The Global Rise of Populism and its Impact on Democracy


Populism is a political ideology that emphasizes the interests of ordinary people over those of the elite. Its rise in recent years has been characterized by a growing sense of distrust towards established institutions and mainstream politics. Populist leaders such as Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, and Matteo Saline have been able to tap into this sentiment to gain power.

The drivers of populism are complex and multifaceted. Economic insecurity, political disenchantment, and cultural alienation are among the key factors that have contributed to the global rise of populism. People who feel left behind by globalization and other economic and social changes have turned to populist leaders as a way to voice their frustrations.

While populism can be seen as a positive force for democracy by representing the interests of ordinary people and promoting their participation in politics, it also poses significant risks. Populist leaders often adopt an authoritarian style of leadership and reject the norms and values of democratic institutions. They also tend to dismiss critics as part of the elite and promote division and polarization in society, which can undermine the foundations of democracy.

Moreover, populism can have a significant impact on the international order. Populist leaders prioritize national interests over international cooperation, which can lead to a breakdown of multilateral institutions and an erosion of the rules-based order. This can have long-lasting implications for global security and prosperity[1].

In light of these developments, it is important to explore the impact of the global rise of populism on democracy and the international order. This paper seeks to examine the various dimensions of populism and the challenges it poses to the democratic process and the rules-based international system.


The historical roots of populism can be traced back to the late 19th century, when farmers and laborers in the United States formed the Populist Party. The party was formed to represent the interests of ordinary people against the established political elites, and it advocated for policies such as the nationalization of railroads, the establishment of a graduated income tax, and the use of silver to expand the money supply[2].

Although the Populist Party was short-lived, its legacy can be seen in modern-day populist movements. Populism has re-emerged in recent years as a response to globalization, economic inequality, and political polarization. Populist leaders have been able to tap into a growing sense of discontent and anger among those who feel left behind by the economic and social changes of the past few decades.

In Europe, populist movements have taken on a nationalist and anti-immigrant character. Leaders such as Marine Le Pen in France and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands have advocated for tighter border controls and the rejection of multiculturalism. In Latin America, populist leaders such as Hugo Chavez in Venezuela and Evo Morales in Bolivia have championed social welfare programs and the nationalization of industries.[3]

Despite their different contexts and ideological orientations, modern-day populist movements share certain characteristics with the original Populist Party. They reject the established political elites and emphasize the interests of ordinary people. They also tend to be anti-establishment and anti-globalization, often advocating for a return to a simpler way of life.

The historical roots of populism demonstrate that it is not a new phenomenon. However, the current wave of populism is distinct in its global reach and the extent of its impact on established democracies. It remains to be seen whether populist movements will continue to grow in influence or whether they will ultimately be constrained by the challenges they face in governing effectively.


The rise of populism is a complex phenomenon that has been fuelled by a variety of factors. Among the most important of these are economic insecurity, political disenchantment, and cultural alienation. These drivers have created a sense of frustration and anger among those who feel left behind by the changes of the past few decades.

Economic insecurity is a major driver of populism. The rise of global competition and technological change has led to job displacement and wage stagnation, particularly among working-class and middle-class populations. This has created a sense of uncertainty and anxiety about the future, which populist leaders have been able to exploit by offering simple solutions to complex problems.

Political disenchantment is another driver of populism. Many people feel disillusioned with mainstream political parties and institutions, which they perceive as corrupt and out of touch with their needs. Populist leaders often position themselves as outsiders who can bring about change and restore the voice of the people in the political process.

Cultural alienation is also a key driver of populism. Globalization and immigration have led to a sense of displacement among some communities, particularly in Europe and North America. This has led to the rise of nationalist and anti-immigrant sentiment, with some populist leaders positioning themselves as defenders of national identity and culture.

These drivers of populism are interconnected, and they have created a fertile ground for the rise of populist movements around the world. Populist leaders have been able to tap into these drivers by offering simple and often divisive solutions to complex problems. This has led to a polarization of political discourse and a breakdown of trust in democratic institutions[4].

Understanding the drivers of populism is essential for addressing its impact on democracy. Unless the underlying drivers of populism are addressed, populist movements are likely to continue to grow in influence, posing a challenge to democratic norms and values.


Populist leaders have emerged in many parts of the world in recent years, often characterized by their authoritarianism, anti-expertise, and polarizing rhetoric. These leaders tend to reject traditional democratic norms and institutions, presenting themselves as the sole voice of the people and portraying political opponents as enemies of the nation.

One of the key features of populist leaders is their authoritarian tendencies. They often centralize power and undermine checks and balances, claiming that they alone can represent the will of the people. They may also use tactics such as attacking the free press, limiting civil liberties, and co-opting independent institutions to consolidate their power and maintain control.

Another hallmark of populist leaders is their rejection of expertise and intellectualism. They often present themselves as outsiders who are not beholden to the establishment, and they may dismiss the opinions of academics, scientists, and other experts as elitist or out of touch with ordinary people. This anti-expertise stance can make it difficult for populist leaders to effectively address complex policy issues, leading to policies that are based more on ideology than on evidence or data[5].

