Five facts about populism

The idea of building a border wall offers a simple solution to the complex problem of immigration. Such populist ideas and the contested nature of contemporary media are contributing to the multiplication of alternative facts and the difficulties people are facing in determining the truth.

Elina Kestilä-Kekkonen

1.    Populism appeals to people because it is framed as representing opposition to the elites, and it offers simple solutions to complex political problems. When immigration from Mexico to the United States is perceived as a problem, the simple solution is to build a border wall. This is a typical example of populism.

2.    Alternative truths, interpretations of reality and pure untruths are nothing new. However, reality is now being obscured by more diverse communication channels. It is increasingly difficult to distinguish the reliable information sources from the unreliable, and as a result, accurate political knowledge has become harder to discern. The field has become hazy, and people are in need of greater media literacy.

3.    People may believe in lies because they interpret the available information according to their own ideological perspectives. People must undergo a constant struggle between how they perceive the world and the extent to which they can trust politicians and the political system. This explains why different people interpret the same political news or events in very different ways.

4.    Compared to the other Nordic countries, Finland is home to a considerable number of people who feel that they do not understand politics; women are more likely to feel this way than men are. When one does not understand politics, it may be easier to cling to simple solutions. Both politicians and the media should clearly explain complicated issues – such as social and health care reform – so that people truly understand what such processes involve.

5.    Populism offers only short term solutions. For example, when a populist party rises to power and becomes a party of government, it usually rapidly loses support. This has certainly happened in Europe, where the fulfilment of populist promises tends to collide with the consensus politics of coalition governments. The voters of populist parties may become disillusioned and are likely to vote for a different party in the following elections. However, after a while, the party may rise again.

Acting professor Elina Kestilä-Kekkonen from the Faculty of Management at the University of Tampere was interviewed for this story. Kestilä-Kekkonen researches political trust, and political values and attitudes.