Populism Is The Tide Ebbing?

Andrew Hammond

20 January 2021


Donald Trump's departure from office on Wednesday, after his historic second impeachment, will be welcomed by many who decry the rise of global populism. Yet Trump is a symptom, not a cause, of populism whose rise may continue into the 2020s - fuelled by the aftermath of the coronavirus crisis.
As of 2020, some 2 billion of the world's population was governed by populist leaders, including the more than 300 million US populace, according to academic research from the Global Populism Database - a comprehensive tracker of populist discourse. That data, from an international network of academics, analysed speeches - through textual analysis - of key leaders in 40 countries during the last two decades.
What the research found is that leaders from across different continents won power through common campaign tactics, including attacking multinational organisations, so-called 'fake media', and immigrants. And this electoral success is itself a microcosm of a wider upending of the tectonic plates of the global political landscape.
The research found that, some 20 years ago, only a handful of states with populations over 20 million - including Italy, Argentina and Venezuela - had leaders classified as populists through their speeches. This was an era that saw the controversial billionaire businessman Silvio Berlusconi as a right-of-centre maverick prime minister in Rome, presaging the rise of Trump; and Hugo Chávez as Venezuelan president.
This-then relatively small 'populist club' expanded significantly during the aftermath of the 2007-08 international financial crisis. But it was not until the last half a dozen years that there has been the biggest rise in populism.
To be sure, there are still some limits on the rise of populism with a significant number of countries including Canada, France and Germany never having a governmental leader in the post-war era that has used populist rhetoric. However, even in these states, the share of the vote going to populist political parties has tripled since 1998.
The research highlights that this latest wave of populism is just one of several over the last several hundred years. Populism has been a recurrent phenomenon in the United States, for instance. Andrew Jackson, who served as US president from 1829 to 1837, won the moniker "King Mob" and some have drawn comparisons between him and Trump.
However, this latest wave of populism has cast a bigger footprint than perhaps ever before. The Global Populism Database indicates some 2 billion people are therefore today governed by a "somewhat/ moderately populist", "populist" or "very populist" leader, an increase from 120 million at the turn of the millennium, with the research calling out leaders like India's Narendra Modi as belonging in the populist camp.
Another key finding is how shades of populism differ across the world. In South America, populism leans towards socialism, albeit with Jair Bolsonaro as a key outlier, whereas current populists in Europe tend to be right of centre.
Looking to the future, one key question is whether this populist phenomenon will tail off in coming years. While that is possible, there is a plausible case that populism will grow. It should be remembered here that, while Trump lost in November, he won more votes than in 2016, and would most likely have been re-elected had the pandemic not struck. Populism will likely remain at historically high levels for the foreseeable future for two reasons.
First, the coronavirus crisis has triggered a deeper, wider global recession than after the financial crisis of just over a decade ago. While the world is still in the midst of the corona crisis, it is already clear it will be the deepest recession since the World War II, with the largest fraction of economies experiencing declines in per capita output since at least 1870 according to the World Bank.
Yet, it is not just the absolute decline in economic output, but also rising economic inequality that is key. While some affluent cohorts have seen their wealth increase since the pandemic began, including through a booming stock market in many countries, poorer people have often seen their incomes stagnate or worse.
There is also an inter-generational impact too with young people disproportionately likely to lose their jobs. This puts countries at risk of long-term damage to earnings potential and job prospects, fuelling political discontent.
Second, there are some factors completely unrelated to the current economic slump that may also drive greater populism. This includes the disruptive and mobilising role of social media.
There remains debate about how instrumental social media has been in fomenting political populism in recent years. However, whether one sees this new technology as an essential component that translated discontent into concrete support for populism, or accentuated what was already inevitable, indisputably it has played an enabling role that may only grow.
Taken together, Trump's toppling is a setback for global populism, but it cannot be assumed that this political phenomenon has now peaked. The coronavirus crisis has increased the prospect of further political and economic instability in the 2020s which social media may help mobilise.

(Andrew Hammond is an associate at LSE Ideas at the London School
of Economics).

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