Populism in a Nutshell: US Primary Elections

Now, don’t get me wrong- I’m not suggesting that all candidates in US primary elections 2016 are demagogues trying to drive America to its doom. However, it is quite hard to ignore that populism has indeed made a comeback to US politics. But before we go on further, let’s define first what populism actually is.


Defining Populism

Over the course of history, there have been countless numbers of examples of populist movement, ranging from those crying for reforms to create a more egalitarian society to authoritarian politicians trying to use popular support as a medium to consolidate their own power. So it’s actually quite difficult to define populism exactly since its connotations can differ dramatically depending on the context. In a democratic sense, it is a movement that “seeks to defend the interest and maximize the power of ordinary citizens through reform.” (Britannica, 2013) [1] However, when tinted with an authoritarian colour, it is a movement that “revolves around a charismatic leader who appeals to and claims to embody the will of the people in order to consolidate his own power.” (Britannica, 2013) Simply put, it can either be defined as an effort to represent the will of the common people or a clever way to incite the public to support a demagogue.

Nevertheless, there exist some common characteristics; in the vaguest sense, populism aims (or claims) to “champion the common people, usually by favorable contrast with the elites.” (Britannica, 2013) It is therefore most likely to arise in an era where the government (or the “elites”) is viewed by the public as corrupt and incompetent- which seems to be the widespread sentiment in the world today, especially in countries where social networking services empowered the voice of an individual to a previously unimaginable extent.


Why is populism on the rise?

In a way, it seems almost natural that populism should rise in an era where the individuals can actively discuss various problems of the society. These individuals, who previously lacked the platform from where they could gain enough public attention and support, are now thriving on the Internet where thousands if not millions of willing audiences can be accessed. In other words, one individual opinion can now influence political views of countless others; every issue in the most mundane daily lives can be politicized to incite support for a movement. Political actions are no longer so risky or difficult to commit, as a single post, with enough ‘likes,’ can have a major impact on the public opinion. In fact, Tom Hayes, Silicon Valley marketing executive, predicted that Facebook would replace Labor Unions in the future.

photo-1458891216473-4f26bb4eb40e“Anger spreads like a viral disease, and infects the minds of the electorate; it is such anger that the populists tap into and gain support for a supposed ‘political revolution.'”

Such accessibility to public minds is a perfect environment for populism to develop, as individual who were previously powerless to voice their opinions can now actively vent their anger at the ‘establishment.’ When such complaints gather enough empathy, it turns into an ‘online consensus’ that the corruption and incompetence of the ‘establishment’ are now intolerable and should be penalized. Anger spreads like a viral disease, and infects the minds of the electorate; it is such anger that the populists tap into and gain support for a supposed ‘political revolution.’


Populism in US primary elections 2016

“Bad economic times breed angry politics.”

This simple yet undeniably true quote from Robert W. Merry of The Washington Times sums up the ultimate reason why populism is once again waking from its long slumber in American politics. [2] America is facing the worst economic crisis in seven decades (Kuhn, 2009) [3] and this makes it increasingly easy for populists to argue that it is time for a political reform so dramatic that those who represent the ‘establishment’ can’t do it.

Although it is an oversimplification, this is what is happening in the American primary elections 2016. From both left and right sides of politics, radical statements are being made from ‘oddballs,’ and are attracting surprisingly widespread support. These oddballs are distinctively different from the other candidates in that they portray themselves as the ‘underdogs’ who are excluded from the ‘establishment’ and so can truly represent what the masses want.

These ‘oddballs’ exist both in Democratic and Republican parties and exercise a similar yet slightly different form of populism. Conservative populism recently has taken a turn to resent the growing size of the government in the economy, especially the “cozy alignments between the government and other institutions.” (Merry, 2014) On the other hand, liberal populism is much more resentful of the wealthy top and regards the growing wealth gap between the rich and the poor as one of the biggest economic problems.

Despite the difference in their focal points, the two populist movements share a key characteristic: they are both fueled by people’s anger towards the regime. It is due to this feature that average politicians and quite a few academics are wary of populism; populists rely not on rationality and pragmatic policies to convince the electorate but often appeals to the public’s emotions to gain support. When one becomes a supporter of a populist not due to their actions and ideologies but because of their manipulative rhetoric and emotional appeal, it is highly likely that they will lose the ability to critically assess the candidate’s potential as a president. Populism can blind the electorate to an extent where a candidate could “shoot somebody and…not lose any voters.” (Trump, 2016) [4]


So What?

