Is Populism a Threat to Security?

Author: Kaitlyn Read, 2019.


“…it is clear that currently, populism is on the rise while the liberal world order is in retreat (“Liberal World Order” 2). In places like Hungary, France, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the US, populist movements are garnering significant support, leading to the election of populist leaders whose platforms espouse the dismantlement of liberal institutions and the disenfranchisement of minorities.”

Image from Flickr.  


Following World War II, the United States (US), with the assistance of Great Britain, established a supranational political and economic framework to ensure that the circumstances leading to the two world wars would never occur again (Wright 1). This liberal world order was based on the rule of law, respect for states’ sovereignty and territorial integrity, and the protection of human rights (“Liberal World Order” 1). While participation in the liberal world order was voluntary, its fundamental ideals were applied globally through the creation of international institutions promoting peace, economic development, trade, and investment. For instance, in 1945, the United Nations was founded in order to maintain international peace and security by fostering international cooperation (“History of the United Nations” 1). Another example pertains to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, implemented in 1947, which promoted international trade by reducing trade barriers (“Understanding the WTO” 1). The US used its economic and military power, in conjunction with the establishment of a network of alliances across Europe and Asia, to enforce the liberal world order and to contain the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union collapsed, signaling the end of the Cold War, many believed it demonstrated the entrenchment of the liberal world order in the international system (“Liberal World Order” 2).

However, it is clear that currently, populism is on the rise while the liberal world order is in retreat (“Liberal World Order” 2). In places like Hungary, France, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the US, populist movements are garnering significant support, leading to the election of populist leaders whose platforms espouse the dismantlement of liberal institutions and the disenfranchisement of minorities. The recent rise in populism is due to a variety of factors, including negative reactions to increasing globalization, perceptions of vulnerability by citizens, and successful securitizations of a political ‘other.’

While populism is illiberal, it is still democratic (Pappas 23). However, despite the prevailing belief that democratic states do not war with one another (Doyle 1), populism’s democratic adherence does not mean that populist governments are benign to either the security of individuals or of states. In fact, populism poses a threat to both human and state security. Regarding human security, populism can be used as a tool to undermine the supposedly inalienable liberties of particular individuals, excluding them from the political process when they should be included. Concerning state security, populist leaders’ securitization of migrants can indirectly destabilize diplomatic relations between states, leading to both economic and militaristic conflicts. Thus, populism poses a threat to both human and state security because the illiberal acts it engenders can oppress citizens and erode interstate relations; moreover, populism can be contagious (Schwörer 1), increasing the threat populism poses to human and state security.

In order to assess the threat level of populism to both human and state security, this paper first delivers definitional context regarding populism and security, followed by an explanation of the drivers of populism. Next, a case study of the election of US President Donald Trump, a populist, is provided. Finally, this paper concludes with an analysis of the impact populist movements can have on the liberal world order.




Security is the state of being free from threat and is usually applied to a state or an individual. For either a state or an individual to be completely secure, there must be absolute certainty that no threat exists to the entity. However, threat is subjective (Zedner 157), meaning that a perceived threat by an entity might not be considered or recognized as a potential threat by another entity. Additionally, there is always the potential that a new threat will emerge, making security a never-ending pursuit.



A threat occurs when an entity is perceived as having the intent and the capability to cause harm. Intention involves the desire to cause harm while capability involves possessing sufficient power to actually cause harm. While it is impossible to be certain of an entity’s intention or capability to cause harm, such can often be approximated. For instance, due to its open markets and transparency requirements, it is relatively easy to determine the economic power of the US; however, due to the inherently secretive nature of the military, historical and other indirect sources of information must be relied on to approximate US military strength.



At its most basic, a democracy is a system of government that ensures a broad inclusive citizenship and equality of these citizens (Galston 5). For the purposes of this paper, a democracy, unmodified by any adjective, entails majoritarian rule, which follows the rule of law and does not systematically marginalize any citizen or group of citizens.



Liberalism involves the “peaceful enjoyment of individual independence” by a citizen (Galston 6). That is, the concept of liberalism recognizes that there is a domain beyond the rightful reach of government where each citizen has the right to independence and privacy. A liberal democracy, where “liberalism” modifies “democracy,” protects the independence and privacy of citizens by putting such beyond the government’s reach.



