Understanding the ‘populist moment’

Populism has been used as a catch-all definition covering everyone from Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders to Evo Morales and Rodrigo Duterte. But what is populism and what is its historical background? Kevin Bean gives some answers

Something in common: Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Viktor Orbán

‘Populism’ was the word of the year in 2016 and has continued to make the headlines in 2017.1 Politicians as radically different as Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in the United States, and movements as diverse as Podemos in Spain and Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD), have frequently been labelled ‘populist’ by commentators and political opponents. In stretching the term to include the Bolivian left leader, Evo Morales, and the Philippines president, Rodrigo Duterte, in its own motley collection of populist politicians, The Economist shares the widely-held view that populism expresses “a rejection of the political establishment” and as such presents a serious, if ill-defined, threat to the status quo in the USA and Europe.2

It has been suggested that one of the significant features of these disparate popular revolts against the elites is their relatively sudden emergence and rapid growth, as a result of an appeal to previously unrepresented voters or ‘socially excluded’ groups.3 Supporters of Brexit, for example, have been widely described as disaffected, ‘left-behind’ voters living in ‘post-industrial areas’, whilst Trump’s presidential triumph has been similarly attributed to the anger and alienation of voters in the USA’s Rust Belt states.4 Commentators covering the 2017 French presidential elections provided an added refinement to this analysis, arguing that Marine Le Pen of the rightwing National Front and Jean-Luc Mélenchon of the leftwing La France Insoumise (France Unbowed) movement were fishing in the same electoral pool for support amongst “the enraged and disengaged” and were thus merely right and left variants of the same populist politics.5

As The Economist puts it, “populism’s belief that the people are always right is bad news for two elements of liberal democracy: the rights of minorities and the rule of law”.6 In other words, not only do populist ideas originate far beyond conventional politics, but the leaders and parties that espouse populism must be seen as unrestrained ‘outsiders’ in revolt against the established order. Fears that these ‘outsiders’ might get their hands on the state machine and govern in the supposed interests of their supporters - ‘the people’ - underlies much contemporary commentary on populist movements.

Superficially, these assessments appear to be a rehash of the old thesis that the ‘extremes’ of left and right share common, totalitarian characteristics and ultimately present the same authoritarian threat to liberal democracy.7 Similarly, in equating Donald Trump’s rabble-rousing speeches and incoherent tweets with a nascent fascism, the rather strained comparison between contemporary political turmoil and the rise of Nazism in the 1930s has become commonplace in the more excitable sections of the media.8

It is easy to dismiss these fears as hysterical exaggerations or to argue against the liberal equation of inchoate leftist currents such as Podemos with Trump’s reactionary ‘redneck’ base. However, the reasons why these very different movements are defined as part of the same ‘populist moment’ bears further investigation. As Marco D’Eramo notes, populist movements never define themselves as ‘populist’. It is a description used by others as an insult rather than as a tool for analysis and, as such, may reveal more about those who use it than those being described.9 The popularity of ‘populism’ in political and academic commentary in the early 21st century clearly reflects fears that bourgeois democracy is seriously threatened in the face of the developing capitalist crisis.10 Following Brexit and Trump’s presidential victory of 2016, many serious commentators appeared to believe that popular discontent with out-of-touch political and financial elites had reached such a level that the established technocratic politics and managerial parties of both left and right might disintegrate in the face of new challenges from below.11 Similarly before Emmanuel Macron’s presidential victory and the “astounding landslide” for his ‘centrist’ La République En Marche, the media had been filled with dire predictions that the populist tide was sweeping all before it.12

However, Macron’s victory - alongside a series of electoral setbacks for the AfD, the UK Independence Party, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands, the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), and Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy, amongst others - seems to suggest that the worst fears of both the commentariat and bourgeois politicians have failed to materialise in 2017. Even so, the sense of unease that these movements created has not subsided and forthcoming parliamentary elections in Germany, Italy, Austria, Norway and the Czech Republic could still throw up some surprises for establishment politicians. Moreover, an understanding that these populist currents in their various forms reflect a much deeper crisis in the capitalist political and economic system remains strong amongst academics, bourgeois commentators and political leaders in the developed world.13

