Rise of Populism and Emerging Challenges to Globalisation

Pranjal Gupta
 October 25th, 2020


Image Courtesy: IDB

Populism & Globalisation are familiar concepts. This paper intends to analyse how Populism has figured in recent discourses and to look at the reasons for its rise and how Globalisation is facing challenges in current times. 

Rise of Populism 

Populism is not novel, it has been present throughout history. It has accompanied democratic politics and has had its successes and failures. The term populism had its inception in a big way in the late 19th century with the inception of the populist People’s Party in the United States. Back then, farmers in America were infuriated with lack of income and wealth in the economic boom of the Gilded Age. They considered the Gilded Age as exclusionary and attributed it to the government’s corruption and elite’s influence. Farmers’ grievances found a voice in the People’s party or Populist party, the party which placed themselves as the alternative to the Democrats and Republicans, campaigned for economic regulation, nationalised railroads and directly elected senators. 

In current times, Populism has returned in a big way. A clear definition of Populism is hard to deduce due to lack of consensus amongst scholars. One crucial reason for the same is that it’s meaning has changed with time and space. In current times, it is broadly characterised by right-wing parties across the world, leaders and movements although it can definitely be found in the political beliefs of left-wing parties and people.  There is a consensus on two basic concepts falling under Populism – firstly, it speaks for the ordinary people and secondly, it represents collective angst of ordinary people, often opposed to an elite section of the population which apparently hinder their political aspirations. These two principles are combined in different proportions by different populist leaders, parties and movements. Left-wing is mostly concerned about socioeconomic issues whereas the right-wing is concerned about socio-cultural issues. Like many modern populists, the populists back in time were also opposed to immigrants blaming their entry could hamper the economy. However, within a decade of its formation, the Populist Party effectively disappeared.


Of late, populism has been largely associated with the radical Right, it has been often unified with authoritarianism and anti-immigration ideas and they position themselves as outsiders who are aloof and rebel of the existing order. They call for structural change, either economical or cultural. They often tend to do this by advancing a wave of urgent crisis and presenting themselves as the change bearers of a crisis situation.

The twin incidents that mainstreamed populism after decades were the Brexit referendum and the 2016 U.S Presidential election, catapulting Donald Trump at the helm. Benjamin Moffitt, author of “Populism” has narrated the phenomenon not as a fixed ideology like liberalism and socialism, but rather as a political style which lies in the way it is practised.

Though Populism doesn’t have a clear definition, it is mostly seen as a far-Right phenomenon and the reason attributed to it could be that most of the successful examples of populism have been found among the Right-wing: for instance, Marine Le Pen in France; Germany’s largest Opposition party; Viktor Orbán’s ruling Fidesz in Hungary where Prime Minister has scrapped out Press freedom. This perception of populism being a Far-Right phenomenon is also attributed to the way people on the political Right have portrayed and talked about Populism. For instance, Steve Bannon, the former Trump’s Strategist, was attempting to fabricate a world movement of nationalist parties and embraced the populist label when describing Trump’s political stakes. Others, including Alexander Gauland – Chairperson of Alternative for Germany – have declared that his party is populist and they are proud of it.

Populists mostly harp on changing the existing conditions, apparently in the name of people stating that the current situation could be a threat to democracy and its norms- protecting people’s interests. The increasing vogue of populism is not by accident. Populist parties have increased their votes by three folds in the last two decades. They are ruling in quite a few European countries. Recent studies have shown that across the western world populism is extensive. More and more citizens are inclining towards the mindset that “ordinary” people are being false played or denounced by the “corrupt elite”. Though citizens with well built populist attitudes do not necessarily vote for a populist party, there are various reasons that increase the chances that they will do so.

Firstly, western society is far more individualistic and voters are unrepressed and independent and these characteristics are reflected in their real populist votes. Secondly, there is a major difference between populists parties and other mainstream parties as they have more or less the same objectives. So, voters supporting populism are likely to vote for populist parties as there is “fertile breeding ground” for populists. Thirdly, any crisis encountered will make the populist attitude stronger. For example, mainstream parties are likely to fall prey to the financial crisis as it will be stated that “elite” has brought the country to such a pass. Fourth, corruption plays straight in the minds of populists, as they perceive mainstream parties as supporting “elites” and corrupting the system. Lastly, the changing paradigm of the media industry highlighting topics they sell well, such as crisis, scandals and controversies fuel the sense of rebellion in populists mind.

