Interview #19 Nadia Urbinati – The roots of #Charlottesville, techno-populism, and the end of World War II

The day after #Charlottesville, POP interviewed Nadia Urbinati. After one hour on the phone, it was clear that the quantity and quality of issues discussed, topics explored, and cases mentioned, came to form an extended and vivid portrait of modern populism in the US and its historical roots, the populistization of politics in Easter Europe, the advent of techno-populism, the future of Italian democracy, post-colonial populism in Latin America, and racism all over the world.

nadiaNadia Urbinati teaches Political Theory at the Department of Political Science, Columbia University.  She published extensively on democratic theory, representative government and the interpretations of democracy. Her most recent book is Democracy Disfigured: Opinion, Truth and the People (Harvard University Press 2014).

Enjoy the read.

1) In Charlottesville, the white supremacists were chanting: “blood and soil”, “white lives matter”, “Jews will not replace us”. How much populism is there in this neo-Nazi carnival of violence, and on the other hand how much nativism and simple racism?

Nadia Urbinati: I wouldn’t define this as populism, otherwise populism becomes an empty term. This is a racial phenomenon deeply rooted in the US history. It goes back to the pre-civil war era, when the hierarchic order went from the black slaves to the landowners, whose voting power was even made directly proportional to the number of slaves they owned (take a look at the Three-Fifths Compromise). This situation was overturned by the civil war, which brought to the fore the very serious necessity to finally deal with a multicultural and multiracial society. Since then, may people in the Southern states started perceiving civil rights and individual freedoms as the imposition of a part of the country over the other one. Since then, with more or less recurrent intensity, political equality and civil rights have been perceived by a part of the US population as a sort of colonialization by the Northerners.  Jews, homosexuals, black people, women, they were all perceived as privileged categories and the expression of the northern liberal lifestyle of society that has been allegedly imposed on the South.

2 fascisti die in bronx

Newspaper from 1927, reporting Donald Trump’s father being arrested while participating at a KKK parade .

The issue resurfaced between the two World Wars. With the New Deal, more social rights were granted to the workers, but they were *white* workers, not generic workers. Actually, the New Deal has been sometimes implemented as a strategy in favor of the *white* working class: the public policies which granted more rights to the workers tried to solve the racial problem by strengthening the well being first of all the white workers. Not introducing a total equality between white and black workers seemed to be functional in blocking the white resentment.

This status quo was radically questioned in the aftermath of World War II, when also black people fought for freedom and equality against totalitarianism and racism. For the first time, the war mobilized black and white citizens together, for a common cause identified moreover with an absolutely good causer, such as political and legal equality and civil rights. The G.I. Bill of 1944 provided benefits to World War II veterans including grants for school and college tuition, low-interest mortgage and small-business loans, job training, hiring privileges, and unemployment payments. Importantly, almost all these benefits were extended also to black veterans. For the first time, redistribution achieved a meaning of emancipation with anti-racist implication.  This anticipated the seminal movement for civil rights that characterized the 1960s.

In 1965, Lyndon B. Johnson approved the Voting Rights Act, which abolished – even in the Southern states – the legal barriers that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote. Once again, this crucial moment is linked to war because at the time black and white people were fighting together in Vietnam. Once the Vietnam War[1] ended, a new model of social justice and redistribution was in place: it was introduced a type of partisan state intervention aiming at helping the weakest sectors of the American society, especially black people and women. It was the time of the affirmative action (or as we call it in Europe, positive discrimination), favoring black people and other discriminated minorities in the job market and university admission.

It is from here that we have to start if we want to understand this new wave of white supremacy. Today, the economic crisis hits the whole country but in particular the Southern states. According to the white supremacist ideology, the affirmative action favored black people while denying white people the possibility to emerge, develop their capacities, and get hired in good jobs. Hence they feel discriminated. Since the positive discrimination towards black people is rooted in the movements for civil rights and social justice embraced by liberals, the white supremacists fight against any kind of minority that liberals defend.

