I am starting to become tired of the word “populism.” The word is being used as a catch-all label for a growing international political movement which includes the likes of Donald Trump, Marine Le Pen, Nigel Farage and Rodrigo Duterte, the president of my home, the Philippines. It is often employed disparagingly, characterizing a leader as appealing to the supposed prejudices and biases of the masses. But consigning a large group of leaders who come from diverse political, social and cultural contexts to a single populist movement is an easy way to ignore the very real nuances that apply to any political campaign. And the use of the word “populist” to label particular politicians as bigoted, loud-mouthed, far-right demagogues is itself troubling — why is it that a word whose simplest definition is “support for the concerns of ordinary people” becomes a source of condemnation when democracies are built on the idea of popular participation?
As an international student who’s grown up all his life in the Philippines, I’m wary whenever news articles use populism to lump the Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte into the same category as Trump, Le Pen and Farage. Articles that proclaim Duterte as “the Philippines’ Donald Trump” are strikingly common, as well as analytical pieces which situate him in the growing “global populist movement” — a generalization employed by both international and local news media. Though the broad brushstrokes painted by many of these articles are often technically correct (for example, The Washington Post characterizes populist leaders as appealing to “anxiety over economic gains that accrue to the few … and alienation from a self-serving political class”), their points obscure the many striking differences between the Philippine president and his supposed political mirror images.
Unlike the far-right image that politicians like Trump and Le Pen often cultivate, Duterte himself is on the left of the political spectrum; he claims to be a socialist and appointed several known leftist activists with communist ties to his cabinet. Despite Duterte’s misogynistic and bigoted rhetoric (he once joked about the rape of an Australian missionary and called the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines a gay son of a whore), a fact often used to draw parallels between him and other “populist demagogues,” the president has nevertheless declared his support for LGBT rights in a largely conservative, Catholic country; during his stint as the mayor of Davao City, he also assisted women who had been affected by domestic violence by personally covering their legal fees while locally implementing a code to defend women’s rights. While these policy moves by no means justify his remarks, they do highlight a striking difference between Duterte and the likes of Trump, Farage and Le Pen — unlike the latter group, the former has, during his long political career, actively enacted policies which uphold the rights of women and minorities.
All these distinctions point to the limitations of declaring a wave of “global populism,” an overarching narrative often espoused by the news media which actively ignores the ideological and political differences between popular candidates throughout the globe. And calling Duterte a “Philippine Trump” belies a dismissive refusal to engage with the nuances of the Philippines’ political climate; while the two politicians have their similarities, to understand the Philippine president only in terms of a Western political figure is a troubling form of cultural colonialism.
And, speaking more generally, why is it that the word populism has such negative connotations whenever it is used to characterize political affairs? It is easy to decry the election of leaders like Duterte and Trump as the “death of democracy,” but that’s ignoring the fact that these leaders won their positions entirely within the dictates of the democratic system. Democracies are built on the idea of popular vote; the candidate with the most sway among the people wins the presidential position.
In addition, it is troubling that populism is beginning to become a pejorative term, one that assumes the choice of the majority is misguided and incorrect. Disparaging leaders worldwide for appealing to the masses ignores the fact that these leaders campaign in a system precisely designed to reward those who do so. And using the term populism dismissively only increases the already striking divide between the supposed “intellectual elite” and “everyday people,” through a refusal to engage with the fact that many voters make informed, responsible choices based on the information readily available to them.
This is not to say that forces such as bigotry, racism and national isolationism are something to ignore; throughout the world, the status quo is inevitably changing, and we are watching the balance of power shift drastically in political systems once thought secure. But putting together leaders from different political and national backgrounds under a single umbrella of global populism ignores the varying reasons for their respective journeys to power. And though these overarching narratives have a compelling simplicity, they also have a tendency to obscure diversity and nuance in the broad brushstrokes with which they paint the climate of international politics. Instead of throwing the term populism around as a catchall explanation for the woes of the world, our challenge is to honestly engage with the concerns, beliefs and fears of the majority, wherever we may be from.
Contact Ethan Chua at [email protected].