How populism became the concept that defines our age

Paradoxically, now that we finally agree on what we mean by populism per se, the “populist phenomenon” in practice is almost exclusively populist radical right. The much expected, and hoped-for, leftwing populist wave has not happened. And while intellectuals and pundits of the left keep assuring us that the only future is an inclusionary leftwing populism, existing leftwing populism has turned nasty in Latin America and and become much less leftwing (Syriza) or less populist (Podemos) in Europe.

Consequently, we increasingly talk about a general populism when we’re actually referring primarily, and often exclusively, to a specific populism. I have called this the populist radical right, rather than radical right populism, because it is a populist form of the radical right rather than a radical right form of populism. Ideologically, authoritarianism and nativism determine the populism, rather than the other way around.

As decades of research have shown, the prime ideological feature of this group of parties and their supporters is nativism, a xenophobic form of nationalism. It is not surprising then that the main consequence of the “rise of populism” is a battery of policies that restrict the rights of “alien others” – most notably immigrants, Muslims and refugees – not of “native” elites.

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