Finally, populist leaders often rely on polarizing rhetoric to rally their supporters and demonize their opponents. They may use language that is divisive or inflammatory, appealing to emotions rather than reason. This can lead to a further breakdown in political discourse and contribute to social and political polarization.

Overall, populist leaders and their methods represent a significant challenge to democratic norms and institutions. While their rise may reflect legitimate grievances and concerns among some segments of the population, their rejection of democratic principles and embrace of authoritarianism, anti-expertise, and polarization pose a threat to the health and stability of democratic societies.


Positive effects of populism on democracy include:

Increased participation: Populist movements often attract people who feel disenfranchised or disenchanted with the existing political system. By mobilizing these groups, populism can increase voter turnout and encourage greater participation in the democratic process.

Accountability: Populist leaders often criticize the political establishment for being corrupt or out of touch with the needs of ordinary people. By holding politicians accountable for their actions, populism can help to promote transparency and reduce the influence of special interests.

Social justice: Populist movements often prioritize issues of social justice and inequality, such as workers’ rights, healthcare, and education. By focusing on these issues, populism can help to address the needs of marginalized groups and promote a more equitable society.

Negative effects of populism on democracy include:

Polarization: Populist movements often appeal to emotions and identity politics, rather than rational debate and compromise. This can lead to increased polarization and divisiveness within society, making it more difficult to find common ground and make progress on important issues.

Authoritarianism: Populist leaders often claim to represent the will of the people and attack independent institutions such as the judiciary, media, and civil society. This can lead to a weakening of democratic checks and balances and an erosion of human rights and freedoms.

Populism vs. Democracy: Populist movements may prioritize the interests of the majority over the rights of minorities and may seek to curtail civil liberties and human rights in the name of “the people.” This can lead to a tension between populism and democracy, where the latter is seen as a barrier to achieving the will of the people.


The rise of populist movements and leaders has led to increasing challenges to the international order. Populists prioritize national interests over global cooperation and often reject multilateral institutions and agreements. This has both positive and negative effects on the international order.

One of the positive effects of the populist prioritization of national interests is the potential for increased sovereignty and autonomy for individual nations. Populist leaders often focus on protecting their country’s economic interests and national security, which can lead to greater control over domestic policy decisions[6].

However, this focus on national interests can also lead to negative consequences, such as a reduction in cooperation and collaboration among nations. Populist leaders may be less willing to engage in multilateral institutions and agreements, which can make it difficult to address global issues such as climate change, nuclear proliferation, and pandemics.

Another challenge posed by populism is the rejection of multilateral institutions such as the United Nations and the World Trade Organization. Populist leaders often view these institutions as threats to national sovereignty and may seek to undermine them. This can lead to a breakdown in the international rules-based order, which relies on the cooperation and coordination of nations.

Furthermore, the rejection of multilateral institutions can lead to a lack of accountability and transparency. Populist leaders may be less willing to participate in international forums and may be more likely to make unilateral decisions without consulting other nations or seeking input from civil society.


The rise of populism has presented significant challenges to democracy and the international order. Populist movements and leaders have often prioritized national interests over global cooperation, rejected multilateral institutions, and appealed to anti-establishment sentiment. This has led to a rise in polarization and division, as well as a weakening of democratic institutions and norms[7].

In addition, it is important to promote greater civic engagement and participation. This can be achieved through measures such as expanding access to voting and encouraging greater participation in civil society organizations. By promoting greater civic engagement, we can help to build a stronger sense of community and collective responsibility, which can help to reduce polarization and division.


In summation, the ascension of populist movements has posed formidable difficulties to democracy and the global order. Such movements and their leaders have often given priority to national interests over international collaboration, refused multilateral organizations, and capitalized on anti-establishment sentiments. This has resulted in amplified polarization and fragmentation, along with a weakening of democratic institutions and principles.

Moving forward, it is imperative to tackle the underlying factors that have led to the rise of populism, including economic inequality, social exclusion, and inadequate representation. By confronting these issues, we can alleviate the appeal of populism and enhance democratic institutions. Ultimately, addressing the challenges posed by populism for democracy and the global order requires a multifaceted and coordinated approach, which entails addressing the root causes of populism, promoting transparency and accountability, and advancing civic engagement and participation. Through concerted efforts, we can cultivate a more resilient and democratic world that is better positioned to meet the needs of all individuals, both in the present and the future.

[1] Understanding the Global Rise of Populism, (Accessed March 17,2023).

[2] Populism political program or movement, ( Accessed March 17,2023)

[3] Populism as a Concept and the Challenge of U.S. History , ( Accessed March 17 ,2023)

[4] Cultural insecurity as the main root cause of populism, (Accessed March 15,2023)

[5] Populists, authoritarians, or secretariats? Policy preferences and threats to democratic governance in the modern age, (Accessed March 16,2023)

[6] The populist challenge to liberal democracy, (Accessed March 17,2023)


Author: Siddhartha Gupta

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