The Rise of Populism & Radicalism

A discussion of the causes of Populism and Radicalism.


In a time where the FN make the second round of the French 2017 presidential elections, Podemos are the third party in Spain and the PVV achieving second place in the Dutch 2017 general election, populism has arguably never been more relevant and the causes of this recent surge across advanced democracies are of interest to political scientists and policymakers alike. In this post I shall distinguish between populism and radicalism, arguing that whilst they go hand in hand, the definitions of the two are different. I will then attempt to identify these causes.

In defining populism, we must be careful. Is Corbyn a populist? Trump? Macron? I shall use the definition of Cas Mudde; that populism is a framework of the ‘pure people’ versus the ‘corrupt elite’ (Mudde 2004). Some might argue that it is necessary for there to be a charismatic leader, but I shall instead discuss the role of a leader later.

If the essence of populism is the tension between popular dissatisfaction with a ruling elite, then radicalism is the set of policies on the fringes of the political spectrum that are appended to the populist manifesto. For example: in Poland the populist Mr Kaczynski pushes for a catholic takeover of national institutions; in Spain the socialist populist party Podemos wish to seize unoccupied buildings from banks and redistribute them to the poor; in Holland Mr Wilders would lead a crackdown on Islam. Clearly radicalism can appear in many different forms.


“the widespread belief that the elite are only ‘in it for themselves’ creates a strong demand for populism”

In considering the causes of the rise in populism, we should split them into ‘supply’ and ‘demand’, where supply is what will enable populism to occur, such as a charismatic leader, and demand is what makes people want populism, such as economic hardship.

We might initially suggest that economic performance coupled with a decline in union membership would lead to a “climate of resentment” (Betz 1994), and so populism becomes more popular.

However, economic performance and labour union decline are not significantly correlated to an increase in populism when we control for perceived corruption (Hawkins 2010). I instead contend that populism in the west is a result of a lack of trust in political institutions, that is, the widespread belief that the elite are only ‘in it for themselves’ creates a strong demand for populism. This suggests that voters are concerned by the moral character of politics, which appears to fit with the 5-star movement’s refusal to consider entering a coalition in Italy and the success of the ‘drain the swamp’ rhetoric in the US. This theory also explains the increase of populism in less advanced democracies, such as in South America, where there is great tension as many rights and laws on paper are rather different to those experienced in everyday life. Further, the correlation between perceived corruption and populism is significant at the 2% level (Hawkins 2010).

It seems however that whilst an electorate disenfranchised with the establishment appears a necessary condition for a populist movement, it is not a sufficient one. There also exist two linked ‘supply’ conditions on populism; an active media and a charismatic leader.

An active media would appear to work hand in hand with lower education levels since this would mean citizens are susceptible to “rumour and political showmanship”, rather than engaging in meaningful debate. Television enables populist leaders to create an ‘emotional bond’ with citizens. It is the technology combined with a sensationalist personality-driven media culture that provides a necessary (some even say sufficient) condition for populism, as seen in the US in the 2016 presidential election. Thus the politicians with the most populist success should be those with the best relationship with the media, such as Berlusconi in Italy, who simply owns a large amount of Italian print and television. However, empirical evidence shows that the ‘peak’ populism happens when approximately 70% of households have a television, before dropping off, and levels of populism seem to increase with decreasing levels of press freedom (Hawkins 2010). This suggests that the media is not sufficient, even when considering education levels, to cause a successful populist movement.

However, a charismatic leader combined with a sensationalist media appears to be a far stronger cause of populism. The leader must be “media savvy” (Pasquino 2008) and seek to secure the attention of the tabloid press. This puts Haider’s remarks about Nazis and Jews, Trump’s remarks about Mexico and Fortuyn’s remarks on Islam in context, as they may be seen as deliberately provocative statements designed to grab headlines and airtime. In the Netherlands Fortuyn “brought the journalists exciting news… [and]… journalists through their own media logic [did] nothing other than stimulate the hype” (Cherribi 2003). Whilst assassination obviously shouldn’t be considered populist success, the prominence and notoriety he achieved should be. It seems therefore that whilst an active media is insufficient as a ‘supply’ condition for populism, the combination of media and charismatic and divisive leader should be seen as a factor that increases a countries propensity for a populist movement.


“populist movements have a strong electoral incentive to take a eurosceptic stance, often characterised by tough policies on immigration and asylum expressed by an ethno-centric message on the right”

There appear to be two reasons for radicalism, both centred in electoral incentives. The first concerns the whole electorate, the second concerns gender voting trends. Populist parties find themselves on the fringe of the political debate initially, and so the desire to differentiate themselves provides an incentive to oppose the EU, furthered by the fact that euroscepticism has a “government-opposition” (Sitter 2001) dynamic, which fits very well with the populist ‘anti-elite’ narrative. This leads to populist parties on the right and left being united by a shared nationalist ideology. Furthermore, left wing populist parties may turn to anti-EU radicalism due to the “perception that European integration fundamentally threatens cherished radical left goals” (Hooghe et al 2004), since the EU tends to favour more neoliberal policies. Finally, the integrationist attitude of the EU struggles in “transporting and deciding vastly different political demands” (Kaase 1987), leaving many voters feeling unrepresented by the establishment parties. Thus populist movements have a strong electoral incentive to take a eurosceptic stance, often characterised by tough policies on immigration and asylum expressed by an ethno-centric message on the right.

The second reason for an increase in radicalism is that populist parties have historically appealed far more to men than to women. The FN received 13% male vote and 9% female in the 1984 Presidential elections and 15% male and 10% female in 1993. In 1991, the Swedish New Democrats’ vote share was 62%-38% men to women and Trump had 53% approval with men versus 42% with women in exit polls (NY Times) after the recent presidential election. This support gap however narrows dramatically when more radical policies are announced. For example, when the FN rolled out its anti foreigner campaign in 1991, approval ratings were 31% amongst women and 33% amongst men. It appears that where populist parties adopt radical policies, they appeal better to both sexes, allowing them to increase their vote share. (All statistics in this paragraph apart from Trump exit polls from Betz 1994)


In conclusion, populism is caused by disillusionment with the ‘governing elite’ on the demand side, and by a combination of a sensationalist media and a charismatic leader on the supply side. Radicalism is caused by populist parties striving for votes, and so matching their ‘thin’ anti-establishment rhetoric with ‘thicker’ social policies.

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