iassw logoSocial Dialogue #17
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editor in chief

Carolyn Noble
ACAP Sydney

What is this new thing called 'populism'?


In this short article, I attempt to gather some ideas that might help address the question: what is this new thing called populism? and give some suggestions as to how social work might respond to the challenge it poses. Mudde (2007) suggests that populism is loosely grouped ideas that have at least three features: anti-establishment, authoritarianism and nativism, and is once again on the rise across the globe. Populists parties, leaders and politics are accused of disrupting and unsettling previous compromises of the past left and right politics that ran amok during the last century. So, what explains this phenomenon?

Definitions While there are many definitions of populism and populist leaders moving from the left to the right spectrum of politics there are some common factors in the search for a definition that many scholars agree.

The reasons (most often cited)

Paul Ham (2017) in his article "So you want to rule like an autocrat; six-step guide to putting your country first" gives a good overview of strategies to expose the how you too can be a populist leader in the current political flux. Here is a summary of his excellent article.

Tools (ready-made accessories)

Method (for implementation)

Social work challenges and response

According to Fazzi (2015) the rise of populism and its more right-wing aspect has yet to be tackled and investigated by the social work profession. Concern focussing on the impact of globalisation and the reorganisation of social services in a depleted and underfunded welfare state because of the unchecked rise of neo-liberal economic, social and cultural policies has resulted in the rise of populist politics and leaders going under the radar of critical analysis and public commentary (Fazzi, 2015). As well as the demise of the welfare state Fazzi (2015) notes that the progressive growth of populist's political ideologies poses further attacks on social works role as protector of human rights and as proponents of social tolerance and a just society. Paralleling further attacks on the welfare state and its universal service provision is the connection between the rise in populism and the demonstrable increase in prejudices against immigrants and members of minority/marginal ethnic groups. Briskman (2016) warns social workers about the challenge the rise in demonising migrants, asylum seekers and refugees are having on the profession and Latham (2016) asks the question about the rise in Islamophobia, e.g. whose side is the profession on?, noting its silence in the public arena. Both these activists challenge practitioners to call attention to the drift towards xenophobia and the victimisation and violence these minority groups face daily.

Another challenge worthy of attention is the temptation of overworked and under resourced practitioners to use populist discourse as an easy 'escape route' to find answers to the almost unsolvable social issues stemming from rising wealth inequality and the profound changes transforming the workforce and society in post-industrial countries. Blame a ready-made victim (eg Muslims) can be an easy solution especially for overworked professionals who depend on conservative and populist government funding for their services. Further, reflecting a deep discontent with loss of autonomy, deep spending cuts, restructuring of public services and the move towards privatisation and increasing political interference in their work especially their work with asylum seekers and other marginal social groups can result in little appetite for resistance and social action. The 'do nothing' or 'keep heads down' option can engender a dangerous erosion of the ethical and cultural base of the profession (Fazzi, 2015, 604).

However rather than succumbing to the potential destructive influences of the current expression of populism these scenarios described here can provide social work with another opportunity to regenerate a radical practice response. In summary, a radical social work response would include practitioners and scholars to;


Briskman, L. (2016). Reflections of an activist social worker: challenging human rights violations. In C. Noble, H. Strauss, B. Littlechild (eds) Global social work: Crossing borders, blurring boundaries, Sydney, Australia: Sydney University Press,
de la Torres, C. (2014). The promise and perils of populism. USA: University of Kentucky.
Fazzi, L. (2015) Social work, exclusionary populism and xenophobia in Italy. International Social Work, 54, 4, 595-605. Griffith Review 57 (2017). South Bank Campus, Griffith University, QLD Australia. Ham, P. (2017). So you want to rule like an autocrat; six-step guide to putting your country first. In Griffith Review 57, South Bank Campus, Griffith University, QLD Australia. 27-36.
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