Friday, September 22, 2017

The Populist Explosion

For some reason, I didn't get a chance to read John B. Judis's The Populist Explosion until this month.  Published in the fall of 2016 (between Brexit and Donald Trump's election), The Populist Explosion offers a revealing--and concise--survey of the populist energies coursing through political systems across the world.  The first three chapters focus on populism in the United States, from an overview of populism in history to the 2016 campaign.  Judis identifies both Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump as manifestations of populism, and he argues that populism can be seen more broadly on both the left and the right.  The second half of the book looks at populism in Europe.  Judis finds that, whereas many right-leaning parties have harnessed populism in Northern Europe, populists in Southern Europe have gravitated more to the political left.

One of the strengths of Judis's book is that it avoids the foam-flecked rhetoric that accompanies many discussions of populism.  He does not make populism the root of all evil.  Instead, he carefully diagnoses some of the causes of populism as well as some of the challenges populists face.  The conclusion of the book is especially worth reading.  There, Judis distinguishes populism from fascism and claims that populists are responding to real political problems (such as the breakdown of economic opportunity).  It's become de rigueur in certain parts of punditworld to find that populism is purely some atavistic force--the barbaric howl of cretins, bigots, and deplorables.  Judis, however, argues that the rise of populism points to substantial issues that need to be addressed.  Much of my own writing on populism takes as a premise the idea that the populist insurgency is a sign of deeper political challenges, so I'm obviously sympathetic to that reading of populism.

We can only address the current political crisis by understanding its roots, and Judis's book offers an instructive exploration of some of those underlying forces.

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