What Is Populism and How to Mitigate It?

Author: A. A. Gede Basawantara

The 2016 US Presidential Election, Brexit, and Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen

Ever wonder how politicians like Donald Trump gain supporters? In ways that seem unusual, Donald Trump is widely known for his controversial presidential campaign, mainly his racist attitude. Yet, why are there people that still voted for him? Scholars called this phenomenon as ‘Populism’. Traced back since as early as Julius Caesar, populism, as according to Ganon et al. (2018), is defined as “…[T]he invocation of “the people” who are betrayed, wronged, or otherwise left vulnerable to forces outside their control.”

Based on the aforementioned definition, populism has several main traits. First, populism involves a homogenous group of people that feel “angry” and “resented” by the government. Second, populism is “… typically a reaction to a deep crisis, real or perceived.” These crises include economic crises (i.e. financial crisis, job losses), security crises (i.e. terrorism, climate change), and sovereignty crises (i.e. immigration). Finally, populism is typically an instrument of politics in a form of identity politics – where populists raise the notion of The Pure People vs. The Corrupt Elites.

In order to visualize these traits, let us take a look at a character from the Game of Thrones series, Daenerys Stormborn of House Targaryen, the First of Her Name, Queen of the Andals and the First Men, Protector of the Seven Kingdoms, the Mother of Dragons, the Khaleesi of the Great Grass Sea, the Unburnt, the Breaker of Chains. After witnessing the horrific condition of the people in the Slaver’s Bay, the Dragon Queen pledged herself to liberate all slaves in the area; encouraging them to stand against their ‘corrupt elites’, toppling down the elites, taking power, ruling over cities, and promoting “No More Slaves” notion. Similarly, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign promotes how the people should rise against the corrupt political elites while simultaneously taking advantage of his supporters’ emotions that are against immigrants, promoting “Make America Great Again” notion.

With that being said, does populism always come like that? Müller (2016) and Gagnon et al. argues that there are two types of populism, which are Right Populism – imbued with emotions, addressing crises through acts of racism, xenophobia, neonationalism, and sexism – and Left Populism – focuses on protecting democracy, upholding egalitarianism, and open to immigration. A very vivid example of these types of populism are Donald Trump – whose behavior depicts a Right-wing populist – and Bernie Sanders – whose behavior depicts Left-wing populist. However, Gagnon et al. (2018) disagree that populists can only be categorized into two polar. Gagnon et al. offer six cleavages in order to analyze a populist more comprehensively, which are: (1) Authoritarian vs. Democratic; (2) Market Fundamentalist vs. Redistributive; (3) Exclusionary vs. Inclusionary; (4) Xenophobic vs. Cosmopolitan; (5) Electoral vs. Participatory; and (6) Nostalgic vs. Aspirational. Through this, Gagnon et al. argue that even though Trump and Sanders are respectively authoritarian and democratic populists, both of them are also electoral populists (gain power in the government through the vote of the people).

Then, what are the impacts of populism? Let us take the case of Brexit as an example. In 2016, around 51 percent of population in the United Kingdom (UK) voted to leave the European Union (EU), mainly due to the voters’ resentment of immigrants in the UK. This phenomenon sparks the rise of racially-motivated crimes in the UK, reaching up to 70,000 reports in 2017-2018. Consequently, Brexit has resulted in the decline in the UK’s GDP by 2% in the first quarter of 2019 and has created uncertainty towards its international partners.

How do we mitigate populism? Cas Mudde and Antonio Argandoña offer several ideas to mitigate the issues caused by populism. First, political parties (established and emerging) should seek to propose inclusive visions and programs that deliver benefits for all citizens, not only for a part of the voters. Second, social media should be regulated and held accountable for damaging a pluralistic, fact-based and hate-free political debate, in the same way as traditional media. Third, participatory and deliberative platforms and initiatives (citizens’ assemblies, juries, forums) should be embedded into the decision-making processes to balance the oligarchic tendencies of electoral democracy. This could help to minimize a government to be out-of-reach and the people to feel being resented by the government. Finally, revising macroeconomic, taxation, industrial and commercial policies – for policies that are seem to create inequality among the people.
As the cherry on top, one question remains: is populism good or bad? We leave that for you to decide.


Mietzner, Marcus. Reinventing Asian Populism: Jokowi’s Rise Democracy, and Political Contestation in Indonesia. Honolulu: East-West Center, 2015
Müller, Jan-Werner. What is Populism?. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016

Argandoña, Antonio. “Why Populism Is Rising And How To Combat It”, Forbes, January 24, 2017. Accessed July 10, 2019, https://www.forbes.com/sites/iese/2017/01/24/why-populism-is-rising-and-how-to-combat-it/#629301491d44
Gagnon, Jean-Paul, Emily Beausoleil, Kyong-Min Son, Cleve Arguelles, Pierrick Chalaye, Callum N. Johnston. “What is Populism? Who is the Populist?” Democratic Theory 5, no. 2 (2018)

Mudde, Cas. “How Can Liberals Defeat Populism? Here are Four Ideas.” The Guardian, February 13, 2018. Accessed July 10, 2019, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/feb/13/liberals-populism-world-forum-democracy-5-ideas
“Brexit ‘Major Influence’ in Racism and Hate Crime Rise.” BBC, June 20, 2019. Accessed July 10, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-48692863
“What Effect has Brexit had on the UK Economy?” BBC, February 10, 2019. Accessed July 10, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/business-47168866

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