🔮 Going beyond the Eurocentrism of populism research: lessons from the Philippines

Is the concept of populism a help or a hindrance in understanding complex political dynamics in the Majority World? Adele Webb draws on the case of the Philippines to challenge Eurocentric and historically truncated views of populism. Here, she calls for more contextualised readings of populism’s manifestations outside the West

Provoking a discussion about the myths associated with populism is long overdue. Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti have done just that. They identify three exaggerated or false conceptions of populism that seem pertinent to the study of European politics: that populism represents a specific political agenda, that populists are either left-wing or right-wing, and that populist actors and parties exist at the fringes of our political systems, rather than being integrated into them.

These myths about populism can be debunked even with an orientation predominantly focused on Europe. But they lack much relevance at all when applied to the study of political dynamics outside the West. This reflects the danger of trying to observe and explain political dynamics in diverse contexts using the same term. Without adequate contextualisation, applying the research on populism to infer the rationale of populist voters in the Majority World can descend into essentialism.

The Philippines

Under the banner of 'democratic tutelage,' the United States colonised the western Pacific Ocean island nation of the Philippines at the turn of the last century. The Philippines is considered Asia’s oldest democracy, but has experienced episodes of populist politics since the early 1940s.

Recent discussions of populism in this Southeast Asian context, however, have centred on the figure of Rodrigo Duterte. Following his May 2016 election as President, some called him the ‘Trump of the East’. Duterte’s rhetoric and style of government – so-called Dutertismo – fit descriptive representations of populism. With a particularly violent ‘War on Drugs’ at the centre of his electoral platform and subsequent term in office, Duterte claimed to be solving a criminality problem by removing accountability altogether.

Does widespread consent to an illiberal regime mean the public are similarly illiberal and cruel?

The most puzzling aspect to outside observers was the success of Duterte’s populism. The leader maintained unrivalled cross-class approval ratings throughout his six-year term. Does widespread consent to such an illiberal regime mean the public are similarly illiberal and cruel? This is an undeclared assumption that exists far too often in writing on the topic.

Conditions of possibility

If we are using populism as an analytical concept rather than simply a descriptive term, we should seek to understand the use of populism as a strategy. We must also investigate the grievances and anxieties that respond to and reward it. This includes the authoritarianism of actors like Duterte, who used populist sentiment to legitimise deadly state repression.

If we don’t contextualise our analyses, we incur at least two consequences. First, we continue to give too much power to populist actors. We ascribe them the power to make people do things that are cruel, that make no sense, and have no relationship to their democratic desires. Second, we fail to acknowledge that political attitudes and political institutions are produced by, and producers of, the conditions of possibility.

Like many other postcolonial democracies, there are permanent features of the Philippine political arena that match descriptive representations of populism. Such characteristics can provide a favourable ‘political opportunity structure’ for populist politics.

The Phillippine context includes weak parties and an almost total absence of ideologically or ethnically driven partisan identities. As a result, the electoral arena is dominated by moralistic rather than programmatic appeals. Political actors vying for power foster a sense of performative vertical accountability between ‘the people’ and themselves. They portray themselves as the main custodian of citizens’ demands.

In short, pluralism is weak. Political actors, whether ‘populist’ or not, use and reinforce this. They do so by talking of a unified ‘moral’ Filipino people, endangered by outsiders in the form of corrupt politicians, criminal scum, or foreign countries.

Roots in imperial logics of governance

I have argued that the success of populism in the Philippines, in terms of institutions and ideas, has deep roots in the paradox of 'democratic empire'. The United States unleashed this upon the Philippines throughout the first half of the twentieth century. A period of political tutelage was deemed necessary for Filipinos to acquire the self-control and order required for self-government. A temporary denial of liberty for the sake of national progress. As far back as the 1940s, the perceived need for discipline shaped middle-class perceptions regarding the legitimate exercise of democratic power. In particular, this affected the type of leadership deemed necessary.

Imperial logics of governance have become entangled in the political world in the Philippines and other postcolonial contexts, driving populism

As in other postcolonial contexts, imperial logics of governance become entangled in political subjectivities and now prove difficult to shake off. If the logics that drive populism in the Philippines are deeply rooted in colonial history, what, if anything, does it have to do with populism elsewhere? Can the term traverse such diverse contexts?

Populism as a symptom of institutional failure

It can. But only if we see populism not as a problem with our political systems. Instead, it is a manifestation of grievances with existing institutions of representative democracy. It results from regimes' failure to make normative democratic notions of popular sovereignty and constituent power adequately effectual.

In the Philippines, this is an old story. The institutions of representative democracy were compromised at their conception under a US colonial administration. Meanwhile, in Europe, populism is a more recent phenomenon, accelerated by cultural shifts brought about by neoliberalism and the digital transformation of our social lives. But in both places, we can see its core. The rise of populism is about the failure of democratic institutions to accommodate the constituency beyond the populist performative realm.

The rise of populism is about the failure of democratic institutions to accommodate the constituency beyond the populist performative realm

In both places, populist voters seek a way to make the principle of popular sovereignty effective. They conclude that the only way is to delegate power to a strong (usually male and blustering) figurehead, whose transgressions of liberal/representative institutions they ignore or forgive. After all, what alternative means do they have to make themselves heard?

This is not to defend populism as a model of political change. It is to point out that, if we blame the unsustainability of our democracies on populism, we overlook the causes of the feelings of alienation that propel it.

24th in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the ðŸ”® to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Adele Webb
Adele Webb
Research Fellow, Democracy & Citizen Engagement, University of Canberra

In addition to her role at the University of Canberra's Centre for Deliberative Democracy and Global Governance, Adele is also Adjunct Research Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute at Griffith University, Brisbane.

She holds a PhD in Political Science from the University of Sydney and MSc in Political Sociology from the London School of Economics and Political Science.

Her research focuses on questions pertaining to how citizens think about democracy, when and why they hold complex attitudes to democracy, and how lived experiences shape and constrain their engagement with democratic processes.

She is also interested in Southeast Asian politics, post-colonial theory, and interpretive methods.

Adele currently leads the University of Canberra’s Connecting to Parliament initiative, together with Ohio State University’s Institute for Democratic Engagement and Accountability.

She tweets @adelehwebb

Chasing Freedom
The Philippines' Long Journey to Democratic Ambivalence by Adele Webb

Chasing Freedom: The Philippines’ Long Journey to Democratic Ambivalence
Liverpool University Press and Ateneo de Manila University Press, 2022

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One comment on “🔮 Going beyond the Eurocentrism of populism research: lessons from the Philippines”

  1. Their critical examination of the conceptual frameworks and methodologies used in populism research is commendable, as it paves the way for a more inclusive and comprehensive understanding of this complex phenomenon.

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