The word populist tends to be deployed either as a term of abuse or a badge of honour. Political scientists generally define populism as a particular style of politics rather than a specific ideology. Populism may be found across the political spectrum, but is particularly correlated with the extremes of right and left. And populist parties of all hues tend to divide the political landscape into two opposing camps: a corrupt elite which manipulates power for its own ends and the pure people, whose interests populists claim to represent.
It should come as no surprise that populism is on the rise. Trumpism, Brexit and other phenomena attest to the fact, which is borne out by new research published this week showing one-third of Europeans now vote for populist far-right or far-left parties. The analysis, by more than 100 political scientists led by Matthijs Rooduijn of the University of Amsterdam, found that a record 32 per cent of European voters cast their ballots for populist and anti-establishment parties in national elections last year. This compares with 20 per cent in the early 2000s and 12 per cent in the early 1990s. Around half of those votes went to parties of the far right, the fastest-growing segment.
Supporters argue that populism is a natural reaction against an entrenched establishment which ignores the people in order to protect vested interests. Critics say that populists, when they achieve power, interpret the will of the same people by ignoring democratic norms, weakening judicial independence and disregarding minority rights.
It should be deeply concerning to everyone who values democracy that one-third of voters are now so alienated from the democratic system that they vote for parties which question the legitimacy of that system. If current trends continue, populist parties will exert an even greater influence in the years ahead. They might, as some suggest, become more moderate with proximity to power. But it is equally possible that they will inflict permanent damage on European institutions.