Populism, The Political Swear Word of 2018

Populism, a word feared, resented, and dreaded in modern rhetoric. Upon definition, populism seems innocent, if anything, advantageous. Populism, as a concept, is defined by Google as “the political philosophy supporting the rights and power of the people in their struggle against the privileged elite.” While Google produces this well-executed definition of populism, as many other political philosophies, populism is a product of its time. In other words, the rise of populism is directly correlated with the happenstance of international political culture. Events such as Brexit and the United States presidential elections in 2017 have changed the aims of populism, rewriting a new definition and connotation of this political philosophy.


To begin, the roots of populism should not be forgotten, but instead taken into consideration when evaluating the current 2018 political situations. Dating as far back as the French Revolution, the populism anthem has always been sparked by the common people. The French Revolution, Brexit and the United States 2017 elections all had a critical element in common: division. The common people being ruled over felt as though they were dissociated with the aims, goals, and policies of the government and the leaders. This disassociation and division bred hate, bitterness, and uproar from the people. In return, radical changes were enacted: thousands of French peasants were killed, the United Kingdom left the European Union, and Donald Trump became the United States President. All of these changes were a product of populism. Now, in 2018, the world suffers the consequences.


Focusing on the current situation within the UK, populism has been the scapegoat and philosophy for all Brexit legislation. To illustrate, in late 2016 when the Brexit vote was decided, many politicians including former Prime Minister David Cameron, blamed populism for the turn of attitudes. Political scientists theorised that society voted by emotion, and compelling instincts of nationalism rather voting based on informed, surveyed, facts and statistics. The rise of nationalism drove forward populist aspirations rather than a calculated economic outcome. The connection of nationalism and populism draws none other than a connection of “ignorance.” To illustrate, many British citizens who voted to leave the EU, voted because they believed the EU was holding the UK back economically and politically; limiting the UK’s potential. In this instance, the UK was composed of the “common” vote: people who felt disenchanted from EU polices, not understanding how these polices benefited them directly. Education grants, eased travel legislation and even moral protections such as outlawing the death penalty, all stemmed from joint EU regulations. However, this vote to leave the EU was not based upon a dislike or resentment towards these inclusive EU polices, but rather based off a false pretence that the UK was being held back and limited by this EU relationship. Trivial elements of the UK and EU contract were wrongly capitalised on and used to fuel anti- EU sentiments. For example, many voters who voted to leave the UK, referenced the fee the UK was obligated to pay the EU in order to maintain membership. According to the Telegraph report, in 2015 the UK paid the EU 19 billion pounds a year for membership. At first glance, this number does appear astoundingly large, however when further researched it become apparent that with the various grants, protections, and market gains reaped from this relationship, the UK gained much more than it lost in this pact. Therefore, to mindlessly blame the monetary number of dues as a driving factor to leave, not only shows blatant ignorance, but a total break with reality versus perception.


As explained above, Brexit was necessitated and enacted through populism, with the British people wanting more control and facetime with their government. However, the populism shown during the 2016 Brexit vote, has not died, but instead created a nucleus and turning point for nationalism within Europe. Since Brexit, Scotland has adamantly attempted to create a platform and gain unequivocal support for leaving the UK. This push towards becoming an autonomous country has fostered the illusion that Scotland can sufficiently support itself. Though many in the Scottish Nationalist Party hold this notion as fact, supporting Scottish Independence since the early 1970s, many questions come into play. The question of currency, market relationships, and trade agreements becoming hazy as Scotland attempts to dive into unchartered political and economic waters. Similarly, the rise of Brexit, seasoned with populism and nationalistic ties created a chain reaction not only within the UK but within other European nations. To illustrate, Spain suffered from spirited protests in Catalonia, with citizens fighting for their independence from the Spanish government. Just as in Scotland, Catalonians protested for full recognised, legal and political autonomy, being freed from the constraints of the overarching Spanish rule.

Populism seems to be an unavoidable reality within current European relations. Dividing nations and peoples, it has become a term of division rather than a method for cohesion. Populism, being tirelessly conflated with nationalism, has become a loaded word in politics, causing, disruption and chaos. During the course of Brexit, populism served as a justification rather than a political explanation for voters. Instead of following the teachings of populism, acting in the best interest of the common man, voters turned populism into a nationalist manifesto, allowing voters to follow a concept without calculating its implications for actions. This proved dangerous, generalising a theory without evaluating its place in a specific European market context. Therefore, this philosophical overstep, fixing an economic issue with a philosophical solution has created a dangerous chain of events within Europe. In order to restore stability within future the European regulations it is critical to eliminate this new, harmful definition of populism and instead create an atmosphere of inclusivity; promoting longevity and prosperity for not only the European community but the international community.


Zoe is a second-year student from Arlington, Virginia studying Modern History and Philosophy. A new member of the St Andrews chapter, she is a passionate writer for European Horizons as well as the Foreign Affairs Review. Her interests include Middle Eastern, European and U.S politics. Interning for both Bluelight Strategies and the Natural Resource Committee of the House of Representatives, Zoe has begun to dip her toes in the political waters surrounding her. Zoe’s experiences interning on Capitol Hill have prepared her to think critically and question the political world around her.

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