Can science help us understand populism, from 'malignant manicheism' to Marine Le Pen?

A police man stands in front of posters of Marine Le Pen, French far-right National Rally (Rassemblement National) party candidate for the 2022 French presidential election outside the party headquarters, after her defeat in the second round of the election, in Paris, France, April 25, 2022. REUTERS/Yves Herman

Campaign posters for the French presidential election in Paris in April. Image: REUTERS/Yves Herman

John Letzing
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  • Recent election results in Europe have been interpreted as a reversal for populism.
  • Researchers are trying to gain a fuller understanding of what populism is and how it spreads.
  • This raises the prospect of potentially limiting the damage it can cause.

After a pair of populist candidates were defeated in European elections last Sunday, some of the reaction sounded like advice we get during the downslope of a COVID-19 wave – this is good, but don't get complacent.

Marine Le Pen, who promised French voters a “national preference” over foreigners for jobs and fewer social benefits for immigrants, lost a presidential bid. In Slovenia, Janez Janša was denied another term as prime minster after being accused of sliding towards authoritarian rule. Still, more than 14 million votes were collectively cast for the two politicians.

Populism has been a contentious issue since at least the 19th century. Tiberius Gracchus, the Roman tribune murdered by a posse of senators in 133 BC, has been labeled a proto-populist. But it seems we’re only now getting around to determining what populism is, exactly.

A growing number of researchers are on the case, applying machine learning to party manifestos and speeches, assessing what makes voters tick, and formulating new definitions. One study published last year quantified the lasting economic and political damage caused by populist leaders in dozens of countries. It also suggested populism is here to stay.

But the expanding field of “populology” points to an intriguing possibility: if we can break it down scientifically, can we limit its worst impacts?

The historical record shows that claiming to act on behalf of the “people” doesn’t necessarily make it so. In fact, it has often led to despotism and suffering.

Experts trace the origins of modern populism to 19th-century America. Versions also cropped up in Russia and Argentina.

It’s swung both ways over the years; a form on the political left has focused on redistributing wealth, and the one on the right has leaned hard on xenophobia. In Europe, the right-wing variety began a resurgence in the 1980s led by people like Marine Le Pen’s father, Jean-Marie, the French National Front leader once described by the New York Times as a “discomforting political phenomenon”.

The rise, fall, and rise again of populism

Andrew Jackson, the 19th-century US president, perpetrator of what’s been described as ethnic cleansing, and possibly the first populist, reappeared in the White House in 2017. That’s when his portrait was hung in the Oval Office by the winner of the previous year’s presidential election, Donald Trump – himself a populist.

The portrait has now disappeared from the Oval Office, following the 2020 election. But other impacts from a period of populist resurgence have been more lasting.

The Brexit vote in 2016 that pulled the UK out of the European Union, for example, widely seen as a populist breakthrough, is reshaping the country’s economy.

Recently published research found the vote has led to a sharp decline in trading relationships, which has had a disproportionately negative impact on small businesses.

An 1828 engraving of Andrew Jackson, who led US troops at the Battle of New Orleans.
An 1828 engraving of Andrew Jackson, who led US troops at the Battle of New Orleans.

The 2020 US presidential election was followed by an election in the Czech Republic last year that was also seen as a repudiation of populist politics. Then came the elections in France and Slovenia.

However, the large number of people abstaining from the French vote, a better result for Le Pen than she’d managed in the prior presidential election, and subsequent protests, have been viewed as evidence that France remains one of many countries vulnerable to the appeal of far-right populism.

Francis Fukuyama has suggested a validation of “extreme free-market advocates” after the collapse of the Soviet Union, and a related lack of government focus on maintaining stability, enabled populism to flourish.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine may now deal it a heavy blow, by embarrassing the populist leaders previously inclined to ingratiate themselves with Vladimir Putin.

If the past is a reliable guide, though, a comeback is likely – making efforts to better understand how populism takes root as urgent as ever. “Populology” may yet improve both our knowledge of how the political brain works, and “its implications for democracy”, one academic wrote.

More reading on the dynamics of populism

For more context, here are links to further reading from the World Economic Forum's Strategic Intelligence platform:

  • Macron’s win is not populism’s defeat – according to this analysis, the French presidential election may have reassured many but it shows that more voters than ever want the system blown up. (Project Syndicate)
  • Éric Zemmour, a populist presidential candidate in the French election, touts the “great replacement” conspiracy theory that cosmopolitans aim to replace Christians with Muslim immigrants, according to this piece, and despite his loss, he’s popular with the upper-middle class. (Institut Montaigne)
  • Malignant Manicheism – the most crucial characteristic of populist leaders and their propaganda is the notion that the political spectrum is divided into the “good” and the “bad,” according to this analysis of elections in Colombia and Brazil. (LSE)
  • The recent European election results may be heartening for some, but according to this piece, trust in democracy is actually declining in most parts of the world. (In Depth News)
  • Populists indulge in radical and emotionally driven language while diplomats must be more cautious, but this piece asks whether that limitation is still appropriate in an era of climate crisis. (Australian Institute of International Affairs)
  • They may yet capitalize on Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to this analysis, but for now the war seems to be discrediting Putin’s populist supporters in the West and unifying Europe. (Project Syndicate)
  • The populist radical right more than doubled its share of seats in the European Parliament over the past decade, according to this analysis, reflecting growing public scepticism about European integration. (LSE)

On the Strategic Intelligence platform, you can find feeds of expert analysis related to Civic Participation, Science and hundreds of additional topics. You’ll need to register to view.

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