Local Burman University professor Marc Froese is one-half of the literary team behind a new book focused on the rise of populism.
Froese, a professor of political science and the founding director of the school’s International Studies Program, has previously penned three books and dozens of articles on trade and political/economic issues.
He co-wrote Has Populism Won? The War on Liberal Democracy with Daniel Drache, a professor emeritus of political science and senior research fellow at the Robarts Centre for Canadian Studies at York University in Toronto.
Much of Froese’s focus over the years has been on subjects like international trade and the way political structures can impact economic outcomes, for example.
And while he and Drache chatted about teaming up for a new title, the topic of populism and its escalating impact internationally came to the forefront.
Initially, the thought was to adopt a theoretical approach about the collapse of international cooperation and the internal workings of trade agreements now vs. 20 years ago.
“But we ended up moving more directly into populism because it seemed like that was the conversations that we were having,” he said. So the collaboration started about six months prior to the start of the pandemic, which meant that much of the later dialogue was held via Zoom.
The men began to build an intricate narrative about the changing international political climate.
They also started asking more questions, like how many countries are ‘populist’, or where the notion of populism is framing the political narrative.
It was more common than they had initially thought.
They figured about 36 countries fell into this category.
Another thing that surprised the authors was how populism, in general, has not been ‘tempered’, he said.
At one time, it was thought that populism was an effective means of getting elected, as it’s basically a way of ‘weaponizing’ resentment or grievance amongst voters, he explained.
Populist leaders tend to present themselves as able to quash the forces that are dragging people down. But often, they don’t offer much in the way of practical, workable solutions, he added.
“Populism (which can be on the left or right of the political spectrum), is a simple way of weaponizing grievance and driving people to the polls because of their anger – not because of their hope,” he explained.
And while in the past the populist stance, as mentioned, may have helped vault a candidate into office, it generally didn’t keep him or her there. Until now.
“We’ve seen that you don’t have to ‘temper’ yourself once you are in power, and that surprised us because of course political scientists think politicians have an interest in maintaining the ‘system’ once they are in the system,” he said.
But some politicians on the stage today have shown that you don’t have to temper yourself once you are in power. You don’t have to adopt a more even-handed and collaborative approach to governing.
“What if you have no interest in maintaining the system?”
So the question he and Drache started asking was how did society get to this point?
“And more importantly, will we get back to more even-handed governments?
“In our book, we show that the populists are usually men, mostly born after World War II, who gained their wealth through connections in the media and corporate power brokers in their home countries.”
As a release about the book also put it, “Populist movements tend to emphasize their own concerns but together they have several features in common, such as the use of ‘big lies’ to gain power, authoritarian tactics to maintain it, and an ultra-nationalist vision for national renewal that requires scapegoating outsiders.”
Another issue is that populism has become more mainstream in major political parties, he said.
The authors also explore what helps to fuel the surge in populist thinking. “You could argue that in a society that is increasingly unequal, most people do this thing called ‘comparing up and punching down’.
“Everybody compares themselves to people who have more money than they do, which can make them resentful. And then people (sometimes) punch down on the people beneath them to make themselves feel better when they themselves feel resentment,” he explained.
This tends to be fairly common in North American society where extreme wealth tends to be celebrated. “Beyond that, we have stagnant wages, especially in the U.S. Instead of ‘real wage growth’ we’ve had the growth of ‘cheap credit’,” he said.
Plus cheap goods are more available from international markets, which can keep folks from noticing that in reality, their wages haven’t kept pace with the growth of the economy.
There is also the rise of a millionaire class that even celebrates not having to pay much tax, he said. So, in essence, there are several reasons for why some people lean towards populism.
Ultimately, Froese welcomes the dialogue that will likely be sparked with the release of Has Populism Won? The War on Liberal Democracy.
As he pointed out, it’s not so much an offering of clear-cut answers about correcting an imbalance, but more of an exploration of a topic that is becoming increasingly common on today’s international political scene.
The book is available on Amazon.