Today's most popular leaders are largely anti-establishment
Hungary’s Viktor Orbán is the prime example of a populist who’s worked out how to win and retain power within a democratic system. But he’s not alone. Just take a look at the latest polling from Morning Consult — which compares approval rating for leaders across the free world.
Among those enjoying positive ratings are big name populists like Narendra Modi in India, Giorgia Meloni in Italy and Andrés Manuel López Obrador (‘AMLO’) in Mexico. The same can’t be said for most of the more conventional leaders: Rishi Sunak, Emmanuel Macron and Olaf Scholz are all deep in negative territory.
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This is yet another warning to the political establishment. However, there are those who’d have us believe that the threat to the status quo is diminishing. For instance, the Tony Blair Institute for Global Change claims that “the success of progressive, centre-left leaders has accelerated the decline of populism to a 20-year low.”
According to a report from the Institute, the number of democratic nations with populist leaders is falling. However, the detail of the report reveals that this trend is driven mainly by events in the Americas — for instance, the defeats of Donald Trump in the US and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil. It is a different picture in Europe, where populism “remains strong”.
There’s also the vexed issue of which governments to count as populist. For instance, the report includes the Mexican government under the heading of Left-wing populism, but not the government of Gabriel Boric in Chile. Both Boric and AMLO can be fairly described as anti-establishment opponents of neo-liberalism, so why is one counted as a populist and not the other?
Helpfully, the report sets out its definition of populism:
This seems clear — until, that is, you realise just how subjective it is. For instance, the Tony Blair Institute might want to consider an example that’s rather close to home: Tony Blair. As Labour leader, Blair’s rhetoric was relentlessly moralistic and ‘othering’ of opponents. Further, the New Labour slogan “for the many, not the few” is blatantly populist — so much so that Jeremy Corbyn used it himself when he became party leader.
That’s not to say that the concept of populism is meaningless — clearly some political movements present a greater challenge to the status quo than others. But, equally, a binary definition that divides the world into sensible sheep and populist goats is far too simplistic.
If there is a global pattern that can be discerned over the last decade, it is that incompetent populists come unstuck. Evidently, Trump and Bolsonaro are still capable of energising their most loyal supporters; but they were elected to achieve change, not cause chaos. Their failure to deliver is why they lost.
This week’s riot in Brasilia was a shocking event, as was the storming of the US Capitol in 2021. However, the fact is that the establishment can cope with a bunch of disgruntled losers. Rather, the real threat to the status quo comes from competent — or, at least, politically savvy — populists.
So ignore the comforting narratives of populist decline. Democracy as we know it is still wide open to disruption.