Securitization is the process of framing an issue in security terms by presenting the issue as an existential threat(Buzan and Hansen 214). The actor who initiates the framing of the issue as an existential threat is called the securitizing actor(Buzan and Hansen 214). The securitizing actor declares that someone or something, called the referent object, is being existentially threatened (Buzan and Hansen 215). The framing is done with a particular audience in mind, so that the audience will “tolerate violations of rules” committed to eliminate the existential threat (Buzan and Hansen 214). Additionally, the securitizing actor uses a functional actorto minimize the existential threat (Ankersen). Successful securitization elevates an issue above politics, which increases the number of tools available to an actor for eliminating the issue while also lowering the threshold for appropriate responses to the issue.



There is no agreed upon explicit definition for populism in academia (Zakaria 1). Regardless, populism is illiberal because it denies the existence of divisions of interests in society and rejects the legitimacy of oppositional forces (Mudde 3). Populism is democratic because its leaders are popularly elected. Populism is more than a campaign strategy or a means of political mobilization during an election cycle; populism is an ideology—it is a set of beliefs used to transform a country’s system of governing. Therefore, for the purposes of this paper, populism is defined as an illiberal democratic ideology that aims to divide society between two homogenous and antagonistic groups.


Drivers of Populism

Populism is too complex of an ideology to have only one cause (Friedersdorf3). The recent populist surge in places like Hungary, France, Poland, the Czech Republic, and the US is due to a combination of drivers, such as existing dissatisfaction with the status quo, perceived sense of vulnerability, increasing globalization, economic inequality, nativism, and successful securitization strategies.


Dissatisfaction with the Status Quo

Populism has been more successful as public discontent over the status quo has increased (Roth 80). Increases in economic inequality, terrorism, technological change, and migration have altered the political landscape of many countries, resulting in perceived or actual changes in status of a large number of citizens. For many of these citizens, the perceived or actual change in status has been a demotion, inducing dissatisfaction with their new status quo. As citizens’ positions in their countries have been perceived as deteriorating, despite whether or not this is actually occurring, those with this perception have begun believing that their governments are not capable of improving the situation. For example, the electoral success of President Emmanuel Macron during the 2017 French presidential election was due to his populist base and “62% of his highly populist voters say they are angry at France’s current political situation,” demonstrating that citizens who are dissatisfied with the status quo can find solace in their countries’ populist movements (Heathwood 4).

Dissatisfaction with the status quo can only drive populism if citizens disassociate from their existing political allegiances (O’Connor 30). If citizens do not do so, populist movements will not be able to garner support. Major crises help to disassociate citizens from their political allegiances because these crises have significant impacts on economic standings and migration flows. In addition, these crises tend to mandate responses from politicians which align these politicians as either for or against the new status quo (O’Connor 30).


Perceived Vulnerability

Similar to dissatisfaction with the status quo, a perceived sense of vulnerability can also drive populist movements. Vulnerability depends on security perceptions within a state. A perceived sense of vulnerability is different from dissatisfaction with the status quo because it implies a sense of personal weakness in response to the changing status quo. Dissatisfaction with the status quo, on the other hand, implies an outward sense of frustration with what the acting government is currently achieving or failing to achieve.

Regardless, “common to all experiences of vulnerability and frustration is that they need to be coped with” (Spruyt et al. 336). Concerning dissatisfaction with the status quo, coping entails disassociating from previous political allegiances. Concerning perceived vulnerability, citizens cope by “representing the perceived personal vulnerability in such a way that the responsibility is put outside the individual”(Spruyt et al. 337). Citizens who feel vulnerable are not limited to blaming the government for their perceived vulnerability but can instead blame any group perceived as causing their sense of vulnerability. If a populist movement opposes the same group that the citizen blames for his vulnerability, the citizen is more likely than not to support the populist movement.



Globalization is the increased interconnectedness between people and states and is characterized by increased economic competition and trade, increased migration flows, increased communications, and heightened cultural diversity (Spruyt et al. 335).Globalization has always existed, but recent technological innovations have led to its exponential increase. Specifically, globalization has been facilitated by the proliferation of the internet. The proliferation of the internet has produced citizens who are more politically aware than ever before, which has made them more critical toward those who hold political power (Mudde 30). In particular, citizens have become more aware of inconsistencies in what their elected officials say is the cause of a problem versus what actually did cause the problem. Populist movements that oppose a state’s established leaders can attract citizens feeling dissatisfied with their current government.

