Global Populism Is On the Rise But There Are Solutions, Say FSI Experts

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FSI experts Anna Grzymala-Busse, Didi Kuo, and Francis Fukuyama joined host Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast to discuss the rise of global populism and its threats to democracy. Photo: Alice Wenner

Once associated with Latin American and post-communist democracies, populist parties and politicians have now gained support and power in established democracies. Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI) experts Anna Grzymala-Busse, Didi Kuo, and Francis Fukuyama — co-authors of a new white paper, “Global Populisms and Their Challenges” — joined FSI Director Michael McFaul on the World Class podcast to discuss how to spot a populist, how populism threatens democracy, and whether the movement can be stopped. 

Populists and populist parties are a threat to liberal democracy, and they generally make two claims: first, that the elites are corrupt and self-serving, and that the will of the people has to be better represented; and second, that those who disagree with the populist representation of “the people” are not the “real” nation, Grzymala-Busse said.

[Read the full report “Global Populisms and Their Challenges”]

“It’s very much a criticism of democracy,” she told McFaul, who is also a co-author of the report. “It doesn’t call for specific sets of solutions for institutions — it can be anti- or pro-democractic, but fundamentally it’s a criticism of how liberal democracy functions.” 

A common practice among right-wing populists is to define the “people” as a dominant ethnic group, and to exclude groups such as ethnic or religious minorities, immigrants, or marginalized economic groups, Fukuyama pointed out, and added that populists on the left tend to not make that kind of distinction. 

Populist leaders have typically used democratic institutions as a means to come to power, Kuo said.

“It’s a two-step process,” Kuo explained. “Once [populist leaders] are in power, they go after the liberal foundations of democracy and potentially the democratic institutions themselves.”

For example, a leader like Russia’s Vladimir Putin — who does not criticize the elite and who is not functioning in a democracy — would not be considered a populist, said Grzymala-Busse. However, people like U.S. President Donald Trump, French politician Marine Le Pen, and Italy’s Matteo Salvini would be.

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Immigration and globalization have contributed to the rise of populism, said Fukuyama, who pointed to the 2014 Syrian migrant crisis as a trigger in Europe.

“All of a sudden a million non-white, non-European people show up in a part of the world that’s not used to this sort of thing,” Fukuyama said. “It produced what the right calls ‘cultural replacement.’ This is language that you hear in the U.S. from Donald Trump and his supporters — I think it’s something that binds a lot of these groups together.”

While all three experts were not optimistic that the populist wave will be stopped in America in the near future, voters in European countries such as Slovakia and Croatia have been pushing for anti-corruption, anti-populist candidates, they said.

“Parties of the left have to figure out how to capture the symbolism around the nation — people want to belong to a community, and over the last 30 years, the left has fractured into a lot of different, partial identities,” said Fukuyama. “The idea that you have a broader democratic civic identity that all Americans share is important culturally to give people the idea that they’re actually living in the same community.” 

Related: Learn more about FSI’s Global Populisms Project