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What's left of populism?

Monday, 22 May 2017 07:58
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by Eleonora Lamio & Giovanbattista Varricchio (EPOS)
EPOS Insights


According to the definition given by the Oxford Dictionary, “Populism” is "the quality of appealing to or being aimed at ordinary people". The term "populism" used in a political context does not have an unanimous accepted definition since in the past it has been used to define both fascist and communist movements. However in today's everyday life a populist party bases its political strategy and propaganda on the frustration over decline of the State and the national and international political system, led by a charismatic leader. There is not a specific ideological connotation, these parties are not falling within the right-left political scale, at least according to them.

These parties are now present in many European countries, such as Podemos in Spain, the Movimento 5 Stelle in Europe, the Front National in France etc, and seem to be very popular. Nevertheless their success looks unstable.

So, are these parties a real political power or a false myth? Are they a homogeneous phenomenon or not?

At first sight, European populist parties have a lot in common. First of all, as said previously, they collect the spread disaffection and build their political strategy on it, trying to provide new solutions to the major problems. These parties leverage on the citizen's discontent and not on their rationality, therefore they are very popular. Furthermore, they all use a very captivating rhetoric, simple and direct, very different from the traditional one. Generally they were the firsts to exploit the social- medias' power to interact with their electorate and to communicate with it, which led them closer to the common people: for instance, in Italy Beppe Grillo became popular thanks to his blog where he started posting articles about politics and letting people debate online. Last, but most important, thanks to these items, they seem to be more close to the youngest generations than the other parties, and this is a success given the distance between the youngs and the politics.

Starting from these features of the populist phenomenon, it is evident that this kind of parties not only have been able to catch a large popular support, but also to contribute to the reshaping of national party systems all over Europe (and US, though to a lesser extent). Therefore it is legitimate to wonder why so many politicians, that are supposed to be populists, and their parties, are losing important electoral challenges, such as Hofer in Austria and Le Pen in France. In brief, populism is not just a political word, it became the expression describing nowaday political “way of life”, despite this its success is not  always automatic. Maybe because populism is not a precise ideology.

Indeed, a part from the aforementioned common features, populism is not an homogeneous phenomenon. In fact, if a deeper analysis is carried out, many cleavages appear clearly: if we keep as independent variable the criticism against the “establishment”, and a rhetoric against the right- left divide, a de facto ideological cleavage between leftist populists and rightists ones (for instance the clear ideological belonging of Podemos or of France Insoumise on one hand and Lega Nord on the other) is observable.

Plus, the internal management of these parties is quite different: longlasting parties such as Front National in France are likely to be much more structured with a large and organized militant base vis-à-vis other “parties”, such as Movimento 5 Stelle in Italy, which was born in the web and through the web takes its most important decisions. To specify all the differences would take a very long time and this is not the appropriate place for such a work, after all is enough to observe how these parties - that got very good results in the elections for the European Parliament in 2014 - were not even able to form a coherent group in the EP.

So why Brexit and Trump have succeeded where Le Pen or Hofer did not? First of all, the phenomenon analyzed is spreaded among various societies in the West, but it does not mean that it has to collect the support of the majority in each state. Moreover, Britain leaving the European Union and the election of Donald Trump are events that are not just responding to the populist trend of the moment. In fact, isolationist sentiment in the US is much more ancient and deeply rooted in American history. There is a similar logic regarding UK: the widespread tradition of Britain as a world power (“Britannia rule the waves!”) and the perception of UK as something different from continental Europe, are integral part of British history.

A consistent conclusion to our short analysis is that populism as phenomenon of protest against the establishment and disaffection towards supranational institutions is inherently heterogeneous. In particular it is likely to boost in a decisive way “potential” populist parties and movements that are somehow linked to the history and to the political culture of the state in which they prevail. In other cases, good electoral performances are observed, but is unlikely for these parties to win elections at national level. Moreover and finally, even when they get some remarkable results, they are not able to cooperate with each other in the international arena.


DISCLAIMER: The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect EPOS WorldView’s

Last modified on Monday, 22 May 2017 08:10
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