News June 2, 2020

The Spread of Populism Around the World is a Threat to Democracy According to New Stanford Report

A detail of an election poster picturing Italian Deputy Prime Minister and leader of right-wing political party Lega Matteo Salvini on May 26, 2019 in Milan, Italy. Photo: Getty Images

Global populism is on the rise, and four Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies (FSI)  scholars are working to understand why populist parties and leaders have seen increased support in recent years. 

A new white paper titled “Global Populisms and Their Challenges,” by Anna Grzymala-Busse, Didi Kuo, Francis Fukuyama and Michael McFaul explores how mainstream political parties are the key enablers of populist challenges—and the key solution.

Hundreds of people from around the world tuned in on Zoom for a virtual panel about the white paper, during which the four co-authors discussed global populisms’ threats and potential solutions to the phenomenon.

The co-authors found that in older, more developed democracies, support for populist parties has more than tripled since the 1990s. In post-communist democratic nations that gained freedom after the collapse of the Soviet Union, populist support has more than doubled during the same time period. Grzymala-Busse said that economic equality and immigration are two key factors in this significant uptick.

The failure of mainstream political parties also plays a role in populist support. In the U.S., for example, both the Republican and Democratic parties embraced a similar economic agenda of globalization and deregulation following the 2008 financial crisis. Some — mainly white-collar — sectors have thrived, but other industries, such as manufacturing, have declined. Many American communities and workers are worse off now than they were before, and some are looking for leadership that they believe can better represent their interests, Kuo said.

While populist parties can be either left or right-leaning, many working-class voters in the U.S. have flocked to right-wing parties, Fukuyama pointed out, which indicates that some people may actually be voting against their economic interests because they are aligned with certain cultural norms.

The introduction of the internet and disinformation has contributed to the rise of populism in a big way, Fukuyama added. 

“On the internet, one fact is as good as any other fact, even if it’s not true. And I think that’s a direct way in which unmediated channels of communication become instruments for further undermining elite control,” he said. 

Overall, the best way to think about and explain populism is by using the “us versus them” mentality, Grzymala-Busse concluded.

“It’s about the way you draw boundaries around who's a legitimate part of the electorate and who's not, and which leaders are doing something for you and which ones aren't,” she said.

Francis Fukuyama

Olivier Nomellini Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

Anna Grzymala-Busse

Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies

Didi Kuo

Senior Research Scholar

Michael McFaul

Senior Fellow, Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies