by Peter Franklin
Tuesday, 10
January 2023
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13:00

The future belongs to competent populists

Today's most popular leaders are largely anti-establishment
by Peter Franklin
A Morning Consult poll has Giorgia Meloni as one of the most popular leaders alive today.

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: 

Rather than seeing politics as a contest between different policy positions, populists argue that the political arena is a moral battleground between right and wrong – between a country’s true people and the elites or other groups that populists deem to be outsiders…
- Tony Blair Institute

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. 

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Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
26 days ago

The term populism seems to be used as a big stick which the left use to smear and beat anyone who disagrees with them.

Chris W
Chris W
26 days ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

UnHerders’ fear of the phantom ..llllefft.. continues unabated. If in doubt blame the government. If still in doubt blame the left.

Gordon Black
Gordon Black
26 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

The Left a phantom? No, it’s real, very real.

Chris W
Chris W
26 days ago
Reply to  Gordon Black

The left is the bogeyman; someone who might change the comfortable status quo. In that way, someone to fear.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
26 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

I don’t think populists are responding to left-wing political parties. There is very little difference in ideology between mainstream left and right anymore. The Tories and Labour are identical. They just have different avatars running under different party names.

Populists are rebelling against the institutional capture of a political elite that no longer represents the working and middle class.

That’s what a populist is.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
26 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

What does this mean? Maybe elaborate a bit.

Chris W
Chris W
26 days ago
Reply to  Jim Veenbaas

Thank you for asking. To me it means the following:

I have contributed to UnHerd for two years (almost) and I am not renewing. When it first started, people came up with clever ideas, thoughts, possible solutions to problems; however feeble we were, we tried.
Today UnHerd is only about blame – you blame the left, or Boris Johnson, or men (if you are a feminist) or muslims or the lack of grammar schools or anything modern. So, old people want to get the past back and blame people for the present because the past is not coming back.

UnHerd is the past.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
26 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

I think you’re on to something. However, while I remain ever-optimistic, the future at this point doesn’t look too wonderful either. At any rate, not if we continue down this current path of “progress” which is very much about the flattening of natural hierarchies and relationships in favor of governance by a small group of oligarchs and their panderers. While the past is the past, it is often overlooked as a source of inspiration for moving forward in favor of current trends and vogues. This arises from the grave misassumption that we, as the current living generation, believe ourselves to be the most enlightened intelligent people in the history of the planet, and therefore should pay no heed to the outmoded fancies of our crude and uninformed forebears.
I posit that, despite all our technological advancements, many of the problems we face today are not inherently different from those in the past. Way back in the last days of the Roman Empire when it was rife with corruption, nepotism, laziness, and economic malaise, people were also complaining that the ‘world is old’. Similar to back then, we find ourselves within a civilization that is crumbling under the weight of its own inconsistencies with no clear way forward. Perhaps harkening back to the lessons of the past is not such a bad thing after all.

Jeanie K
Jeanie K
25 days ago
Reply to  Julian Farrows

” Perhaps harkening back to the lessons of the past is not such a bad thing after all”
Quite so. A country with no history is a country with no future.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
26 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

I think this is a reasonable assertion. When I make comments fueled by rage – I gotta lot of rage at the political leadership these days lol – it certainly gets more likes and such.

However, I still think Unherd is better than the vast majority of news sites out there. And rage and blame is part of the human condition IMO. It’s almost inescapable.

I get how it can be frustrating. The amount of ink spilled on trans issues is exhausting sometimes. But it’s an issue and in many ways symbolizes the decay and rot of the political institutions.

Any sites you would recommend?

Ian Stewart
Ian Stewart
26 days ago
Reply to  Chris W

So you approve of dogwhistle labels?

Chris W
Chris W
26 days ago
Reply to  Ian Stewart

‘dogwhistle labels’ is unknown jargon for me. Talking in jargon does not help the future.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
26 days ago

I’m fascinated by the fixation on Orban from the political and media elite.

To refer to him as a populist is mind blowing. He is like the right-wing version of the Democrats and every mainstream party in Europe.

He’s accused of controlling the media, controlling the bureaucracy, pressuring corporations for political gain, rewarding cronies.

