Populist movements are nothing new in modern world politics. They have sporadically entered the formal scene – from both the right and the left of the political spectrum – from as early as the second half of the 1800’s. They always tend to burst forth suddenly and unexpectedly, with an outsized immediate impact. They do, however, tend to be short-lived in the bigger scheme of things, and replaced by long stretches of underlying political consensus about the basic policies of governing.
These radical moments are caused by ‘normal people’ expressing their anger against the ‘self-serving elite’. They view the prevailing political norms at odds with their own hopes – and choose to support anyone who promises them a ‘return to the good old days’.
This emotional upsurge offers the ideal opportunity for charismatic figures from outside the traditional political sphere to pursue their own ambitions of grandeur. As their audience is not interested in facts and figures, their campaigns are always clouded by misinformation. Their rhetoric is laced with bigotry and racist rhetoric – and they stoke the passion of the average voter with utterances that promote state-egotism, a crusade against open borders, and opposition to liberal institutions.
Populist movements flourish in opposition, but suffer an identity crisis when they enter government. They lead a challenge ‘against’ the status quo, but when they succeed, are found wanting when they have to sensibly formulate what they are ‘for’. Their excessive idioms (‘I will build a wall and make the Mexican government pay for it’) are quickly deflated by the realities of real life. Rebels tend to make poor leaders; personalities can replace good practice for only so long.
We probably haven’t seen the end of the current bout of populism. But the pendulum (as is already evident in South America) will swing back, as exploited voters return their vote to more electable politicians.