As the internet has proliferated, more people have become connected via social media, propagating increased sharing of populist narratives, which increases support for populist movements. Further, technological change has led to increased perceptions of vulnerability by individuals who have little formal education and who rarely connect with others via technology (Spruyt et al. 335); thatis, citizens who fail to keep pace with technological innovations can feel marginalized, increasing their chances of supporting a populist movement.

As globalization creates an increasingly open international system, more people are embracing progressive values (Spruyt et al. 336).In other words, globalization has engendered an increase in open-minded beliefs. Specifically, younger cohorts are expressing more open-mindedness toward migrants, refugees, foreigners, and multicultural lifestyles while also expressing support for varied family units and more fluid sexual representations (Spruyt et al. 337).This cultural shift accompanying globalization is linked to the rise of environmentally focused political parties, as well as progressive social movements, which have emerged in many countries.

In tandem with the increase in progressive values has been a correlating increase in traditional values (Mudde 31). Citizens who wish to maintain their traditional, less open-minded, perspectives are stigmatized by those holding progressive values, leaving traditionally-minded citizens feeling culturally vulnerable and more likely to align themselves with a local populist movement. For instance, Hungary’s populist prime minister, Viktor Orban, was able to gain support, and a subsequent victory, by claiming he would fight against the “globalist powers trying to force [Hungary’s] doors open” by instilling traditional Hungarian values throughout the population of the country (“Viktor Orbán Designates Globalization” 2).Thus, globalization has caused some citizens to develop feelings of dissatisfaction with the status quo or of vulnerability, improving the likelihood of success for populist movements (Spruyt et al. 336).


Economic Inequality

While populism is driven more by cultural perceptions of vulnerability than economic perceptions of vulnerability, economic inequalities have a similar potential to disassociate citizens from their political allegiances (Friedersdorf 2).As economic inequality increases, citizens’ confidence in the existing regime to improve matters decreases, which makes citizens more likely to disassociate from their political allegiances (O’Connor 30). The effect on perceived economic vulnerability is increased significantly if economic inequalities are the result of an economic crisis (O’Connor 32). For example, the 2008 economic crisis resulted in heightened perceptions of economic inequality, which led to populist parties making “important electoral gains” in its aftermath (O’Connor 31). In fact, a study found that on average, right wing populist parties increase their vote share by 30% after a financial crisis (O’Connor 33).

The likelihood of populist movements being successful after an economic crisis is increased when the government is not able to respond effectively; dissatisfaction with a government’s response is synonymous with dissatisfaction of the status quo. Regardless, economic inequality does not guarantee a populist movement’s success. Rather, economic inequality provides circumstances which promote the growth of populist parties. Many countries more economically equal also have experienced strong, electorally successful, populist movements, such as Denmark, Finland, and Sweden (O’Connor 30).



Nativism is “an ideology which holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group and that non-native elements are fundamentally threatening to the homogeneous nation-state” (O’Connor 40). Essentially, nativism is a combination of nationalism and xenophobia. Since populism aims to create two homogeneous and antagonistic groups within society, populism can be said to favor mono-culturalism over multiculturalism (Inglehart and Norris 7). Thus nativism is often tied to populist movements.

In the future, continued globalization, along with climate change, will increase migration flows (Scott 1235). Most of the increase in migration will be from lower income countries, and these migrants will have languages, religions, and lifestyles vastly different from most of the citizens within the states which the migrants are entering (Inglehart and Norris 30). Consequently, there will be an increase in vulnerability among those who identify with the tenets of nativism, increasing the chances that they will align their interests with a populist movement.


Key Demographics

Studies have found that individuals who are less educated are more likely to vote for populist parties (Inglehart and Norris 30).  For instance, the 2016 election of populist President Donald Trump in the US revealed that on average, 66% of non-college-educated white voters supported President Trump compared with 48% of college-educated white voters (Harris 3). This is likely due to the feelings of vulnerability that increase among the less educated population as technological advancements increase the information processing skills needed to be hired; more educated citizens tend to have the knowledge and financial resources required for learning these systems.

