If you are not living on the top of the hill in the middle of nowhere without any connection to the world, you couldn’t have missed the term “populism” once and everywhere. They say that populism is behind Brexit, that Trump is a populist, that right-wing populism is getting stronger and stronger in Italy, Poland, Hungary, France, Germany and any other EU countries. However, there is no neither a single definition of populism nor a common understanding of what populism is in all its manifestations. So let’s check what we are talking about, shall we?
First, populism is defined as the antagonistic division of the political system into "good", represented and expressed in the will of the "common people" and "evil", which is equated with the interests of individual elites. Populism uses a moralistic approach in public discourse, speaking on behalf of the majority of society against the immoral minority. In this sense, populism is the antonym of pluralism, which emphasizes the desirability of diverse opinions and views. If pluralism supports institutions that express the majority opinion without restricting minority rights and freedoms, then populism emphasizes the exclusiveness of its own moral right and calls the opposite side undesirable and dangerous. Pluralism places the essence of political relations in cooperation for the sake of seeking harmony, populism unquestionably recognizes different the other side and opinion as eternal enemies
Second, populism is defined as a kind of ideas in the form of discourse or so-called "subtle" ideology. "Full" ideologies, such as liberalism or conservatism, are a consciously agreed system of views on the ideal way of organizing political power and solutions for a wide range of aspects of life. Populism, in turn, posts as a somewhat simplistic set of assumptions, an approach to the perception of the political world that can only be applied to certain aspects of political life. Because of this, populism as a subtle ideology is often imposed and associated with some complete ideologies, most often those that propose more radical changes and methods of their implementation. Today we mostly speak of right-wing populism, but it doesn’t mean populists can’t be left-wing.
But why it arises now and then all around the EU? The short answer is because we are facing a political crisis, and people don’t feel they have a voice in it. For decades, the political arena has been turning into so-called post-politics - blurring the barrier between left and right, and establishing a consensus between right- and left-centrists. The role of parliament and other institutions that empower people to influence politics has been diminished, along with the ability to exercise their democratic rights by the masses. Elections no longer make it possible to choose genuine alternatives, being limited to traditional parties. The only thing that allows post-politics is the change of power between right-centrists and centre-leftists. Any force that opposes this consensus in the centre is called "extremist" and "populist." This undermined one of the foundations of democracy - the power and authority of the people. Therefore, when some bigger problem arises in the country, classical parties rarely have the capacity to change themselves and react accordingly, and more and more people don’t feel connected to those parties anymore. Therefore, they feel need to follow some new ideas, and it’s very likely they would listen to someone talking about how they, common people, will fight the corrupt elites.
The other reason is the demand for simplification and primitivism among the general population. The complexity of all the political processes makes it really hard to understand to an average citizen. A political actor who offers a simple and understandable slogan such as "Stop unemployment, raise wages!" will have much broader support than one who promises to improve the investment climate and liberalize the energy market. It doesn’t mean people are stupid, and often it is the fault of politicians and intellectuals who always speak complicated language and don’t even try to deliver their clear point to the masses.
So why is it so dangerous? Well, obviously, not always people who want to put themselves as simple folks fighting for the good of other simple folks really have those intentions. Manipulation and division which are essential parts of populism can barely ever serve a good cause. But even if the populists would have those intentions pure, it doesn’t mean they actually have a solution for problems they articulate. Some problems come from objective factors and can’t be just simply erased with the change of government. And being a politician requires a lot of courage and will to make decisions, which sometimes could be beneficial for the nation from a long-term perspective but will definitely cost you people’s support right now. Populists are simply unable to take such decisions - it’s against their very nature.
So what we can say, is that populism shouldn’t be demonised like it is happening in media sometimes - it’s just a natural part of the political process, which shows that there are some problems and the current system can’t handle them, leaving people aside from possibilities to influence politics. But if you hear someone trying really hard to look like common people and criticising elites - be careful and think what their real motives and capacities are.