Understanding Populism - a new framework

How can we understand how populism works, especially right-wing populism? As part of our workshop conducted in cooperation with LEAD Academy on Sept.9, 2017 we developed a framework that contrasts how populists / the new nationalists operate compared to liberals (in the sense of classic liberalism) or "globalists".

Our research distills three levels of intentionality of desired change that can be distinguished, or put more simply: three "movements".

"Liberals vs. Populists - 3 movements" Framework by Infinity Institute, visualization by Robert Fischer,  formimkontext.de

"Liberals vs. Populists - 3 movements"
Framework by Infinity Institute, visualization by Robert Fischer, formimkontext.de

1. On the temporal axis "past vs. future" classic liberalism envisions the future as better as the present or the past - the future will yield more prosperity, equality, democracy compared with today - if we follow enlightenment ideals of reason and individualization and if we work together to create that brighter future. In contrast, the right-wing populist nationalists usually promise a return to the past, a past that is idealized as better than the current state of affairs (see Trump's slogan "Make America great AGAIN"). Echoing familiar Christian motives such as "The Fall of Man" or "Paradise Lost" the current state of affairs is described as decay & mayhem, while a restoration of a better past is promised. One could speak of an "ideology of loss" with the promise of return and restoration. How can this narrative be so successful? Have a look at this TED Dialogue of Chris Anderson with the historian Yuval Noah Harari who states "people have lost their story" (starting at min. 2:35) :  TED Dialogue with Harari.

2. On the axis of "open vs. closed" classic liberalism or the globalists strive for more universal values, beliefs & explanations. They believe in open systems, international cooperation, global governance, the benefits of free trade, and of sharing ideas globally so that people can benefit and be enriched by different perspectives and innovation is stimulated. Populists & especially the new nationalists instead believe in a return to tribal values, smaller groups of locals interacting and doing business with each other, usually ensuring safety, quality, and familiarity with what is know and geographically close. Economic politics is favouring protectionism, a blocking of ideas from the outside, a return to "national things" (national currency, formal decision power on the national level) and other countries or communities within the same country are looked down upon and dismissed. The prototypical slogan of the populists is "our country first" (e.g. "America First", "France First" and so on).

3. Finally, on the axis of identity or formation of the "we-group" we find an inclusive narrative in classic liberal, in the globalist narrative. The "we" in the liberal story is usually comprehensive, striving to include as many people as possible - everybody in a country, sometimes even every human being on the planet. In marked contrast, the right-wing populists practices exclusion - the story is always one of "us against them", where the "us" is an idealised image of an homogenous population, the "real" people ("das Volk") that is pitted against "them" - everyone else that doesn't agree with the populist's image of the people - "the establishment", "the elites", "mainstream media", "immigrants" and so on. The division of people into smaller subgroups that are pitted in a moral battle for ultimately life and death against each other is the hallmark of populism. Left-wing populism attacks mainly "the establishment/elite", while right-wing populism attacks "the establishment/elite" AND "the others" (ethnic minorities, immigrants, other countries...), often accusing "the elite" of favouring "the others" over the "real" people. The danger that populism poses to democracy lies especially in this axis of identity: populism delegitimise everyone who is not on their side of the supposedly honest, true, hard-working, "real" people (a moral, not an empirical category). They undermine the legitimacy of institutions essential for checks and balances and the rule of law - courts, minorities in parliament, the free media etc. -, denying the democratic principle of equality of everyone under the roof of the constitution - the right to participate in the political process, to voice concerns and interests, and to channel them into public discourse and into parliament. Instead of claiming "we are ALSO the people" - a legitimate form of intervening in a democratic system - they claim "we, and ONLY we, are the people". 

To illustrate the basic principles of those 3 movements on both the liberal and the populist side have a look at the following resources:

The prototypicial liberal discourse: Barak Obama's 2004 convention speech


the prototypical right-wing populist discourse in Donald Trump's speeches.

If you would like to learn more about populism and especially approaches and communication strategies against neo-nationalist right-wing populism let us know - strategic storytelling is a versatile tool that can be employed in business & personal life as well as in a political & societal context.