The playbook behind populism that continues to fuel its global rise.

By Nathan Yax and Angela Fraioli
04/13/2022 • 10:08 AM EST

Marine Le Pen surges in the polls, campaigning on the struggle of the people against an unresponsive elite. (Getty Images)

It's mid-April 2022. French presidential candidate, Marine Le Pen surges in the polls on the same week that Hungary's Viktor Orban, a fierce critic of immigration, LGBTQ rights, and 'EU bureaucrats,' wins reelection in a landslide.[1][2] A common theme among these unorthodox politicians that has helped them connect with those feeling anxious and disenfranchised is one of populism. At its core, populism is "an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, 'the pure people' versus 'the corrupt elite.'[3] It is a playbook that dates back to the mid-1800s,[4] but is showing a resurgence in recent years. This timeless, simplistic narrative is what makes its rhetoric so appealing and also so dangerous.

One of the common hallmarks of all populist ideology is that it seeks to over-simplify complex political issues, effectively controlling how they are discussed and interpreted. Populist leaders are particularly adept at gaining support from an anxious public who is frustrated with mainstream politics, for whom politics often seem opaque, bureaucratic, and unnecessary.[5] Along those same lines, populist leaders make frequent use of false dichotomiessee definition - giving the impression that there are only two opposing choices or options, while ignoring any middle ground exists between the two extremes.
to over-simplify issues, distinguishing everything as 'us' vs. 'them.'

Another hallmark is the idealized image of the average person or common folksee definition - establishing a connection with an audience based on being just like one of them and being able to empathize with their concerns.
. This rhetoric appeals to traditionsee definition - suggesting that moving away from or abandoning long-standing practice could have detrimental or even dangerous implications.
, signaling allegiance with perceived majorities and drawing on society's known appreciation for groups like the military or working class. 'The people' are less a representative of a country's actual demographics and more a rhetorical device to fill the role of protagonists in the overall narrative. [6]

In populist politics, 'the people' are defined in opposition to another group through implicit and explicit scapegoatingsee definition - placing unmerited blame on a person or group to channel societal resentment and frustration towards a common adversary or powerless victim.
. 'The elite,' which includes intellectuals and experts, is seen as the common enemy and represent an obvious counterpart to the common folk. As a result, populists often use anti-intellectualismsee definition - celebrating simple-mindedness and denigrating intellectuals or those with professional credentials as being idealistic, naive, or arrogant.
and suspicion of certain authorities to make their opponents look seedy and conspiratorial. All of these can be invoked to conjure fraternal deprivation, by which certain groups or demographics feel as if they have been manipulated or deprived of something.[7][8] In populism's case, that something is usually their deserved quality of life and ability to express their culture. In essence, populism approaches politics, and society, as a zero-sum game in which 'the people' have to sacrifice for various elites and minorities.

The next step in the playbook is often scapegoating religious, ethnic, and racial minorities. This can be covertly accomplished through the use of dog whistlessee definition - ambiguous messaging used to stoke racial fear and anxiety and/or to covertly signal allegiance to certain subgroups of an audience.
, while implying that the actual message is too controversial to be said bluntly. They can then use scapegoating to blame any and all problems they choose on these disjointed, detached, isolated, or severed groups.

While populism has evolved over time, its core propaganda components have remained consistent. New technologies and media have changed how populist narratives spread and how far they can travel, but leaders who invoke populism still ultimately rely on the same collective of set of techniques. The intended result is to blind voters to the complexity of issues, sow division, and inspire conspiratorial thinking. By taking advantage of real frustrations to hawk simple solutions and the compelling narrative of good vs. evil, populist leaders can gain diehard support and wield power in any direction they wish.

2. "Hungary’s Orban popular at home, isolated abroad after win". AP News. Published: April 04, 2022.

3. Mudde, Cas, The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition, 39. Published: 2004.
4. "A brief history of populism". The Week. Published: September 26, 2016.

5. Rodrik, Dani, Populism and the Economics of Globalization. Journal of International Business Policy, 1: 12-33. Published: 2017.
6. Ochoa Espejo, Paulina, Populism and the Idea of the People - The Oxford Handbook of Populism. Oxford University Press, pp. 607-628. Published: 2017.
7. Merton, Robert K., Social Structure and Anomie. American Sociological Review 3: 672-82. Published: 1938.
8. Rose, Jerry D., Outbreaks, The Sociology of Collective Behavior. New York Free Press. Published: 1982.
9. Oliver, J. Eric and Wendy M. Rahn, Rise of the Trumpenvolk: Populism in the 2016 Election. The Annals of the American Academy of Political and Social Science, 667: 189-206. Published: 2016.
10. "The Rise and Rise of Populism?". OpenMind. Published: March 13, 2018.

11. "Populists in Power Around the World". Tony Blaire Institute for Global Change. Published: November 07, 2018.