A populist explosion

Unless you’ve been particularly unobservant or on an extended spelunking expedition, you’ll have noticed that politics has gone through a bit of a change recently. People whom we would previously have dismissed as loons are attaining political office. The gap between the political establishment and the man or woman in the street has become a chasm. And everything that we thought we knew about electoral maths no longer seems to apply.


In his book ‘The Populist Explosion’, American author and journalist John Judis argues, however, that this is anything but a new phenomenon. In fact, the rise of populist politics started as far back as the 1890s, when a pick’n’mix of small agricultural and labour groups in the United States got together to form the short-lived People’s Party.

Judis traces the populist thread through the political campaigns of Ross Perot, Pat Buchanan, the Tea Party and the Occupy movement, right up to Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump.He also explores its impact on European politics, looking at the left-wing populism of Syriza and Podemos as well as their right-wing counterparts in Denmark, Austria, France and (my heart dies a little as I write this) the UK.

Overall, the book gives a decent account of populism as a political force and does a good job of putting the current situation into its historical context. I can’t help but feel that the author would have been happier focusing just on the American side of things, though, as the sections on European populism read like a basic narrative of events and lack the insight and analysis that is evident in the earlier chapters on US politics.

The book also suffers from being published just weeks before Donald Trump was elected President. Throughout the text, the author dwells on Trump’s use of populist policies and rhetoric in his campaign, but clearly doesn’t expect him to win. So by the time I got hold of the book shortly after its release, Trump was heading to Washington and Judis’s analysis was left hanging.

So if you’re interested in populism as a concept and the rise of populist politics in the United States, at least until just before Trump’s victory, you could do worse than reading this book. If it’s an exploration of populism in Europe that you’re after, though, this won’t tell you anything more than you’ll have got from reading the paper. And if you’re a fan of rigorous analysis and profound insight, I’d wait for one of the big hitters to release their own book on the subject. Because I suspect that populist politics is something about which we’re going to hear an awful lot more.

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