The Real Meaning of Populism …

France did not want Marine LePen and the Netherlands didn’t want Geert Wilders, so they have teamed up and taken their act to the Czech Republic.  The event is the meeting of the rightwing Europe of Nations and Freedom group and is being hosted by the anti-Islam Freedom and Direct Democracy party (SPD). The conference is largely symbolic for the Czech SPD party, a means of raising awareness for the populist movement, justifying the movement by showing that the populist movement has a voice in Western Europe, and an attempt to legitimize populism in the Czech Republic.

It is not my intent, nor is it in my ability, to analyze politics in the Czech Republic.  It is, rather, my intent to briefly take a look at the populist movement itself, as it spreads its tentacles ever outward.

By definition, populism is, briefly, “support for the concerns of ordinary people”.  Sounds okay, looks good on paper, but the reality is something altogether different, as we have seen in the U.S.

Donald Trump rode the waves of populism all the way to the Oval Office, but as we have seen, by the above definition of populism, not one single thing he has done fits the definition.  Granted, Trump is a case-study in and of himself in the art of lying.  But other populist politicians are equally unconcerned with the ‘ordinary’ person, yet call themselves populist.  So, what does populism really mean? Consider these examples:

  • Donald Trump in the U.S., wants to deport undocumented immigrants and ban all Muslims from the Middle East.
  • Podemos, the populist Spanish party, wants to give immigrants voting rights.

  • Geert Wilders, the populist Dutch politician, wants to eliminate hate-speech laws.
  • Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the populist Polish politician, pushed for a law making it illegal to use the phrase “Polish death camps”.

  • Evo Morales, Bolivia’s populist president, has expanded indigenous farmers’ rights to grow coca.
  • Rodrigo Duterte, the Philippines’ populist president, has ordered his police to execute suspected drug dealers.

A study in contrasts, yes? It is not a term that is easy to pin down, as evidenced by the many books that have been written in the attempt:

  • What is Populism by Jan-Werner Müller
  • The Populist Persuasion: An American History by Michael Kazin
  • The Populist Explosion by John B. Judis
  • The Global Rise of Populism by Benjamin Moffett
  • The Populist Moment by Lawrence Goodwyn

And the list is seemingly endless.

Müller’s book, published September 2016, is highly rated, and claims that populism is not just antiliberal, it is antidemocratic—the permanent shadow of representative politics.  It seems to me that, in its purest form, strictly applied by the definition at the start of this post, it would be a highly democratic and humanitarian ideology.  But, in the world of today, populism is primarily, I believe defined by a single word: plutocracy.

All a leader needs to do is find that which his people fear, play on those fears, expand them, then promise to keep them safe from said fears.  In the case of the U.S., as in a number of European nations, that fear was terrorism. Ever since the Arab Spring began in 2010 and many in the Middle East were forced to flee their homes with little more than the clothes on their back, the West has been taking on these refugees.  But, leaders and politicians quickly learned that if they equated these refugees with the word “terrorism”, or in some cases, “radical Islamic terrorism”, they could instill fear into the hearts of their populace and people would gladly follow any leader who promised to end immigration from the Middle East.

But really, that is all these leaders, such as Trump, need to do, and they can then proceed with their own agendas, just so long as they keep doing their best to “protect” their citizenry from “those terrorist Muslims”.  And so, we are left with a Donald Trump who has attempted to rob tens of millions of their ability to afford healthcare in order to further enrich the big insurance companies; who has set the wheels in motion to destroy the environment in order to further enrich the coal and oil barons; and who has promoted tax reform to cost each of us “ordinary people” hard-earned money in order to further enrich the nation’s mega-corporations. And as long as he promises his travel ban to keep Muslims out, and keeps on promising to build a wall along the U.S.-Mexican border to keep those “murderin’, rapin’ Mexicans” out, even though he knows the wall will never be built, he can keep on being Robbing Hood. This then, defines the populist movement as well as any.  It could be called, more aptly, the plutocratic movement, or a move toward governance by a handful of the wealthiest.

Oh sure, Trump throws out an extra bone to his followers every now and then, like a promise to pad the courts with uber-conservatives in order to eventually overturn Roe v Wade.  Or a reduction in food stamps and social services that are unpopular with many in the middle income brackets. Promise them whatever they scream the loudest for, then get back to the business of crafting legislation to make the top 1% happy, for those are the ones who truly matter, those are the ones who line his own pockets.  It is no different in the rest of the  Western world.

Today in the U.S., we have the wealthiest Congress in recent history, and thus it is in their personal best interest, rather than to serve as a check on the president’s power, to speak out of both sides of their mouths, promising their constituents one thing, while licking Trump’s boots from the other side.

