Toward a Progressive Populism


POPULISM IS RESHAPING our world. Anti-establishment messages are resonating with voters worldwide. In the past, democratic institutions of the post-World War II West have kept in check long-standing tensions. But a long-slumbering world is waking up to problems that have been brewing underneath the surface – problems that those in power haven’t really noticed: Economic inequality has been increasing since the 1970s, wages have stagnated and people bound by cultural similarity are finding it difficult to accommodate to an influx of foreigners.

In response to these problems, groups of people around the world, particularly those in the West, are rejecting globalism and embracing economic protectionism. They are turning to France’s Marine Le Pen or Austria’s Heinz-Christian Strache for solutions. We see this trend echoed in the United States with the rise of Donald Trump and outside the West with nationalist leaders like the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte or India’s Narendra Modi.

As a check on power, progressive populism can serve a useful purpose. But populism driven by authoritarian forces can leave governments in disarray and even lead to armed conflict (see 1930s Germany).

So what begets populism? At their heart, modern populist movements are driven by three things: valid grievances about economic inequality, uncertainty driven by changing social forces such as migration and cultural dislocation and increasing social polarization driven by a fragmenting media environment.

These movements are led by charismatic leaders who provide simple answers to complex problems: Economic inequality is caused by foreign labor and foreign trade; crime is driven by immigrants; and institutions such as the media and academia are aligned against the so-called common man facing these problems.

The reality is much more complex. Research has found that income inequality has more to do with increasing labor efficiency due to technological advancement rather than foreign labor or foreign trade. Crime and immigration are not concomitant. Rather, immigrants help communities develop into dynamic, resilient societies that can surmount challenges in a way that homogeneous societies cannot. Though a fragmented media landscape encourages us to consume media in ideological silos, the rise of social media provides the common person with the tools to share his or her views with the entire world – a feat unprecedented in human history.

Millions in the U.S. and around the world have given their lives to protect the democratic institutions under threat by authoritarian populism. So what can citizens of conscience do to protect the institutions they helped create?

The first step is addressing the valid grievances of the middle class. This requires an ongoing commitment from governments and civil society to offer free or low-cost retraining and education programs to those who have lost their jobs to automation. This means treating workers like human beings, to be nurtured, developed and retained, which in turn requires supporting institutions that advocate for better wages and bargaining power for the middle class.

Dialogue on shared values is another way to reduce the effects of unchecked populism. As I mentioned in a previous post:

For people who are afraid, responding to critique is very helpful because dialogue reduces fear and, by extension, intolerance. Common dialogue and discourse around shared values is essential. No matter where you live, what the color of your skin or who you voted for, we can agree that all people deserve to feel safe.

A conversation based on shared values with those across the aisle allows us to surmount the ideological silos and echo chambers that breed populism.

These solutions are proactive, not reactive. If our institutions are to temper authoritarian populism, they must themselves embrace a progressive, proactive and nurturing kind of populism that places the interests of the middle class at the same level as that of political, economic and social elites.



Ehsan Zaffar
Ehsan Zaffar is a civil rights advocate, educator and policymaker and the founder of the Los Angeles Mobile Legal Aid Clinic, which helped to pioneer the delivery of mobile legal care to vulnerable populations in California and across the nation.