Is populism bad? Nobody can answer that question in a definite way. It all depends on the context and what the real intention of the candidate is, which can never be fully known. It may well be a way of the people voicing their opinions that might otherwise be drowned out, but it may also be a chance for an ambitious but unqualified candidate to exploit people’s frustrations to rise to power. What is really important is for the electorate to try hard not to get swept up in the heat of emotion and always be aware that behind the mask of heroic rhetoric often exists a villain.



1: Munro, A. (2013). Populism. [online] Encyclopedia Britannica. Available at: http://global.britannica.com/topic/populism [Accessed 23 Apr. 2016].

2: Merry, R. (2014). MERRY: the rising appeal of American populism. The Washington Times. [online] Available at: http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2014/may/30/merry-the-rising-appeal-of-american-populism/ [Accessed 23 Apr. 2016].

3: Kuhn, D. (2009). Today’s Populism Still an Echo of Past. [online] Real clear politics. Available at: http://www.realclearpolitics.com/articles/2009/03/todays_populism_still_an_echo.html [Accessed 23 Apr. 2016].

4: Diamond, J. (2016). Trump: I could ‘shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters’. CNN. [online] Available at: http://edition.cnn.com/2016/01/23/politics/donald-trump-shoot-somebody-support/ [Accessed 23 Apr. 2016].


Taken by Ezra Jeffrey, published in 2016, accessed via Unsplash in 23rd April 2016


Why is it political ‘science’?

It sometimes comes as a surprise to some that study of politics is a social ‘science.’ The terminology is indeed misleading, as the word ‘science’ usually conjures up an image of white lab coat and test tubes with some complex liquid in it, or indeed blackboard full of equations and calculations. However, there is a reason why the subject is called ‘political science’ and not simply ‘politics’ or ‘political studies.’ Political science is a branch of a broader discipline called ‘social science.’ Now the obvious question is:

What is Social Science?

Social science uses scientific methods to model and analyse the real society, and thereby explain human behaviours in certain situations. The fundamental aim of social science is not simply to observe a social phenomenon but to generate new knowledge based on quantitative and qualitative data.society .jpg

“The fundamental aim of social science is not simply to observe a social phenomenon but to generate new knowledge”

Quantitative design is the kind of method you are probably the most familiar with; it uses quantifiable variables (such as age) through statistical research and analysis to support the validity of a theory. It’s kind of like the natural sciences in this respect, because it relies on solid ‘facts’ and ‘numbers.’* Basically, it’s seeing the world through a lens of mathematics- everything will be converted to numbers, according to their values or characteristics.

Qualitative design, on the other hand, is relatively subjective compared to quantitative design. It is complementary with quantitative design, as it emphasises explanation of society through “direct observation, communication with participants, or analysis of texts.” [1] Unlike quantitative design, qualitative design takes into account contexts and more individualised variables and so tries to avoid generalisation.

Mainly using these two designs, social scientists try to be objective observers of the society; it’s kind of like when you’re playing Sims and trying to observe and then analyse their society. Social scientists are careful (or at least should be careful) not to let personal views or prejudices influence their analysis, and tries to come up with a “descriptive or predictive model that explains the events observed.” [2]


What is Humanities?

Then do subjects like history, philosophy and literature also count as social science? After all, to a degree these subjects also give some new insights on human nature and the society we live in. This is true, but the answer is no: these subjects do not count as social sciences but are parts of another discipline called humanities.

The fundamental difference between social science and humanities lie in their approach and aim. While social scientists mainly uses empirical methods (statistics, observation, etc.) to support their model of the society, those studying humanities will use interpretative methodologies to support their ideas. It is essentially the scholar’s explanation, which uses logic and quotations from other texts, that counts as evidence for his/her thesis. So inevitably, humanities are ‘subjective’; humanities subjects allow bigger presence of the scholars in their analysis. The most important criteria therefore in humanities are not objectivity and accuracy but authenticity and trustworthiness.

Also, the aim of humanities is to “yield wisdom.” While social science focuses more on generating new knowledge of the society, humanities constantly strive to answer the BIG questions, like “Where did we come from?” “What is love?” or “Why am I thinking what I am thinking?” So in a way, humanities are more personal and accessible, because it seeks to enlighten the general people through its wisdoms.


