement that represents the masses against the elites. As manifested in America, populism has features of liberal economic policies—e.g., protectionism, support for mass entitlement programs—conservative social policies, and isolationist foreign policies. It also stands against trends such as globalization and “small-l liberalism,” in which I mean the embrace of global markets and cosmopolitan integration.



What does your research tell us about populism’s influence in contemporary discourse?


Grzymala-Busse: Across the world, populism is driven by a frustration with the mainstream political parties, who are seen as being too close on policy—see, for example, the response to the 2008 economic crisis—on the one hand, and too unresponsive to their electorates on the other. When mainstream parties fail to respond to popular concerns, and to articulate whom they represent and why the policies they advocate would be better for those constituencies, populist politicians and movements offer a powerful and convincing criticism of establishment politics.

Fukuyama: There is an economic basis for populism, insofar as globalization has created inequalities and led to a loss of working-class jobs in countries like the United States. But there is also a cultural dimension as well—the rapid social change that has produced high levels of immigration has also threatened national identities and caused older native populations to feel they have lost status and influence.

Malhotra: In my research, I’ve conducted the largest-known survey of political donors alongside concurrent surveys of the mass public. The political parties appear to be far more responsive to their donor bases in directions that are anti-populist, which may create a demand for populist candidates.

For example, Democratic donors are far more socially liberal than Democrats in the mass public. Republican donors are far more economically conservative than Republicans in the mass public. And donors of both parties are much more globalist than regular people. In this environment, you can see why candidates such as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders may be attractive. I also think the Great Recession has a lot to do with this. The way people view institutions has been fundamentally affected by the financial crisis and how none of the elites seem to have faced many consequences.


What have you found in your research about the realities of polarization and its effects?


Malhotra: Much of my research forwards the idea that a lot of political polarization is non-ideological. Regular people are not experts on most political issues and there are not huge divides on the policy positions of Republicans and Democrats. Partisanship is more of a social identity. People see themselves as part of the red team or blue team, and act accordingly. Of course, where people can have meaningful views on issues are where they speak to identity concerns. This includes issues like immigration.

Fukuyama: Polarization has been abetted by many factors. Americans are sorting themselves out geographically, living in increasingly politically homogeneous neighborhoods. Social media and the proliferation of media channels via the internet and TV has played a role, allowing people to communicate exclusively with people like themselves. Identity and the growth of identity politics have also played a role: People have gravitated toward groups that often feel they are in a zero-sum competition against one another. Finally, the economic changes that have led to a broad increase in inequality have driven populisms on both the left and right.

Grzymala-Busse: Populist parties tend to arise and grow where the parties are perceived to be too close together: When they seem indistinguishable, and when they fail to differentiate themselves in the kind of policies they offer. There, populism thrives because parties appear too similar to each other for many voters. In the US, electorates have been growing apart for decades and the current populist administration has led to a highly polarized partisan response.


What are ways for people to find common ground at a time of heightened partisanship?


Fukuyama: In my view, we cannot get away from identity politics since that is deeply rooted in the way we think about ourselves. However, we can construct identities that are either narrow and exclusive, or broad and inclusive.

I think that political leaders need to emphasize a creedal American national identity that unites all Americans, based on ideas like constitutional government, the rule of law, and belief in fundamental human equality as enunciated in the Declaration of Independence. It has to be a civic identity and needs to be defended from those who would drag us back into ethnic or racial definitions of what it means to be an American.

Grzymala-Busse: Try and agree on what the main problems facing our society are and what a good process for resolving these would look like. For example, many Americans would agree that poverty in the United States is a continuing problem. Many would also agree that the opioid crisis is just that—a crisis. We may have very different solutions to these dilemmas and see their origins very differently, but identifying our common worries means we can focus on substance.