Many media outlets have been covering recent political changes while alluding to “populism.” It seems that this elusive ‘-ism’ is rarely explained, and is instead used as a buzzword. What is populism? Is populism a good thing? A real definition can be hard to articulate.
Boiled down, populism is a broad term that generally describes an ideology that pits the “common good” against the “corrupt elite.” Although the phrase was conceived in the 1900s, the word has made a resurgence due to the current international political climate. Recent political changes have been labelled as “populist,” including the election of Donald Trump, and the British referendum, commonly known as “Brexit,” with regards to leaving the European Union.
The populist ideology has no political orientation, be it left, right, or center. Essentially, populism is the antithesis of elitism, with a slight anti-establishment twist. Populist movements typically come from class divide, or a perceived stagnant political atmosphere. When applied, populism can be socially liberal (e.g Bernie Sanders), or socially conservative (e.g. the Tea Party). On the “libertarian to authoritarian” political scale, populism can be authoritarian (e.g. the Nazis), or not (e.g. an ideal libertarian state). As long as it is not elite, and is denouncing an elite group, it can be considered populist.
In today's world, populism can be described as a little less radical. Take US political candidates that ran in the 2016 election; Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump. Both candidates utilized populist rhetoric. While Bernie had a more socialist, anti-establishment agenda, Trump’s populist ideas were also anti establishment, although more focused around reform. Trump was more focused on immigration control [nativism], and reformed social ideals. Both men would be considered populist.
There is no objectively good or bad populism. The ideas of populism are used to generate the foundation of political agendas and social reform alike. Look at two well known historical leaders; Mahatma Gandhi, and Adolf Hitler. They were very different people, with different ethical concerns and morals at heart. One is remembered as benevolent, and the other malevolent. They had a very different style of enacting change, but both were populists.
There should be an open discussion around populism and what it actually means, as opposed to various news outlets wrongly using it as a pejorative term. Populism is not in anyone's corner, it is all-pervading idea that has driven some of the best and worse political, social, and economic changes that world has ever seen, and it is here to stay.