The face of populism


Populism exists across the political spectrum, but unlike any other political ideologies, it has become a controversial topic that has dominated public discourse for the past decade. This political ideology has been used in many different angles. We can see populism to describe Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement in Italy, explain Brexit in Britain, portray the election of Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in America, and contextualize the rhetoric that is taking place in global politics.

Populism Defined

Despite the developing definition of populism and its utilization, there remains no actual consensus of what it means. For some, populism depicts a rhetorical style that alienates a political position or an ideological weapon that challenges the traditional system. For others, it has been tagged as a political shorthand to represent something that we do not like on the Status Quo.

Unfolding the history

In the late 19th century, decades following the civil war, were the time of massive growth of the United States of America. The production of steel, coal, and technological advancement exploded while the population doubled between the years 1860-1890. By having millions of mouths to feed, farming started to look like a lucrative field. As a solution, people invested in technology to help them harvest their crops much faster and easier. Unfortunately, due to its high-priced value, most farmers were left behind. To address the need for the rapid advancement of technology, farmers decided to take hefty loans from the eastern banks. However, as the crop prices fell and the monopolies have driven-up transportation costs, a lot of farmers faced bankruptcy.

The federal government did little help to provide solutions and resolve the issues of monopoly and financial crisis. The situation triggered the farmers to finally create a movement and form an alliance called “populist” (meaning “people”) in May 1891. Hence, the name populism. And within that same year was the birth of the People’s Party or the Populist Party.

The Populist Party, Its Ideologies, and the World

Mary Ellen Lease, one of the populist orators, famously said that “America has become a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street, and for Wall Street.” This statement agitated the Populist Party and created massive reforms to a call for labor unions, regulation of the railroad industry, progressive income tax, direct election of senators, and many more radical ideas. Populism started to find its right- and left-wing manifestations on the political spectrum, which assisted many movements and politicians to acquire support from the masses in promoting such political and social agendas.

The ideas and rhetoric of populism are still evident in the modern-day and have made a way to reshape the world. We have witnessed populism right before our very eye when the likes of Barack Obama, during the 2008 election, promised to respond to the unsustainable cost of health and provide a better healthcare system. The same approach was observed from the Democratic Party primary Bernie Sanders the moment he targeted the people’s anger on wall street and during the financial crisis in 2008 to which is considered a left-leaning populist approach.

In contrast, here’s Donald Trump who used Farage’s Brexit success to amplify his presidential campaign. Trump targeted the economic and social insecurities of the Americans, depicting an anti-migrant and right-leaning populist idea. These populist approaches resonate not just in the USA but also in other parts of the world. Say, for instance, Front National Leader Marine Le Pen of France claimed that Trump’s victory energizes her populist message to take out France from the EU or “Frexit”. Whereas in Italy, the five-star movement opposes the referendum called by Prime Minister Matteo Renzi on political reforms.

Populism is not just for the west. During the 2016 Philippine national election, Rodrigo Duterte campaigned under the platform “War against Drugs,” appealing the core emotions of rape victims and their families and the general public who felt less or no security due to rampant drug-related crimes before his term.

Final Notion

The populist approach has never failed to impress yet irritate us to some extent. Some political platforms and agendas have come to its fruition, while others are nothing but empty promises and false hopes. It only proves to show that populism is temporary and ephemeral, meaning anything that is based on this political stance can be destructive rather than constructive in the long run. Despite all of these, we can still see a lot of people advocating and practicing populist approaches. Perhaps, these are the same people who believe that, despite being a good citizen, changes within the government were never felt nor achieved.

We cannot deny that populism has been appropriated and celebrated throughout global history, although its meaning remains muddled. But it is for sure, that the populist movement and populism have one thing in common: to appeal to the fears and anxieties of the people in the pursuit of having a better world which we can, or we cannot possibly achieve.



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