Why populism is back in full force

Why populism is back in full force
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Populism is on the rise around the world, stoking fear and panic within mainstream governments. Politicians are rushing to seek answers for the sudden rise in this often studied but misunderstood political paradigm. A new study shows not only the causes behind this phenomenon, but also provides a remedy for mainstream governments against this rising threat.

The Global Happiness and Political Attitudes Survey, released last week at the Yalta European Strategy annual meeting in Ukraine underscores the drastic need for governments to adapt to the demands of citizens or risk losing to populist parties. Directed by Victor Pinchuk, a businessman and philanthropist, and overseen by George Ward, a top scholar on the link between happiness and voting behavior, the study surveyed 15 countries around the world, conducting 1,000 interviews in each of the countries.

Populism, largely gone from geopolitics since the 1940s, is reappearing throughout the world. Increasingly, countries are flirting with populist leaders, and the study suggests that this is largely due to failure by governments to factor in the subjective happiness and trust of their citizens. Majorities in every country surveyed feel that a new political system is needed to make people happy, placing a clear premium on happiness when 37 percent of people say that personal happiness and the happiness of their children is the most important aspect of their lives, while financial security was only 13 percent. A lasting effect of the 2008 financial crisis is the shattering of trust in large institutions, as well as the leaders who installed them, opening the door for populist politicians.

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If mainstream governments fail to earn back trust from their citizens, they will no longer be able to hold onto power, setting up a dangerous scenario. Historically, the United States had been able to avoid any damaging widespread populist movements, although our reprieve is now at an end. Our escape from the seduction of populism ended with blip of the Tea Party movement, climaxing in the election of Donald Trump and the rise of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party.

The survey revealed that 22 percent of the world population is populist, jumping as high as 40 percent in countries with recent political upheaval such as Brazil and Ukraine. It is alarmist to say that a modern spike in populism will bring on the widespread global destruction wrought by the populists of the middle 20th century, however, it does present a threat which needs to be properly addressed by mainstream politicians.

While populism may be poorly understood, a common theme among populist movements is a hollow platform to “tell the people what they want to hear.” Populism as a political ideology does not rest on solid convictions, and this works precisely to its benefit. Since the 1990s, conventional wisdom has been that when it comes to what people want from government, it is, as the political strategist James Carville famously said during the 1992 presidential election, “the economy, stupid.” 

Governments which successfully invigorate economic growth should expect to win reelection and stave off potential populist insurgencies. Why then has the past decade, which has seen unprecedented economic growth after the recession, been a time during which a populist wave is sweeping the world? Populism plays to the emotions of ordinary people. Populists promise nothing more than to make people happy or restore former national glory, as with President TrumpDonald John TrumpPence: It's not a "foregone conclusion" that lawmakers impeach Trump FBI identifies Pensacola shooter as Saudi Royal Saudi Air Force second lieutenant Trump calls Warren 'Pocahontas,' knocks wealth tax MORE and President Erdogan.

Populism feeds off the fact that citizens do not feel their voice is being heard and lack trust in institutions. This failure on the part of mainstream governments is directly responsible for the cancerous growth of modern populist movements around the world. Perhaps this explains why citizens are willing to vote for the populist leaders who appeal to making them happier, regardless of economic risks such as those in a no deal Brexit.

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British voters strongly back Prime Minister Boris Johnson, who leads over the opposition Labour Party by 14 points in a recent YouGov poll, despite his Brexit plan potentially taking the country off an economic cliff. Turkey continues electing a leader who repeatedly brings their country to the brink of financial collapse yet promises a return to Ottoman glory. Americans elected a president who seeks to make the country great again, with little information as to how or what he means.

Populist movements prey on the distinction between the failed tangible promises of mainstream leaders and their own abstract hollow slogans feeding on public cynicism. If everything comes back to the economy, then why do both the survey and geopolitical trends point to a decline in the importance of economic factors come election day? As revealed in the Global Happiness and Political Attitudes Survey, the true answer is due to the basic human desire to be made happy by our own governments.

Citizens across the world are alarmingly sacrificing their own potential economic wellness to put in office populist leaders who make them feel good and believe that their voices are heard. Mainstream governments must wake up to this or the past populist wave will be relegated to the back pages of history while the populist tsunami of the 21st century is recalled as the one that truly threatened the democratic experiment.

Douglas E. Schoen (@DouglasESchoen) is a longtime political consultant who served as a pollster for President Clinton. His firm Schoen Consulting did the fieldwork for the Global Happiness and Political Attitudes Survey.