Is populism popular? Has it peaked?

I don’t know the answer to these questions, but Simon Kuper presents an interesting contrarian view:

Sometimes, our street is so packed with protesters that you can hardly open the front door. But last Saturday, I gingerly stepped outside to encounter only a few hundred marchers in gilets jaunes (yellow vests). Later, on TV, I watched the tear gas and shoving on the Champs-Elysées. But the odd aerial camera shot revealed that the Champs was mostly empty. Friends abroad asked if we were safe. We were: I spent half the weekend freezing on suburban touchlines watching my kids play football.

About 10,000 gilets jaunes marched in Paris and 125,000 across France, says the government. That same day, the green “march for the climate” drew about twice as many protesters in Paris

His observation on the US election is also interesting:

Populist movements may be the past, not the future. In November’s midterms, Trump’s Republicans lost the popular vote for the House of Representatives by 8.6 per cent — the biggest defeat for a majority party since records began in 1942. Meanwhile, as Brexit becomes increasingly hilarious, polls consistently show that most Britons now oppose it. Approval of the EU across the rest of Europe is the highest since 1983, says the European Commission’s polling wing.

Don’t assume that “the populists” are equivalent to “the people”.  Hillary got millions more votes than Trump.  The French gas tax increase was defeated, but worry about climate change is extremely widespread:

The new obsession with white-working-class politics misses much else. If you’re worried about poverty, look at very poor non-whites. And if you want to identify movements of the future, try the greens. For a so-called elitist movement, they seem pretty broad-based. About two-thirds of French people say they support the gilets jaunes, but 85 per cent worry about climate change, according to pollsters Ifop. In Germany, the much fussed-over far-right Alternative für Deutschland party now polls at 14 per cent; the Greens are six points higher. German anti-immigrant rallies (like Tommy Robinson’s British versions) are typically dwarfed by protests against them.

Scott Alexander has a post showing that Trump’s views on trade and immigration are becoming less and less popular.  I made a similar observation about 20 months ago.

Speaking of Alexander, another of his posts provides an almost perfect example of how commenters misinterpret my views:

Imagine the US currently devotes 100% of its defense budget to countering Russia. Some analyst determines that although Russia deserves 90% of resources, the Pentagon should also use 10% to counter China. Since no one person can shift very much of the defense budget, this analyst might spend all her time arguing we need to counter China more, trying to convince everyone that China is really very dangerous; if she succeeds, maybe the budget will shift to 99-to-1 and she’ll have done the best she can. But if she really spends all her time talking about China, this might look to other people like she’s an extremist – that crazy single-issue China person – “Why are you spending all your time talking about China? Don’t you realize Russia is important too?” Still, she’s taking the right strategy, and it’s hard to figure out what she could do better.

Because I’m trying to talk the US out of starting a foolish cold war with China, I’m seen as an apologist for Xi Jinping’s authoritarian policies.  In fact, I view almost all countries as being too authoritarian (think of the 400,000 Americans in jail for drug violations), and China as being far too authoritarian, much worse than the US.



7 Responses to “Is populism popular? Has it peaked?”

  1. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    6. January 2019 at 19:06

    Simon Kuper’s play is just a cliché, with hardly any new insights.

    The so-called “populists” are interesting because they may have opened a new axis in Arnold Kling’s TLP model.

    There is nothing new and interesting about the (German) Green Party, except that journalists around the world seem to love them, which is not really surprising as both tribes (greens and journalists) are mostly in the Progressive camp.

  2. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    6. January 2019 at 22:48

    We’ll see how Bolsonaro and Salvini do. Anyway, the midterms were hardly some sort of disaster for the GOP (not a single Trump state legislative chamber flipped to the Dems), and Trump has been unpopular since March 2017. It was no 1974.

    “Because I’m trying to talk the US out of starting a foolish cold war with China”

    You’d better be using your time arguing for ending the very real cold wars with Iran, Russia, and Venezuela.

    “polls consistently show that most Britons now oppose it”

    Cool; polls were wrong in 2016 as well.

    “The French gas tax increase was defeated, but worry about climate change is extremely widespread:”


  3. Gravatar of foosion foosion
    7. January 2019 at 08:20

    Populism does not appear to be defined clearly enough (or used consistently enough) to be meaningful.

  4. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    7. January 2019 at 11:25


    you are correct there’s hardly a meaningful definition from a neutral point of view.

    But from a partisan point of view, it may be useful to brand the positions of your counterpart as populism. It fits well in the dichotomy and narrative of Good vs. Evil.

  5. Gravatar of mbka mbka
    7. January 2019 at 20:39

    Actually, of all places, Wikipedia has a nice discussion of the concept of populism. Lifting from there, populism’s central tenets are that
    – “the people” are one homogeneous and fundamentally good entity
    – “the people” are frustrated in their rights by evil and corrupt “elites” that usurp power
    – a populist leader is fundamentally and emotionally connected to “the people”
    – nothing should stand between this “dear leader” and “the people” – be it “elites”, institutions, or checks and balances of power

    That describes quite a few tendencies quite nicely and structurally, without restricting what the dear leader is for or against, specifically.

    Consequences of populism under this definition are also predictable and familiar: hollowing out of republican institutions and checks on power, adulation of the people by the leader making generous gifts to “the people”, and adulation of said leader too, destruction of proper processes etc. It will come as no surprise that the populist leader in the final stage is indistinguishable from a king, or dictator.

    Populism is also the reason why direct democracy was long seen as a dangerous thing by various thinkers, and it is the reason why most countries don’t define themselves as “democracies” (rule of the people, direct and unchecked at will), but as republics (rule of law through process, can’t be overridden by ruler or people). The familiar republican form of a representative democracy for example, requires an elite to represent “the people” and is therefore not well liked by the average populist.

  6. Gravatar of Christian List Christian List
    8. January 2019 at 14:31


    “People” vs. “Elite” sounds like a good analysis but it might be a bit partisan. I think Arnold Kling’s Outsider vs. Insider is a bit better, and maybe even more accurate.

  7. Gravatar of E. Harding E. Harding
    9. January 2019 at 20:04

    I am a populist.

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