Populism. If you listen to the mainstream media, you’ll know two things about populism. One, it’s on the rise after sweeping through the United States and making its way to Europe. Two, it’s evil and is single-handedly destroying democracy as we know it.
However, the situation, as with many things, is far more nuanced than is let on by the media. As is the case with the word ‘conservative,’ populism has become a tainted word. Almost an insult, used to belittle political opponents. So what does it actually mean? Is populism the end of days, or is it merely the result of democracy functioning as it was intended to?
According to the Oxford English Dictionary ‘populism’ is defined as: “A political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”
The key tenet of populism is that ‘ordinary people’ hold the power. Their concerns are listened to and acted on. We see this in action with populism’s darling, President Donald Trump. Behind the late-night tweets and the attention-grabbing one-liners, President Trump is doing exactly what any populist should do; meeting people and addressing their concerns, the ‘ordinary people’ as described by populism’s definition.
During the course of his campaign, President Trump held three hundred and twenty-three rallies. While Clinton was attending fundraisers, Trump travelled the country. He spoke with people, and he listened. He heard their stories, their concerns, their wishes and he built a campaign around them. A campaign which ultimately won him the Presidency. Whether you like Trump, hate Trump or are somewhere in-between, it is hard to argue that he has time only for himself and not for others.
There is no doubt that President Trump is a populist. He fits the definition perfectly. The question we are now left with is: should we listen to the media and fear those who are populists? Are they a threat to the very concept of democracy? The short answer is no.
Even the definition of populism shows that it is not something that should be feared. Populism merely claims to listen to cries of the ordinary man. It is not radical in any sense of the word and it is certainly not democracy’s cause of death. In fact, populism shares much in common with our understanding of the term ‘democracy.’ Something that is regularly overlooked by the media.
Many people associate ‘popular power’ with democracy. The idea that the majority controls the country. The term democracy originated from two Greek words, ‘Demos’ meaning the whole citizen body or lower people, and ’Kratos’ meaning power or rule. It is for this reason that populism is associated with democracy. True democracy. Where the feelings of the masses are heard, not overlooked.
By all accounts, populism is growing very quickly throughout Europe. The ordinary people have become tired of being ignored and pushed to the side of political discourse. They feel excluded. In their exclusion from the mainstream, the people turn to the parties that listen to them. That share their fears. The rise of the Alternative für Deutschland in Germany, the Freedom Party in Austria and the populist coalition of Lega & the Five Star Movement in Italy is a testament to that.
The European elections in 2019 set the stage for populist takeover. The media and the establishment elites will certainly do their best to paint these parties negatively, perhaps as racists or Nazis. But quite obviously this simply isn’t the case. Ordinary people are taking back control of their countries. They want to be heard, they want to be listened to. Democracy isn’t dying, it’s flourishing.
Populism isn’t destroying democracy. It is democracy.