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Donald Trump and Jair Bolsonaro are often described as populism’s modern incarnation. Photo: Allen Eyestone/The Palm Beach Post/ZUMA Wire/Alamy Live News

Populism is merely a symptom. Treatment must target the underlying disease

It is a form of politics that educated opinion disdains. But it’s no good wishing populism away. Wake up to the underlying condition of mis-governance that creates it—and then shake up our institutions to fix the link between the governing and governed

By Callum Watts  

Over the past decade, populism has emerged as an invasive species which has disrupted a previously stable political ecosystem. Liberal democracies across the world have been left in disarray, and occasional victories by establishment parties offer only temporary respite from its onslaught. That is an interpretation that Prospect readers—and all “right-thinking” opinion—will by now have heard many times.

However, in reality, populism is a symptom of the dysfunction, not the cause. It is a corrective response to a political organisation that is already suffering from an underlying pathology. Like many reactions, it can certainly sometimes end up doing more harm than good. But there is no hope in dealing with it decisively—still less of achieving full health to our polity—if the underlying issue isn’t addressed.

To grasp the nature of populism and how to address it, we must first understand what it means to govern well. Opinions…

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