Unveiling Populism: A Global Examination of Populist Movements and Structures

Lance Delgado, Mar 20, 2024

The city of the people burns. Bread prices are in the millions of dollars; the people cannot afford simple loaves. The people are losing their homes, and they are living on the streets. The people are angry. The enemy of the people is victorious. Like a fairytale, along strides the hero. He speaks of the greatness of the people. He alone can extinguish the fires and bring bread back to the people. He alone can bring back their homes and solve the crisis. He alone can challenge the enemy of the people. He alone can protect them. The people need this hero, and this hero needs the people.


This story is fiction, but it demonstrates how populist leaders rise to power. Populism is on the rise around the world, but what is it? What does it do? Can it be stopped? 


Populism can be defined as a political movement that emphasizes an “us-versus-them worldview” in which the people are engaged in a battle with the elites, the establishment, or minorities [1]. "Us-versus-them” is a vague archetype conflict that allows populist leaders to pick scapegoats among the "outsiders,” which makes them look better by comparison since populism requires a bad guy to make the leader look like the good guy, the savior. For a politician to avoid the populist trap, they must appeal solely to the people based on policy or ideology. Populist rhetoric appeals to the people by creating enemies that only the leader can vanquish.


Populism is born from a people’s anger with a system working against them and a people’s disdain for the status quo. For example, when people make social or political requests, they make demands to a higher authority that can either satisfy the request or deny it [2]. When the request is satisfied, it reaffirms faith in the institutions. Populism, as such, cannot thrive when people are satisfied with the system. However, when the request is denied, social frustration builds, and people become dissatisfied and disillusioned with the system. Each failed demand exposes the attitudes and feelings of discontentment that lead to populism. This frustration builds over time, and the dissatisfied people yearn for satisfaction. When a government, party, or person comes along and promises to fulfill the demands of the people, the people will listen. 


Unlike many ideologies, such as democracy and its origins in Greece, communism and its origins in the 1850s with Karl Marx, and fascism and its origins in the 1920s with Mussolini, populism doesn’t have one birth. It has had many births. The ideology itself has existed for millennia, with reports of politicians exhibiting “populist” rhetoric during the late Roman Empire [3]. The first modern version of populism began in the late 19th century, with populist movements in Russia and the United States. Both of these movements were driven by peasants who stood in opposition to the economic establishment of the day [4]. They rejected the economic status quo and saw the hierarchy as an enemy that needed to be challenged. From this, we can see populist roots in the vibrant fascist and communist movements of the 1920s and 1930s. The leaders of those movements chose scapegoats. The Russian communists picked the bourgeoisie, and the German fascists picked the Jews [5]. They preached of rising out of the ashes of immense political and economic turmoil and promised to fix everything [6]. Populism would arise later as an area of study in American academia, first in the 1950s and again in the 1980s, as a way to categorize the range of ideologies dedicated to defending the “silent majority.” 


In the election season of 2016, the political establishment was upended by a candidate with no experience, a political outsider in every sense of the word, who managed to convince millions of Americans that he was not only the best option but the only option. This candidate was Donald Trump [7]. Advocating for a policy of “America First," he rejected alliances, like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, or NATO, and American involvement on the global stage, advocating for isolationism to focus solely on the nation’s interests. He spoke of his desire to “make America great again,"  inciting racial tension and appealing to the people of the United States. On November 8th, 2016, Donald Trump won the presidency [8].


Once in power, President Trump focused on staying in power. The United States is one of the oldest democracies in the world with very strong institutions, such as the peaceful transition of power. It is built to resist populist and majoritarian erosion, but it is not immune [9]. Unable to violate institutional norms, he turned his attention to democratic norms. He used hateful rhetoric to turn opponents into enemies. He demonized entire sections of the population. His claims of voter fraud, both before and after the 2020 election, led millions to question the legitimacy of the U.S. voting system. His rhetoric and attempts at power-grabbing seemed to amount to nothing in the end, and the United States withstood the populist wave [10]. However, Republican politicians and their constituencies haven’t changed their populist tune. With a resurgent Trump in 2024, the book has not closed on American populism.


Right-wing populism is not unique to the United States. Hungary’s ruling party, Fidesz, and its party leader, Viktor Orbán, won a strong majority in the 2010 parliamentary elections, giving them a mandate to lead the people and the nation in a new direction [11]. The party was built on the policy goals of solving the job crisis, strengthening the systems of government, bringing pride back to Hungary, and keeping African and Middle Eastern immigrants out. 


Hungary does not have the same institutional norms as the United States, and Orbán has taken advantage of this. He has fired thousands of civil servants and replaced them with party members who toe the party line. He has also packed the courts with friendly judges who look the other way during Fidesz's power-grabbing and policy enforcement. His party and party allies own over 90% of the media in Hungary, essentially ending “the free press”. Fidesz has employed illegal “fake political parties” to divide up the opposition vote and has enacted laws that allow Hungarian voters to register in any district, shifting voting allegiances and securing seats that Fidesz might otherwise lose [12]. Hungary is a democracy in name only; Orbán and Fidesz’s power is secure. The swiftness of the backsliding leads to an important question: is this for the good of the people? 


Left-wing populism places far less emphasis on ethnic or group enemies but rather focuses on the economic and political elite as a threat to the common people. South America has become both a breeding ground and a testing ground for left-wing populism in recent decades. Venezuela in 1999 came under the control of Hugo Chávez, who dominated the country in a “left-populist hegemony” that promised to solve the country’s financial woes and class divides [13]. 


