There are many unexamined assumptions about populism that don’t stand up to scrutiny. Many journalists and academics discuss it as if it were some kind of ideology, like liberalism or conservatism. Others go further and regard populism as an inherent feature of right-wing politics. In the wake of Brexit and Trump, populism is increasingly referred to as though it were a new feature of political culture. These assumptions belie ideological biases rather than empirical fact.
It would be more fruitful to start by regarding populism as a form of politics that juxtaposes a morally virtuous people (the ‘us’ or ‘we’) against a corrupt elite (‘them’). The definition of ‘us’ and ‘them’ can shift depending on the particular populist’s ideological leanings. For example, the corrupt ‘they’ could be the liberal media, supreme court judges, bankers or leaders who are soft on immigration. As such, populism is a political strategy. It’s a way for political hopefuls to cast themselves as outsiders seeking mass support from ‘the people’ to challenge a status quo that is portrayed as deeply unjust – a perception that could be completely spot on or pure deception.
What’s more, these hopefuls often choose when they want to turn the populist dial up or down. For example, Argentina’s Juan Domingo Perón was not a populist all of the time during his first stint as president from 1946 to 1955. In fact, it can be argued that Perón employed populist tactics only for the three years before he was elected president up until 1949. After that, the post-war economic crises disrupted his populist efforts and Perón had to maintain political power through more authoritarian measures.
Bearing this in mind, here is a List of ten populist moments that can balance the current Brexit- and Trump-dominated headlines.
1. The People’s Party (United States) (1892-6)
Not all successful populist movements rely on larger-than-life leaders, nor do they need to result in majoritarian victories. Established in 1891, the People’s Party was an agrarian-populist political party in the United States of America. It was even known as the Populist Party – not to be confused with the American Populist Party, a minor political party founded in 2009 and which advocates ‘classical liberalism’. The People’s Party was built upon a coalition of poor, white cotton farmers in the South (mostly from North Carolina, Alabama and Texas), and wheat farmers in the Plains states (mostly Kansas and Nebraska). The party was highly critical of capitalism, especially the banking and railroad industries, and allied itself with the labour movement. It did remarkably well in the 1892 presidential election, with its candidates James B Weaver and James G Field winning 8.5 per cent of the popular vote and carrying five states – Colorado, Idaho, Kansas, Nevada and North Dakota. It also won an impressive ten per cent of the vote in the 1894 House of Representatives elections. Between 1892 and 1896, the People’s Party was a major force in left-wing politics in the US. In 1896, it merged with the Democratic Party, but a remnant of the party remained until 1908.
2. Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva (2006)
Da Silva, known simply as Lula, is a founding member of Brazil’s leftist Workers Party (PT). He ran for president three times unsuccessfully – in 1989, 1994 and 1998. In 2002, the Brazilian Real fell by 33 per cent amid jitters in the financial markets that he was poised to win the presidency. Nine years later, after two terms, Lula left office with an approval rating of 87 per cent. His administration saw tens of millions of Brazilians escaping poverty through his policies, including the successful Bolsa Familia (Family Allowance) and Fome Zero (Zero Hunger) programmes. That Lula remained so popular throughout his time in power is remarkable, but his most populist moment came in 2006. Dogged by allegations of corruption against the PT, Lula embarked on a successful coalition of interests between the private sector and the labour movement – a strategy that was dubbed Lulism by his aide, André Singer. Lula’s legacy, however, has been marked by controversy. His hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff, was impeached by the Senate in 2016. In 2017, the still-popular Lula was sentenced to nine years and six months in prison for corruption and money-laundering. His eligibility to contest in the 2018 elections depends on the outcome of his appeal against the court ruling.
