The Rise of Populism, pt. 1

By Dr. Denise R. Ames

01.1 populismA growing political phenomenon, populism, is making headway in many countries around the world today, including western democracies. It is a worldwide phenomenon with far-reaching ramifications. The term was coined in the late 19th century, and the movement has resurfaced at various times in modern history.

Populism is a political stance that appeals to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are overlooked by the established elite. Populism sets in on the left and right side of the political spectrum. At this point I will describe seven general characteristics of the phenomenon to give an introductory overview of this trend.

Seven Characteristics of Populism:

1.  A Thin Ideology

Populists call for ousting the political establishment, but they don’t identify what should replace it. According to Cas Mudde, populism is a thin ideology, one which, on its own, is not substantive enough to offer a comprehensive ideology for governance. 05.2It differs from “thick-centered” ideologies such as liberalism, socialism, federalism, nationalism, conservatism, or fascism that have developed more comprehensive views on the relationship of politics, economics, society, and religion.

As a thin-centered ideology, populism is flexible and populist politicians attach it to thick-centered ideologies. It is a complementary ideology that spreads itself through thicker ideologies in order to facilitate political rule.

2.  Appeals to Common People

Populists are dividers, not uniters. Although populism means “for the people,” it splits society into two hostile groups: “the pure (or common) people” and “the corrupt elite.” Populists purport to speak to the common people, who feel that the political establishment overlooks or degrades their concerns and anxieties. In keeping with the flexibility of populism, the concept of “the people” is vague.

05.3According to populists, the pure people share a sense of identity that distinguishes them from different groups within society. The pure people are also considered virtuous and their selection of populist leaders is self-legitimatizing. While a liberal democracy is a political system based on pluralism in which different groups with different interests and values are all legitimate, populism is just the opposite.

Populists tend to define the common people as those who are with them. They separate the world into warring camps. The common people may be connected according to their socioeconomic status or class, in which they share certain cultural traditions and popular values. Populists make the case that the dominant elite belittle or devalue those peoples’ values, tastes, character, and judgments. Therefore, it is the duty of the people to retaliate against this disparagement.

Populists often employ the common people as a synonym for the whole nation, whether that national community is conceived in ethnic or civic terms. In such a framework, all individuals are regarded as being “common” to a particular state either by birth or by ethnicity.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

01.2 DeniseDr. Ames’ varied life experiences— teaching, scholarly research, personal reflections, and extensive travels—have contributed to her balanced and thoughtful perspectives. Earning a doctorate in world history education, she has taught secondary schools, universities, a community college, and lifelong learners. In 2003, Dr. Ames founded the educational non-profit, Center for Global Awareness that develops globally-focused books and educational resources for grade 9-university. She has written eight books, plus numerous blogs, lesson plans, articles, newsletters, teaching units, and conducted professional development workshops for the non-profit and its clients.

Dr. Ames is now developing her new program: Turn, Transformation, Understanding, and Reflection Nexus.  Turn encourages life-long learners to see things with new eyes, learn from the past, and understand the relationship of all things. She teaches workshops/classes and writes about Turn’s five topics: learning from the past, cross-cultural awareness, five colliding worldviews, elder wisdom, and transformative travel.

Divided: Five Colliding Worldviews and How to Navigate Them has just been released!

07.3 and 08.2Divided addresses the question on the lips of every American: why can’t we get along? The cultural divide is threatening our democracy and destabilizing our country. Divided looks at the deep cultural divide through the lens of five colliding worldviews—indigenous, traditional, progressive, globalized, and transformative. This approach helps us make sense of our deep divisions and suggests ways of bridging them.

It is urgent that we understand and bridge the cultural divide. Bridging the divide is dependent upon first understanding it. Gaining an understanding of the five worldviews enhances our success of arriving at sensible solutions and increasing civil conversations. If not, rancor and intractability ensue.


Divided is one of nine books written by Dr. Ames and the Center for Global Awareness, check out their offerings! Global Awareness Books  


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