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Why populism might not be the devil

Why populism might not be the devil you think it is


Populism is the word du jour amongst keen observers of politics, with many pundits warning of its dangers. Impact caught up with political scientist Dr Benjamin Moffitt, who argues that while populism can get ugly, the phenomenon does have its positives.

If you have even the slightest interest in politics, you’ve heard about the rise of populist politicians taking power all over the world. 

Pitting the virtuous ‘people’ against the crooked ‘elite’, populist movements have come to prominence in Europe, Latin America, Asia and even Australia, often promoting division and unrest. 

In 2017, Pope Francis warned against this populist tide in an interview with Spain’s El Pais, and the Cambridge Dictionary announced ‘populism’ as its word of the year.

But the major shift came a year earlier, with the Brexit vote and the rise of Donald Trump signalling the phenomenon was here to stay. 

“If you had to sum up 2016 in one word, you might choose ‘populism’,” wrote The Washington Post’s Adam Taylor, adding that the word had moved “out of the academic halls of political science departments” and into the mainstream. 

In Australia, the year marked the surprise return of far-right populist Pauline Hanson, who resurrected her political career after a dramatic downfall in the late 1990s. 

While Hanson was riding the populist wave to re-election, Dr Benjamin Moffitt was putting the finishing touches on his book The Global Rise of Populism, which proposed a new way of viewing the much-studied phenomenon. 

The unstoppable surge

Populism is nothing new. It goes way back to the 1890s and the progressive People’s Party (aka ‘the Populists’) of the United States. 

The recent surge in populism was not completely unforseen, but its acceleration has been remarkably rapid. 

What was once seen as “a fringe phenomenon relegated to another era or only certain parts of the world” has quickly spread across the globe, said Dr Moffitt, a senior lecturer in politics at ACU.

In conducting research for his book, he analysed 28 populist leaders and found that while they often had little in common in policy terms, they were bound by three stylistic features. 

Firstly, populists appeal to an ideal that pits ‘the people’ against ‘the elite’. 

“The ‘people’ in populism are always those who should have the power and who should hold sovereignty in society, they are pure and good and hardworking,” Dr Moffitt said. “The ‘elite’ are those who have stolen the power from the ‘people’, they collude with one another in order to keep the power for themselves.” 

The second feature of populist leaders is the use of ‘bad manners’ that are ‘unbecoming’ of politicians. Think of Donald Trump’s bullying and crass language or Pauline Hanson’s much-condemned burqa stunt

This unconventional behaviour helps populists to put distance between themselves and mainstream politicians. 

“They don’t give a rat’s behind how politicians ‘should’ act,” Dr Moffitt said. “It shows that they're not boring, straight-laced, run-of-the-mill politicians, and that they’re closer to the people.” 

Thirdly, populists from across the political spectrum seek to evoke a sense of crisis, breakdown or threat. 

Left-populists like Bernie Sanders might warn that “casino capitalism” is a threat to the lives of working class Americans, while far-right populists like Pauline Hanson might caution that Australia is being “swamped by Muslims”.

Populists don't appear suddenly after a crisis occurring; rather, they play a key role in perpetuating and exploiting crises.  

“This sense of doom allows populists to present themselves as having the guts to call it out and provide a solution to the crisis or threat,” Dr Moffitt said, adding that modern-day populists had used this device to great effect “in an era where it seems that we pinball from crisis to crisis”. 

Funnelling frustration

Dr Moffitt believes the primary reason for the upsurge in populist movements is a widespread frustration with the status quo. 

Mainstream politicians of all stripes are “on the nose”, paving the way for populists to emerge as outsiders who will vouch for the underdog.

Trump makes america great again rally

Even those who are clearly members of the elite, like America’s Trump or Italy’s Silvio Berlusconi, can fashion a view of themselves as the champion of the people. 

“Trump is so clearly of the elite, he's a businessman with a rich upbringing, he has a golden bathroom and he's nothing like actual people, but when in power, the things that populists do to get around this dilemma is to promote this idea that they're not really in power,” Dr Moffitt said. 

“Trump argues there’s a deep state conspiracy against him, he says the ‘fake news media’ is corrupt and out to get him, so he can still come across as the underdog who represents the people, even though he's actually in the most powerful position a human being could be in.” 

Social media has proven a useful tool for modern-day populists, enabling them to amplify a sense of connection and intimacy with their followers. 

“I can go and tweet to any populist politician right now and in theory they can respond directly to me, and so the perception is that there’s a conversation going on and these leaders are in touch with the people,” Dr Moffitt said. 

Meanwhile, the antagonism that’s common on social media suits the combative “us versus them” divide promoted by populists. President Trump, who regularly uses Twitter to attack his critics, credits the platform with his electoral success.  

“I doubt I would be here if weren’t for social media, to be honest with you, because … I have a tremendous platform,” the President said.

“When somebody says something about me, I am able to go ‘bing, bing, bing’ and I take care of it. The other way, I would never get the word out.”

The good and the bad 

There is no doubt that populism has a volatile nature. At its worst, it can ignite exclusion and scapegoating.

Its rise has stoked dismay amongst large sections of global society, who often credit it with authoritarianism and overt nationalism and denigrate supporters of populists as misguided and uneducated.   

“When populism is mentioned, figures linked with anti-immigrant sentiment or xenophobia like Pauline Hanson come to mind, and that’s the type of populism that worries people,” Dr Moffitt said. 

“They're not worried about populists saying the elite is corrupt, because a lot of people agree with that. What really worries them about populists is their punching down at minorities, of migrants and refugees, of people with different sexual identities and so on, and I think a lot of that has less to do with the populist characteristics of these parties and more to do with their extreme nationalism and nativism.”

The emergence of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, the Syriza government in Greece and Podemos in Spain represent a movement towards left-wing populism in the UK and Europe, which has previously been dominated by radical right populists. This has led many naysayers of populism to reconsider their position.

Populism not the devil

In an article on The Conversation, Dr Moffitt wrote that those who feared the worst needed to face the fact that populism “is not an aberration, but rather a central part of contemporary democratic politics”. 

“It’s time to drop the ‘tut-tutting’, the shaking of heads in disbelief and the disapproval of those who vote for such characters,” he wrote. “This smacks of dangerous anti-democratic elitism”. 

Despite its dangers, Dr Moffitt said populism had the potential to bring those who’ve become alienated from politics back into the conversation. 

“There are lots of people who are so fed up with politics, they think it's boring, they think it's disconnected from reality, and I think populists speak to that alienation,” he said. 

“I may not agree with the way a person votes, but I think it’s important in democracy that people feel involved, that they give a crap and think their vote matters, and when populists engage people who don’t necessarily feel part of the democratic process, I think that’s a worthy contribution.”

Dr Benjamin Moffitt is a senior lecturer in politics at ACU’s Melbourne Campus. He was named as one of the ABC’s top five humanities and social science researchers and was recently awarded a three-year Discovery Early Career Researcher Award for a project entitled The Visual Politics of Populism.

Dr Benjamin Moffitt


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Impact brings you compelling stories, inspiring research, and big ideas from ACU. It's about the impact we’re having on our communities, and our Mission in action. It’s a practical resource for career, life and study.

At ACU it’s education, but not as you know it. We stand up for people in need, and causes that matter.

If you have a story idea or just want to say hello, do contact us.

Copyright@ Australian Catholic University 1998-2019 | ABN 15 050 192 660 CRICOS Reg: 00004G