3. Tony Blair (1997)
The first day of May 1997 was like a new dawn – optimism filled the air. Tony Blair and the British Labour Party won a resounding victory in one of the greatest general election victories of the twentieth century, overturning eighteen years of Conservative government. The morning after the night before, the iconic image of Cherie Blair answering the door of Number Ten in her nightie and bedhead to receive a bouquet of congratulatory flowers summed up a new era. But Blair’s firm couching at the centre end of centre-left politics won as many critics as it did admirers. More left-leaning Labour stalwarts bristled at his New Labour ‘Third Way’ project that straddled capitalism and socialism-lite. One also cannot mention Blair without referencing the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the consequences of which reverberate to this day. Ironically, the popular protests against Blair’s involvement in the war foreshadowed the fall of New Labour in the 2010 elections. Sadly, Blair’s aggressive foreign policy and his obsession with his legacy eclipsed many of the positive policy implementations achieved during his time in government. Regardless of what his detractors say, though, Blair did uphold investment in social services, the National Health Service and the championing of equality and diversity. Unfortunately, his reputation as a populist hero will always be tarnished, rightly or wrongly, by his disastrous decision on Iraq.
4. Syriza and Podemos (2014-5)
While the rest of Europe appeared to be lurching to the right on a wave of populist sentiment during the past decade, the Mediterranean seemed to be bucking the trend. Countries rendered a husk of their former selves by the post-2008 implosion of their economies were still floundering in financial wilderness. This was exacerbated by crippling debts and intense pressure from the refugee crisis that disproportionately affected them. Yet it was the far-left movements that made impressive political breakthroughs in Greece (with Syriza), Spain (with Podemos) and, to a lesser extent, in Italy (with newcomers Senso Comune). Syriza swept into government in 2015 and Podemos began its meteoric rise in 2014. These far-left populist movements have not yet delivered the utopia that had been hoped for, as illustrated by Syriza’s failed attempt to challenge some of the EU’s more pro-establishment policies. But they show that there continues to be an alternative to the status quo.
5. Emmanuel Macron (2017)
After the populist upsets of Brexit and Trump, the world’s attention turned to the French election of May 2017 with much trepidation. Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right Front National, must have felt she was tantalisingly close to being handed the reins of power. Anti-Muslim and anti-immigration sentiment captured the public imagination and the result seemed like anyone’s guess. Late in the election rounds, however, a former banker, Emmanuel Macron, began to emerge as a serious contender. Could he possibly upset the latest in populist upsets by preventing a Front National win? It turned out he could. Macron became the acceptable centre-left candidate in opposition to Le Pen’s far-right populism and won comfortably. Yet for many, he was a compromise candidate. According to them, his win was, if anything, a defeat for populism – including, arguably, of the far-left variety led by Jean-Luc Mélenchon. A ‘Frexit’ had been averted and things would carry on as before. Le Pen bemoaned the victory of the ‘continuity candidate’ while those on the left made no secret that they had held their noses to vote for Macron whom they felt offered no new solutions to France’s problems. The rest of the world, however, temporarily breathed a sigh of relief.
6. Evo Morales (2006)
In 2005, Evo Morales became Bolivia’s first president to come from the indigenous majority since the country declared independence in 1825. As the charismatic leader of the coca growers’ union, he emerged from the social movements that had forced the country’s two previous presidents from office. Within a year of taking office, he renationalised Bolivia’s oil and gas industries, which helped to increase the country’s public investments and boosted its foreign reserves. Poverty soon went down by 25 per cent – extreme poverty dropped by 43 per cent. He also drove the rewriting of the constitution which redefined Bolivia as a ‘multi-ethnic and pluri-cultural’ nation. Since being re-elected in 2009, however, it appears that Evo, as he is popularly known, has had to deal with increasing public disgruntlement. In February 2016, he narrowly lost a referendum that would have allowed him to stand for a fourth term in office. Internationally, Bolivia’s relations with the US have cooled since Evo assumed the presidency. He forged close links with other left-wing Latin American leaders, including Venezuela’s Chavez and Fidel and Raul Castro from Cuba. In 2013, he expelled the US Agency for International Aid, accusing it of conspiring against the Bolivian people and in 2014, he branded US President Barack Obama an ‘imperialist’ at the UN General Assembly. Evo has achieved a great deal during his presidency, but questions remain about his ability to address corruption and Bolivia’s overdependence on fossil fuels.