France, Austria and the Netherlands, I firmly believe, looked at what was happening in the U.S. and came to understand that this populist thing was not all it was cracked up to be.  However, there is still a large contingent in those nations, as well as other European nations, and even Canada I recently discovered, that are supportive of the populist ideology, and have not yet realized that it is a veneer for a deeper, more destructive platform. As my old friend Shafer used to say to me, “Be careful what you wish for, as you just might get it”.

31 thoughts on “The Real Meaning of Populism …

  1. Very well said, Jill. Words are funny. Populism today means the opposite of what the word actually means. Communism is really fascism with a different package. Very scary. Thanks for this helpful article!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks John! As Ms. Kellyanne Conway said early this year, those are “alternative facts”. We have evolved from there to alternative language, and the one that comes to mind first and foremost is “great” as in Trump’s definition when he says he will make America “great” again. I define ‘great’ a bit differently, perhaps. Sigh.


  2. Thanks Jill,
    Thank goodness at this stage the citizens of the Netherlands and France did not buy into this populist thing.
    Austria however, differs, but correct me if I am wrong.
    The conservatives (The People’s Party, OVP), led by Sebastian Kurz and the anti-immigration Freedom Party (FPO), led by Heinz-Christian Strache, recently reached a coalition deal.
    The conservatives won the October 15th election with a hard line on immigration. The leaders of the coalition have pledged to restrict new arrivals’ access to many social services for the first 5 years in the country.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Jill, at its heart, populism plays off fears and easy solutions. Our problems are complex and so solutions do not easily fit on a bumper sticker. It easier to lay blame with partial truths and lies. “You do not have a job due to NAFTA or illegal immigrants” is too simple, as company leaders have always chased cheap labor and still do. The US textile industry was bleeding US jobs long before NAFTA, e.g.

    It does not mean these are not factors, but the issue is far more complex and requires some protections, some horse trading and incentives and most definitely job retraining. But, the bigger threat is technology for all jobs, even white collar.

    There is a symbiotic relationship to various decisions and indecisons that require detailed study and not populist talking points. Here is one. We have more gun deaths because of access to weapons, so disputes escalate. This is also traceable to the lack of civil discourse, entertainment violence, drug trafficking, mental health issues and poor gun governance around safety and access. Yet, to say one problem is the cause, usually sells the solutions short.

    The answer is beware of simple solutions and those who espouse them with conviction demonization. Keith

    Liked by 2 people

    • You are quite right … every problem that faces not only our nation, but every nation, is complex because the problems involve people, and people are complex. As one of my favourite PoliSci professors always said, “there is no panacea” … there are no simple solutions, and in truth, no solution will please everybody. But to not even try to do what is best for the majority, for the nation, is unconscionable. Our MITWH and his minions in Congress have not acted in good faith, and are not even seeking equitable solutions to any of our problems. Populism? A huge lie told to garner the support of the masses and spoon feed them lie after lie. Where does it end?


  4. This is a very detailed and soundly analytical post Jill, in that you have highlighted the underlying fraud that is the ‘populist’ movement.
    Democracy is actually a two-way street. With rights come responsibilities to ensure the stability of the nation and if someone is not prepared to accept the latter then quite frankly they do not deserve the former.
    To pick on one group because of race, religion, culture or community and yet obeying the laws of the nation is divisive and criminal.
    Whereas a government should listen to the common concerns of the population, ie healthcare, education, environment, public safety etc it does not have to listen to any group no matter how large which wishes to bring cause against another group. In fact, it has a duty to tell ‘the petitioners’ why they are wrong and warn them if they keep on the state will come down on them in no small measure. A house divided against itself cannot stand.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Very well said, Roger! Hate seems to actually be the backbone of today’s populist movement, and it is quite popular among the masses. I do not understand it, but it almost seems as if people are not happy if they do not have a group to hate at any given moment. Does it reinforce their own “superiority” in their minds? I just do not get it at all. But the political leaders of the day certainly do use it to their advantage. Of all the books that have been written on the topic, nobody has hit on a solution.

