To what extent is the rise of populism an outcome of 20th and 21st century world political developments?

Populism is one of the most defining and most controversial political doctrines within the 21st century. The term itself is an approach to politics that can be defined as an ideology that presented ordinary people/citizens as morally good entities against the ‘elite’. This is through it being an ideological collective based on a “deep cynicism and resentment of existing authorities, whether big business, big banks, multinational corporations, media pundits, elected politicians and government officials, intellectual elites” (Inglehart and Norris, 2016). Populism exists throughout the traditional left-right political spectrum and is seen as a reactionary movement against a perceived overarching power within society normally called the ‘1%’. By the turn of the 21st century, world politics has seen a rise in populism, especially since Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election and the United Kingdom’s exit from the European Union in the same year.

This essay will examine the extent of this rise in populism and the outcome of its recent developments within world politics. This will be done by examining three key factors that have led to the development of populism. Firstly, the development of the ‘political-establishment’. Secondly, the rise of the economic upper-class and the subsequent shortcomings (specifically the 2008 Great Recession). Thirdly, the creation of mass media and the Internet.

Overall, this can be summarised by the following statement by Nigel Farage following Brexit: “We have broken free from a failing political union. We have managed, the little people, the ordinary people who have ignored all the threats that have come from big business and big politics” (Dunn, 2020). 

One world development within the political world is that of the emergence of the ‘political elite’ within politics. This has a high degree of relevance within the rise of populism, from the perceived advent of elitism that exists within this ‘political class’. What is meant by this is that “there are career politicians (i.e., politicians who work in the political sector until retirement)” (Mattozzi and Merlo, 2020) who during their tenure become wealthy and gain influence due to their existence within politics.  An example that is often cited is that of the Clinton family. The reasoning for this claim is based on the wealth and power that the Clinton family have acquired during their time within politics. What this has meant is the perception of corruption within the political system due to the nature of money within it. It can be argued therefore that this leads to the view of politicians as being the ‘elites’, which in turn are profiteering off the backs of the ‘people’. What this does present is an antagonistic relationship between these two groups, ultimately resulting in resentment from the ‘people’.

Overall, the development of this perceived rise of the ‘political elite’ has given more reasons to justify populism’s emergence. The reasoning for this is because it has led to an increased viewing by the ‘people’ that there exists a political upper-class that control and dominate over the lives of individuals. Therefore, this is often a common tool that is used by populist leaders like Nigel Farage of the United Kingdom and Mateo Salvini in Italy to argue for populist politics.

Alongside the rise of perceived political elitism, there has also been an alleged development of an economic upper-class due to the outset of the ‘Age of Finance’. What is meant by this is that of individuals involved in the world of banking and finance. With the rise of neoliberalist free-market economics promoted by Friedman and Hayek in the 1970’s, we see this movement towards financial services becoming more powerful and important within world development.

Although there had been existing antagonisms between the ‘people’ and the ‘elite banking class’ before, it only reached its highest point post-2008. The financial recession of 2008 had led to a mass economic crisis within the western world. From this, it led to the bailing out of the banking world by various governments. What this resulted in was a significant rise in left-wing populism within the world and an increase in criticisms towards neoliberalism and capitalism. Evidence that supports this view are political movements like ‘Occupy Wall Street’ and ‘Extinction Rebellion’. These movements are specific examples of left-wing populism, aiming to directly challenge the root cause of social and economic inequality within society. This has become especially relevant within the 2010s with the onset of a ‘climate emergency’ and the growth of far-left politics within Europe and North America. This ultimately showed that the shortcomings of the global financial world created a perception of ‘economic elites’, with the aftermath of the recession shaping a new left-wing form of populism within the western world.

A final political development is that of the generation of mass media and the rise of the internet. The growth of mass media has meant that information has managed to be spread worldwide and can be controlled within the nation state. This in turn has led to accusations that there is the existence of ‘media elites’ within certain nations. The control of information has created a hotly debated topic within modern society, specifically around those who own the companies that possess such controls. An example of this would be Rupert Murdoch, who controls Fox News (USA), Sky News (BSKYB) (UK and Australia) and The Sun newspaper (UK). The global political developments of mass media have led to many ordinary people to assume that a small handful of individuals control all the daily news and information they receive, framing narratives against the ‘people’. Populism has built itself off this discontentment by targeting these ‘media elites’ within the western world. The evidence for this is from President Donald Trump, who exploited such resentment during his Presidential election campaign in 2016 by criticising mainstream media. Within this President Trump had alleged that media companies within America, for example National Broadcasting Company (NBC) and especially Cable Network News (CNN) had been working against him within the media. In turn this led to increased antagonism between the ‘people’ and the ‘elites’ with this increased perception of ‘Fake News’. 

Overall, the rise of populism is largely due to a massive backlash against these modern developments within world politics. This is because it has played into feelings of discontentment amongst ordinary citizens against the ‘political’, ‘economic’ and ‘media’ perceived ‘elites’. With many individuals within the ‘Western World’ feeling alienated politically and economically, has only fuelled the rise of populism within modern world politics.

Featured image credit: newsweek.com