The Rise of Populism: A Three-Fold Parallel

Populism can be defined as:

“ a political approach that strives to appeal to ordinary people who feel that their concerns are disregarded by established elite groups.”

It is a phrase that has managed to creep into mainstream media in recent years, and even then there is still some uncertainty about what exactly it is. What we do know is that it definitely has elements of group thinking and mob mentality. Populism has changed the political landscape across the globe, and in some cases, very dramatically. When I decided to write about it, there were three examples that came to mind almost immediately

  • The Brexit referendum in 2016,
  • Donald Trump’s election into Office (also 2016), and
  • The Patriotic Front (PF) being elected into power in 2011, in my home country, Zambia.

All three examples have similar characteristics, and highlight a shift in the political landscape worldwide – people are increasingly less sympathetic towards long-standing establishments. The “ordinary people” mentioned in the definition have become much louder over the years, and with these three examples, I take a little look at how that has happened.


On June 23 2016, we witnessed a defining moment in Britain’s history – the decision to leave the European Union. The term “Brexit” was coined throughout the campaign for “Leavers”, who ended up securing 51.9% of the vote. The campaign was built on the premise of the British people “getting their country back”, and was spearheaded by Nigel Farage, who now sees himself leading the Brexit Party.

Populist movements are typically characterized by a dissatisfaction with the prevalent establishment, and are rooted in protectionism and nativism. All three examples show evidence of this. With Brexit, this establishment came in the form of the European Union, and anti-immigration sentiments were the expressions of protectionist and nativist values. The British people felt the need to “take their country back” from the bureaucracy associated with the EU, and the “Leave” campaigners fed off the socio-economic uncertainty surrounding the institution. As journalist Adam Taylor puts it, Brexit essentially became “an ideological battle between a pro-Europe elite and a Brexit-backing underclass.”

Nigel Farage, once considered an outsider in British politics, found himself at the centre of a revolution, and rallied more support than perhaps even he had anticipated. According to him, the EU project was “done”, labelling the multi-culturalism and tolerance the EU tries to promote as mere formalities, that lack practical application. He also has a great admiration for another populist leader, Donald Trump. Farage was invited to Trump Tower shortly after then President-elect Donald Trump was announced as President. Both were shortlisted for TIME’s Person of the Year in 2016, with the latter taking the award.

Despite the Brexit result going against what experts and pollsters predicted, scholars and analysts have seen that some of the principles that “Leavers” were campaigning for weren’t “out of touch”, as many suggested. Professor Matthew Goodwin, in this article, notes how the British people felt uncertain about their future. Additionally, the confusion about what being a “European” means, presents a problem. Different views in the East (conservative) and West (liberal) presented a conflict. Now that the UK has decided to leave the Union, other countries may look to follow suit, as seen with the rise in populist movements in Hungary and France.

While Brexit happened on a warm summer day, across the Atlantic, it would take much cooler temperatures for populism to manifest…


If 2016 really is to be considered, “the year of the populist”, then the climax was definitely Donald Trump being elected and confirmed as America’s 45th President.

The Trump campaign defied all odds as the billionaire and real estate mogul catapulted himself to the White House. Trump’s victory was unprecedented; no political or military background, a true outsider if there ever was one. Moreover, he appealed to the one group of people most dissatisfied by the Obama era: the white middle class.

The timing of Trump’s election is also of some significance. Obama entered the White House on the back of an economic crisis, and the people that suffered the brunt of it were his prime supporters. The white middle class was suffering a declining position in society, and according to Trump, this was because immigrants were taking their jobs. In fact, by some, “Trumpmania” is perceived as “whitelash” – a strong retaliation against having a black President for the past 8 years. His “America First” agenda particularly resonated with these voters, and like Brexit, he preyed on the uncertainty surrounding the economy and the fear of terrorism. Trump exemplified typical populist traits: an outsider, with protectionist views, preaching a simple message laced with speed and emotion. His mantra was simple, he, with the support of “the people”, was going to “Make America Great Again”.

In the Presidential race, however, Trump wasn’t even the only populist. Scholars and analysts have noted that Bernie Sanders’ movement could also have been described as populist, just with a more conservative approach than Trump. They both criticized the establishment with anti-elitist rhetoric, and demanded radical changes to how America should be run. Sanders was able to move his supporters in very similar ways to Trump, and some may argue that he would have been a stronger candidate than Clinton, minus her political clout. Even though it’s normally associated with right-wing politics, Bernie Sanders was proof that populism can be on the left as well.

The other two examples of populism I’ve written about both took place in 2016, but there was another example from 2011 that I never really paid attention to at the time. I had no idea what populism was at the time, but after looking back at what happened in 2016, it dawned on me that I lived right in the middle of a populist movement. The excitement, the rhetoric, the jubilation; it was all there in front of me:


This movement was one I was too young to understand at the time, but when I looked back on it, this movement in particular is what drove me to write this article.

The Patriotic Front (PF) came into power in September 2011, in an election that saw the end of a two-decade rule by the Movement for Multiparty Democracy (MMD). PF’s rise was spearheaded by the late Michael Chilufya Sata, who had all the characteristics of a populist leader: nationalist, anti-establishment, and anti-immigration sentiments.

As with Brexit and Trump, the timing of Sata’s election is worth noting. MMD had ruled in Zambia for 20 years, and their influence had significantly dwindled after the death of their leader, Patrick Levy Mwanawasa in 2008. Sata capitalized on this period of uncertainty with a “pro-poor” narrative that appealed to a majority of the electorate. Just as Trump and his supporters rallied against the 8 years of Obama’s rule, PF appealed to the group of people who felt the most excluded by MMD’s rule – the poor and unemployed.

It was a campaign unlike any other seen in Zambia before, PF won with simple & audacious promises that took the nation by storm. As the majority of the electorate were young people, Sata fed into their energy and enthusiasm this way. He directly contrasted the stable reforms the MMD was proposing and his brash persona made him stand out from your usual Zambian politician. After 20 years of MMD rule, Sata inspired a new kind of energy to the political landscape in Zambia. His most famous promise was to put more money in the pockets of Zambian people within 90 days of being elected.

Sata was known as “King Cobra” for having a sharp tongue, and again, this excited the young and enthusiastic electorate. Much like Donald Trump, he was famous for character assassination of his opponents.

He also lobbied traditional leaders to garner support in rural areas, making them feel that their voices were heard, reinforcing the belief of “us” vs. “them”. His nativist agenda was very much anti-Chinese, claiming that foreign-owned companies needed to treat local workers better. In 2010, when 11 Zambian coal miners were shot while protesting poor working conditions, Sata called for restricting Chinese investment until conditions improved, saying the MMD was “heavily corrupted” by undue Chinese influence.


Populism is by no means a new concept, but it is surely dominating Western politics at the moment. Globalization definitely has a role to play in this resurgence, all three movements above share similarities in that they appear to resist one side-effect of globalization – most notably, mass immigration. That raises the question of whether globalism is effective or not, but that’s a debate for another day.

One thing we do know for sure though: at least for now, populism is prevailing.


Michael Sata | wikimedia commons 

The views and opinions expressed here are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Best of Africa.

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