      Liked by 1 person

      • History suggests people need a target for their fears and the anger of their own situation. Couple this with ignorance and a few opportunists of any sort and you have a fugitive or literal lynch mob.
        The books on the subject seem to suggest opening up an honest debate for people to realise their mistake. Folk ‘en bloc’ are not prone to admitting a mistake, nor will their leaders be willing to give up their power- hence Conspiracy Theorists will constantly shift the ground and invent secret sources.
        In my opinion (steps up to pulpit) in a complex society you need a government which does not tolerate intolerance:
        A) Provides good health, education, transport, law enforcement and employment opportunities.
        B) Ensure a constant messaging that are people are equal, this being built into education system.
        C) The full weight of the law being brought to bear on anyone who targets any section of the community. Hate crime being equal to terrorism. Those found guilty get imprisoned and re-educated. If anyone asks me about Civil Rights in this circumstance I just reply ‘Civil Responsibility’…..
        Of course the chances of this are slim, we have a diluted system in the UK, they crack down on some far-right groups in a way that would have Bannon etc squawking and wetting their pants but Farage is still running about the place.
        (Steps down from pulpit)

        Liked by 1 person

        • I do love it when you step up to that pulpit, and I envision you speaking at rallies here. It is true that you guys still have Farage and others, and that your society isn’t perfect, but overall, I credit you guys with more sense than we have. You don’t go off half-cocked and condemn all Muslims when you have a terrorist attack. And, you understand human nature well enough to know it doesn’t make sense to put a gun in the hands of every civilian. Your government, for the most part, governs in the best interest, sometimes righ, sometimes wrong, of the nation. Our government panders to the wealthy. Careful stepping down there, my friend! Until next time …

          Liked by 1 person

          • It would be nice to think the folk of the UK do not go off blathering whenever there is a terrorist attack, sadly they do, but fortunately The Establishment (as it used to be derisively called ‘back in the day’) keep most of the nonsense justifiably squashed.
            Oh and by the way, the tragic tale of Farage….
            He is separated from his wife, he has no money and boo-hoooo, cannot walk down a street in London without someone being nasty to him….look this is me weeping…boo-hoo….oh woe….lack-a-day!
            (Now maybe he’ll know how it feels to be an immigrant….thanks to him & Co)

            Liked by 1 person

  5. Populism is tethered to protectionism and we all have a protectionist streak in our Characters like it or not. Any policy ( true or false ) which threatens our lifestyle is viewed with disdain, therefore any such policy will not be voted for. The art of politics is to convince the largest section of any community that your policies are for their continued prosperity whether that be true or false. The rise of the right is due to insecurity and falling lifestyles of the majority in many rich countries. The preaching of the right is : what we have is ours since we earned it , followed by this is our country we will not share it with anyone.
    The only thing we must insist on is that those who enter must obey the law of the land as decided by democracy. That means that any other religious laws when they conflict with our democratically decided position cannot rule. We cannot have Sharia law, anymore than we can be ruled by Biblical law. Those who wish to live by such laws can do so but they are not legally binding in any way and should any wish to abandon them they must be supported by our democratic system.
    The majority of Muslims just pay lip service to such laws if they live in western democracies , likewise the majority of Christians pay lip service to Christian laws.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Interesting take on it. I’m not disagreeing with you, but based on your analysis, there is really no place for truth in politics, even if we were to have honest politicians, am I right? Rather a bleak scenario, but .it has been so throughout history. I guess I was only hoping that we could learn from the past, but if anything, we have only learned how to lie, cheat and steal better than our ancestors did.


      • There is no way for truth to get a platform in politics because the truth is too painful for most of us to bear. And you need to be popular to gain a mandate. Take heart we are no worse or better than we have always been , things of shreds and patches, mixed bags of tricks. We have adapted well to circumstances and gone forth and multiplied. Only circumstances will change our behaviour no amount of preaching or politicizing will do it .

        Liked by 1 person

  6. Very perceptive post, Jill. I certainly think that fears are created by some administrations as a form of control to contain thinking people and get them ‘on side.’
    DT has hated the Iranians for most of his adult life. I have no doubt that he will think up some false reason to create fear in our minds to attack them. Iran is a beautiful country , and has stayed out of world conflicts (unlike the US). While their Islamic religion is of concern, when combined with nuclear development (by the US in particular), the Iranians have not engaged in sabre rattling tactics. I just know that DT is going to provoke them enough (like a small boy poking a stick into a dog) that they will bite, and DT will turn around, innocent faced, spread his arms and say to the world, ‘There, I told you they were bad people. We must do something to stop them, and I am the man who will do it, make no mistake!’

    Your words should make us all cautious about what we believe, and to look properly at any situation.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you, Colette! Yes, there is so much falsehood coming from … our government, certainly, but many on your side of the pond also. And I agree with you fully re Iran. There was no reason for Trump to fail to re-certify the agreement, as Iran had been holding up their part. It will not surprise me for Trump to antagonize them further, but I am hoping he is out of office before he has the chance. He’s still occupied playing games with Kim Jong-un for now, I think. And getting his abomination of a ‘tax bill’ passed, of course.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. The policies of every party bear scrutiny to make sure the promises aren’t anti-people.The minute you find they’re anti one particular group, blacks, Jews or immigrants you’ll usually find they’re anti the rights of everyone, just hiding it.

    Liked by 1 person

Comments are closed.