Marine Le Pen to “malignant Manichaeism” — how science can help us understand populism
- Recent election results in Europe have been interpreted as a reversal of populism.
- Researchers are trying to better understand what populism is and how it spreads.
- This raises the prospect of potentially limiting the damage it can cause.
After the defeat of two populist candidates in last Sunday’s European elections, some of the reactions sounded like the advice we receive during the descent of a wave of COVID-19 – that’s fine, but don’t be complacent.
Marine Le Pen, who had promised French voters a “national preference” over foreigners for jobs and fewer social benefits for immigrants, lost a presidential candidacy. In Slovenia, Janez Janša has been denied another term as prime minister after being accused of sliding into authoritarian rule. Still, more than 14 million votes were collectively cast for the two politicians.
Populism has been a controversial issue since at least the 19th century. Tiberius Gracchus, the Roman tribune assassinated by a group of senators in 133 BC. AD, has been called proto-populist. But it seems that we are only now beginning to determine what exactly populism is.
A growing number of researchers are on the case, applying machine learning to party manifestos and speeches, assessing what motivates voters and formulating new definitions. A study published last year quantified the lasting economic and political damage caused by populist leaders in dozens of countries. It also suggested that populism is here to stay.
But the rapidly expanding field of “populology” hints at an intriguing possibility: if we can break it down scientifically, can we limit its worst impacts?
The historical record shows that claiming to act on behalf of the “people” does not necessarily mean that it is so. In fact, it has often led to despotism and suffering.
Experts trace the origins of modern populism to the 19and-century America. Versions also cropped up in Russia and Argentina.
It has swung back and forth over the years; a left-wing political form focused on wealth redistribution, and a right-wing one leaned heavily on xenophobia. In Europe, the right-wing variety began a resurgence in the 1980s led by the likes of Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, the leader of France’s National Front described by the New York Times as a “disturbing political phenomenon”. .
The Rise, Fall and Rise of Populism
Andrew Jackson on the 19thandThe US president of the last century, perpetrator of what has been called ethnic cleansing, and perhaps the first populist, reappeared in the White House in 2017. It was then that his portrait was hung in the Oval Office by the winner of the previous year’s presidential election, Donald Trump – himself a populist.
The portrait has now disappeared from the Oval Office, following the 2020 election. But other impacts from a period of populist resurgence have been more lasting.
The 2016 Brexit vote that took Britain out of the European Union, for example, widely seen as a populist breakthrough, is reshaping the country’s economy.
Recently published research found that the vote led to a sharp decline in business relationships, which had a disproportionate effect negative impact on small businesses.
The 2020 US presidential election was followed by an election in the Czech Republic last year which was also seen as a repudiation of populist politics. Then came the elections in France and Slovenia.
However, the large number of people who abstained from voting in France, a better result for Le Pen than she had obtained in the previous presidential election, and the demonstrations that followed, were taken as proof that France remains one of the many vulnerable countries on the call. far-right populism.
Francis Fukuyama has suggested a validation of “extreme free-market advocates” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a related lack of government focus on maintaining stability, allowed populism to thrive.
Russia’s invasion of Ukraine could now deal it a heavy blow, embarrassing populist leaders hitherto inclined to ingratiate themselves with Vladimir Putin.
If the past is any reliable guide, however, a return is likely – making efforts to better understand how populism takes root is more urgent than ever. “Populology” could further improve both our knowledge of how the political brain works and “its implications for democracy,” one scholar wrote.
More reading on the dynamics of populism
For more context, here are links to other readings from the World Economic Forum’s Strategic Intelligence Platform:
- Macron’s victory is not the defeat of populism – according to this analysis, the French presidential election may have reassured many but it shows that more voters than ever want the system to explode. (Project union)
- Populist French presidential candidate Éric Zemmour touts the ‘great replacement’ conspiracy theory that cosmopolitans aim to replace Christians with Muslim immigrants, according to this article, and despite his defeat he is popular with the upper middle class. (Montaigne Institute)
- Clever Manichaeism – The most crucial characteristic of populist leaders and their propaganda is the notion that the political spectrum is divided between the “good guys” and the “bad guys,” according to this analysis of elections in Colombia and Brazil. (LSE)
- Recent European election results may be encouraging to some, but according to this article, trust in democracy is actually on the decline in most parts of the world. (In-depth news)
- Populists indulge in radical and emotional language while diplomats need to be more cautious, but this article asks if this limitation is still appropriate in a time of climate crisis. (Australian Institute of International Affairs)
- They can still capitalize on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to this analysis, but for now the war appears to be discrediting Putin’s populist supporters in the West and uniting Europe. (Project union)
- The populist radical right has more than doubled its share of seats in the European Parliament over the past decade, according to this analysis, reflecting growing public skepticism about European integration. (LSE)
This article was previously published in the World Economic Forum.
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