It is evident that populism has had a triumphant entrance in the international political scene over the last years as a consequence of the political and economic crisis that, above all, has affected the most developed countries in the West. However, it is necessary to ask oneself what came first, the hen or the egg?. Some people think that populism arises in times of instability, while others are convinced that instability appears after populist movements.

The meaning of this word has changed a lot since it appeared for the first time in Russia, in 1870, under the name "Narodnichestvo," which was translated to "populism" in the different European languages.

This new way of politics understood from a Marxist perspective, as the author Ernesto Laclau states, understood populism as a logical need of the people to unite and defend its own interests against the dominant classes. The term would be soon used in a negative manner, as an insult or a threat, thus starting a drift that would make us understand the concept such as we do nowadays.

When does Populism appear?

Populism in the last century has always been linked to an extraordinary situation, because in a situation of relative normalcy it usually won’t find the appropriate breeding ground to expand itself. It is usually said that there are three ideal situations for the birth of Populism in a given country:

  • When the economic situation is bad
  • When the citizens feel that the politicians are not able to solve national problems, or when there is a loss of legitimacy or trust in them
  • Lastly, when the country feels threatened by a foreign power

Some common features

When one, or a combination of these factors appear, we have the grounds for the emergence of parties or policies of populist character.

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However, there will be other shared characteristic features, such as for instance the existence of a charismatic leader who is seen as a great savior, a great leader, or as the only person able to solve the problems the country faces. On many occasions, these populist leaders are surrounded by an aura of mesianism, by which his or her capacities are highlighted to extremes.

At the same time, Populism is always interpreted by the parties or its leaders as an answer to "anti-elites" or "anti-establishment." Don't these messages sound familiar? Every populist party bases its existence on the need to create a difference between"us" and "them," by which it succeeds in mobilizing sympathizers or voters. The elites can be understood in many different ways, from the European Union for Marine Le pen's National Front to the "casta" for Podemos or "the establishment" for Donald Trump. Populist parties thrive in the area of feelings and passion, more than in logic, and by doing so they try to draw a line in the sand to separate the people and their enemies.

What is evident is that there has been a new surge of populism that has carved for itself a niche in the political sphere of many countries. However, there are political parties that don't reject the negative meaning of the term and declare themselves openly populist, as Podemos in Spain or the successive governments of Kirchnerism in Argentina. These parties try to recuperate the original sense of the term as a party of "the people" that defends its interests. Nevertheless, nowadays, with mass media that uses the word in its most negative sense, with a political class that uses it as a projectile against its adversaries, and a public opinion bombed throughout the years by bad use of the term or flat out misrepresentation, it is difficult to believe that the term can ever get its original meaning back in order to take its place with the rest of the political trends. #Donald Trump #Republican Party