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opinion

Andrew Hammond is an Associate at LSE IDEAS at the London School of Economics

On Tuesday, U.S. President Donald Trump welcomed Brazilian President, and fellow conservative populist, Jair Bolsonaro to the White House. The fact that these men are leading two of the most powerful democracies in the Americas underlines a broader trend, with recent research suggesting some two billion of the world’s population are now governed by populist leaders.

The bond between Mr. Trump and Mr. Bolsonaro – sometimes known as the “Trump of the Tropics” – is reinforced by the fact that they won power through similar campaign tactics, attacking multinational organizations, so-called “fake news” and immigrants. And this electoral success is itself a microcosm of a wider upending of the global political landscape shown in the Global Populism Database which is a comprehensive tracker of populist discourse.

In data released earlier this month, the international network of academics involved in the work highlights the extent of what is around a two-decade rise in populism by analyzing speeches by key leaders in 40 countries during this period. The research found that, some 20 years ago, only a handful of states – including Italy, Argentina and Venezuela – were the countries with populations of more than 20 million with leaders classified as populists.

According to the database, this then-relatively small “populist club” expanded significantly during the onset of the international crisis financial from 2006 to 2009. But it was not until the last half-decade that there has been the biggest rise in populism with the elections across the world including Mr. Bolsonaro and Mr. Trump.

To be sure, there are still some limits on the rise of populism in the last couple of decades with a significant number of countries including Canada, France and Germany not having a governmental leader that has used populist rhetoric. However, even in these cases, the share of the vote going to populist political parties has generally increased since 1998.

The research highlights that this latest two-decade wave of populism is just one of several over the past several hundred years.

What the research reveals, however, is that this latest wave of populism has cast a bigger footprint than perhaps ever before. As a result, the data indicates that some two billion people are today governed by a “somewhat/moderately populist,” “populist” or “very populist” leader, an increase from 120 million at the turn of the millennium, with the research calling out leaders such as Mexican President Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador and India’s Narendra Modi as belonging in the populist camp.

Another key finding is how shades of populism differ across the world. The study found, for instance, that South America populism leans toward socialism (albeit with Mr. Bolsonaro as a key outlier), whereas current populists in Europe tend to be right of centre.

The latter growth of populism in Europe is one of the most striking developments in the period under review. The role of economic downturn and austerity has, since the financial crisis, been key to the rise of populism here, especially in those states most affected by the euro-zone crisis such as Greece and Spain.

Unrest, however, has also tapped into pre-existing disquiet with established European political parties and systems. And also a broader range of economic, political, social and technological factors have also driven unrest across much of the rest of the world, too.

Looking to the future and potential further growth of populism, one key question is whether this international political instability will tail off in coming years, especially if economic recovery continues to take hold in much of the world.

While this is possible, protest and uprising is likely to continue for at least two sets of reasons. Firstly, there are some factors completely unrelated to the financial crisis that will endure, if not intensify. This includes the disruptive role of social media.

There remains debate about how instrumental social media has been in fomenting political instability in recent years. However, whether one sees this new technology as an essential component that translated discontent into concrete action, or accentuated what was already inevitable, indisputably it has played an enabling role that will likely grow.

Secondly, even though the worst of the international financial crisis has now passed, its consequences endure, especially for the young people who remain unemployed. This puts at risk of long-term damage to earnings potential and job prospects, fuelling discontent.

In the EU, for instance, a relatively high number of people under 25 are still unable to find work. This has given rise to concern, including German Chancellor Angela Merkel about a “lost generation,” especially in states such as Greece and Spain where youth unemployment peaked at almost 60 per cent.

Taken over all, it cannot be assumed that the rise of populism has peaked. Two billion might be a large number, but it could grow even larger in the years to come.