In recent decades, the rise of populism as a political ideology has been an undeniably global phenomenon. Representing a range of political movements based on the idea of “the people” at their centre, populism has surged in popularity in both developed and poorer countries, including our own. Similarly, its controversies have been manifold, as have been those of its most prominent proponents across the world.
Though the ideal of representing the working masses through a political movement, often in opposition to the political and economic elites of a country, is not a new phenomenon; populist ideology in recent years has taken on an increasingly exclusionary character in most of its manifestations. The call for unity within the movement is now not one solely based around one’s socio-economic class – such as in Communism – but one around ideas of national identity, ethnicity, and religion too. This is true of populist movements and leaders around the world, from Donald Trump in the United States to Imran Khan in Pakistan, from Marine Le Pen’s National Rally (previously National Front) in France to the One Nation Party in Australia. Populist parties and movements have thus taken on increasingly right-to-far right characteristics, blending economic ideology with the social issues right-wing parties espouse. But why has this phenomenon taken place, and what are the consequences?
The growth in economic production and activity in recent decades is unprecedented, but not everyone, within and across countries and regions, has benefitted equally. The fruits of this new boom have been increasingly localised in the hands of certain countries, and within them certain social classes, which has served to further delineate and strengthen the borders and lines already existing in both. Socialist governments are in decline since the end of the Cold War, the more morally concerned of the Western countries choosing a diluted version, such as in Scandinavia. As such, there has been increasing discontent amongst people across the world, people who feel deliberately and actively excluded from participating in the gains from economic progress by the “elites” of the world.
Similarly, economic activity has grown more and more complicated over time. The flight of multinational corporations from their home countries in the First World to ones in the Third World is just one of many phenomena that have shaped the global economy in ways that have serious consequences for both sets of countries. Workers in the First World who are relatively less-skilled than their fellow citizens find themselves increasingly discontent as their jobs are outsourced to workers in or from the Third World, working for lower salaries. Similarly, elites in Third-World countries are oftentimes in cahoots with these multinational corporations, owning local subsidiaries or helping them gain tax breaks. When these same MNCs exploit local resources and suppress local enterprise, there is increasing discontent amongst the working class against the elites, who are seen as complicit in these activities.
All this combines to create a social climate where political entrepreneurs can take advantage of the discontent amongst the working classes of their country against the economic elites in order to create and shape political movements. But modern populism also combines – as mentioned before – exclusionary aspects with its economic ideas. Widespread and increasing migration of people from the Third World to the First World since the Second World War has led to more and more economic activity being conducted by migrants in their host countries, which has fuelled resentment amongst locals who see immigrants as a threat to their livelihoods and – increasingly – their way of life. Migrants also oftentimes belong to different religious groups than the dominant religion in their host countries, which causes prejudiced locals to develop xenophobic attitudes, combining both racism and religious intolerance, often compounded by centuries-long histories of religious conflict.
Donald Trump rose to power in 2016 following a campaign that – among other things – depended heavily on the revamping of American coal mines, the decline of its foreign responsibilities in favour of political isolationism, and the expulsion of immigrants along national and religious lines. Populism was a central feature of his political ideology, relying on the pitting of working-class people against the state’s elites, an action which had long-lasting consequences that has shaken people the world over’s belief in the fundamental strength of democracy in America. The storming of the Capitol in 2021 following his defeat was an act unthinkable in the America that existed before Trump’s presidency, the economic woes of the right-wing working classes mutating into a fundamental distrust of the American “deep-state” and institutions that they believed existed solely to undermine their movements and demands.
In similar ways, the power of resentment against entrenched political elites was harnessed by Imran Khan to carry the PTI to a victory in the 2018 elections in Pakistan. The “I” in PTI stands for “Insaaf,” signalling that the party came to bring justice for the years of rule by the same political dynasties within which the common man suffered. Populism became the central feature of the PTI’s appeal, promising to weed out the corruption rampant in the economic and political elite of the country. In an eerily similar way to the storming of the Capitol after Trump’s defeat in 2021, Khan’s supporters took to the streets in May of this year following his arrest, targeting institutions of the Pakistani Army, which they blamed for pulling the strings that led to his arrest.
The growth in the power of populism as a political ideology and the extent to which it has threatened long-standing institutions and norms within and across countries is something that cannot be taken lightly, regardless of one’s general political stance on the matter. Economic uncertainty and the charismatic appeal of certain individuals combine to lend populist tendencies new energy and impetus, which can tear down norms in societies that were once considered natural and fundamental, such as blind faith in the due process of law, the Constitution, the Armed Forces, and so on. Despite the potential for more socialist movements to grow through populism, modern-day populism swaps out the centrality of economic class for other lines of unity, even within countries, bringing in ideas of ideological opposition, personalistic appeal and other exclusionary dogmas. As such, modern-day populism has become a dangerous tool for political entrepreneurs to wield, threatening to throw out the good with the bad, ending the celebration of diversity and freedoms with the greater political participation it brings. The latter is to be cherished, the former condemned.
Taut Bataut – is a researcher and writer that publishes on South Asian geopolitics, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.