The Decade Populism Went Mainstream

Roughly five times as many people live under populist governments now compared to 10 years ago.


There is a specter haunting not just Europe but the whole globe, quaking the boots of established political parties, legacy media outlets, and transnational institutions of government and civil society.

This creeping dread is gathered under the catch-all label of "populism." Cosmopolitan elites are on alert for its "dangerous rise." Unelected bureaucracies are being hollowed out in its wake, including this week at the World Trade Organization.

It certainly feels like one of the biggest global upheavals of this waning decade, with each new week coughing up headlines like "Inauguration Marks Return of Peronism." But are there measurable facts to back up this feeling?

The short answer is yes: Arguably five times as many people live under populist governments at the end of 2019 than at the end of 2009. But the longer answer requires some more precise definitions.

Start with a working model of the ism under question. Jordan Kyle and Limor Gultchin, in a very useful survey at the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change, synthesize the political science literature into two fundamental assertions underlying every governing populist movement: 1) "A country's 'true people' are locked into conflict with outsiders, including establishment elites," and 2) "Nothing should constrain the will of the true people." Leaders then govern in an atmosphere of near-constant existential urgency.

From there, the authors differentiate three main populist variants: 1) Socio-economic populism (think: Venezuela), which claims that "the true people are honest, hard-working members of the working class," fighting against "big business, capital owners and actors perceived as propping up an international capitalist system." 2) Anti-establishment populism (think: Silvio Berlusconi's Italy), which "paints the true people as hard-working victims of a state run by special interests and outsiders as political elites."

And, with a bullet, 3) cultural populism, which claims that "the true people are the native members of the nation-state" battling over national sovereignty and cultural identity with the likes of "immigrants, criminals, ethnic and religious minorities, and cosmopolitan elites." Cultural populists, in this framework, are your Viktor Orbáns, your Narendra Modis, your Donald Trumps.

You will certainly disagree with some of these classifications. The authors freely acknowledge that populism is a "slippery concept that is too often used pejoratively to describe politics that those in the mainstream do not like." You can even make a Tony Blair joke, though his institute deserves credit for publishing a survey that is frank about the policy errors and hubristic anti-democratic approach of establishment decision-makers worldwide.

But the overall grouping of populists passes the eyeball test: These are largely identifiable as us vs. them, sovereignty-hoarding governments helmed by charismatic outsiders who speak more like the common man than the elites they rail against. And what this list of such regimes shows over the past decade is striking: "Whereas populism was once found primarily in emerging democracies, populists are increasingly gaining power in systemically important countries."

By the end of the 2009, the Institute reckoned, there were 19 populist governments in the world, led in size by Vladimir Putin's Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan's Turkey (both "culturally" populist), then Italy, South Africa, Argentina, and Venezuela (the latter three from the socio-economic category). Together, those 19 countries currently account for around 577 million people and $7 trillion in annual gross domestic product.

What about the state of populist governments today? The Blair Institute study only runs through 2018, and events move fast. But we still have the arrival to the list of India, the United States, Joko Widodo's Indonesia, Jair Bolsonaro's Brazil, Rodrigo Duterte's Philippines, and more. Factoring in one's own characterizations about global developments this year (I would re-add Argentina and Bolivia, for example), you arrive at a similar-to-2009 total of around 21 populist countries. But oh, what a size difference: 2.8 billion people generating an annual $34.4 trillion of economic activity. The populists are no longer coming, they are here.

How you feel about this development likely depends on your attitudes toward your leading home-country populist and his enemy elite, and also (if you otherwise favor free trade) your weighting of sovereignty vs. globally managed tariff reduction. Regardless, the sample size of populist countries is large enough to draw some preliminary conclusions about their net comparative impact.

In a parallel study a year ago for the Tony Blair Institute, also written up at The Atlantic, Jordan Kyle and Yascha Mounk conclude that "populist governments are about four times more likely than non-populist ones to harm democratic institutions," that more than half of them "amend or rewrite their countries' constitutions," often to "extend term limits or weaken checks on executive power," and that 40 percent have been "indicted on corruption charges," with their countries experiencing "significant drops in international corruption rankings." Individual rights and civil society institutions disproportionately come under attack.

Conclusion: "Populist rule—whether from the right or the left—has a highly negative effect on political systems and leads to a significant risk of democratic erosion."

Those who compile global indices of democratic health are in a glum mood these days. Freedom House's annual "Freedom in the World" survey for 2019 was headlined "Democracy in Retreat," lamenting a "13th consecutive year of decline in global freedom." (Surely, we will soon read about a 14th.) Conclusion: "The reversal has spanned a variety of countries in every region, from long-standing democracies like the United States to consolidated authoritarian regimes like China and Russia. The overall losses are still shallow compared with the gains of the late 20th century, but the pattern is consistent and ominous." Whee!

A newer index introduced by the Varieties of Democracy (V-Dem) project at the University of Gothenburg finds that "the number of liberal democracies has declined from 44 in 2008 to 39 in 2018," and that "almost one-third of the world's population lives in countries undergoing autocratization, surging from 415 million in 2016 to 2.3 billion in 2018." These include India, Brazil, and the United States.

("Autocratization" is defined by V-Dem as: "any substantial and significant worsening on the scale of liberal democracy. It is a matter of degree and a phenomenon that can occur both in democracies and autocracies….Semantically, it signals the opposite of democratization, describing any move away from [full] democracy.")

It doesn't take much imagination to anticipate two basic reactions to these dour reports: Either we're so screwed or ha ha, globalist cucks! But allow me to suggest a third option.

The twin rises of nationalism and democratic socialism weren't some historical accident. They will not go away via nostalgia, or constitutional correctives like impeachment, or even an election. People feel locked out of decision-making, and until that sense of democratic responsibility is restored, there's going to be one messy Brexit after another.

As Kyle and Gultchin point out,

Common to many of the crises identified by populists is a sense that the political elites across all mainstream political parties have conspired to depoliticise an important policy question that should be subject to public scrutiny. Political scientist Yascha Mounk terms this phenomenon "rights without democracy": citizens may have the right to vote, but for many issues that they care about, the issue is not even considered in the realm of public debate but is a matter for technocrats. In some countries, mainstream political parties have come to a cross-party consensus, for example, about openness to trade, openness to immigration or EU accession; and opposition to these significant policies has no vehicle for representation.

Those who lament the "democratic backsliding" associated with populism need to find different means to their policy ends than far-flung technocratic projects. And those who relish the restoration of sovereignty need to face up to the reality that populists tend toward corruption and the deliberate erosion of individual rights.

We don't know yet how the new breed of populists will react when their promises crash into reality, or when the worldwide economic expansion finally comes to an end. What happens then will largely tell the story of the 2020s. Buckle up.