RUSI and the British Council co-hosted a round table discussion about populism in Europe and the United States. We asked RUSI Director-General Dr Karin von Hippel her thoughts on the recent ‘populist surge’, the forces behind it, and its implications for the world.

Chasms opening in society?

What do you mean by ‘populism’? Does it perhaps describe a backlash against elites that have benefited from changes that have not benefited ordinary people, at the same time as looking down on ordinary people’s beliefs about those changes? If so, is populism perhaps a positive force? 

We struggle a bit with defining populism, because it’s a very broad term and people define it in different ways. As we move forward I think we should either come up with a rigorous definition or stop using it. At the meeting there was certainly disagreement about what it is and even about whether its ramifications were positive or negative. I think you can define it in a positive way or a negative way. For example, one social psychologist who joined the round table talked about how populist rhetoric is used by savvy political leaders to make the case for differentiating the elite from the so-called ordinary citizen, with the former being evil and manipulative and the latter being pure and exploited. These arguments find greater resonance in times of uncertainty, when there are social and cultural disruptions – as we’ve experienced over the last decade – caused by the economy, by conflicts, and by advances in communications technology, among other issues. What is concerning is that authoritarian leadership can and has emerged from such periods. 

What is causing this ‘rise of populism’?

The suggestion by one finance expert is that cheap money we’ve had for the last decade and a half as a result of loose monetary policy may have contributed to populist movements

What I found fascinating in our conversation was the suggestion by one finance expert that the cheap money we’ve had for the last decade and a half as a result of loose monetary policy may have contributed to the rise of populist movements. Such monetary policy has enabled the rich to get richer by borrowing large sums, often without turning a profit for lengthy periods, as in the case of major companies such as Amazon. Those who don’t have money have no access to this source of financing, hence widening the gaps between the haves and the have nots. Cheap money has also accelerated technological innovations, as many entrepreneurs have borrowed vast sums to launch a wide variety of tech-related platforms. The argument made was that these innovations would have occurred anyway, but likely at a slower and possibly more manageable pace.  

If we think about the last few decades we can see clear benefits from loose monetary policy, globalisation, technological change, free trade, free movement of people, and so on. But we seem to now be discovering that these things also have downsides which have not been evenly distributed and have alienated quite large groups of the population. I suppose one question arising from claims of a populist surge is: how can we square that circle?

It’s not just about the alienation, but acceleration of change at such break-neck speed that it is proving beyond the ability of people to understand it or manage its negative effects. One participant raised a related point: these changes mean that a generational gap has emerged with different generations now communicating in completely distinct ways. For example, the Labour Party used Snapchat to communicate with the younger generation in this last election, while the adults didn’t even know there was a parallel conversation going on. It’s not just that right wing and left wing people consume different media, which is also happening, but it’s also that different generations are using different technologies to communicate. It’s both fascinating and concerning. There are new chasms opening up and older ones widening: between urban and rural people, between younger and older generations, between the technologically savvy and those less astute. 

…And between what some have called the ‘anywheres’ and the ‘somewheres’ – in other words between people who feel at home as citizens of a globalised world and those who define their identity as rooted in narrower geographical and cultural ways? 

Right. And those differences have always existed, but again it has been exacerbated by advances in technology. So the ‘anywheres’ can now chat with their friends, colleagues, and others around the world on a daily basis, which would have been impossible in the past, even for those comfortable with living in different places. 

Are these processes going to carry on and speed up, or will a populist backlash slow things down again?

I don’t think we know. But one of the purposes of our round table was to challenge some of the assumptions about populism. Because many people have described what’s going on now in ways that make sense, but perhaps there is no real evidence to back up such assumptions. There’s a lot of talk about the ‘left-behind’. Or how, for example, Trump supporters are former rust belt steel workers who are now unemployed. Or that people who voted for Brexit were voting to take their sovereignty back, or they were voting against immigrants. It’s just not so simple, and we should be gathering more data before coming to conclusions. 


Well there’s arguably a bigger initial assumption we should address first, which is that there really is a rise of populism. We had Brexit and Trump in the same year, but isn’t it hard to draw any causal links between the two? Are they both expressions of the same phenomenon? 

Right. And one might argue that the supposed rise of populist movements may have peaked already, given several European populist parties lost at the polls (in Austria, the Netherlands, and France, for example). Maybe Trump won’t even survive four years, and populist parties will peter out, and Brexit will be a soft exit. Or it could be that these movements are just the beginning and we may be in for more fundamental change in the years ahead. For example, anti-Brexit Europeans arguing with anti-Trump Americans have made the case that ‘Brexit is worse than Trump, because Brexit is permanent while Trump is only in office for four years’. Others point out that he could do a lot of damage in that time. There are checks and balances in the US system, but the argument goes that these may not work as intended, without the right people in place. 

And there are arguably fewer checks and balances in terms of foreign policy. If there is a ‘populist surge’, what are the implications for the world in terms of foreign policy? 

Even the concept of free trade bolstering economic growth is now being challenged. Trump no longer seems to be promoting any of these, and appears in some cases to be cosying up to authoritarian rulers, who are also challenging the free press or undermining elections

I’d say the single aspect making many in Europe nervous is that the US has always been the leader in terms of promoting Western values. In fact, these values are not really Western but global: whether it be in terms of supporting democracy, respect for human rights or a free and open media. Even the concept of free trade bolstering economic growth is now being challenged. Trump no longer seems to be promoting any of these, and appears in some cases to be cosying up to authoritarian rulers, who are also challenging the free press or undermining elections. What does this mean for the post-World War II liberal consensus that has kept the peace in Europe for the last seventy years? Is another leader going to pick up that mantle? For example, China may take the lead in promoting free trade, Germany in promoting human rights, Britain in protecting democracy, and so on? Will the US become more marginalised in terms of international leadership? What’s making people nervous is how much uncertainty there is right now. 

Doesn’t this lead to a broader question about whether, if we are seeing the end of the post-war liberal consensus, perhaps we’re now looking at the rise of populist or authoritarian capitalism in its place?

Yes that’s possible. Although there are places where this isn’t happening. Look at countries like Canada, holding out as a bulwark against populism. This may have more to do with the different ways different democracies are organised, as well as the fact that the economic crisis impacted countries in different ways. Don’t forget that the new president of France doesn’t really represent any of the traditional political parties any more than the new president of the United States does. You could even make a case about Jeremy Corbyn in the UK and the way that Momentum has reached out to young people who wouldn’t normally vote, suggesting that he is also a different sort of populist insurgent. So the picture is very much an evolving one. And at RUSI we are hoping to continue working with the British Council on exploring these issues.