Isn’t this exactly what the Dems do in the States? Same with the Libs in Canada, the Tories and Labour in the UK.

Orban just happens to represent the values of most people in his country. He wins with 53% of the vote compared to 35% for the opposition. Meanwhile, the Libs win with 32% of the vote in Canada, compared to 36% for the Conservative opposition.

Julian Farrows
Julian Farrows
26 days ago

I’m not surprised that populism is on the rise. Right now the message we get from those who would rule over us is: “We believe in absolute equality for all…except for those of us who will continue to enrich ourselves while we reduce living standards and restrict any form of speech that criticizes us for doing this.”

Last edited 25 days ago by Julian Farrows
polidori redux
polidori redux
26 days ago

“So ignore the comforting narratives of populist decline. Democracy as we know it is still wide open to disruption.”
What a bizarre thing to say. Is it meant to signal irony, or a genuine fear that voters might vote for change?

Snapper AG
Snapper AG
26 days ago
Reply to  polidori redux

When people the laptop classes don’t like win elections, it’s a “threat to democracy”.

Tom Watson
Tom Watson
26 days ago

Not sure why narratives of populist decline are supposed to be comforting. Bring on the 2020s I say.

Alan Hawkes
Alan Hawkes
25 days ago

The article closes with the implicit assertion that populism = disruption = bad.
But democracy = ignoring al least some majority opinions = good?
This article is a collection of category errors.

Andrew Wise
Andrew Wise
25 days ago

Definitions are largely meaningless – I prefer to rely on the ‘when it walks like a duck & quacks like a duck then its a duck.’ approach.
What is apparent is rise in dissatisfaction with the rule of the blob, aka the current political establishment in its widest meaning (including civil servants, judiciary, big business, regulators et al)
Yes, the word ‘populist’ / ‘populism’ is used as a derogatory term – by the blob – seeking to protect their own interests.
And yes, dissatisfaction with the rule of the blob exists on all sides of the political spectrum – Starmer & Sunak are virtually interchangeable as leaders of their respective blob tribes.

Richard Barrett
Richard Barrett
26 days ago

Meloni is certainly no threat whatever to the status quo. The EU and NATO have nothing whatever to fear from her.

Madeleine Jones
Madeleine Jones
26 days ago

How come? I was quite impressed with her standing up to Macron regarding ‘refugee’ boats. Also liked her criticism of EU’s 2035 ban against combustions. There are practical moves against welfare for foreigners, too. Personally, I like Meloni (not a good reason). She seems genuine in her care for Italy, appreciation for Western culture and is a conservative (references to Roger Scruton, Tolkien photos, etc).
We’ll see in the next few years.

Jim Veenbaas
Jim Veenbaas
26 days ago

I’m not sure what the author is saying here. Definitely don’t think there is a decline in populism. Trump out and Desantis in. We supposedly have a populist leader heading up the Conservative Party in Canada, although I’m skeptical. Europe is littered with populists. Hmm.

Steve Jolly
Steve Jolly
24 days ago

This one is a bullseye. Populism is alive and well. Even if some of its drivers like Bolsonaro and Trump crash and burn, the anti-globalist, anti-elite, anti-corporate grassroots anger that drives it remains, and as the movement matures, the cream rises to the top while the orange haired clowns of the world get pushed aside in favor of more serious and competent men and women. DeSantis, if he runs a good campaign and sticks to a core message of taking on corporate meddling in politics, defending the middle class, putting America first, tackling immigration, and restoring industry could win by massive margins if the Dems can’t do better than Joe Biden in 2024.

Neil Anthony
Neil Anthony
25 days ago

A convoluted essay. Just say, those leaders who believe in national borders and those who do not. The United Nations Ideals vs Nations Aspirations

William Goodwin
William Goodwin
23 days ago

Why do we give any credence to an institute run by a failed politician deemed by many to be an international war criminal? The TBI is nothing but an ideologically woke lobbying organisation for the global élite and the sooner it is denied the oxygen of publicity, the better. Let them wither on the vine.

David Harris
David Harris
21 days ago

“Democracy is wide open to disruption.”
Er, Isn’t that the point of elections?