How to defeat populists: more populism

The unimaginable has happened. The world’s most powerful nation will soon be lead by an erratic, politically inexperienced clown. The question that is on everybody’s mind is what this clown will actually do as president. One can only guess. Many of us think other Western countries will follow America’s example in voting populists into power. After Brexit and Trump, anything is possible. It seems nothing is able to stop the rise of the populists. If we really want to defeat populists, we have to fight them with their own weapon: populism.

Marin le Pen, Frauke Petry, Geert Wilders. These names might soon be on our newspaper’s front page. Their catchy rhetoric is gaining momentum all across Europe. 2017 will witness some crucial elections, where populist parties have a significant chance of winning political influence. We should not be surprised if, after the Trump-phenomenon, we wake up with a nasty populist as president/premier ourselves. No matter how much we would detest this prospect we have to take populism seriously. In fact, we have to anticipate its political materialisation. Is there really nothing we can do to stop this?

I believe there is a way to stop the relentless rise of populists. Sound arguments, enlightened discussions, and rational deliberation are, sadly, ineffective against simple rhetoric because fact-free politics has become an accepted practice. Instead, what we need is more populism, not less. The reason is that if populism is concentrated in one person or political party, it will be relatively easy to mobilise large groups of people under the anti-establishment banner. When there is only one alternative to the despised status-quo, the growing groups of angry voters will easily flock to someone like Trump or the Front National.


There are two ways in which ‘normal’ political parties can counter populism. One option would be to adopt a populist message themselves. This would attract some of the disillusioned to, despite their grievances, vote for established parties. The other option includes promoting the emergence of more populist parties. In the Netherlands, for example, politicians could embrace newcomers like VoorNederland and Forum voor Democractie. This way the influence of people who have populist leanings will be fragmented and, therefore, less significant.

There are, of course, important downsides to introducing more populism. Yet after what happened on Tuesday it seems we are running out of viable options. The paradox of defeating populists with populism might prove helpful in setting out a new strategy. Let’s reclaim the initiative – while we still can…


One thought on “How to defeat populists: more populism”

  1. I agree. Divide and conquer seems the only solution in the short run. In the long run – outside the political forum and in civil society – we need to start seriously addressing the feelings of exclusion and general loss of populist voters. The change in the world is great, yet not always inclusive and equally distributed. This year has clearly shown the losers that have been neglected: mainly low income, low educated, white males who have seen their jobs disappear, social rights diminish and retirement age increase. As much as we may call Trump a fool, he seems the only person who addresses that feeling of loss with a winner’s mentality. As much as Trump may be a fool, so are we as established leaders who have neglected that feeling of loss. The upcoming elections in 2017 demand our established leaders to look in the mirror and honestly ask themselves: how am I going to be a better leader for supporters of populist politicians?


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