We are in a populism moment. Populists are making startling gains in support and access to power across the West. The election of Donald Trump and the vote for Brexit in 2016 signalled the arrival of this new reality. The success of Trump and his European compatriots is particularly striking because they bucked the trend: while Europe has long had populist radical-right parties, they were largely relegated to the margins and kept far from government. Today, one in four Europeans vote for a populist party and more than 170 million Europeans are governed by a cabinet that has a populist member.
It is almost becoming rote to note and lament this trend. If it weren’t such a serious problem, it would be tempting to turn our attention to other pressing matters. But the reality is that today’s populism represents an existential threat to our liberal democracy. This is because, in most cases, populism is underpinned by a virulent ethnic nationalism.
We know a lot about populism. It is among the most studied political phenomenon. The huge body of research on populism tends to see its rise as a response to large-scale shifts in our economy and society. But this is only half the picture. There are other important factors at play, namely the content of today’s populism.