Populism is not well understood because, over the past several decades, it has been infrequent in emerging countries (e.g., Chávez’s Venezuela, Duterte’s Philippines, etc.) and virtually nonexistent in developed countries. It is one of those phenomena that comes along in a big way about once a lifetime—like pandemics, depressions, or wars. The last time that it existed as a major force in the world was in the 1930s, when most countries became populist. Over the last year, it has again emerged as a major force.

To help get a sense of how the level of populist support today compares to populism in the past, we created an index of the share of votes received by populist/anti-establishment parties or candidates in national elections, for all the major developed countries (covering the US, UK, Japan, Germany, France, Italy, and Spain) all the way back to 1900, weighting the countries by their population shares. We sought to identify parties/candidates who made attacking the political/corporate establishment their key political cause. Obviously, the exercise is inherently rough, so don’t squint too much at particular wiggles. But the broad trends are clear. Populism has surged in recent years and is currently at its highest level since the late 1930s (though the ideology of the populists today is much less extreme compared to the 1930s).

Ray Dalio - Populism


Given the extent of it now, over the next year populism will certainly play a greater role in shaping economic policies. In fact, we believe that populism’s role in shaping economic conditions will probably be more powerful than classic monetary and fiscal policies (as well as a big influence on fiscal policies). It will also be important in driving international relations. Exactly how important we can’t yet say. We will learn a lot more over the next year or so as those populists now in office will signal how classically populist they will be and a number of elections will determine how many more populists enter office.

In any case, we think now is the time to brush up on our understandings of populism and what to watch out for. While we’re not experts in politics, we wanted to share our research to understand the phenomenon.

In this report, we describe what we see as the “archetypical populist template,” which we built out through studying 14 past populist leaders in 10 different countries. In that way, we can show their similarities and differences. While no two cases are identical, most cases are similar—so much so that one might say that there is a “populist playbook.” By knowing these historical cases well, we will then be able to compare the developments of contemporary cases with those of the past, both to better understand the phenomenon and to better visualize how it might develop.

The Archetypical Populist Template

Populism is a political and social phenomenon that arises from the common man, typically not well- educated, being fed up with 1) wealth and opportunity gaps, 2) perceived cultural threats from those with different values in the country and from outsiders, 3) the “establishment elites” in positions of power, and 4) government not working effectively for them. These sentiments lead that constituency to put strong leaders in power. Populist leaders are typically confrontational rather than collaborative and exclusive rather than inclusive. As a result, conflicts typically occur between opposing factions (usually the economic and socially left versus the right), both within the country and between countries. These conflicts typically become progressively more forceful in self- reinforcing ways.

Within countries, conflicts often lead to disorder (e.g., strikes and protests) that prompt stronger reactions and the growing pressure to more forcefully regain order by suppressing the other side. Influencing and, in some cases, controlling the media typically becomes an important aspect of engaging in the conflicts. In some cases, these conflicts have led to civil wars. Such conflicts have led a number of democracies to become dictatorships to bring order to the disorder that results from these conflicts. Between countries, conflicts typically occur because populist leaders’ natures are more confrontational than cooperative and because conflicts with other countries help to unify support for the leadership within their countries.

In other words, populism is a rebellion of the common man against the elites and, to some extent, against the system. The rebellion and the conflict that comes with it occur in varying degrees. Sometimes the system bends with it and sometimes the system breaks. Whether it bends or breaks in response to this rebellion and conflict depends on how flexible and well established the system is. It also seems to depend on how reasonable and respectful of the system the populists who gain power are.

In monitoring the early-stage development of populist regimes, the most important thing to watch is how conflict is handled—whether the opposing forces can coexist to make progress or whether they increasingly “go to war” to block and hurt each other and cause gridlock.

Classic populist economic policies include protectionism, nationalism, increased infrastructure building, increased military spending, greater budget deficits, and, quite often, capital controls.

In the period between the two great wars (i.e., the 1920s-30s), most major countries were swept away by populism, and it drove world history more than any other force. The previously mentioned sentiments by the common man put into power populist leaders in all major countries except the United States and the UK (though we’d consider Franklin D. Roosevelt to be a quasi-populist, for reasons described below). Disorder and conflict between the left and the right (e.g., strikes that shut down operations, policies meant to undermine the opposition and the press, etc.) prompted democracies in Italy, Germany, Spain, and Japan to choose dictatorships because collective/inclusive decision making was perceived as tolerance for behaviors that undermined order, so autocratic leaders were given dictatorial powers to gain control. In some cases (like Spain), strife between those of conflicting ideologies led to civil war. In the US and UK, prominent populist leaders emerged as national figures (Oswald Mosley, Father Charles Coughlin, Huey Long), though they didn’t take control from mainstream parties.

In summary, populism is…

  • Power to the common man…
  • …Through the tactic of attacking the establishment, the elites, and the powerful…
  • …Brought about by wealth and opportunity gaps, xenophobia, and people being fed up with government not working effectively, which leads to:
  • …The emergence of the strong leader to serve the common man and make the system run more efficiently…
  • …Protectionism…
  • …Nationalism…
  • …Militarism…
  • …Greater conflict, and…
  • …Greater attempts to influence or control the media.

The table shown immediately below points out the major populist politicians from the interwar period and what characteristics they shared:

Ray Dalio - Populism

By Ray Dalio, read the full article here.