“the creativity of human minds will be severely limited, and our views of the world and of ourselves will be restricted to what is provable with numbers”

Why does it matter?

Well, that’s a very good question. It may seem a little pointless to distinguish such subtle differences, but it’s much more important than it seems. If political science was not social science but a part of humanities, it would mean that rather than basing the explanations on (relatively) objective figures and numbers, it will be a debating forum. Similarly, if literature or philosophy was a social science, the creativity of human minds will be severely limited, and our views of the world and of ourselves will be restricted to what is provable with numbers. Both disciplines are indispensable precisely due to these subtle yet crucial differences, and in order for one to truly immerse oneself in either of the two areas of studies, one needs to fully appreciate what each discipline requires.




*Although it is true that facts and numbers from statistical analysis are fairly accurate, they are never 100% accurate or reliable. These numbers may have been affected by several factors that could not be sufficiently controlled, so it is important to consider whether the accuracy and reliability of the data is sufficiently high to make the theory valid


[1] University of Idaho Resource “The Humanities and the Social Sciences: Contrasting Approaches” (developed for ISEM Integrative Seminars)

Available at: https://www.uidaho.edu/~/media/UIdaho-Responsive/Files/class/departments/general-education/Faculty Resources/humanities-social-sciences-distinctions.ashx

[2] ibid. 

**I have referred to this particular resource throughout the article, and I clarify here that many of the explanations, phrases and terminologies used in this article are borrowed from the above mentioned article.

Photo Credit:

First photo)

Taken by Matthew Wiebe. Published on April 18, 2014. Dimensions: 5498 x 3615 Available at https://unsplash.com/photos/nOhUx3tiaQQ

Second photo)

Taken by Anastasia Zhenina. Published on February 16, 2016. Dimensions: 4608 x 3456 Available at: https://unsplash.com/photos/XOW1WqrWNKg

Nanjing’s Nightmares



War always gives birth to atrocities. There are abundant examples throughout history when the invading powers committed brutal crimes against humanity. Of course, it is understandable to a certain extent that such crimes were committed if it was before humanitarian values were properly established. However, the Nanjing Massacre of 1937 during Second Sino-Japanese War is a particularly atrocious example of what war can make a person do to its fellow human beings.



The Nanjing Massacre, also known as the Rape of Nanjing, was a combination of mass murder and rape by the Japanese Imperial Army against Chinese soldiers and civilians in China’s capital city of Nanjing. It was a brutal holocaust, and one of the survivors of the massacre says he will “never forget the violence, the atrocities and the aggression that the Imperial Japanese soldiers enacted during the Nanjing Massacre.” [1]

As its two names suggest, rape and massacre were the two main acts of brutality that the Chinese had to endure. Women, ranging from an 8-year-old child to a 60-year-old woman, were often raped and shot. In the first four weeks after the fall of Nanjing, approximately 20,000 women were raped, often mutilated and killed afterwards. Families were of no exceptions to such sufferings. Sometimes, when Japanese soldiers found a whole family in a house, they forced the father to rape his daughter, son to rape his mother and brother to rape his sister while the others watched. [2]

Most Japanese soldiers, deeply ingrained with militaristic education, had no remorse in killing the Chinese; they used the Chinese as targets to practice their killing, and some junior officers even held competitions to kill the most Chinese, which was reported by the Japanese newspaper as if it was some form of sporting game. [3]

The estimate of the number of victims of the massacre varies, but the Tokyo War Crimes Trials accepted that minimum 200,000 and the maximum 370,000 of Chinese civilians and prisoners of war were killed during this period.


Why is it still relevant today?

History is the past. It is something that has already happened, and thus cannot be altered- or so people believed. Although the events of history itself cannot be changed, the present-day perception of it definitely can be distorted. In 2012 February, Japanese governor of Nagoya told both the visiting delegates from Nanjing and Japanese newspapers “such a thing as so-called Nanjing Massacre is unlikely to have taken place.”[4]

East Asia has always been troubled the most due to its painful history. The biggest controversy always arose not from economy or politics but from history, and to the present day it remains the one factor that hinders East Asian relations from improving. It is not entirely of one country’s fault- all three countries (Japan, China, Korea) have to some extent been bad neighbours. Then what is the reason behind such constant reemergence of historical controversies?