Running through the Fifth Republic Movement until its reorganization into the United Socialist Party of Venezuela in 2007, he aggressively utilized left-wing rhetoric to build popular support. While in office he oversaw impressive improvements, such as halving unemployment and significantly lowering extreme poverty and child malnutrition. Pensions increased, as did the number of children in school. Chavez did not hold his mandate due to fraud, but because the people loved his work. However, the entire state depended on his popularity, and his death in 2013 led to the rise of a new leader without his charm but with all of his established power.


Nicolas Maduro succeeded the revolutionary leader, and with him died not only the popularity of the party but also its effectiveness. The socialist policies faltered, inflation skyrocketed, and debt ballooned. There were shortages of food, medicine, and goods, and poverty doubled. The United Socialist Party had lost the mandate but the party clung to power, highlighting the authoritarian side of the party’s populism. They began to cancel elections, suspend opposition parties, and ban opposition candidates. They used voter fraud and the power they accumulated to keep control, and as Venezuela collapsed, the only thing to remain stable was the party in charge. 


Nations, when faced with the threat of populism, either catch the threat early on and reject it before too much damage can be done, or they can indulge in the forbidden fruit and suffer the fall. 


Populism does not exist solely to affect domestic politics. The global rise of populism will have international ramifications. NATO is an international alliance established after the Second World War, made up of 31 nations that organized to contain the Soviet Union and its allies [14]. The alliance has been called into question by populist leaders, such as former President Donald Trump who believed it would “tie [the U.S.] up and bring America down” [15]. Marine Le Pen, a former French presidential candidate and powerful French politician, believes in the idea of "French Independence,” and disentangling France from international obligations.


The belief is that alliances like NATO hinder a nation’s ability to act on its own, and because populists claim they alone can fix the problems that these multinational organizations cannot, it only makes sense to distance themselves from these groups once in power. Disillusionment with global organizations extends to organizations of all kinds, like the World Trade Organization and the World Bank, that promote a unified global approach to issues. These organizations directly challenge the authority of populists, who advocate for national sovereignty [16]. Populists will oppose organizations based on liberal democracy. They will oppose organizations with mutual defense obligations. They will oppose organizations that require a cession of power to a higher authority. If it is a threat to their authority and their ability to solely protect the people, they will oppose it.


In conclusion, populists take advantage of the democratic process and disgruntled attitudes toward the current situation to erode the liberal pillars of democracy. If given the opportunity, populist politicians will use or create political problems and social tension to create a role for themselves to fill. Populism is attractive, and people who vote for populists aren’t stupid. They are afraid, they are desperate, and they are looking for someone to care about them. Populism can happen anywhere. It has happened in the U.S., and it will happen again. The only cure for populism is a perfect system that works perfectly, and that’s not a real cure. The only vaccine: educating the people on the dangers of populism.



[1] Berman, Sheri. "The Causes of Populism in the West." Annual Review of Political Science. December 2, 2020. https://www.annualreviews.org/doi/pdf/10.1146/annurev-polisci-041719-102503.

[2] Laclau, Ernesto. “Populism: What’s in a Name?” Empire and Terror - Nationalism and Post-Nationalism in the New Millenium. 2004.

[3] Kantor, Uriel. “5 Populists of the Late Roman Republic.” The Collector. September 5, 2023.

[4] Tarragoni, Federico. “Populism, an ideology without history? A new genetic approach.” Journal of Political Ideologies. October 26, 2021.

[5] March, Luke. “From Vanguard of the Proletariat to Vox Populi: Left-populism as a ‘Shadow’
of Contemporary Socialism.” The SAIS Review of International Affairs. 2007.

[6] Agostinone-Wilson, Faith. “Fascism and Right-Wing Populism - Similarities, Differences, and New Organizational Forms.” Enough Already! A Socialist Feminist Response to the Re-emergence of Right Wing Populism and Fascism in Media. January 9th, 2020.

[7] Kazin, Michael. “Trump and American Populism - Old Whine, New Bottles.” The Power of Populism. 2016.

[8] “2016 Presidential Election Results.” The New York Times. 2016.

[9] Madrid, Raul, and Kurt Weyland. “Why US Democracy Will Survive Trump.” European and Latin American Lessons for the United States. January 11, 2019.

[10] “2020 Presidential Election Results.” The New York Times. 2020.

[11]. Than, Krisztina and Gergely Szakacs. “Fidesz wins Hungary election with strong mandate.” Reuters. April 11, 2020.

[12]. Cullen, Julianne. “Viktor Orban’s Hungary: A Democracy Backsliding.” Democratic Erosion Consortium - Boston University. April 20, 2022.

[13]. Hetland. Gabriel. “The Promise and Perils of Radical Left Populism: The Case of Venezuela.” Journal of World-Systems Research. 2018.

[14] NATO. “What is NATO?.” NATO. 2024. https://www.nato.int/nato-welcome/index.html

[15] Schrank, Phillip Gary. “The Rise of Populism and the Future of NATO.” Global Politics Review. October 2017. https://www.globalpoliticsreview.com/publications/2464-9929_v03_i02.pdf#page=53

[16] Stengel, Frank, et al. “Conclusion: Populism, Foreign Policy, and World Politics.” Populism and World Politics: Exploring Inter- and Transnational Dimensions. 2019.