The Case for Populism

Trump was just the tip of the iceberg. Since his election in 2016, populism has blazed a disquieting trail across Europe, North America and around the world. While many of these movements are marred by racist and nationalistic rhetoric, they also represent a grassroots effort to challenge the political status quo. In this public debate, presented by the Battle of Ideas festival in London, England, a panel argues over whether this new era of political disruption should be embraced, rather than feared.
Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban. Many of Orban's policies, like his hardline stance on immigration, are overtly far-right. But Orban has also employed several policies, including free childhood education, that would be difficult to define as anything but progressive. (Reuters/Bernadett Szabo)

Once relegated to the political fringes, political populism has exploded across the world in recent years. Most of the populist leaders who have emerged so far — figures like Matteo Salvini and Marine Le Pen — have been defined, in part, by their xenophobic rhetoric. Some populist parties, like the Sweden Democrats, even have roots in Neo-Nazism.

But what if ultra-nationalism and xenophobia aren't necessarily a part of populism's DNA? What if populism is actually a logical, if at times convoluted, response to decades of frustration with our democratic institutions? 

Political scientist Matthew Goodwin thinks it is. Contrary to the belief held by many "progressive" intellectuals, Goodwin argues populism is not simply an attempt by a generation of older, white men to cling to their social and political power.

Instead, he argues that the rise of populism is the result of a citizenry who are thoroughly disenfranchised with traditional political ideologies, on both the left and the right.

Across the European Union, one in two people now say they have no voice within their political systems. And there's a long tradition of that within liberal democracy. But it is now reaching such heights that it's no mystery as to why many voters are turning to national populist parties.- Matthew Goodwin

Most of these populist movements cannot be classified neatly under an existing political framework. They often advocate for radical Keynesian economics but social and cultural conservatism.

Sociologist Frank Furedi points to Viktor Orban's Hungary as an example of this type of ideological paradox. Many of Orban's policies, like his hardline stance on immigration, are overtly far-right. But Furedi notes that Orban has also employed several policies, including free childhood education, that would be difficult to define as anything but progressive.

Dr. Eliane Glaser agrees that the political establishment has failed to address the public's needs, but refutes the notion that populism offers an effective means of recourse against the status quo. She contends that far-right populists, like Steve Bannon, have scapegoated "liberal elites", while those with real economic and political power have retained their influence.

I think what's happened is that the right have set off a grand conflict between the so-called left behind and the cosmopolitan middle class left, keeping the real powers of finance, and big powers, and the concentration of wealth, in the background.- Eliane Glaser

Matthew Goodwin explains: "So now the ball is back in the court of the liberal left... How do you convince people to get back on the train? That's going to be a much harder battle because when I look at Social Democrats and the left across Europe, I don't see anything close to a meaningful reply. I just see historic losses."   

In this episode, we present a panel discussion from The Battle of Ideas Festival. Matthew Goodwin, Dr. Eliane Glaser, Frank Furedi and MP Stephen Kinnock debate the potential upsides of populism. The event was held at the Barbican Centre in London, England.

Guests in this episode:

  • Matthew Goodwin is a professor of political science and senior fellow at Chatham House. He is the author of six books, including National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy.
  • Dr. Eliane Glaser is an author, radio producer and lecturer at Bath Spa University. Her most recent book is Anti-Politics: On The Demonization of Ideology, Authority, and the State.
  • Frank Furedi is a sociologist and social commentator. His most recent book is How Fear Works: Culture of Fear in the 21st Century. 
  • Stephen Kinnock is the Labour Party MP for Aberavon, Wales. He is the co-editor of Spirit of Britain, Purpose of Labour: Building a Whole Nation Politics to Reunite our Divided Country.

**This episode was produced by Mitch Stuart.


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