Pushing Against the Populist Tide

Winner of the 2017 Foreign Affairs Essay Competition

A protestor holds Polish and EU flags while demostrating against the Law and Justice Party in Warsaw, November 2017. Kacper Pempel / Reuters

Populism has become an increasingly powerful political force in recent years. As exemplified by the election of U.S. President Donald Trump in the United States, the nativist Brexit campaign in the United Kingdom, and the competitive showing of National Front leader Marine Le Pen in France, populist forces have gained ground throughout the developed world. But populism is not limited to Europe and North America: Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have also used nationalist and populist rhetoric to achieve electoral success. And although the rise of populism is certainly not inexorable—Green Party candidate Alexander Van der Bellen defeated far-right nationalist Norbert Hofer in the 2016 Austrian presidential election, and centrist Emmanuel Macron trounced the nativist, anti-EU Le Pen in the second round of the French presidential election—it is difficult to argue that populist movements are categorically receding. After all, the recent electoral success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in Germany, a country with one of the most stable political systems in Europe, demonstrates that populist messaging continues to attract an audience. This suggests a worrying future for the international system because absent shared support for liberal values, multilateral institutions, pluralistic societies, and free trade, much of the institutional and normative glue holding the postwar order together will begin to dissolve.

As a contested concept, populism is difficult to define, and the sources of its success are perhaps even more difficult to isolate. Nonetheless, it is possible to identify unifying trends among populist parties and movements throughout the world. One clear facet of populism is a belief in the existence of a select group that stands in opposition to malevolent forces in control of the state. The manifestations of populism, however, vary based upon the specific circumstances of the country in which it resides. As noted theorist of populism Cas Mudde argues, “Thin-centred [sic] ideologies such as nationalism and populism habitually appear in combination with very different concepts and ideological traditions that are

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