Earlier this year, about 25 million primary voters backed two insurgent candidates who attacked their parties’ establishments and America’s system of “rigged” economic and political competition. The democratic socialist Bernie Sanders and plutocratic nationalist Donald Trump are in most ways as opposed as matter and antimatter, but their astonishing campaigns were propelled by a shared sense of indignation that linked left and right this year: the feeling that too many ordinary Americans have suffered and seen their economic prospects slip away, even as the country’s elites have reaped the fruits of a system stacked in their favor. On both sides, voters have had enough, and they want control of their country returned to the people—or at least to politicians who they believe will represent their interests and concerns. Thus, even with Sanders sidelined, 2016 remains a populist moment.
The new populism that shook up the primaries isn’t exclusively American. Across Europe, established parties are seeing their grip on power shaken by insurgents from the left and the right. Some—like France’s National Front and the Dutch Party for Freedom—are anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim. Others—like Syriza in Greece, Podemos in Spain—more closely resemble Sanders’s campaign. Many, though not all, are hostile to the European Union, which for decades has been the shared project of mainstream parties on the left and the right.
Britain’s surprise vote to leave the European Union in June was a recent example of this growing insurgency against the political mainstream. A grassroots rebellion against the elite circles of multicultural and Europe-oriented London, the vote for Brexit came from the working-class and rural bases of both parties. In its wake, calls for similar referendums in France and the Netherlands were made by Marine Le Pen, the leader of the National Front, and Geert Wilders, Holland’s most visible right-wing populist.
Two slim and very different books published this fall attempt to make sense of this growing populist wave that is sweeping much of the Western Hemisphere. John B. Judis, a longtime political journalist and coauthor of The Emerging Democratic Majority, has written The Populist Explosion, a sweeping narrative—rich in historical and political argument—that ably ties together the insurgencies on both sides of the Atlantic. Jan-Werner Müller, a political scientist at Princeton who writes mostly on Western European affairs, offers a narrower definition in What Is Populism? But he also sheds important light on this anti-elite electoral revolt.
* * *
Judis adopts a broad definition of populism, borrowed from the historian Michael Kazin, which includes everything from the American segregationist George Wallace to the leftist leaders of Podemos and Syriza. Populism, he writes, portrays “ordinary people as a noble assemblage not bounded narrowly by class; views their elite opponents as self-serving and undemocratic”; and works to rally the working and middle classes against the elite. Left-wing populism does so by punching upward at the ruling class. Right-wing populism often punches both up and down: It attacks those at the top of the economic and political ladder, but it also targets the disenfranchised, whether racial minorities, the poor, or immigrant groups.