The history of an elusive idea

The idea of ‘the people’ and their relationship to democracy has always been ambiguous in the history of bourgeois politics and continues to be so today. In the early modern period many theorists, using the classical language of ‘plebeians versus patricians’, defined ‘the people’ positively and even ennobled them during the revolutionary political struggle between democracy and aristocracy.14 Thus ‘the general will’ of the demos and ‘the sovereignty of the people’ in various forms became powerful and positive ideological themes in the great 17th and 18th century English, American and French revolutions.15 However, as those revolutions also showed, ‘the people’ could be identified in a less elevated fashion as ‘the mob’, ill-educated, emotionally immature and easily swayed by demagogues.16 In particular, the French Revolution added to ruling class dread of the ‘dark masses’, which were to remain a constant threat throughout the 19th century. For many sociologists and psychologists these anxieties were heightened by the experience of fascism in the 20th century. The literature of collective psychosis, crowd behaviour and charismatic political leadership, as it developed from the 1890s, also became obsessed by fear of the masses.17

This period also coincided with the initial development of populism in its modern sense in the 1880s and 1890s in movements such as the Farmers’ Alliances and the People’s Party in the USA.18 These largely rural movements arose in a period when primary agricultural producers and related social strata were being squeezed by an intensification of market relationships and capitalist production. Framing political conflict as a struggle between ‘the elite’ and ‘the people’, they identified the elite with corrupt, urban-based politicians, corporate and financial power, and other parasitic ‘special interests’, who exploited ‘the people’ both economically and politically.19 The conflict often took the form of a culture war, between those who defended the stability of tradition against the uncertainties of modernising change. In this narrative ‘the people’ - often defined as small working farmers and small-town artisans - were often seen as the productive backbone of society, embodying the essence of the nation. Politically, class distinctions between petty rural property-owners and the urban-based working class could be both consciously obscured and subsumed under the banner of ‘the people’, giving populism a certain social force in some western and southern US states in the late 19th century.

Despite its agrarian radicalism and democratic language, American populism was generally hostile to explicitly class-based politics and socialism, preferring instead to uphold small-scale capitalism and the nation as its ideal. Populism, as an ideological framework, remained important in American politics throughout the 20th century. Politicians of all stripes from FDR and Huey Long in the 1930s to George Wallace in the 1950s and 1960s made use of populist rhetoric to position themselves on the side of ‘the average American’.20 In a similar vein, albeit supposedly from the left, the Occupy movement of 2011-12 drew on long-established populist tropes, with its claims to represent the ‘99%’ against the Wall Street financial elite.21

If the United States provides some of the best known models of populism, Europe and South America saw the development of other types of national-popular movements and parties during the late 19th and 20th centuries. From Ireland and Portugal through to Poland and Hungary in the 1920s and 1930s, populist parties emerged as political actors, identifying ‘the people’ with their small-farmer base and championing agrarian and rural interests against urban elites and finance capital.22 In many newly established states, these parties also played an important role in nation-building through mobilising and politicising recently enfranchised rural populations.23 Similar patterns were also evident in movements in former colonial and semi-colonial countries, such as Peronism in Argentina. In these cases populist movements also drew support from the cities, where recently urbanised workers still retained social links with the countryside and initially identified as plebeians rather than class-conscious workers.24

Similar questions about the nature of populism and its relationship to forms of state-building and the reconstitution of national-popular politics have also been posed recently in eastern Europe in the aftermath of the collapse of Stalinism. The re-emergence of populist parties in the 1990s, particularly the electoral success enjoyed by Orban’s Fidesz in Hungary and the Polish Law and Justice Party, add a further element to the discussion on populist politics and its relationship to older forms of nationalism and fascism.25

In the light of these international and historical perspectives my next article will go on to explore further the relationship between populism and the various political, economic and cultural facets of the contemporary crisis. Having apparently dodged the populist bullet in France and elsewhere in western Europe so far in 2017, can the ruling class and their political parties continue to hold the line against ‘the populist threat’?


1. This is an edited version of the first part of a talk given at the CPGB’s 2017 Communist University. This article will introduce the topic and consider the historical context for the development of populism, while the following article will examine the implications for the future trajectory of politics.

2. ‘What is populism?’ The Economist December 19 2016: www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2016/12/economist-explains-18.

