I was seven years old on what seemed like a typical school day when I saw a big television screen in my first-grade classroom broadcasting CNN. I didn’t realize it then, but my first-grade teacher’s decision to let us watch the TV screen the entire school day was her way of allowing us to be part of the historic moment that was the inauguration of President Barack Obama on January 20th, 2009. Exactly eight years later, I became a sophomore in high school, and the screen in our high school theater was again broadcasting CNN, this time for the inauguration of President Donald Trump – a reality TV star, a businessman and, according to many political scientists and members of the media, a populist.
The words “Populism” and “Populist” have become more and more mainstream in both media and public discussions within the last few years. Despite this, many don’t seem to have a clear definition of the word and often disagree as to whether the rise of populism represents a positive or negative change in the world. Many have identified the Occupy Wall Street Movement, the Tea Party Movement, Brexit, the Yellow Vest protests, as well as the rise of Filipino President Rodrigo Duterte, U.S. President Donald Trump, and U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders as many prominent examples of the rise of populism in modern day politics. But by looking closely at all these examples that most people bring up when discussing populism, one finds that they seem to cross national borders as well as the political spectrum, making the definition of populism even more ambiguous, divisive, and certainly mysterious.
According to Merriam-Webster, populism can be defined as being “a believer in the rights, wisdoms, or virtues of the common people.” Under this definition, one could argue that some of the most universally renowned leaders in the world have been populists: from George Washington to Julius Caesar to Abraham Lincoln and beyond. That being said, this definition presents itself with its own ambiguity that contributes to the divide in the impression of populism to people around the world. This definition from Merriam-Webster mentions the idea of the “common people.” Though a seemingly minor detail, what makes up the “common people” is different for different individuals. For U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders, the group may consist of middle and working class laborers whose wages have remained stagnant for the past thirty years, as well as college students who are increasingly burdened by financial debt. However, for French politician Marine Le Pen, the group may consist of native-born French citizens and nationalists who see their economic and personal securities taken away due to increases in immigration, as well as small business owners suffering from decades of globalist policies that have continued to benefit major international corporations over local shops. This fundamental difference in the way “common people” is defined affects how people perceive populism as well as the form of populism that is popularized in various parts of the world.
In spite of this fundamental difference that gives fluidity to the development of different populist movements around the world, there are some fundamental similarities that many populists share. For one, most populist leaders attract attention because of their bold and ambitious proposals that offer a unique perspective in the political world and differ from what people would consider to be “conventional wisdom.” Whether or not these proposals are actually feasible or morally acceptable in some cases is another question. However, the boldness and ambition of populist leaders showcase the attractiveness of populism for voters around the world who desire to see radical change and who wish to be heard after years, and even decades, of feeling left behind by the established system. In addition, many populist leaders’ ascent to power often involves the exposure of some form of inequality. Put into broader terms, voters who are attracted to populist leaders and populist movements are often seeking answers to why their continued hard work has not led to increased prosperity in their lives. And populist leaders utilize this to offer voters answers by exposing the supposed failures of specific institutions and/or specific groups of people, igniting voters’ passionate idolization for their message.
In my opinion, populism is not inherently detrimental to society or democracy itself, nor is it inherently the magical antidote to the world’s deepest problems. The established order of the political status quo showcases a wide range of progress that has been made throughout our lifetimes, and also presents a series of serious challenges that people are concerned about and seeking answers for from leaders all around the world regardless of party or ideology. Regardless of how one feels about populism or a specific brand of populism, it is crucial to understand that as we enter a new era in global politics, we must remain hopeful of the bright possibilities that any leader, any idea, and any movement could bring for our futures, while continuing to educate ourselves and examine the quality, the practicality, and the morality of any one and any idea that we come across. To quote U.S. Senator Kamala Harris: “When we are able to defend the status quo, then do it. And if there’s not merit to that, then let’s explore new ideas.”