Populist Power
'the rise of populism has not taken place overnight'
Max Leane | 3 April 2017

Populist movements offer ‘anti-establishment’ solutions to problems. Populism appeals to the people directly, rather than via established political institutions such as the media. Populists, therefore, appeal to the common people, rather than political parties.

In recent years, there has been a seismic shift in the political continents of Earth. From Trump to the Front national, and from the Swiss People’s Party to the Swedish Democrats, populists have changed the political landscapes of country upon country. But what has caused this change?

Perhaps the vote to leave the European Union (EU) on 23 June 2016 was a catalyst for populists worldwide. The most notable of proud populists is President Trump, having succeeded in the election on 8 November 2016. This election is of particular significance, as many see America as the guiding light to all other democracies in the world. And many of Trump’s policies have faced fierce opposition from people in America and across the world.

But the rise in populism has not taken place overnight. Since the 1970s, in 34 OECD (or most economically developed) countries the vote share for extreme populist parties has seen a growth from 5% to almost 8%. The first real shock in mainstream politics recently came in France, when in 2002 Marine Le Pen, leader of the Front national, triumphed over President Lionel Jospin in the first round of the French presidential elections.

One of the earliest instances of a populist movement was in America, when large numbers of Irish and German immigrants migrated in the 1840s, causing Protestants to feel threatened at the prospect of losing their jobs. These Protestants later formed the American Party in 1855 demanding that there be tighter restrictions on immigration.

So, in 1856, they chose Millard Fillmore as their candidate for the Presidency, who was reasonably successful, receiving 21.6% of the voter share. He won the state of Maryland in the process, gaining 8 Electoral College votes. Although they did not gain any power, this feeling of discontent towards immigration has been felt in America ever since. After this campaign there have been various instances where populist groups have appeared in America and other places. But it is only more recently this has happened in multiple countries at the same time.

A common link between many of the outbreaks of populism is immigration. This was the motive for the American Party and parties like the UK Independence Party (UKIP). It was arguably the main influence for the UK’s decision to leave the EU. Another similarity is the feeling of anti-elitism amongst these groups. Populist groups do not have great success in elections, but they do often have a profound influence on mainstream parties and the opinions of many people.

It is not clear what further effects this resurgence in populism will have on the wider majority of the public. Nor is it clear that there will be a greater presence of these groups in mainstream politics. However, if history can teach us anything, it is that these populist views will not disappear.



Image sourced under Creative Commons license.

James Routledge 2016