I’m not sure if any word has been used as frequently as “populism” in regard to politics this year. Politicians, experts, media outlets and everyone in between have been using “populism” to describe the recent and frequently unnerving political volatility around the world. I know the Oxford Dictionary has already chosen “post-truth” as its word of the year, but I think “populism” is a worthy runner-up.

The United States just recently had a taste of its own populism. You have most likely seen the word thrown around in the news as many have been quick to label Presidential-elect Donald Trump’s triumph as a continuation of the populist wave that has stormed through other Western democracies, but what does it actually mean?

“Populism” comes from the Latin word for “people” and at its core is a political ideology promoting a government for and by ordinary people as opposed to elitists. Populism began in the late 1800s as a revolt by farmers in Middle America. It was an effort to call out the blatant neglect by both the Democratic and Republican Parties of the time and rally against the establishment government. Since then, populism has seen its rise and fall throughout political history in both the United States and the world as a whole. As The Economist notes, populism takes on different forms but is always “united in pitting the people against the powerful.” 

Populist movements are often driven by charismatic leaders with a knack for appealing to working class people who, like the farmers of the 1800s, see neglect in the status quo. You probably learned and quickly forgot about William Jennings Bryan and the Populist movement in your U.S. history class. Yet, just as history is bound to repeat itself, if you take a look at political systems around the world, you’ll see a modern brand of populism on the rise.

These recent movements address economic reforms but, unlike their 19th-century counterparts, encompass reactions to cultural changes. Populism is both a left- and right-wing phenomenon with some sects promoting xenophobic and nationalistic policies and others taking on a more progressive approach. The New York Times created a telling infographic that highlights the many platform overlaps in the growing populist movements, all of which begin with “anti-:” anti-austerity, anti-globalization, anti-eurozone, anti-immigration and so on. However, this isn’t to say that all populist groups are inherently xenophobic or ethnocentric, but they all are working to upend the political status quo, thus the “anti.”    

Just this week, Italy’s prime minister, Matteo Renzi, announced his plans to resign. After 60 percent of Italians voted to reject constitutional reforms, Renzi admitted defeat and resigned. This marks another European shift to populism and an opportunity for Renzi’s opponents, led by the populist Five Star Movement, to take advantage of the vacancy. The resignation by no means ensures the establishment of a populist government in Italy, but it is a victory for the movement nonetheless. As Five Star member Manlio Di Stefano told the Washington Post, “This is something that is going on all over Europe, if you look at the momentum … Every term is the same, every government is the same, so people are reacting.”

Donald Trump’s shocking victory was a result of similar populist sentiments felt by Americans. You have probably heard all the rationales and explanations for his victory, many of which emphasize his play on the populist ideals of many Americans. With the rapid globalization of this century resulting in diverse populations — new industries and a more connected and open international community — populism represents a movement to close some of those doors and push countries to look inward.

Yet, Donald Trump’s victory shouldn’t have been as surprising as it was. While Americans had never experienced a Trump-esque victory, other countries have seen many like it. All over the world and eerily popular in the West, anti-establishment movements and political outsiders have been brought to the forefront. The Brexit vote of last summer, the rise of Germany’s Alternative Party, Podemos in Spain and National Front in France were all sure warning signs that the status quo is changing. In fact, after Trump’s victory, many populist leaders praised the president-elect.

Populism is also not attributed to one group of people. Instead, it appeals to varying demographics. Trump’s support was drawn from all different American realms, and he was strategic in playing on populist sentiments, especially the dissatisfaction of Americans with their government. But similar sentiments had already been on the rise in Europe. It’s not so often that political systems around the world have commonalities. Demographics and sheer experience create strikingly different political environments between countries. Yet, it seems like many countries are making a shift toward populism. Citizens are pushing for politics to focus internally as their countries have been looking outward for the past decade.

So, what does this all mean? For liberal-minded folk, populism, especially in a xenophobic form, doesn’t sit well. In the United States, liberals and moderates have been trying to analyze Trump supporters and understand the “why” behind their votes. However, the international rise of a modern populism is a visible sign of dissatisfaction and uncertainty. People are tired of our current political norms and are pushing for an altered status quo.

Populism may just be a fad — an aberration to the norm of politics. As shocking as it is, it also follows a trend in human history. No country, no matter how much liberals hope and pray, stays on the progressive track for too long. The United States has been good at taking two steps forward and one step back, moving forward nonetheless, but not continuously. Change is scary; it is threatening. The changes of the 21st century in both economic and cultural contexts have been felt around the world, and populism is a human reaction to it. So even if populist movements never make it to their nation’s highest office, they have been seen and they have been heard.

Anu Roy-Chaudhury can be reached at anuroy@umich.edu.

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