Global Populism through the European Lens

In a provocative new essay entitled “The Myth of Global Populism,” David Art argues that

Nativism—not populism—is the defining feature of both radical right parties in Western Europe and of radical right politicians like Donald Trump in the United States. The tide of “left-wing populism” in Europe receded quickly, as did its promise of returning power to the people through online voting and policy deliberation. The erosion of democracy in states like Hungary has not been the result of populism, but rather of the deliberate practice of competitive authoritarianism. Calling these disparate phenomena “populist” obscures their core features and mistakenly attaches normatively redeeming qualities to nativists and authoritarians.

This is a strong argument that directly targets one of the key intellectual projects of the 2010s: the analysis of the contemporary wave of populism sweeping the globe, and the supposed relationship between populism and democratic decline.

The argument also reveals the continuing European bias in the way that contemporary political scientists can imagine a “global” analysis. This critical engagement with a wide range of supposed populist movements and politicians mentions precisely zero cases from Asia. No mention of Narendra Modi or Joko Widodo, both of whom are frequently analyzed (rightly or not) as populists. No mention of former ruling populists like Thaksin Shinawatra or Junichiro Koizumi. No mention of Rodrigo Duterte.

I just named the heads of government for five of the world’s top twenty most populous countries, including two of the top four. In what sense can we demolish a “global myth” without addressing Indian, Indonesian, Japanese, Philippine, and Thai populisms?

Let me make this point clear by imagining the alternative. Consider an essay criticizing the use of populism that focuses on the Asian cases, with a couple of nods to the Latin American literature as well. Would you tolerate calling that essay “The Myth of Global Populism?” Even if it were an otherwise accurate critique?*

But this observation goes deeper than a complaint about this essay’s title. The fundamental problem with studying global populism by studying only Europe and the United States is that it truncates the sample. Specifically:

  1. if you focus on successful and enduring populists in Europe, you will observe only right-wing anti-immigrant and anti-minority populists.
  2. As a result, you can produce a very compelling argument that the essence of populism is some kind of nativism.
  3. But if populism of the inclusionary sort, or of a form that does not map neatly onto a left/right divide, or that does not degenerate into competitive authoritarianism, emerges and endures in other world regions, then it will not follow that global populism is essentially nativist or authoritarian.

Art recognizes several examples of inclusionary populism in Latin America, but does not see them as challenges to his argument. Rather, he cites the empirical association between inclusionary populism and competitive authoritarianism in Latin America. This suggests, indirectly, that these too are best analyzed as competitive authoritarian. Yet there is only one (insubstantial) mention of Bolivia and no mention at all of Argentina. These are exactly the hard cases that would provide the most critical insights for an analysis of nativism, competitive authoritarianism, and global populism.

In “Migrants, Minorities, and Populism in Southeast Asia,” I take up the case of populism in Southeast Asia, which I show is not essentially nativist. In “Southeast Asia: Voting Against Disorder,” I analyze the specific threats that some of these politicians pose to liberal democracy in the region; their politics “may … be a pathway to competitive authoritarianism” but are not equivalent. Broadening the analysis of global populism to include the entire globe reveals how limiting a European-only perspective on populism is.


* I think it’s entirely reasonable to reject the term “populist” to describe Modi, for example. He is a nativist, of a particular sort. I also find the practice of describing Japanese PMs like Koizumi as populist to be a bit of a conceptual stretch. But in any case, Japanese PMs are not nativists in the style of the European nativists, nor are they authoritarians in the actual style of Orbán or the aspirational style of Duda.