The 2012 Elections: The Victory of Populism?

By Arielle Giovannoni | 6 November 2012

To quote this document: Arielle Giovannoni, “The 2012 Elections: The Victory of Populism?”, Nouvelle Europe [en ligne], Tuesday 6 November 2012,, displayed on 29 January 2023


In the last 2012 French Presidential Election, the surge of populism constituted a major component of the political campaign. In the United States, the Tea Party has caught media and politicians’ attention alike, gaining a strong political voice, as the designation of Paul Ryan as Mitt Romney’s running mate suggests.


Different origins, yet same outcomes?

It is central to keep in mind the origins of both phenomena. Whereas in Europe populism is encapsulated in political parties, the Tea Party is not, and is most often defined as a movement that was formed spontaneously. Populism, in the form of political parties, was born in European countries in the 1950s; the Tea Party emerged in 2008-2009. Thus, the time scheme is different and the classification of populism in Europe and populism in the U.S. with the Tea Party differs.

However, in Western Europe, populism did not become particularly powerful within the political arena before the 1990s. On the contrary, the Tea Party had an immediate impact and in a very short amount of time was considered as the leading voice of protest against Washington. As early as 2009, alluring but also debated figures such as Sarah Palin were identified with the Tea Party. Consequently, in a very short amount of time, the Tea Party was able to organize itself, with a specific rhetoric, a few emblematic figures and an agenda of its own, and finally became a vibrant voice in the 2010 Midterm Elections. Populism in Europe, which had scored very poorly, attracted more and more voters, as the latest 2012 election showed.

Though fundamentally different, the populist appeal of the two respective movements seems to have had a strong impact in both the U.S. and Europe, with common themes – immigration (and Nativism in the U.S.), a critique of the political elites and a dissenting view on the economy. 

The economy, stupid

The financial crisis seems to be at the core of such populist movements and expressions. The emergence of the Tea Party and its corresponding to the beginning of the financial crisis is particularly striking. Nicolas Sarkozy’s presidency has been centered upon how to manage the crisis and its relationship with Germany with the Merkozy couple. Consequently, these populist movements are directly equated with a strong discontent towards political leaders in office. In fact, both in the U.S. and Europe, populist movements claim to be anti-political establishments, and have performed particularly well in times of discontent and anxiety about the future.


Populist movements have pointed at federal institutions claiming they were responsible for the crisis. The Tea Party advocates a close reading of the Constitution, with less state intervention, less federal deficit, less Washington elite. In this sense, it is worth noting that the Tea Party’s most prominent figures are women. Women have often been referred to as a minority group in the U.S. This element highlights the desire to go against the traditional Washington establishment. Hence, the equation of the Tea Party with women such as Sarah Palin, who tried to embody the “Hockey Mom”, or Michelle Bachmann, who created the Tea Party Causus, aiming at fiscal responsibility.

The same argument could be held true for Europe. An analogy with the federal power of Washington could be made, as populist movements in Europe clearly identified Brussels and the Eurozone as responsible for the current crisis and for the economic impact on the domestic level. Exit from the Eurozone is advocated. 

Normalization and “catch-all policies”

One of the main differences between the American Tea Party and the European populist movements and parties holds in historical origins. European populist parties have endeavored to change their image and “normalize” their party. According to political scientist Van der Brug: “the more the party is perceived as normal, the higher the likelihood of greater electoral success.” This normalization is meant to present such parties as a “catch-all policies” party. Throughout the latest populist campaigns in Europe, such parties have defended less taxes, secularism and exit from the Eurozone. This is a different story in the U.S., as most Tea Party leaders explicitly call America a “Christian nation,” for instance.

It is striking to see that in the case of France, Nicolas Sarkozy’s strategy very much revolved around using populist appeal to attract more votes than the ones from his original party base. The reverse is true in the United States. In fact, Republican nominee Mitt Romney had to satisfy the “Radical right” wing of his party, and therefore appointed as running mate Ryan Paul. This was also the case for John McCain when choosing Sarah Palin. The electoral system of the U.S. favors the “catch-all party” type. Image is thus particularly efficient in attracting voters, who could almost be compared to an audience.

However, it seems difficult to exactly capture the right-wing voters. For instance, it is the case in France, because they seldom declare themselves to be so. Studies such as those carried out by political scientist Michael Bruter, senior lecturer at the London School of Economics, show that the typical far-right voter is most likely to be a blue-collar male, less-educated and above 45. However, it is surprising that in the last decade, surveys revealed that populist candidates have managed to lead in voting intention in the 18-24 years old category in some European countries. Titles such as “US election: the youth vote, are young Americans becoming more rightwing?” is another case in point.


Studies upon electoral behavior have revealed that populist parties success is never stable nor is it definitive. Thus, the post-crisis period will reveal whether or not this is a long-lasting phenomenon or a short-lived protest to the crisis. Other movements such as Occupy Wall Street have emerged. However, Occupy Wall Street militants have emphasized that they are not “a Left-wing version of the Tea Party.” Even though the future of the movement of the Tea Party and its capacity to implement further policies are still to be observed and evaluated, it certainly does create headlines.

To go further

To read

  • Giovannoni, Arielle. Sarah Palin and the Role of Image in the 2008 Elections. Septembre 2009. Université de Provence (mémoire Master 1 recherche civilisation américaine)
  • Harrison, S. and Bruter, M. 2011. Basingstoke: Palgrave
  • The Gateway, “US election: the youth vote. Are young Americans becoming more right-wing?”, 24 October – 7 November 2012

On the internet


Photo source: Kodak Agfa (Creative Commons License)