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Populism: Analyzing a phenomenon

It's the word on everyone’s lips, and has lent its name to our times: We are living in an age of populism. Being populist has long been seen as a political stigma. But what is populism, and who does it speak to?

The Duden German-language dictionary defines populism as "opportunistic politics that seeks to win favor with the masses." The word is derived from the Latin populus, "the people." In politics, Duden tells us, populism is a polemical term, an accusation made about political opponents with regard to popular announcements or actions. Populists claim to speak in the interests of "the people," implying a contrast to the elite. But who exactly are the people?

'We are the people!'

The slogan of the Monday demonstrations in East Germany in 1989 that brought an entire regime to its knees has recently acquired a very different meaning. With the collapse of East Germany, "the people" earned themselves the status of heroes. Now, though, "the people" - those who vote for the right-wing Alternative for Germany (AfD) party, who cast their ballots for Brexit and US President Donald Trump, and who may soon help Marine Le Pen to the French presidency - scare us.

When populists talk about "the people," they are only talking about their followers. Or, as Nigel Farage, the former head of Britain's UK Independence Party, expressed it, "the real people:" in this case, the 52 percent who voted in favor of leaving the EU. According to Farage, the other 48 percent of voters are not "real" people. Trump, using slightly different words, regularly divides the American people into the good and the unimportant. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the head of Poland's Law and Justice Party, has even described opposition supporters as "the worse sort of Poles."

Deutschland Pegida-Demo in Dresden (picture-alliance/dpa/O. Killing)

Many populist protests have focused on foreigners and refugees

Populists don't want open-ended, unbiased discussion. They already know the "right" answer. This moral claim to sole representation is gaining currency with populists. Viktor Orban, the prime minister of Hungary, provided proof of this back in 2002, when he responded to the surprise election defeat of his Fidesz party by saying that it was simply not possible for the nation to be in opposition.

Rebellion of the precariat

There has been increasing academic research into the phenomenon of populism since the 1990s, but the conclusions only really started attracting attention recently. The political journalist Albrecht von Lucke believes we are experiencing a political counterrevolution, in terms of the rapid changes to the old political order that are taking place almost everywhere in the world. The conflict, he says, is being fought between representatives of a society prepared for change, and protagonists of a radical culture of demarcation and exclusion who offer a return to a homogenous society.

What's left after deregulation

Large parts of the industrial workforce have turned their backs on socialist and social democratic parties and swung to the right - almost everywhere in Europe. Election analyses confirm this. Be it in the United States, Poland, or Hungary, workers - many of them trade union members - have for some time now been voting for nationalist parties.

USA Proteste gegen Donald Trump in Salt Lake City (picture-alliance/dpa/R. Bowmer)

Populism breeds protest - US society has been deeply divided since Trump took office

No one has described this better than the French sociologist and writer Didier Eribon - not in a scholarly article, but in a work of fiction, published in 2009, entitled "Returning to Reims." The book has now become a bestseller again; it was published in English in 2013, and in German in 2016. In this autobiographical novel, the narrator returns to his hometown, Reims, after 20 years in Paris, and encounters the dramatic change in the intellectual climate and group affiliations among his family, old friends and neighbors.

Communist voters are in the minority among workers. Their politics are dominated by the far-right National Front, and there is almost no trade union solidarity with colleagues abroad. "Things that have always been thought are now being said, loudly and threateningly," Eribon summarizes. The atmosphere is unfriendly.

Reims is everywhere: in the American rust belt, in the former industrial regions of central and northern England, as well as East Germany.

Karikatur Angst vor Trump in Europa (S. Elkin)

Long before Trump's rise to power, populist movements saw success in Europe

Against supra-national alliances: the nation as safe space

The rediscovery of national identity as a mark of superiority over others, as a safe space for the development of one's own strengths, which supposedly fall by the wayside in global competition, is in vogue - in Poland, in Hungary, but above all in the United States under Trump. The over-emphasis on one's own nation goes hand-in-hand with closed borders, economic protectionism and a dangerous, xenophobic social climate. Populist parties, whether in government or in opposition, also discredit all supra-national alliances. The populists have declared open season on the "acronym jumble" (UN, NATO, EU) - decades of achievement in balancing intergovernmental interests and conflicts. They all want their own nations to put their national values and interests first.

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What is Populism?

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