The rise of what many consider to be divisive rulers with an enthusiastic support base — be it Egypt’s Abdel Fattah el Sisi; Hungary’s Victor Orbán; India’s Narendara Modi; Philippine’s Rodrigo Duterte; Belarus’s Alexander Lukashenko and, now, US President-elect Donald Trump — is often associated with a political term named "populism." And many people blame populism for having elevated these rulers to power and posing a threat to the very future of democracy.
John B Judis, one of America’s most respected political analysts, takes a starkly different approach to the phenomenon. He challenges that notion in his recently published book, The Populist Explosion, arguing that populism is neither inherently good nor bad.
In an interview with TRT World, Judis said populism does not pose any threat to democracy but, rather, is a crucial part of it. It cannot be defined in black and white terms as it includes both right-wing figures like Donald Trump and the left-leaning Bernie Sanders, and the reactionary National Front in France and anti-austerity Podemos in Spain. From right-wing to left-wing to centrist parties, all can ride the populist surge. It is neither an ideology, nor a religion. It's simply a political assessment.
Is democracy under a threat, given the fact that a populist surge in the US helped Donald Trump win the election?
JOHN B JUDIS: I don’t see the movements that I described, that really began in the US in the 1890s and then crossed the Atlantic in the 1970s, as currently being a threat to democracy. In some cases, they tend to expand democracy. I am thinking about the Five Star movement in Italy, for instance, which is in the news today, which advocates the kind of direct democracy and whose focus has been anti-corruption.
[Note: The roots of populism are found in May 1891. The legend goes that some members of the Kansas Farmers Alliance coined the term “populist” to embody the political views that they and their allies were developing. Ever since, populism has re-emerged in the US at several points and travelled across the Atlantic into Europe].
Today, these movements have been embedded within the electoral democratic system. I am talking again about Western Europe and the US. I am not talking of Eastern Europe; I am not talking about Latin America.
But is populism a good thing or a bad thing for society?
JJ: I think it is neither. It depends upon the particular manifestation. In the US we have had populist movements that have been identified as the left-wing: it might be the People’s Party or right up to the present Bernie Sanders; and the right-wing: George Wallace, Pat Buchanan and, to some extent, Donald Trump. It is a way of doing politics that pits "the People against the Establishment." What the particular content of it is depends upon the politician and the time of history. In Europe it is a lot different; in Europe, I think the centre-left and centre-right parties used it entirely as a derogatory term. But that’s going to change because there are now in southern Europe, there are clearly left-wing populist movements: Podemos in Spain, Five Star in Italy, Syriza in Greece. I think I am using it again in the American sense, but that’s going to end up prevailing eventually in Europe too.
How about the US? In future, can populism favour left-leaning or the centre-left forces and help them wrest back power from the Republicans?
JJ: I think you have to look at very specifically at what will happen in a Donald Trump administration. I think if he does some of the economic things that he has threatened to do like [warning] American companies [against moving overseas] and leaving American workers in the lurch, he could retain his popularity and make it very hard for the Democrats to win in 2020, our next big election. If he gives in to the Republicans and starts to cut our Medicare system for senior citizens, I think the Democrats will really have an avenue that they can go through to rebound and to recover and get back to Congress and the White House. I think a lot depends upon whether he governs as a conventional right-wing Republican — which will mean entirely pro-business, do everything with a view to strengthening business but not necessarily to helping anybody else — or whether he governs in this peculiar way [in which] he campaigned; as a populist concerned about wages and jobs and working people. I think that’s the question for Democrats.
You think that will help a left-wing politician like Bernie Sanders take the White House?
JJ: The world is changing, as you know. A lot of the job structure in America is changing very much. We have this strange 30 percent versus 70 percent structure where people with college and advanced degrees are doing quite well, and the rest of the population, 70 percent, is not doing as well.
[NOTE: According to the Pew Research Center, college graduates in the US earn higher wages than high school graduates. The wage difference between the two is stark].
I think the direction of our politics very much depends upon which party and which candidate solves this problem, find a way to make it so that our prosperity is spread more evenly across the population.
It might not be left-wing populism. It might be centre-left Democratic politics that is associated with Hillary Clinton, more defensive, protecting what we have in terms of a welfare state, but not as ambitious — let's say Bernie Sanders proposing the right to healthcare for all Americans and free college education. I am not sure if you are going to see those kind of proposals from the Democrats. I think that awaits really another crisis in the country, where a lot of people find themselves without health insurance, where we really have to restructure the whole system from the ground up. In the meantime, it is sort of a better version of Hillary’s campaign might get the Democrats back in power, something that was more related to defending people's economic interests and less into appealing to particular interest groups, nationalities, and into just defining your opponent as a sexual predator, somebody who hates everybody.
You sound quite optimistic about the future of Democrats. I wonder what Trump’s core political constituency is in your view?
JJ: His constituency is traditional Republicans, small business, farm states, states that depend upon natural resources, coal and steel, natural gas, states like Louisiana, Texas, West Virginia, Kentucky. And his constituents are also very similar to what the British talk about as the “left-behinds,” the people who did work with middle class manufacturing jobs but now find themselves without good economic prospects. And that’s very much the case in a lot of those states that he won — North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and so on — that were formally fairly dependable Democratic states but now Trump was able to win as a Republican.
Is there a possibility that Democrats can influence the people who support Donald Trump?
JJ: Sure, but again, the way white politics works is reactive. A lot of it will depend upon whether those voters will believe that Trump has kept what they think is his promise to them, which is greater prosperity. If they don’t, then the Democrats will have an opening.
Is it just a phase that right-wing political forces have been elected to power? Could they be replaced soon?
JJ: I aspire sometimes to be the successor of Hegel and Marx, but I don’t necessarily live up to that and I can't tell you what I think, let's say the future of democracy is going to be. I wouldn’t venture to guess on those questions. But what I think what is happening in Western Europe and the US is a challenge to this political economy that was based upon labour mobility, workers moving all around, and in the process driving down the wages and keeping down cost and capital mobility, the ability of corporations to move wherever they want in the world in search of less regulations and lower taxes and so on. I think there is a challenge to that kind of global economics, and I am not sure how it's all going to come out. The Europe Union itself and especially the Euro zone is very fragile. The US, I think we are going to keep going for at least another decade or two. If we have another great recession, I think the deck is going to get reshuffled a lot, but I am not sure what the cards are going to look like afterwards.
FOR MORE ON THE RISE OF POPULISM
A conversation with Dale Maharidge, who has covered American poverty since the early 1980s. In “Someplace like America,” he predicted that anger over growing income inequality in working class towns would lead to a reactionary brand of populism… READ MORE