The Inherent Populism in Democracy - by Hannah Skopicki

A populist is defined by the New Oxford American dictionary as someone who seeks to “represent the interests of ordinary people.” As per this definition, it seems that everyone running for office in the United States of America who tells voters they have the interests of “everyday Americans” in mind is a populist. Yet, when this type of political movement is discussed, generally all that comes to mind is extremist rallies and nationalist rhetoric. What accounts for this discrepancy, and why does this narrative pervade the minds of Western voters?

A possible explanation for this seeming paradox is the changing nature of American and European populism. In America, the term populism in a political context was originally characterized by a socially conservative and fiscally liberal platform held by many in the midwest and south, similar to the platform that today is espoused by most Republican candidates for office. In Europe, populism was associated with a massive movement geared towards the average citizens who felt left behind by political progress, notably the fascist movements of the interwar years. These two right-wing origins of the term are clear indicators of the nationalist and economically isolationist definition populism seems to take now, and these characteristics correlate directly with the platforms of authoritarian regimes. Many tactics that modern populist parties use today, like large direct appeals to the populace, are reminiscent of those used in the past by extremist leaders, thus creating a linked association of style and ideology in the minds of voters.

However, just because the characteristics of modern populism and past authoritarianism are similar, does not mean they are connected. Rather than suggesting appeals to unilateral power, a rhetorical analysis of modern populist speeches is inexorably linked to notions of democratic idealism. For example, President Donald Trump’s colloquial language and appeals to the “hardworking average American” and Senator Bernie Sanders’ call for the rise against the “1 percent” are indicative of an agency held by voters in the political process. Even more pointed, Italian populist Beppe Grillo advocates for direct democracy, foregoing representative government to engage voters directly. Regardless of whether a candidate is on the right, left, or neither, it is clear that for a populist, it is the everyday citizen that should be in charge, at least theoretically. The nationalist (or collectivist) patterns of ideology are tangential to the root of the movements - to give a voice to those common citizens who feel their interests are not represented by their governing elites.

In a totalitarian or authoritarian regime, these types of movements would not be plausible. These types of regimes, although they may subscribe to the nationalism and isolationism that falls into the platforms of certain democratic parties, operate in a completely different realm from representative democracies. Any expression for the common want is futile, for the survival of the leader’s power, rather than the general welfare, is the main interest of the government.

While there remains plenty to be seen in terms of the impacts of different types of populisms on nations around the world, it should be noted that the modern populist movements have arisen in Western representative democracies, not in authoritarian radical states.

Hannah Skopicki