By Sylvia Stead, Globe and Mail Public Editor
Here’s a word that has surged in popularity in the last year. It has been used to describe Donald Trump’s ascendancy, the majority vote on Brexit and the second-place showing of Marine Le Pen in this month’s French presidential election.
I’ve seen business articles in The Globe touting “the new age of populism” for improving stock returns. The newspaper has referred to several Canadian Conservative leadership candidates and world leaders as populists – even the President of the Philippines, Rodrigo Duterte.
But is this the right term? Or are we falling for public-relations campaigns?
Public historian David Finch wrote in recently to say that “the definition of populism is at odds with the racist, narrow minded, reactionary point of view of the minority now claiming to represent the majority. ”
According to dictionary.com, the long-established word refers to “various, often anti-establishment or anti-intellectual political movements or philosophies that offer unorthodox solutions … that appeal to the common person.” Or, “grass-roots democracy; working-class activism; egalitarianism.”
Populism is not a dangerous word, but it seems to me that it is both overused and misused at times. And that use can be misleading to readers. It is worth stopping to ask yourself: Is it honest for these politicians to cast themselves as populists?
Reader Kim Teron wondered about the widespread use of the word to describe far-right and nationalist parties. “But is it really ‘populism’? Many of the politicians representing these parties are running on identity politics and are often not the most popular … Like the Tea Party in the U.S. Were they populists? Maybe early on but they were quickly taken over by and funded by white power brokers on the right to further a corporate, anti-populist agenda. It was a trick.” She worried that the increased use of the word isn’t actually coinciding with an increase in populism. “My concern is labelling political fringe parties as populist seems to normalize them in some way. ”