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To Overcome The Tide Of Populism, We Must Build Bridges Not Walls

05/12/2016 17:02 GMT | Updated 05/12/2016 17:02 GMT

The global world order has been altered, from the election of Trump to the rise of Le Pen in France and Brexit closer to home, a tide of populism is sweeping through the western world. The old rules based on a political discourse rooted in facts no longer apply, in no other time did Thomas Jefferson's saying "He who knows most, knows best how little he knows." hold so much relevance.

The rise of populism has taken many by surprise, however, the political shift across the west can be traced back to the populist movements of the 19th Century United States where parties such as the People's Party were hugely popular. To put it simply - populism is not a new phenomenon, nor is the growth of its modern incarnation inevitable.

Populist movements are not homogeneous and are difficult to define as they do not have a universal set of characteristics. However, there are themes in which they share, mainly the exploitation of divisions within society for electoral gain. This creates conflict between groups - on the left the people versus an out of touch elite while on the right a minority group against the rest.

Although not a new phenomenon, the rate and pace at which populism has grown are a cause of concern. The success of populist figures and movements can be partly explained by the technological advance of recent years which has meant that we can access, share and create news at a simple touch of a button.

We now live in a new information age where we are overloaded with news, from a range of sources including traditional media, social media, and new media. Rather than broaden the range of perspective and opinions we are exposed to, the new information age has narrowed the spectrum of views we may encounter. This means that many of us are living in self-contained information bubbles, echo chambers, containing walls strengthened and reinforced by the views and opinions we already hold.

The effect of living in echo chambers, whether it is your facebook newsfeed or twitter timeline has meant that rather than bring individuals together our new media landscape is creating further division. The way we consume news today has laid the foundations for the rise of populism.

However, talk of the fall of civilisation and decay of political reason is premature. Populist movements although they often carry a potent message are ultimately hollow in their vision. Traditional political parties whether rooted in democratic socialism or liberal conservatism have the advantage of ideology, the current issue is their messages are no longer being heard.

This can be acutely seen in the United Kingdom, where the Labour Party's message is no longer cutting through to it traditional working class base. Despite the chaos of Brexit and the economic instability, Labour has failed to communicate a new vision for post-Brexit Britain.

This inability to connect with the public should alarm traditional political parties across the western world, as the messenger is irrelevant if the message is not believed: therefore changing a political party's image or leader will no longer work. To prevent this political parties need to work on building bridges with the public in order to strengthen their ties and relationships with the electorate. This means shedding the image of being an out of touch elite and engaging directly with votes making them aware that they understand their lived experiences.

The view that politicians - irrespective of their political shade - are out of touch, elite and lack understanding of ordinary people's lives: is the reason why many no longer believe their message and have retreated into ever-smaller echo chambers.

Populism whether from the right or left poses a major threat to traditional political parties in the western world. If the political elite in Europe and America do not adapt they will be swept by the populist tide. However, all is not yet lost. The power is in our hands to reconnect with the public and stem such a tide.

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