What is populism, and what does the term actually mean?

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What is populism, and what does the term actually mean?

What do Donald Trump, Jeremy Corbyn, and Rodrigo Duterte have in common?

Despite their differences, each man has been labelled a populist.

Populism is on the rise – especially among Europe’s right, and in the US, where it helped crown Mr Trump.

Italy’s populist Five Star Movement and anti-immigrant League parties have emerged as two major players in the latest elections – the most recent of several such results in Europe.

But there’s a difference between being popular and being populist.

The pure people

In political science, populism is the idea that society is separated into two groups at odds with one another – “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”, according to Cas Mudde, author of Populism: A Very Short Introduction.

The term is often used as a kind of shorthand political insult. Britain’s Labour leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has been accused of populism over his party’s slogan “for the many, not the few” – but that’s not quite the same thing.

The word “is generally misused, especially in a European context,” according to Benjamin Moffitt, author of The Global Rise of Populism.

The true populist leader claims to represent the unified “will of the people”. He stands in opposition to an enemy, often embodied by the current system – aiming to “drain the swamp” or tackle the “liberal elite”.

“It generally attaches itself to the right in a European context… but that’s not an iron rule,” Dr Moffitt said.


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