The Populist Explosion: Understanding the History and Origins of a Global Trend

May 4, 2017

Populism – what is it, and when does it emerge? Populism is a political strategy built upon a contrast between the people and a governing elite. Populist leaders often emerge during periods of prolonged social discontent, offering alternatives to a dominant elite that is viewed as no longer delivering on its promises. The United States has a long history of populist politics and politicians – from William Jennings Bryan, in the 1890s, to Ross Perot and Pat Buchanan, in the 1990s.

Today, the disruptive forces of globalization, technological change, and growing inequality have contributed to the rise of populist politics around the world. Through their calls for national renewal and appeals to citizens’ discontents, outsider politicians have successfully challenged the prevailing policies and institutions of numerous countries. Whether these challenges will catalyze reform and revitalize social systems or result in the demonization of select social groups remains to be seen.