Studies have found that older white males are also more likely to vote for populist parties (Inglehart and Norris 30). As this cohort represents the “once privileged majority culture in Western societies”(Inglehart and Norris 29), it is no surprise that they feel vulnerable and dissatisfied with the new status quo, which embodies progressive values. Like all drivers of populism, the demographics of a citizen do not imply causality for populism, but rather, it is a combination of these drivers that increase the chance populism will arise within a state.


Use of Securitization

Populist leaders use securitization to garner electoral support for their candidacies and once elected, for their illiberal policies. By securitizing an issue, populist leaders, the securitizing actors, cause citizens, the referent objects, to feel threatened by an existential threat. Accordingly, citizens then seek strong leaders to protect them from the perceived threat (Inglehart and Norris 11). Populist leaders structure their rhetoric so that citizens believe in them and in their policies, which are touted as the only sure solution for eliminating the existential threat. Without successful securitization, populist leaders have no threat to eliminate on behalf of the public and thus, cannot gather support for their illiberal policies.

When selecting the issue to securitize, a populist leader bases his choice on the existing grievances and vulnerabilities of his audience, which consists of his followers and those voters like them (Spruyt et al. 335).After selecting the issue, the populist leader then establishes that there are two homogeneous groups, with his audience comprising one group. The populist leader then posits that the other homogeneous group is an existential threat, responsible for his audience’s grievances—for their dissatisfaction with the status quo, the economic inequality, and the perceived vulnerability.

To maintain and increase support, populist leaders often combine their us against them ideology with other ideologies pandering to the preferred homogeneous group. Currently, it is popular to couple populist ideology with nativism. For example, the Czech Republic’s populist leader, President Miloš Zeman, frequently securitizes European refugees in order to gain support amongst his electorate by associating refugees with “the subjugation of Europe” (“Czech President Miloš Zeman” 2).Similarly, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orban also securitizes migrants by calling them “poison” (“Hungarian Prime Minister” 1)and their behaviors “acts of invasion” (Pearson 1). Successful securitization translates into electorate support, by his audience, for the populist leader, which in turn translates into successful elections and the passing of illiberal policies often directed at immigrants.

Populist movements that successfully utilize securitization to win elections and effectuate their illiberal policies are referenced by other burgeoning populist movements and their leaders (Torre 44); this increases the probability that other populist movements will succeed in passing their own illiberal policies. For example, in 2015, Poland’s Law and Justice party secured a strong populist win; consequently, other populist movements have emerged in France, Germany, Hungary, and Sweden, with varying degrees of success. As more populist movements make advances due to their respective successful securitizations, the liberal world order will be challenged—even more so if populist leaders align with one another, like they have done in Poland and Hungary, in an effort to take down the liberal world order (Ocampo 5). The erosion of the liberal world order would undermine multilateral liberal institutions, like the United Nations, acting to safeguard human rights, by eradicating policies aimed at group marginalization.


US Example

While populist movements have emerged throughout Europe, the US provides the quintessential example of a populist movement gaining sufficient power to not only threaten human and state security, but also the liberal world order. The election of President Trump in 2016 exemplifies the significance of successful securitization by a populist leader. President Trump’s populist platform established two homogeneous groups, the socially disadvantaged “common people” versus the “elite,” and he aligned himself with the “common people” (Inglehart and Norris 13). President Trump’s rhetoric during his campaign capitalized on the economic and cultural vulnerabilities felt by many of the less educated in the US who believed that the globalized world’s increasingly progressive outlook did not align with their cultural beliefs and that their economic standings were suffering because of it (Inglehart and Norris 16).

President Trump’s securitization of these cultural and economic vulnerabilities framed Mexican immigrants as the existential threat to these citizens. President Trump’s audience is the Republican Party because the rejection of progressive values is already embedded in the Republican base (Inglehart and Norris 31). Consequently, within the Republican Party, President Trump’s referent object is the less-educated Republican. The functional actor used by President Trump changes, depending on the circumstances, but it is usually the US military or Congress, as these groups have the ability to transform President Trump’s beliefs into actions.

During his presidential campaign, President Trump frequently securitized Mexican migrants by associating them with the loss of jobs, criminal activities, and the diminishment of American values. In a study analyzing 73 speeches given by Trump during his 2016 campaign for the presidency, it was recorded that Trump mentioned immigrants 364 times, with negative comments vastly outnumbering positive remarks, and that he mentioned jobs 1036 times (Lamont 12). Not only was Trump aware that his audience felt occupationally vulnerable, but he was able to utilize this by making immigrants, primarily Mexican immigrants, the principal threat to this vulnerability and by casting himself as the only solution to eliminating this sense of vulnerability.

