The Populist Explosion
How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics
reviewed by Jon Duelfer
Within the past decade in the United States, there has emerged a number of candidates and movements that don’t fit the mold of traditional politics.
On the Right, the Tea Party built a following. They paved the way for Donald Trump, who managed to galvanize support among wildly different groups: evangelical Christians, Rightwing nationalists, traditional conservatives, and working-class voters in typically blue states. Similar politicians, like Ted Cruz, seem to be following suit.
On the Left emerged Occupy Wall Street, Bernie Sanders, and a greater movement of democratic socialism. As Sanders’s presidential bid becomes history, politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Illan Omar, and to some extent, Elizabeth Warren, will take the reigns going forwards.
Although these movements on the Left have not wielded as much power and influence as their Republican counterparts in American politics, southern European politics tells a different story. Greece’s Syriza and Spain’s Podemos movements made unprecedented wins in their countries’ parliamentary systems.
But as Syriza and Podemos both came to power on a surge of support, they eventually lost that support while in government. The same could be said of Donald Trump in the United States – his movement could not sustain itself while in power.
What has made these movements so revolutionary, so able to captivate huge portions of voters, but then fail to retain support when in power?
In The Populist Explosion: How the Great Recession Transformed American and European Politics, John B. Judis argues that these candidates and movements employed a form of logic called populism. This logic can be summed up simply: it pits “the people” against a ruling-class “elite.”
They promise to “drain the swamp” or “tax the billionaire class.” They posit that “elites” are the cause of our discontent. If the “will of the people” were not neglected by the ruling-class, we could achieve progress and prosperity.
This rhetoric looks to unite people across traditional barriers of class, race, or ethnicity to unite against an elite that harms the general good. It is a powerful when in opposition to an existing government, but populists can lose strength as they assume power and become part of the “elite” that they promised to take down.
The Populist Explosion is a spectacular book. Keeping it to only 160 pages, Judis had made every word count. It is clear he dedicated his time to distilling the history of modern populism, and the possible futures it may take, into a very concise and readable format.
The book is arguably about much more than populism. It’s about understanding the most influential movements in modern politics and what the next decade might have in store for us. If this interests you, I would also recommend Jason Stanley’s How Propaganda Works, which is more dry and philosophical, but may help compare and contrast populism to more well-known ideological movements.
This book is about how these populist candidates and movements have come about, and why in the wake of the Great Recession, they have proven so successful in mobilizing support.
What Is Populism?
Although we might want to classify populism within a set of political ideologies – socialism, capitalism, libertarianism, communism, etc. – Judis argues that “it is not an ideology, but a political logic.” He quotes Michael Kazim in The Populist Persuasion:
“[Populism is] a language whose speakers conceive of ordinary people as a noble assemblage, not bounded narrowly by class; view their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic; and seek to mobilize the former against the latter.”
It can permeate almost any ideology across the political spectrum, but is most effective when toggling the angst and deception that people feel against the prevailing system. Demands are framed as what the “elite” don’t want, but what “the people” actually want.
Even though Left and Rightwing forms of populism share a similar logic, they surface differently when applied to the real world.
Leftwing populists champion the people against an elite or an establishment. Theirs is a vertical politics of the bottom and middle arrayed against the top. Rightwing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of coddling a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or Africa American militants. Leftwing populism is dyadic. Rightwing populism is triadic. It looks upward, but also down upon an out group.
When a candidate comes from a background that isn’t mainstream politics – a TV celebrity or a self-proclaimed democratic socialist from an independent party – accusing the system of being rigged by a bunch of “elites” against “the people” goes a long way.
Judis warns these methods “function as warning signs of a political crisis.” Reviewing this in early 2021, after Trump lost reelection by a landslide, repeated baseless claims of voter fraud, and incited a riot on the capitol building, it is hard to argue with Judis’s warning.
They signal that the prevailing political ideology isn’t working and needs repair, and the standard worldview is breaking down.
It’s important to note that Judis does not attempt to moralize. The Populist Explosion is a crisp and concise book, and it was good of him to stick to his core arguments.
For the rest of us, we can all agree that the emergence of these candidates is a warning sign, but we will differ on whether it is a good or bad one. Mainstream politics brought the United States into wars across Asia, South America, and the Middle East that the majority of the American people opposed.
Populism is not something that should be stomped out and replaced with the way-things-were, but seen as an indication that people don’t feel the current system represents their needs. We should be wary of populism as a solution to our answers, as we should any ideology, but its presence indicates a real breakdown in the prevailing system.
As I get the chance, I will dive more deeply into each chapter of this book and update links below. This post covers the introduction – What Is Populism, and Why Is It Important? – as well as some concepts touched on throughout the book. Here are the rest of the chapters:
- The Logic of American Populism: From the People’s Party to George Wallace
- Neoliberalism and Its Enemies: Perot, Buchanan, the Tea Party, and Occupy Wall Street
- The Silent Majority and the Political Revolution: Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders
- The Rise of European Populism
- The Limits of Leftwing Populism: Syriza and Podemos
- Rightwing Populism on the March in Northern Europe
The Populist Explosion is one of the most insightful books I have read in awhile. Judis articulates the political trends we have been witnessing in recent years with an unbelievable clarity.
I was a byproduct of the Great Recession, as I’m sure many people reading this review were as well. My mother lost her job and my father picked up two to make ends meet. I lent some of my earnings from my own two jobs – in a grocery store and a restaurant – when things got especially tight.
And we were reasonably well-off. We knew people who lost everything – their jobs, their cars, who couldn’t pay their mortgages. We, and the people around us, felt that the system was failing us, stripping away whatever prosperity we thought we achieved.
Populist movements do not focus merely on the poor or working-class. They combine the poor, working-class, middle America, and business owners who feel they have all been given the short end of a stick at the expense of a wealthy and prosperous elite.
The importance of Judis’s work is to teach us not to fall prey to populist rhetoric on either side of the isle. Taxing billionaires and shuffling up the political class are honorable pursuits. They would certainly help distribute wealth and more accurately represent the ordinary American in government.
But “elites” are not the end of all our discontents. They are a step we must fix in the long struggle to making our society more just and fair. Populism will be a powerful tool in the decade to come, but we must grasp how it works in order to understand and follow the movements that will lead us to a better society.