Many people see populists as something negative; however, they have been around since the early days of democracy in Ancient Greece. They fulfill an important function in any democracy because they refresh the parliament or Congress and the political parties. They bring in new voters and disenfranchised people who would otherwise not engage in democratic elections and the political process.
Wikipedia defines populism as the political philosophy and movement around it that is supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggles against the privileged elite. In today’s world, populism is driven by the economic decline of the middle class based on globalization, technological revolution and a sense losing of sovereignty (often over immigration policies and open borders as with Brexit) paired with the fear of no longer being heard by politicians. While national populists can divide societies, damage relations between states and, in the worst case, lead to less individual freedom or dictatorship, this is only true in underdeveloped democracies like Turkey.
The United States has a long tradition of populist movements on both sides of the aisle. The latest examples were the Tea Party movement and the Occupy Wall Street movement, before that it was Ross Perot and his Reform Party. Donald Trump was also part of the Reform Party in 2000, and his program now looks more Reform Party than Republican Party.
Here are ten ways in which populists in mature democracies can have a positive impact on democracy in a mature democracy like the United States:
- They stoke interest and involvement in politics.
- They create more civic consciousness because people from normally less-engaged demographics, such as young people, see that some of the proposals could impact their lives.
- People engage in politics more holistically, not just with their brains but also with their emotions. Populists force other politicians to become more empathetic to the concerns and topics of voters they previously neglected on a purely rational basis.
- Disenfranchised citizens who never felt that any traditional politician cared about them get motivated to engage.
- More legal immigrants will try to naturalize because they are now motivated to have their voices heard, increasing national unity.
- People who feel frustrated and angry with politics have an outlet for their anger and frustration that can be used productively in democratic process. In some cases, those voices and people would otherwise have been captured by more extreme groups outside the democratic process or would have resorted to violence.
- Populism leads to more diversity of opinions in the political arena, and there are fewer taboos around some topics (e.g., illegal immigration or the negative side of international trade).
- More people directly engage with populists on social media or at rallies because they feel a stronger connection to populists; they feel somebody cares about them at last.
- Populists help remove bias in news media because news outlets have to report what they are saying in order to get ratings and simplify the language. This prevents politicians from hiding behind complex language and formalities.
- Populists bring together people who would otherwise never join forces, which help unify a country.
Populists will thrive as long as the middle class feels under pressure and/or is shrinking. Commonsense politics, economic opportunity, a strong political vision and real help for the middle class make populism unnecessary. Populism is a natural force that forces leaders that behave like kings to reconnect with their people.
Bernhard Klee is the author of “The United States of Trump: An Independent Guide to the Trump Phenomenon and the General Election.”