Understanding the Global Rise of Populism

LSE IDEAS Strategic Update by Michael Cox

The Spectre of Populism

“A spectre is haunting Europe — the spectre of communism. All the powers of old Europe have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: Pope and Tsar, Metternich and Guizot, French Radicals and German police-spies” wrote Karl Marx in 1848. Today, it would seem that there is another very different spectre haunting Europe. it is not communism — that has been consigned to that proverbial dustbin of history — but another dangerous ‘ism’, populism.

Who is a populist?

But is this just a European phenomenon? Clearly not. Across the Atlantic in the USA, a similar if not exactly identical dragon emitting all sorts of unpleasant and noxious sounds has arisen in the shape of Donald Trump, one of the very few billionaires in modern history who also lays claim to being a “man of the people”. But billionaire or not this quite extraordinary political phenomenon, a combination of Gatsby and Howard Hughes with a dash of Randolph Hearst thrown in for good measure, has delivered “shock and awe” in equal amounts. Indeed, by tapping into popular discontent in what Gavin Essler termed twenty years ago the “United States of Anger”(2), he has shaken the US establishment (not to mention their European partners) to their very core by saying things one is not supposed to say in polite company.

Understanding Populists

Populism would thus seem to defy easy political pigeon-holing. But on one thing most writers on the subject seem to be united. They don’t much like it and have tended to approach the subject with a mixture of enormous surprise — who amongst them predicted Brexit and Trump in 2016? — mixed in with a strong dash of ideological distaste.

What has caused the rise in populism?

What has caused this surge of support for populism? There are at least three competing narratives.

“The fact is that populism is not an ideology. Instead, it’s a strategy to obtain and retain power. It has been around for centuries, recently appearing to resurface in full force, propelled by the digital revolution, precarious economies, and the threatening insecurity of what lies ahead.” (7)

This however does not make populism any the less dangerous. Indeed, populism is invariably divisive, thrives on conspiracy, finds enemies even where they do not exist, criminalises all opposition to them, plays up external threats, and more of than not insists that its critics at home are merely working for foreign governments. Yet one would be wasting one’s time — he implies — seeking some deeper cause for this particular phenomenon.

Wider Causes of Populism

The impact of neoliberalism?

A crucial component part of this ‘materialist’ interpretation of populism has more recently been provided by James Montier and Philip Pilkington. They do not deny the fact that globalisation has important downsides. On the contrary globalisation is very much part of the reason for populism. But they develop the argument even further by insisting that what has led to the very real crisis the West is not just globalisation in the abstract but what they more precisely term ‘a broken system of economic governance’.

“the abandonment of full employment as a desirable policy goal and its replacement with inflation targeting…; a focus at the firm level on shareholder value maximization rather than reinvestment and growth…; and the pursuit of flexible labour markets and the disruption of trade unions and workers’ organisations.” (11)

Taken together this new neoliberal order, they believe, has not only skewed the balance towards capital and away from labour. The regime it has created has also given rise to lower inflation, lower growth rates, lower investment rates, lower productivity growth, increasing wealth and income inequality, diminished job insecurity, and a seriously deflationary bias in the world economy. Moreover, instead of the 2008 crisis undermining this order, it has only made things much, much, worse. And given all this, we should not be so surprised that there has been a backlash in the form of populism. The only surprise perhaps is that it did not happen earlier.

The End of Communism

Of course one does not have to pick and choose between these various narratives. All contain some element of truth. Yet in my view they also leave some important parts of the story out.


But it is more than just about economics. I would argue that populism is very much an expression in the West of a sense of powerlessness: the powerlessness of ordinary citizens when faced with massive changes going on all around them; but the powerlessness too of western leaders and politicians who really do not seem to have an answer to the many challenges facing the West right now. Many ordinary people might feel they have no control and express this by supporting populist movements and parties who promise to restore control to them. But in reality it is the established political parties, the established politicians and the established structures of power as well which are equally powerless. Powerless to stop the flow of migrants from the Middle East and Africa. Powerless to control the borders of their own nation states. Powerless when faced with a terrorist threat. Powerless to prevent off-shoring and tax avoidance. And powerless to reduce unemployment to any significant degree across most of the Eurozone.

Global Power Shifts

Finally, I wonder too how much the widespread notion that there is a great power shift now taking place in the international order has not also contributed to the rise of populism in the West? After all, for the last few years we have heard the same mantra being uttered by the bulk of our so-called public intellectuals: namely, that the ‘rest’ viewed here as either Asia, China or that interesting combination known as the BRICs will sometime soon be running the world.

Do populism pose a threat to globalisation?

To what degree however does populism pose a serious threat to globalisation? The simplest answer to this is not as much some alarmists would lead you to believe — at least that is what the ‘facts’ tell you if you measure globalisation by such indicators as cross-border financial flows, international tourism, and foreign direct investment. By any measure, the world is not de-globalising. Nor is it likely to do so as long as its five biggest economic actors (the European Union, the United States, China, India, and Japan) continue to support policies which favour more integration not less, more extensive supply chains not fewer, and see continued advantage economically by being part of a world market. To this degree the forces in favour of globalisation would still appear to be far stronger than those pitted against it.

References & Footnotes

About the Author

Professor Michael Cox is Director of LSE IDEAS and Professor of International Relations. He is a renowned international lecturer who has published extensively on the United States, transatlantic relations, Asia’s rise, and the problems facing the EU — and the impact these changes are having on international relations.



LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.

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LSE IDEAS is LSE’s foreign policy think tank. We connect academic knowledge of diplomacy and strategy with the people who use it.