Populism is a term used to describe political movements or parties that have anti-establishment leanings and run on a quasi-tribalistic platform that presents a binary worldview of the âthe good and morally pure people [against] the corrupt, self-serving elite (Brett, 2013) and populism exists in both right- and left-wing politics. Despite this, I will primarily focus on right-wing populism. The two most effective lenses to analyse the causes of populism are Constructivism and Marxism; both are useful as to evaluate the threat posed by populism it is first essential to understand why it occurs. This essay argues that while populism presents a threat to the status quo in the short term as can be seen with the Brexit vote and the 2016 US presidential election, the enduring threat posed by populism to democracy itself is minimal and that populism is an inherent characteristic of democracy.
The Marxist account for understanding why populism seems to be on the ascendancy comes from Marx himself. The key to understanding the rise of a populist movement such as the UKIPBrexit party is that capitalism is inherently alienating. The alienation comes from the capitalists extracting the surplus value from the labour of the workers, and this causes dissatisfaction between those workers and the economic and political system as the more value he creates, the more worthless he becomes (Marx, 2021). Leading us to believe that populism arises from capitalism of whose main tenets are exactly what Marx called them: inhuman and alienating.(Otteson, 2012). An important premise that needs to be expressed to realise why populism could be seen as the fault of capitalism, is the demographics of who votes or supports populists. In the Brexit vote, polling data found that the poorest households, with incomes [under] Â£20,000 per year, (Goodwin and Heath, 2016) were far more likely to support leaving the EU. Other investigations into populism more broadly ruled that the populist parties in Europe represented blue collar workers and those who lost out as a result of globalisation (Wodak, Majid Khosravinik and Mral, 2013. pp15). This makes a convincing argument that it is the poorest people who are most receptive to populist rhetoric due to the Marxist concept of alienation. Though, this analysis becomes undone by one simple question, if it is the case that capitalism is to blame how come the most powerful populists are some of its most ardent supporters?
This question has some potency as Trump arguably the most famous populist is characterised as champion[ing] property and profit, and celebrat[ing]s wealth -especially his own. (Robin, 2017). So, there is a good argument to be believed that the problem is not just as simple as capitalism as the problem. The point of influential populists being pro-capitalist is also reinforced by the policy platform put forward by the Reform Party the new rebranded Brexit party. Their policies were patently pro-business owners and ardently in support of capitalism, (Reform UK, 2021). Still, one of their main policies which were to cut taxes and reduce government waste which many attributes to public sector cuts that have been shown to hurt the poorest in Britain (Aldridge and MacInnes, 2014). This means there is a conceivable argument that the support for policies and parties like Reform UK is a case of turkeys voting for Christmas, that relies on the premise of misdirected anger from capitalist alienation. However as that will result in a circular argument that does not seem to be convincingly solved, I shall move onto the Constructivist account.
The constructivist account also recognises that it seems to be that the poorest in society are the most receptive to populist rhetoric and arguments. The thesis presented by Constructivists to understand the rise of populism comes from the Silent Revolution (SR) and the Cultural Backlash Model (CBM), with both, intersect to claim that as a direct result of the socioeconomic development that occurred in western democracies after world war 2, and how these changes impacted the prevailing views in society. The SR describes how despite the rising inequality in the later 20th century period of economic growth caused a significant increase in most people's level of financial security. As a direct consequence, there was a shift in politics that eroded materialist values emphasizing economic and physical security above all, bringing a gradual rise of post-materialist values prioritizing individual free choice and self-expression. (Inglehart and Norris, 2019). The CBM argues that this rise in post-materialist issues caused a backlash as those who missed out on the economic gains were still focused on the material, and A Materialist reaction against [the increased attention put on post-materialist issues] led to the [populist parties (Inglehart and Norris, 2017). The CBM provides a convincing account as both the SR and the CBM account for another political shift that is going on as politics seems to be less determined on class especially in the UK (Curtis, 2019), and the ramifications that shift will have on left-wing parties like the UK Labour party. The constructivist account is, therefore, more convincing as, unlike the Marxist explanation its argument is not circular and has wider applications, although both give credence to the argument that socio-economic developments have caused the rise in populism.