7. Barack Obama (2008 and 2012)
Poor Hilary Clinton. Denied a chance to become the first woman president of the US by a populist opponent. Twice. The second time, when she was trumped by Trump in 2016, is still fresh in many people’s minds. The first time, she was pipped to the post during the Democrats’ primaries by one Barack Hussein Obama. Yes, in 2008, Obama was often described as a populist presidential candidate – in a good way by some left-wing commentators. Others dismissed his campaign as empty, pie-in-the-sky fantasy. Once in office, he became more pragmatic – at least until he had to run for re-election in 2012, which involved fending off the right-wing populist Tea Party movement and barely disguised racist attacks on his background. And this is why, according to him, he is the real populist – not Trump. In the heat of the 2016 presidential campaign, Obama said, without referring directly to the Trump campaign, ‘They don’t suddenly become a populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes…. That’s not the measure of populism. That’s nativism, or xenophobia, or worse. Or it’s just cynicism.’
8. Joko Widodo (2014)
Joko Widodo’s victory at the 2014 Indonesian presidential elections was hailed as a breakthrough for the country’s evolving democracy, after decades of military dictatorship that ended in 1998. For one thing, Jokowi, as he is popularly known, was a local politician who made it good nationally – he was the Governor of Jakarta before running for the presidency. More captivating for the public was his journey from small-town carpenter to president of the world’s largest Muslim country. And even more remarkable was that Jokowi’s opponent also ran on a populist platform. Prabowo Subianto, the wealthy son-in-law of former dictator Suharto, engaged in a campaign that was xenophobic, anti-elite, pro-poor and dripping with anger. Jokowi’s populism, however, was non-confrontational, inclusive and technocratic – he primarily focused on the improvement of public services. It’s a bit like the Indonesian Obama going against the Indonesian Trump and winning. Since securing the presidency, however, Jokowi has had to contend with the old elites trying to regain influence and has himself been sliding into authoritarianism. A wildly successful populist campaign has yet to translate into a populist or even popular administration.
9. Aung San Suu Kyi (post-2015)
Could one of the world’s most famous former political prisoners and pro-democracy icons be turning into a populist? If we’re thinking of populism as a political strategy that can be used at particular moments in time, it’s not unthinkable. Ever since she was placed under house arrest by the Burmese military junta from 1989 to 2010, Aung San Suu Kyi proved to be extremely popular but was arguably not a populist. Her party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), boycotted the 2010 elections, resulting in victory for the military-backed Union Solidarity and Development Party. But in the 2012 by-elections, the NLD won 43 out of 45 seats and Suu Kyi became an MP. The NLD won a landslide victory in the 2015 elections, taking 86 per cent in the Assembly of the Union. Constitutionally, Suu Kyi was unable to become prime minister – her husband and children are foreign citizens – but she assumed the newly created role of State Counsellor, which is akin to Prime Minister. Since coming to power, however, ‘The Lady’ has turned out to be a nasty piece of work. She has remained silent over numerous human rights issues, including the imprisonment of student activists, the exploitation of workers and has strenuously denied the very existence of horrific persecution of the Rohingya minority. The line between political pragmatism and populism is a fine one.
10. The Scottish Nationalist Party (2015)
If we define populism as a strategy employed by political outsiders – whether on the right or left – to challenge the status quo, then it would fit the SNP circa 2015 like a glove. The 2014 referendum for Scottish independence was a nail-biter. The narrowness of the vote – 44.7 per cent in favour of independence and 55.3 per cent against – made unionists uncomfortable and emboldened pro-independence supporters. The post-referendum momentum continued and resulted in a previously unthinkable landslide for the SNP in Scotland in the 2015 general election. The party’s number of seats in the UK parliament went from six to 56 overnight – that’s more than an eightfold gain. But cracks began to show after the 2016 EU referendum and the rise of the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn. The SNP could no longer bank on its self-styled progressive, inclusive brand of nationalism. Even unionism didn’t seem like such a bad thing anymore to some Scottish voters, post-Brexit and post-Trump. The party still emerged victorious in the 2017 snap elections, winning 35 out of 59 seats. For now, the SNP’s brand of populist nationalism seems to be running out of steam.