3. M Broening, ‘The rise of populism in Europe: can the center hold?’ Foreign Affairs June 3 2016.

4. Eg, Bagehot, ‘A tale of two cities’ The Economist February 20 2016; J Pacewicz, ‘Here’s the real reason Rust Belt cities and towns voted for Trump’ The Washington Post December 20 2016.

5. P Rimbert, ‘Un barrage pent en cacher un autre’ Le Monde Diplomatique June 2017. A similar analysis also emerged after the US presidential election, when research showed that both Trump and Sanders appealed to similar groups of voters and that some who had voted for Sanders in the primaries switched to Trump in preference to Clinton in the general election. See D Kurtzleben, ‘Here’s how many Bernie Sanders’ supporters ultimately voted for Trump’ NPR August 24 2017: www.npr.org/2017/08/24/545812242/1-in-10-sanders-primary-voters-ended-up-supporting-trump-survey-finds.

6. ‘What is populism?’ The Economist December 19 2016: www.economist.com/blogs/economist-explains/2016/12/economist-explains-18.

7. For a recent example of this type of argument see Z Williams, ‘Totalitarianism in the age of Trump: lessons from Hannah Arendt’ The Guardian February 1 2017.

8. Eg, HDS Greenway, ‘Seeds of fascism sprout anew in Trump’s America’ Boston Globe and Mail June 6 2017:

9. M D’Eramo, ‘Populism and the new oligarchy’ New Left Review July-August 2013.

10. The growth of opposition to the European Union from the early 2000s provided the necessity for an explanation of this ‘new’ phenomenon, whilst the work of Cas Mudde did much to bring the term into popular usage amongst academics in this period. See C Mudde Populist radical right parties in Europe Cambridge 2007 and C Mudde, ‘The populist radical right: a pathological normalcy’ West European Politics 2010, 33 (6).

11. See, for example, a series of articles on ‘the Europopulists’ in the Financial Times August 15 2017: www.ft.com/europopulists.

12. A-S. Chassany, ‘The French town that shows how Marine Le Pen could win’ Financial Times April 10 2017.

13. M Wolf, ‘The economic origins of the populist surge’ Financial Times June 27 2017.

14. The classical origins of the idea of ‘the people’, as used in the French Revolution, is discussed (in different ways) by J Israel A revolution of the mind: radical enlightenment and the intellectual origins of modern democracy Princeton 2010 and S Wahnich In defence of the terror: liberty or death in the French Revolution London 2012.

15. See, amongst many other histories of these revolutions, E Hazan A people’s history of the French Revolution London 2014; and J Rees The Leveller Revolution: radical political organisation in England, 1640-1650 London 2016.

16. The classic account, which continues to shape views of the French Revolution and revolution in general is E Burke Reflections on the revolution in France London 2012.

17. Gustave Le Bon’s 1896 influential account The crowd: a study of the popular mind (London 2012) was only the first of a whole school that stressed the irrational and primitive nature of ‘the popular mind’. Bowdlerised versions of Freud’s ideas on the unconscious and the nature of man in mass society only added to these fears of ‘the masses’ and ‘populist politics’.

18. See S Hahn A nation without borders: the United States and its world in an age of civil wars 1830-1910 London 2016, chapter 12.

19. Some elements of these politics can be found in John Steinbeck’s 1939 novel The grapes of wrath.The 1940 film adaptation by John Ford, in presenting a sympathetic image of Roosevelt’s ‘new deal’, also showed the continued resonance of populist themes in American politics and society.

20. In Orson Welles’ 1941 film Citizen Kane Charles Kane’s newspapers and election campaign speeches reflect this populist rhetoric and identification with the ‘common man’.

21. A Jamieson, ‘Occupy Wall Street reunites five years later: “It never ended for most of us”’ The Guardian September 19 2016.

22. For one view of this relationship in Ireland see K Allen Fianna Fáil and Irish Labour: 1926 to the present London 1997.

23. See A Gella The development of class structure in Eastern Europe: Poland and her southern neighbours New York 1989.

24. D James Resistance and integration: Peronism and the Argentine working class, 1946-1976 Cambridge 1993.

25. For a summary of some recent academic debates see H Kriesi and TS Pappas (eds) European populism in the shadow of the great recession London 2015.