Global populism on the rise and showing few signs of stopping

Global populism on the rise and showing few signs of stopping

Donald Trump met at the White House on Tuesday with fellow conservative populist Jair Bolsonaro, and designated that Brazil will soon be a “major non-NATO ally” or “maybe a NATO ally.” The fact that these two rebel candidates are leading two of the most powerful democracies in the Americas underlines a broader trend, with recent academic research suggesting some 2 billion people around the world are now governed by such populist leaders.
The close personal bond between Trump and Bolsonaro — who is sometimes known as the “Trump of the Tropics” — is reinforced by the fact that they won power through similar campaign tactics: Attacking multinational organizations, the so-called “fake media,” and immigrants. Their electoral success is a microcosm of a wider upending of the global political landscape shown in the Global Populism Database, which is a comprehensive tracker of populist discourse.
In data released earlier this month, the international network of academics involved in the work highlighted the extent of what is a two-decade rise in populism by analyzing — through textual analysis — speeches by key leaders in 40 countries during this period. The research found that, some 20 years ago, only a handful of states with populations of over 20 million, including Italy, Argentina and Venezuela, had leaders classified as populists.
According to the Global Populism Database, this relatively small “populist club” expanded significantly during the onset of the global financial crisis from 2006 to 2009. But it is the last half-decade that has seen the biggest rise in populism.

The research highlights that this two-decade wave of populism is just one of many over the last several hundred years. In the past, for instance, populism has been a recurrent phenomenon in some countries, including the US.
What the research reveals, however, is that this latest wave of populism — fueled in part by the international financial crisis — has cast a bigger footprint than perhaps ever before. As a result, the data indicates that some 2 billion people are today governed by a “somewhat/ moderately populist,” “populist” or “very populist” leader. This is an increase from 120 million at the turn of the millennium, with the research calling out leaders like Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and India’s Narendra Modi, as well as Trump and Bolsonaro, as belonging in the populist camp.

This latest wave of populism — fueled in part by the international financial crisis — has cast a bigger footprint than perhaps ever before.

Andrew Hammond

Another key finding is how shades of populism differ across the world. The study found, for instance, that South American populism leans toward socialism (albeit with Bolsonaro as a key outlier), whereas the current populists in Europe tend to be right of center.
The growth of populism in Europe is one of the most striking developments in the period under review. The role of the economic downturn and austerity has, since the 2008 financial crisis, been key to the rise of populism here, especially in those states most impacted by the euro zone crisis, like Greece and Spain.
Unrest, however, has also tapped into pre-existing disquiet with established European political parties and systems, and also a broader range of economic, political, social and technological factors that have driven unrest across much of the rest of the world.
The diverse nature of this political instability, from the Americas to Europe and the Middle East, has reportedly been described as a “revolutionary wave” by Nigel Inkster, former director of operations for the UK Secret Intelligence Service. Looking to the future and the potential further growth of populism, one key question is whether this international political instability will tail off in the coming years, especially if economic recovery continues to take hold in much of the world.
While this is possible, protests and uprisings remain likely to continue for at least two sets of reasons. Firstly, there are some factors completely unrelated to the post-2008 financial crisis that will endure, if not intensify. This includes the disruptive role of social media. There remains debate about how instrumental social media has been in fomenting political instability in recent years. However, whether one sees this new technology as an essential component that translated discontent into concrete action or merely accentuated what was already inevitable, indisputably it has played an enabling role that will likely grow.

Secondly, even though the worst of the international financial crisis has now passed, its consequences endure, especially for the young people who remain unemployed. This puts them at risk of long-term damage to earnings potential and job prospects, fueling discontent. In the EU, for instance, a relatively high number of people aged under 25 are still unable to find work. This has given rise to concern, including from German Chancellor Angela Merkel, about a “lost generation,” especially in states like Greece and Spain, where youth unemployment peaked at almost 60 percent.

Taken overall, it cannot be assumed that the rise of populism has peaked, more than a decade after the international financial crisis began. This is partly because of the prospect of further political instability fueled not just by the legacy of the crisis such as youth unemployment, but also longer-standing political and socio-economic discontent, to which social media is giving new impetus.

  • Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics
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