It’s time to rethink how we define and describe contemporary populism.
We are seemingly living in populist times. The effects of the Global Financial Crisis drag on, the Eurozone sovereign-debt crisis continues to threaten the very existence of the European Union, and more broadly, it is alleged that we are suffering from a crisis of faith in democracy, with political party membership falling dramatically and citizens finding themselves more and more disillusioned with mainstream politics. The anger, fury and disgust targeted at members of “the elite”—whether the bankers of Wall Street, the bureaucrats of Brussels, the politicians of leading parties, or the cultural warriors of the op-ed pages—is palpable, with calls for layoffs, imprisonment or even all-out revolution to change the status quo. The time is ripe for canny political actors who can speak effectively in the name of “the people” to make great political gains.
The time is ripe for canny political actors who can speak effectively in the name of “the people” to make great political gains.
And gain they have. Over the past two decades—but particularly in the last decade or so—populists across the world have made headlines by setting “the people” against “the elite” in the name of popular sovereignty and “defending democracy.” Europe has experienced a groundswell of populism in the form of leaders like Silvio Berlusconi, Geert Wilders, Jörg Haider and Marine Le Pen, and populist parties throughout the Continent have enjoyed significant and prolonged political success. Latin America has seen influential left-wing populist leaders change the region irrevocably, with Hugo Chávez, Nicolás Maduro, Evo Morales and Rafael Correa all gaining the highest office in their respective countries. In the Asia-Pacific, populists like Thaksin Shinawatra, Joseph ‘Erap’ Estrada, Pauline Hanson and Winston Peters have left indelible marks on their respective countries, while Africa has experienced its own share of heavy-handed populist leaders, witnessing the presidencies of Yoweri Museveni, Michael Sata and Jacob Zuma. In the United States, the Tea Party ostensibly caused the 2013 government shutdown, and figures like Sarah Palin, Ted Cruz and Donald Trump have shaped the new face of American conservatism.
In other words, populism is back—and it is back with a vengeance. What was once seen as a fringe phenomenon relegated to another era or only certain parts of the world is now a mainstay of contemporary politics across the globe. In order to account for this situation, some scholars have spoken of a “populist Zeitgeist,” a “populist wave,” and a “populist revival.” Populism has also been at the center of recent debates within political theory, with key figures like Laclau, Mouffe, Rancière, and Žižek having engaged with the concept, tackling populism’s sometimes paradoxical relationship with democracy.