Although the answer to this question has many dimensions, one of the main reasons lies in rivalry. All three East Asian nations have been in a constant rivalry ever since Toyotomi Hideyoshi united Japan and initiated his great plan to conquer its neighbour, Korea (then named Chosun). China and Japan were always battling to gain the upper hand, and Korea has often been their battleground. Hundreds of years of bitter history interwoven with disastrous wars at various moments has formed an integral part of national identity for all three countries.

japan-china-korea.jpg“All three East Asian nations have been in a constant rivalry.”

Such rivalry has carried onto the present day, as the difference between communist China and democratic (yet far from being upholding true free democracy, as can be seen from its oppression of free media) Japan increasingly widens. As for Korea, well, it’s like having two spiteful neighbours, both of which it have less than cordial relationships with. China is obviously the biggest (and probably the sole) supporter of North Korea, while Korea’s colonial era under Imperial Japan has scarred many hearts and bodies including but not limited to those who were comfort women (a euphemism used to refer to those who forcedly became sex slaves for Imperial Japanese soldiers). Not one relationship in East Asia is likely to be more than anything simply polite, as long as such historical issues are addressed.

They say that in America, economy is the problem; in Europe, politics is the problem and in Asia, history is the problem. There is some truth to this- although remembering history and being very much aware of the nation’s scars and guilt, unless Asia (especially the three East Asian countries) can stop the never-ending war of hatred based on historical events, the Far East will never hear the spring breeze knocking on its door.











[1]: Testimony of Chen Jiashou. Translated from Mandarin Chinese. Testimony given voluntarily and based on individual experiences. Available at: https://www.facinghistory.org/nanjing-atrocities-crimes-war/%E2%80%9Ci-will-never-forget%E2%80%9D-voices-survivors

[2] http://www.historyplace.com/worldhistory/genocide/nanking.htm

3] http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/223038.stm

[4] http://edition.cnn.com/2012/02/23/world/asia/china-nanjing-row/


Photocredit: South Korea, Japan, China image via Shutterstock

Available at: http://www.shutterstock.com/pic-167770115/stock-photo-south-korea-japan-china-rock-paper-scissors.html?src=pp-same_artist-167770109-1


What is Politics?


We probably hear this word far too often around us, and usually not in a very cheerful way. Over the course of history, politics became almost synonymous with words such as corruption, deception and hypocrisy. However, what many people often forget is that these words only describe what is essentially a negative side effects of politics; although it is true that many political events that occur today can be appropriately described by such vocabularies, politics itself is not a bad thing at all.

‘Politics’ is a very difficult word to define, and there are various definitions out there. However, for the sake of having some meaning in life, in this article politics will be defined as “activities that relate to influencing the actions and policies of a government or getting and keeping power in a government.” (Merriam-Webster Dictionary)

Well, the obvious response here would be: what is government? Although there will be a whole another article later to address this question, let’s just say for now that it refers to “the group of people who control and make decisions for a country, state, etc.” (Merriam-Webster)

Why is politics so important?

The definition seems to suggest that politics is all about making decisions. And to a large extent, it’s correct. Politics is about who has the power to make the decisions, how to make decisions and finally, what decisions to make. There have been numerous different opinions on all three questions, and history was written according to the answers the government gave to those three questions. But politics is not just about shaping the ‘world history.’ It’s about shaping individual lives- the decisions being made always have some form of influence on its citizen. Political changes bring about changes in principle values and the image of the ‘ideal world’ towards which a country must strive to become. In simple words, politics shape the most basic guidelines and values in almost every aspect of our lives. Is your life important? Then politics must be important.


“In simple words, politics shape the most basic guidelines and values in almost every aspect of our lives.”

What is the difference between political science and politics?

Some people do get confused when talking about politics and political science. Long story made short, political science is all about political theories while politics is more about what is actually happening in real life. A good politician would not necessarily be a political scientist. Political science is in the end, strictly based on theories, but politics in real life don’t always go according to those theories. You could say that politics is in a way a bit more to do with practicality of governing, especially with obtaining power in government, rather than with analysing how the government actually works. Ironic, I know, but we all know that the world is simply packed with ironies.

