The Populist Explosion By John B Judis (2016). A review by John Cook



This is a topic that must have exercised many minds other than mine in recent times. The title says it all. Anyone with a moderate degree of awareness of public affairs in recent times must have been given thought by the economic tides in Italy, Greece and Spain as well as the differently engendered tides of political change in France (le Pen), Denmark, Germany, Sweden and Norway while the rise of nationalism in Russia has given cause for interest. Brexit and the UK and the rise of Trump in the US with the threatened resurgence of One Nation in Australia are all examples of a tidal change in world politics whatever the causes and personalities involved. In all instances these influences can be seen loosely as examples of what can be defined as Populism and it certainly looks and feels like an explosion.


I have been increasingly aware of these changes and have read plenty of opinion pieces on what was happening and why. What I lacked was an overview (with an historical dimension) that would give me a basis from which to examine and understand what was happening in often very different cultures and situations. Judis’ book came with a review recommendation and I bought it in its Kindle version from Amazon and, after an initial brief check, put it to one side. When I returned to read it, it had vanished from my iPad Kindle reader and I had to download a fresh copy. Ouch! Does anyone have an explanation for how that could happen?


However, once read I found it just what was wanted by me. Judis places the current phenomenon in a largely American historical context which meshed nicely with my recent reading of American State and Presidential politics with emphasis on rural Populism (think of Gore Vidal’s blind grandfather the Senator for Oklahoma) and such well-known personalities as Huey Long, George Wallace and similar others. It is extensively footnoted for anyone wanting to follow through.


Judis makes it clear that there are often commonly-rooted issues in Populist movements though there are often different strands derived from whether the Left or Right are primarily involved and whether the sore points are primarily economic, social, employment, terrorism or immigration orientated. He also points out that, in the past, these movements often morph and change according to time and situation as the more usual dominant parties (especially in two party  systems) strive to adjust and incorporate. This can be seen historically with the Tea Party in the US and the positioning of the far right and rural socialism in Australian Federal politics.


It is important to try to clarify the general differences (not always clearcut) between populist movements of the Left and Right, their component issues and degrees of importance. Conventionally, the left points to uncaring elites and unfair opportunities and wealth distribution while the right is more inclined to highlight immigration, religious incompatibility or similar bases for fear of an outgroup. One Nation in Australia, while quite conservative in its social appeal manages to incorporate elements of both, a not uncommon positioning.


While PM Turnbull is more Clintonian in his positioning it will be interesting to watch his manoeuvring against the background of native Australian populism as a fresh federal election approaches.




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