Many of the representatives of the 21st century populism turn out to be business leaders (like Trump, O'Leary, Babiš). What is the most accepted theory on why is it so among political science scholars?

EDIT: Some possibilities that come to my mind:

a) In the time when religiosity goes down, nation and capital are the values the society holds - they're seen as people that have accomplished something (as life icons).

b) People believe politicians should be economists because more pragmatic economics policy means less chance for corruption.

c) Entrepreneurs usually sympathize with populist movements for some reason.

d) Just like people in wealthier states choose to "invest" more into interpersonal relationships, business leaders have accomplished something in the field of business and search for a different kind of satisfaction - and party members elect them simply because they are famous/successful.

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    Related: What is politology? Oct 24, 2017 at 15:09
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    @Probably - my hard science ears are showing. I don't really put too much stock in academic authority of people in social sciences until they talk about testable predictions like real scientists do; or at the very least deal with #s. Without that, they're just people who have opinions that are no more nor less valid than anyone who isn't an academic social scientist. I'd trust Nate Silver more than any 100 politologists.
    – user4012
    Oct 24, 2017 at 17:03
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    Your b seems off, I'm pretty sure most successful entrepreneurs aren't economists themselves. Did you have a different word in mind?
    – JAB
    Oct 24, 2017 at 17:18
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    Downvoted because of the ridiculous claim that Trump is a successful business leader and/or entrepreneur.
    – jamesqf
    Oct 25, 2017 at 4:45
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    You forgot one option: That this is simply a coincidence resulting from a very small sample size.
    – Thern
    Oct 26, 2017 at 13:59

3 Answers 3


What connects them seems to be some obvious (even to non-academic-politologists) facts.

  • One of the most obvious is the trust in institutions:

    As per FiveThirtyEght (originally sourced from Gallup), trust in political institutions (and thus politicians) in USA is abysmally low. Like, low double digit low (Congress is at 10%). They don't have a separate line item for governors, but many candidates in USA lately uncharacteristically came out of legislative branch and not executive.

    By contrast, successful entrepreneurs don't inspire the same low kind of universal distrust - yes, a large portion of population distrusts them, but even as a category, they have 2x amount of trust of Congress (20%).

    • This is compounded in the 21st century by general distrust of the elites in the West due to perceived negative impact of globalization (and said elites' firm and unwavering support and cheer-leading of globalization). As a test of that theory; I strongly suspect that an entrepreneur whose corporation offshored labor to a great degree would be distinctly less popular if one tried to enter politics.
  • Another obvious one is the fact that many of these populists run specifically on the issue of jobs and job loss - and a successful entrepreneur naturally seems like more of an expert on creating jobs than a professional politician, regardless of whether that perception is accurate.

    Trump leads Clinton on creating jobs by 16 points, 46% to 30%, with 13% saying neither and 3% both. (Jan 2016 Zogby Analytics Poll of 843 likely voters, via Forbes)

  • Also, the idea of successful enterpreneurs entering populist politics isn't exactly brand spanking new. Both Crassus and Ceasar went that route, though Ceasar admittedly amassed his wealth by conquering people and not typical enterpreneurship :)

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    Entrepenuers becoming populists is a historical event that keeps repeating. The path is enter-a-market-->dominate-the-market-ruthlessly-->Titan-of-industry-->Philanthropist. We have seen it from Rockefeller to Zuckerberg. I have read that the incentive for philanthropy is building a moat around your wealth to prevent the un-washed masses from bothering you. Oct 24, 2017 at 15:21
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    @FrankCedeno - there are different incentives for Philantropy. In ancient Rome it was to compete in popularity among the plebes and to satisfy the outsized self sense of civic virtue. In later time (post 1800) it was also to show off in front of your peers (I'm so successful I can afford to fund THIS! Look at me!) Plus there's still civic virture; plus there's personal reasons (religious, moral, pragmatic, emotional-personal). There's no one simple exclusive reason though.
    – user4012
    Oct 24, 2017 at 15:25
  • -1. I think the core of the first draft was better - trust in institutions is known to have this kind of effect. The second bullet is too specific to be useful (knowing what happened with Trump doesn't tell you why this happens generally). There is also a tone problem - most of these claims aren't obvious. If they were, you wouldn't have to put them in an answer! Oct 24, 2017 at 15:28
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    I can disagree with a point or two while still thinking this is a good answer, and it is a good answer from @user4012. For instance, why didn't Ross Perot win over Clinton? It's all about timing and which direction the pendulum is going to swing, thus populism may help a business leader during some period.
    – FalseHooHa
    Oct 24, 2017 at 16:58
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    "As a test of that theory; I strongly suspect that an entrepreneur whose corporation offshored labor to a great degree would be distinctly less popular if one tried to enter politics". That didn't stop Trump's popularity when it was pointed out countless times that his clothing line is all manufactured in Asia and he hires temporary foreign workers at Mar-a-Lago and other places, all the while he was criticizing other companies for offshore operations.
    – jalynn2
    Oct 25, 2017 at 17:06

