What’s the Story with ‘Populism’?

We all think of democracy as the best system. What else is there? A dictatorship? Make Michael D. Higgins the ‘High King of Ireland’? (That would be pretty cool). It’s really the only option out there at the moment. But democracy does have its pitfalls.

In a democracy, the people decide how their country is led by electing people who will represent them best. A simple idea, the most popular way in the world to run a country. But within democracies ‘populism’ is popping up all over the West. The media constantly use it, politicians slag each other off by saying it, and you can’t talk about Trump without it. But what exactly is it?

Populism is the act of trying to use the will of the people to a political end. Put simply, populism is politicians running on a platform of what the people want, and the people voting for them. Populism might be said to be democracy at it’s purest. The battle between the corrupt elite and the ordinary decent people. The 99% vs the 1%.

The Good

It’s a bad idea to assume populism is always a bad thing. Assuming is generally bad, so let’s not.

Populism has actually worked. The Argentinian populist movement of the 1950’s ushered in several welfare reforms, and helped overthrow a dictatorship. The populist governments of Theodore Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt are considered some of the greatest US presidents in history.

Bernie Sander’s campaign in the Democratic Party primaries was populist as well, this time as a socialist, focusing on healthcare and education reform. Bernie was a sound populist. He tapped into the inequality in the US, and his policies were all based around reason and fact. But that’s rarely ever the case. A lot of his supporters jumped on the Trump bandwagon after he lost the primaries.

The Bad

Trump aside, Berlesconi (the quintessential ‘lad’) and Maggie Thatcher have been labelled populist, but I’m pretty sure shafting the miners wasn’t what the people wanted.

Closer to home and the Healy-Raes down in Kerry are about as populist as it gets. Taking the taxes from the lads up in Dublin to fix the pothole in your driveway. They represent the “the plain people who eat their dinner in the middle of the day”. But they also believe that Noah’s Ark is enough evidence to dismiss climate change. Populism is shit sometimes, and we do it too.

The Ugly

The Leave campaign during the Brexit referendum ran a populist campaign focusing on issues like immigration, funding of the health service, and strengthening of British sovereignty. There was a large amount of dismissal of what some considered elitist facts – the infamous “sick of experts” slogan attests to this. But sure don’t we have ‘alternative’ facts now?

Trump used populist rhetoric throughout his campaign. The targeting of  white middle-class Americans with the ‘They took our jobs!’ narrative ultimately lead him to victory. Trump’s campaign is a branch of populism known as demagogy: the exploitation of prejudice and ignorance to achieve political success.

Any system which relies on a public vote opens up the possibility of the public being exploited. But any system which does not factor in the people’s vote isn’t great either. Populism is not an inherently bad thing, but can result in people voting against their own interests. See below…


When voting use your brain. Look at all the facts. Examine both sides of an argument and decide after that. Think about the consequences. Don’t be like Nicole.

By Andrew Connolly & Ciaran Boyle

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