WATCH: Populism’s ‘backhanded service’

Global populist movements threaten democratic institutions, but draw attention to lingering problems like inequality.

Marine Le Pen, France’s far-right populist candidate for president, isn’t expected to win Sunday’s election, but her political importance cannot be ignored.

“She has managed, since she took over from her father, to increase the National Front’s share in presidential elections every single time,” Sheri Berman, a political science professor at Barnard College, told ThinkProgress.

And Le Pen is not alone. Populist candidates are winning elections and building stronger and stronger bases all over the world.

“What’s important to note is not just the outcome,” said Berman. “ We have to continue to worry about the underlying trends that fed the rise of these parties and continue to feed the dissatisfaction among voters willing to consider the extremes.”


According to Berman, there could be a potential silver lining. Populists focus on problems that are often ignored. While they might not be best suited to deal with those issues, if established institutions pay attention and try to address concerns, “then populists will have performed oddly enough a kind of backhanded service.”


SHERI BERMAN, Barnard University: Populism can be very hard to define because it varies from national context to national context.

The one thing that parties, movements, politicians who are described as populists tend to share is this insistence that traditional elites and institutions are ignoring the demands and the needs of the masses. There’s a very “us versus them” quality to populism. They’re really a consequence of other parties’ and institutions’ failures, rather than the cause of them.

With left-wing populists, the enemy tends to be a sort of financial or business type of elite. In a lot of other countries, the enemy may be immigrants, people who look different than us, people who think different than us.


The social and economic problems that Europe is currently grappling with started decades ago and have sort of gradually increased over time. So what we really had was this kind of conflation of economic and social problems that really I think, push a lot of voters to embrace radical change.

The upcoming French elections provide us with a great prism through which to understand the meaning and the rise of populism. Marine Le Pen who represents the national front has turned herself into an incredibly powerful figure.

MARINE LE PEN, National Front candidate for president: The time has come to free the French people of the arrogant elite who seek to tell you how to live your life. Because, yes, I am the candidate of the people.

BERMAN: Should Macron win and not manage to convince voters afterwards that his program can actually solve their problems, we should expect her to come back in the next presidential election even stronger.

Germany, along with France, remains the main player, the main power in Europe, so what happens there really has a huge impact outside of the country’s borders.

ALEXANDER GAULAND, Alternative for Germany co-leader: We want to keep our home country, keep our identity, and we are proud to be German.


BERMAN: The populist right, the Alternative for Germany, was just a few months ago predicted to do quite well at the national elections. Now it seems to have declined, somewhat partially due to infighting.

Historically of course, because of Germany’s past, there’s been a real barrier to the rise of far right populism in Germany. So the fact that we’re even seeing seeds of it, is really a reflection of how deeply the structural shifts in European political life go.

The Netherlands, the populist there was predicted to come out on top. Even though Wilders did not win, he did manage to increase his vote. So, I wouldn’t take the election result as a sign of absolute defeat, but a sign that we have to continue to worry about the underlying trends that fed the rise of these parties.

It’s much more dangerous, in a way, in places like Poland and Hungary because the institutions and the norms of democracy are much weaker and therefore much easier to maneuver around or even overthrow.

The real danger with populism, right, is that it shifts from populism to authoritarianism. We’ve seen that happen in Hungary, we’ve seen that happen in Turkey. It also of course happened in Venezuela. And people are very worried about something like that happening in a place like Poland.

But if we think about populism as a consequence of rising dissatisfaction and the inability of elites and institutions to deal with it, then there could potentially be a silver lining in populism.

Populists tend to raise issues that a lot of people are concerned about. They tend to focus on problems that are not being addressed. If traditional elites and institutions can look and say ‘hey, we better figure out better ways of dealing with these issues and concerns,’ then populists will have performed, oddly enough, a kind of backhanded service.

If not, we can expect the populists to continue to grow in support, and probably the problems not to be absolutely addressed.

CORRECTION: This article originally identified Sheri Berman as a political science professor at Barnard University. The institution is actually Barnard College.