"Among political science scholars"

I don't think there's a consensus here, or that any study has been done that quantifies the opinions of 'experts'. And as an ordinary person I would say that Trump is not a populist. But I do think he exposes and enhances the anger felt by ordinary people who've grown to distrust the government, and government officials.

Connection between successful entrepreneurs and populist leaders

I don't think there is a connection, to be frank. Bernie Sanders was a populist leader, he was not a successful entrepreneur. Obama, Reagan. These candidates/presidents were not hugely successful entrepreneurs, but they were populist leaders.

Populist leaders are successful because they sow distrust in current government policies/officials (think Obama's 'change', 'yes we can' or Trump's 'drain the swamp' messages). They are perceived as honest, trustworthy or authentic people by their supporters. They are typically anti-establishment, which boosts their 'I will be the change you're looking for' message.

Those are the typical qualities of a populist leader, regardless of their economic class. Specific to successful entrepreneurs, there's an added perception of being able to improve the economy, knowing how to make good deals, cutting waste and making government more efficient (With Trump and Republicans, there's an added perception that businesses are more efficient than public entities. Therefore a businessman would make government programs more efficient).

This is evident by the fact that American's don't like Trump. Historically one of the worst polled presidents in history... yet when people are polled on "his" economy - he polls much better. (-18 NET approval rating vs. +2 NET rating on economy)



There is no connection between Populists and Successful entrepreneurs. But when ordinary people trust and vote for successful entrepreneurs, their decision might be further validated by the perception that the economy will improve, and government will run more efficiently with a rich businessman in public office.


Why do many of the representatives of the 21st century populism turn out to be business leaders?

Firstly it should be considered what a typical path into politics looks like compared to that of a business leader. Such a path is likely to consist of joining a party at the bottom and gradually working up the ranks. This would mean either joining a mainstream party and signing up in a broad sense their general philosophy and policies or signing up to a small party and being doomed to obscurity either way the its going to be rather difficult to push a populist agenda unless that is what the party is already doing as you have limited personal resources and power.

A business leader is likely to enter politics with a significant advantage and might even start off in a relatively senior position, compared with the politician that gradually worked up the ranks They would:

  • often already have a personal following from what they have been doing and it is likely that people already know of them and associate them with positive aspects of entrepreneurship
  • normally have significant contacts in a range of fields e.g. press and friends in high places to help them out
  • have Significant personal finance for bankrolling a campaign, personal PR, strategists, polls and anything else they might need to be successful
  • have limited or not widely known political history / association allowing them to position themselves along populist lines without looking like they're vote grabbing. This also means there will be limited or no association with the failures of past governments a common issue with senior politicians
  • Have a history of success (or in some cases perception of) outside of politics. A source of merit and a demonstration that they actual can get things done whereas there might be a perception politicians don't get things done
  • not be reliant of a long term career so they don't need to consider the actual feasibility of their proposals they can simply do them, fall on their swords and retire. This is also OK for their respective parties as they can say we tried this it failed and now the perpetrator is gone. (Trump might become an example of this)
  • seem more trustworthy as they're less likely to have been caught out lying, twisting things, going back on perceived promises or switching positions.

There are a number of questions arising from this including why do these business leaders choose to support populism instead of something else? Are these business leaders causing the policies to become populist? why has it worked for these business leaders and not other? But these could be questions in their own right.

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