Understanding populism today – Brexit, Trump, Hanson and Le Pen
→ The Brexit vote of 2016
→ Trump’s victory in the US Presidential election
→ The return of Pauline Hanson to Canberra
→ Marine Le Pen’s revival of the Front National
What do these things have in common? The word “populism” is often used to describe them all, but does that make sense?
Every populist sees the world as divided between corrupt, self-indulgent “elites” and hard-working, virtuous “people”. Anti-immigration politics plays a role in all of them, because it raises the question of “who are ‘the people’?” All of these cases have also exposed painful political divides between major cities and rural hinterlands, divides that have been ignored for too long.
But the differences are just as important, especially when it comes to the different kinds of nationalism that go along with populism. British and French nationalists feel cold in the shadow of past colonial glory. American nationalists struggle with the idea that their nation may no longer be the greatest on earth. Australian nationalism is more relaxed—we don’t have the burden of seeing ourselves as being at the centre of the world. But it is still a powerful tool for politicians willing to use it.
From the perspective of the present day it is hard to say what the meaning of all this is. Only history will tell us whether we are at the beginning, the middle or the end of something. But in the meantime, we have much to learn from careful comparison of populist success and failure.
Dr David Smith is jointly appointed between the US Studies Centre and the School of Social and Political Sciences at the University of Sydney. He is the academic director at USSC. His research examines political relations between states and minorities, with a focus on religion in the US. His book Religious Persecution and Political Order in the United States was published by Cambridge University Press in 2015.