Populism Today

The most well-known example of a populist leader in the contemporary world is the president of the United States, Donald Trump who is attributed the most for the rise of populism today. Researchers have claimed that Trump’s eloquence during the election campaign was strongly bent towards populism. He targeted political elites and focused on the core populist principle of “anti-elite” and often used people-centric pronouns of “we” and “our”. His populist policy was towards the radical Right, tossing up policies like ‘America First’ he also proposed a wall between the US and Mexico along with other anti-globalisation economic policies. And the combination of all these Policies and notions and ideas of populism made him distinct between the people and the outside group including Mexican, Muslims and even domestically through his subtle silence on racial violence. He also criticised “elite’s” preference for globalisation, free trade and liberal immigration policies. He used the slogan “drain the swamp”- which claims that he will purge Washington of elites who are not falling in the group of regular Americans.

Populism has also thrown numerous challenges to Globalisation: Globalisation in simpler terms is global connectedness. It structurally deals with flows. Flows manifested in various forms- ideas flowing from one part of the world to another, commodities transported from one point to another, persons migrating from one place to another and capital shunted between two or more locations. It is a multi-faceted concept which has become an inevitable part of our lives. Through the infamous Silk Route, people have been buying and selling commodities across different parts of the world during the Middle Ages. But technological development has increased the pace of globalisation which has swiftly compressed space and accelerated time. Trade, investment, migration have experienced a spurred increase. Globalists believe Globalisation is an inescapable and inevitable force that will make the world borderless and there will be homogeneity across people and flows of capital, people, information, culture, etc.

Globalisation has various consequences associated with it but the main three consequences are- political, economic and cultural. All over the world, ‘welfare states’ are transforming into minimalist states as the power of the state is gradually eroding. Now the market is the prime determinant of demand, supply and other economic concepts. Capitalism may reduce the state’s capacity to only maintain law and order.  

People believe globalisation makes the rich, richer and the poor, poorer and widens the divide as some of the trade between nations is regarded as forced one harming the domestic markets of developing and undeveloped nations by products of developed countries. A positive perspective of Globalisation could be that it brings in IT, internet services and other modes of modern connectivity to the areas and countries once aloof. There are a variety of views pertaining to economic globalisation. Many consider economic globalisation as neo-colonisation. 

With Globalisation, the flow of ideas across countries has intensified and as a result, our preferences and opinions have been influenced. Cultural prevalence is a form of soft power. Today, youth prefers eating burger, pizza which is the lineage of western culture even wearing jeans is. In India, people wear saris, kurta and also jeans on different occasions, people eat pizza but their affinity for traditional food like idli hasn’t reduced, this aspect of globalisation is cultural heterogeneity i.e. adoption of a blend of cultures.

Populism: A Challenge to Globalisation 

Populism claims to stand with “ordinary people” and in opposition to “elite group” and to protect interests of ordinary people and to promote their products and economic interests often populism poses threat to forces of globalisation as it is considered as elite’s concept hampering the domestic market and benefiting only the elites’ interests. Populists are also of the view that Globalisation weakens the state’s authority and diminishes welfare state which prevents the state from helping ordinary people and the forces of capitalism only ensures the welfare of the elite class. From the cultural perspective, it is said that ordinary people of the country will lose their traditional cultures due to homogenisation of various cultures.

To sum up, populism is a political approach that appeals to ordinary people who believe that their interests are obstructed by the elite class. Globalisation refers to the integration of cultures, trade, economy and populations. Populism has given rise to anti-globalisation movements in order to protect the interests of “ordinary people” and drive out external forces and interests of the elite class.

** The author is an intern at the Kalinga Institute of Indo-Pacific Studies (KIIPS) and an undergraduate student at Delhi University**