We Are Asking the Wrong Questions about Populism

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The upsurge of populism in the United States and Europe has us asking the wrong questions. The issue that should concern us is not what populists have in common. The similarities between Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen or Nigel Farage are unimportant. We also should stop wondering why voters on both sides of the Atlantic are so easily beguiled by political messages that combine rejection of the “establishment” with some kind of appeal to identity politics. There has never been a shortage of voices calling for the overthrow of the elite or disgruntled voters willing to follow them, and any slogan that promises that a history of victimhood can be replaced with a future of privilege is always going to be attractive. Such mobilization against “the system” is a hardy perennial of democratic politics.

The question we should be asking is why the traditional or mainstream political parties have failed to keep the populists and their supporters on the fringes of national politics. These traditional political parties are supposed to be the gatekeepers to power. In theory, the mainstream parties control the money, they have the infrastructure, they enjoy privileged access to the media, and they select what choices will be offered to the public.  In practice, those parties seem to be imploding at every turn. That weakness or fragility demands explanation.

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