Hank Rishel
4 min readMar 12, 2019


We hear a great deal these days about the rise of populism in Europe. Voters in Poland and in Hungary particularly, are now dominated by authoritarian elected “populist” leaders. Populist leaders have been rejected in France and in the Netherlands but the fact that they were a factor at all demonstrates the political potential for populism. In Germany, the authoritarian populist Alternative fur Deutchland (AfD) is now the official opposition party. In the United States, the Donald Trump presidency represents a populist turn that is actively supported by probably thirty percent of voters.

Populism has almost as many definitions as there are definers. Usually it is used to describe a large movement of underemployed, angry, and unsatisfied people who believe that they are being wronged by an uncaring selfish elite. They are drawn to an authoritarian party leader who promises to right all wrongs. That leader will manipulate the media to get himself elected (other than Marine LePen, they are all male so far). Once in office the leader sabotages the democratic system to keep himself and his followers in office.

At a time when the European Union member nations are relatively prosperous (and Germany the most prosperous of all), and at a time when the official unemployment rate in the United States is below 4%, the attraction of populist leaders often seems something of a puzzle. In Europe, the wave of immigration in 2015 from the Middle East was a factor but not the cause. Immigration effected cities while the populist uprisings were based in areas more rural. In fact, the rise of populism is probably an inevitable outgrowth of modern technically advanced economic development.

The truth is that the effects of modern technological development may make populism inevitable. The effects of modern cutting edge development seem to be the same almost everywhere. That development seems dependent on young technological savants. The most successful of those people are extravagantly rewarded. They can accrue huge fortunes in a brief period of time. That can happen because stock markets often massively overvalue the companies that they form.

Even more than most entrepreneurs in the past, those people tend to cluster. They need the synergy they can achieve with what they perceive as other uniquely capable people like themselves. Technology is a language. They need to be with people who can speak it. In the United States they cluster along both coasts and in particular interior cities. Those places become absolute hotbeds of innovation. They also are distinguished from previous industrial revolutions in that to function they do not depend on supplies or on technologies produced in the country side. They can succeed while the world outside languishes.

Tech industries frantically innovate without requiring any ancillary products from the countryside. In the meantime lower tech products that in the past would have been supplied by more rural areas are being produced outside the country (one of China’s largest export customers is Walmart which buys more than many countries all by itself). That means that there are great swaths of the country left without even potential sources of mass employment.

It is the same everywhere. In eastern France, in Eastern Europe, centers of technology overlook a slowly decaying countryside. In Europe the most prosperous nations (France, Germany, the Scandinavian countries) can provide satisfactory health care and generous unemployment benefits. That has blunted the rise of authoritarian populist regimes. But in Eastern Europe (Poland, Hungary, Romania), with less advanced economies, populist authoritarian regimes are on the rise.

The economy divided between the techies and the left behind made the candidacy of an authoritarian like Donald Trump possible. In the run up to the 2016 election Trump campaigned almost entirely to “workers” in the least prosperous parts of the country. He assured them that “he alone” could bring back good paying jobs. That, of course, has not happened. Trump was able to win only by combining the angry, working class authoritarians who came to his rallies with the votes of “cultural” Republicans who felt obliged to vote for any candidate labeled Republican.

So long as the world’s economies are split the way they are there may be no way to avoid the challenge posed by authoritarian politicians. And, in areas without well developed democratic institutions there may be no way to prevent some countries from “democratically” moving to authoritarian dictatorships. Candidates who cultivate the grievances of those left behind, may in some countries (say Poland and Hungary), be almost impossible to defeat.

It may be difficult for elected office holders across the world to grasp, but only determined intervention creating reshaped economies can put the threat of populism to rest. Here, it would require some of the departures from normal governing that marked the New Deal back in the 1930’s. It may not, with the best will in the world, be possible for some countries to succeed in reviving those areas left behind. Those countries will face the continued threat of populist uprisings. But there is real hope that, for a few, the very act of trying could reconcile those left behind with their political systems. People could then feel that they are once more an active part of a caring nation. The desire to be rescued by an authoritarian leader might then simply fade away. That is the best we can hope for!

H.J. Rishel




Hank Rishel

Retired political science professor of 40+ years. Educated at Olivet, UofM, MSU, Northwestern, & Harvard. Hoping to make politics a fun & exciting topic for all