Furthermore, in 2015, Trump said, “When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bring those problems. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists” (LoBianco 2). This quote epitomizes Trump’s securitization strategy and his continual reinforcement of it. Trump associated Mexican immigrants with drugs, crime, and rape – three matters generally agreed as unwanted in society. Thus, Trump was able to label Mexican immigrants as threatening not only to his audience’s occupational vulnerability, but also to their way of life. As a result of this successful securitization, Trump garnered enough support to win the 2016 presidential election.

Since elected, Trump has continued to securitize Mexican immigrants in order to achieve his policy goals. For instance, Trump tweeted, “Building a great Border Wall, with drugs (poison) and enemy combatants pouring into our Country, is all about National Defense. Build WALL through M!” (“Trump Immigration” 1).This tweet evidences Trump’s continuing securitization of Mexican immigrants. Due to his securitization efforts, Trump is able to appease his audience by pursuing the named threat and to garner support for his immigration policy objective of building a wall between the US and Mexico. The only difference between Trump’s securitization of this issue before and after the election is that after the election, Trump has had the de facto power to attempt to enforce his policy objectives.

President Trump’s continuing securitization of Mexican immigrants as an existential threat has also garnered significant domestic support for building a border wall and for terminating the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, which defers deportation for immigrant children. Trump’s securitization of Mexican immigrants has also damaged diplomatic relations between Mexico and the US (“Trump Slams Mexico” 1). While the wall remains at issue, a US Court blocked the termination of DACA (“Judge Orders Trump” 1). Meanwhile, Mexico’s relations with the US remain impaired.


Concluding Threat Assessments of Populism

Populism poses a threat to both state security and human security because the illiberal acts it engenders can erode interstate relations and oppress citizens. For example, the frequent securitization of migrants by populist leaders can result in the implementation of policies restricting immigration. Since this securitization involves antagonistic rhetoric, the migrants’ home state could respond negatively, inciting conflict and threatening state security. Regarding human security, these same policies could also increase deportations of those who left dangerous situations in their home countries. Securitization can be based on class, race, gender, or religion and if successful, can threaten both state and human security as a result of the populist rhetoric and the resulting illiberal policies.

While the illiberal results of populism are a given, the capacity of populism to harm state and human security varies depending on the resources and unchecked power held by the populist leader. That is, “if populists have to share power with non-populists, the effects tend to be small”(Mudde 3), as non-populists provide checks and balances limiting the reach of the populist leader’s illiberal policies. For example, a US Court acted as a check on President Trump’s illiberal policy by blocking the termination of the DACA program. However, with substantial unchecked power, a populist leader’s policies can have a major impact, especially if such power is embedded in the state’s constitution. Significant resources are needed for a populist’s domestic success and even more for international success; consequently, the resources backing a populist leader also impact state security.

It is likely the expansion of globalization will continue (Inglehart and Norris 31), increasing the flows of information, communication, and people, domestically and internationally. Additionally, climate change will exacerbate migration flows, especially from less developed to more developed countries (Scott 1235). As the world becomes even more progressive, citizen reactions of cultural anxiety, due to perceived feelings of vulnerability and dissatisfaction with the status quo, will also continue. Furthermore, populism has a contagious quality and is likely to spread as vulnerabilities increase (Pappas 35).

As long as populist leaders possess significant resources and unchecked power, populist movements will continue emerging, potentially threatening both state and human security. Moreover, populism can be contagious as political leaders may take note of successful securitization strategies in other countries. Recently, populists have been politically successful, due to the securitization of migrants, in France, Germany, and Hungary. With continued success passing illiberal policies, populist movements and their leaders could eventually overwhelm the liberal world order, resulting in the demise of multilateral institutions, tasked with protecting the rights and political freedoms of minorities, which would diminish both state and human security on a global scale. To protect the liberal world order and to promote human security, liberal democracies must address the concerns and vulnerabilities of their citizens, including those who feel victimized by current economic conditions, and must strengthen the checks and balances which would be used to limit the actions of populist leaders.


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