Next time, we’ll have a closer look at political science, and reveal some myths about the subject as well as explore what questions can be answered with it.

Photo Credit: photo by Samuel Zeller. Published in Unsplash in December 10, 2014. 4028×2779. Available at: https://unsplash.com/photos/_es6l-aPDA0



Storm Brewing in South China Sea

Despite what the name might suggest, the South China Sea (SCS) is not actually owned by China. Under the Law of the Sea Convention, SCS is considered as ‘internationally owned territory’- basically, no one can boss people around in the sea. There is, however, a way to circumvent this law; if you own a piece of land, then a limited area of the ocean surrounding it can be claimed. This is why there’s so many countries fighting over two small chains of islands, Paracels and Spratlys. Although they are essentially just a bunch of rocks in the middle of the ocean, their location allows the ones who owns them to also own a large portion of the SCS as their exclusive economic zone.

There are three main claimants that argue that they are the rightful owners: China, Vietnam and Philippines. However, China in particular has been developing an unusual attachment; not only is it claiming the largest portion, it’s doing so quite violently. One of the most significant event involved China and Vietnam, leaving more than 70 Vietnamese troops killed after engaging in a naval conflict over the Crescent group of Paracel islands on January 16th 1974. Another encounter between the two countries in 1988 was as equally unpleasant, ending up with 70 Vietnamese sailors dead and China finally achieving its goal of owning the ‘nine-dash line’._67616829_south_china-sea_1_464

Map showing the ‘nine-dash line,’ area of the South China Sea claimed by China (taken from BBC News available here: http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-pacific-13748349)

The international society was rudely reminded of the conflict when recently, in February 18th 2016, China deployed its missile defence system on Woody Island. The general concern is that the SCS is gradually becoming militarised, and this is enough to set the alarms blazing, especially considering that it is still a contested area with a number of claimants. US Secretary of State John F. Kerry solemnly warned that there will be a “very serious conversation” with Beijing.


Now, the biggest question is: will there be another war? Considering the complexity of relationship between South East Asian nations, some may even think that the conflict might accelerate into a Third World War. Of course, it would be way too dramatic to assume that what happened in 1939 will happen again. After all, we are all far too aware of the disastrous consequences the war will bring- a war that might involve nuclear weapons. It is too risky for the whole of humanity to gamble over what is really only a speckle of islands. Yet, the debate remains; can the deployment of missile be seen as an act of militarisation, and therefore a military threat?

Although China does not seem to think so, it is alone in asserting that the missiles mean no harm. What the Western world and the South-east Asian nations see is simply an image of strong Chinese military gradually bulking itself up to prey on the weaker nations. Even if China does not intend to actually exert its military power in the region, the fact that it is capable of doing so will intimidate the other nations claiming the islands and eventually silence them. Later, even the mere possibility of challenging the Chinese will become extremely slim for the South-east Asian nations; as is often the case in high schools, the bully will get his own way.

Then why is US so unhappy with this development? Is it because of their burning desire to see the justice prevail in the world? I guess yes, partly that, but probably the main reason for its annoyance is in the fact that China is already very, very big threat to US hegemony in international affairs. Its incredibly fast economic development enabled it to rival the superpower, and with the ideological divide- well, no one can tell what might happen next. Will tension keep rising, but only in the limited region of South China Sea? Or will China’s tacit threat become a big enough spark in the peaceful pacific?






New Around Here?

hey thereWelcome.
This blog is really simple. It’s basically a collection of posts which will either entertain you or enlighten you. There are four main categories:

1. Introduction to Politics & International Relations (biweekly)
: Most posts in this category will be informational, and will be mainly focused on introducing key concepts and vocabularies to those who have only just found the subject interesting.

2. Commentaries on Current Affairs (once a month)
: This one is pretty self-explanatory; I will choose a news article (something related to politics/international relations, obviously), summarise and write a brief commentary of what I think. Criticisms welcomed.

3. Commentaries on Historical Affairs (once a month)
: Exactly the same as number two, except that I’ll be choosing events from the past rather than the present to commentate on.

4. Book/Film Recommendations and Reviews (every once in a while) 
: I’ll be introducing a book or a film related to politics and write a review of it. I know, you’re probably thinking it will be boring as hell, but I’ll try my best to make it entertaining.

Well, let’s hope now that i) you enjoy what I blog and ii) I actually blog.