The Rise of Populism, part 2

by Dr. Denise R. Ames

A 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. Here is part 2 of this blog series …

3.  The Common People are the Underdogs

Populists morally frame the common people as the underdogs, oppressed by evil elites. The way of life of the common people is good and rooted in the country’s “real” history and its traditions, which is regarded as being beneficial to the public good. Populists’ leaders claim that they alone represent the common people. Even though they may lack majority support, they claim the polls are rigged or the questions on the survey favor the elites.

Populists reason that they only lose an election if the common people have not had a chance to express their views. For example, Bernie Sanders’ supporters in his bid for the Democratic party nomination in 2016 blamed his loss on a “rigged” system that elected the more establishment candidate Hillary Clinton, despite the fact that he lost by thousands of votes.

Populists frequently invoke conspiracy theories or elaborate rationalizations for political losses; the elites are still manipulating events behind the scenes in order to benefit them and keep the common person compliant. Therefore, if the populist politician doesn’t win, there must be something wrong with the system.

Logically, this argument would seem to fail once populists enter government and become the establishment. But a primary appeal of populism is its underdog status, so they continue to portray themselves as victims even at the height of their power in an incessant game of blaming others for their shortcomings or mistakes.

4.  Populist Leaders Are Usually Elite Men

Anti-elitism is a key feature of populism. Populist leaders often present themselves as representatives of the people, but they often come from the upper echelons of society, either through wealth or elite education. Leaders get around this contradiction by distinguishing their elite status as “self-made,” a qualifying mark of their leadership abilities.

They vigorously claim that they are not the despised established political elites. In fact, they are fighting against the established elites for the ordinary person. Populists often condemn not only the political establishment, but also economic, academic, cultural, and media leaders, which they present as one uniform, corrupt group. For example, President Donald Trump does not consider himself to be in the category of the elites; instead he frames himself as a self-made businessman who has sacrificed his position of power and wealth in order to battle against the corrupting elites who are oppressing the common person. A populist leader who gets into power is in a perpetual crusade to prove to the people that he is not an establishment figure and never will be.

The overwhelming majority of populist leaders have been men. They often present themselves as men of action and images rather than men of words, talking of the need for bold action and common-sense solutions to issues which they call crises. Male populist leaders often express themselves using simple and sometimes vulgar language in an attempt to present themselves as the common man or “one of the boys” to add to their populist appeal. Overstepping traditional political boundaries, they may use language that draws attention to their virility and sexual prowess.

About the Author: Dr. Denise R. Ames

Dr. 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!

Divided 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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