This is an essentially racial issue, and it has nothing to do with populism. The racial census that has been conducted in the US since the 1970s is not a racist measure. It has been introduced in order for the bureaucracy to know to whom distribute chances and opportunities (namely in order “to see” the most discriminated minorities and intervene in their favor). For example, at a certain point this was intended for Asians in general and Japanese in particular, as a sort of compensation for the discrimination that the latter had suffered during WWII. Then it targeted other minorities such as the Latinos and women. This type of social justice was distributed according to the degree of social, political, and economic marginalization. Today, many white people, especially in the South, are poor, jobless, without a career perspective, and with no chances of success and personal realization. They feel like they have been deprived of the chance to live the American dream in order to help the “others”.

2) The American narrative of the ‘loss of privileges’ strongly resonates in Europe. The resentment of white men who has to ‘give up’ civil rights and job positions to women, black and gay people, Jews and Muslims, fuels parties like the Front National in France, North League in Italy, UKIP in the UK to name but a few. This convergence might appear an oddity, since in Europe populism has usually been associated with an exclusive and right-wing form, but in the Americas it was rather linked to processes of democratization and self-determination. However, this seems to be changing. Why populism is increasingly nationalist also in the Americas?

NU: Here one should disentangle the two main populist traditions: the anti (and post)-colonial and the nationalist one. In North and South America the post-colonial tradition entails intrinsically popular mobilizations against dominating countries to obtain their independence and political freedom. Political emancipation and struggles against colonial rule were the crucible of populism. In Latin America these mobilizations emerged in the context of highly centralized and militarized colonial organizations, and the caudillos were military leaders that left the colonial military structure and became popular leaders mobilizing the campesinos. In North America, on the other hand, these mobilizations emerged not through military mode and organization but from small self-governing communities that created bottom up movements of self-government like in the case of the Sons of Liberty and the Boston Tea Party in New England — these movements were not unified by a single leader.

Europe is different from the Americas in this regard, because bottom up movements took the form of liberation that started processes of nation-building in the context of the disintegration of empires. Therefore, populism was formed on collective basis and autonomy vis-à-vis supranational structures of power like empires for instance. In Europe ‘the people’ was defined in national terms as a rather homogeneous social, cultural, linguistic, and religious group. In this way the people has been and still is considered as a political entity whose members collectively play the role of the sovereign. Here ‘the people’ is the political manifestation of the nation. In the Americas the people are a collective actor more directly involved, either because they are identified in a leader (Latin America) or because they are identified in the virtuous republicans and producers (USA and Canada).

This distinction is today less and less relevant however. In fact, the idea of nation is ‘stabilizing’ in the Americas and the US in particular. In the 17th and 18th century the Americans did not ‘exist’ (this name denoted the indigenous people who did not write the history of the new continent in terms of political order), but now they do and in the USA they have almost 250 years of history as a nation. Their history literally *makes* their nation, as the French philosopher Ernest Renan said. The common history determined a sort of Europeanization of the USA political process, and this goes in the direction of a process of nationalization, which however coexists with a very strong multicultural element that they cannot ignore.

Going back to the white supremacist movement, this is an eloquent sign of a permanent attempt to nationalize as much as possible the American identity. This operation is based on a scheme that they track back to the Founding Fathers. Indeed, it was *white men* who founded the United States of America, as the racist argument goes, as being white (and not black or Asians) and men (not women) played a pivotal role.

In Europe, on the other hand, the citizens’ rights are not intended for all people who are subjected to a legal order but they are intended in a national sense and the intend based condition of sovereignty is a pre-political concept. Even people like Mazzini, who wanted the pre-political factor to be as minimal as possible, thought that the nation had to comprise a common language and needed to produce a certain internal homologation and cohesion. Hence, in Europe the nation is the central actor, and the ethnos is much more visible than in the Americas, where the demos was more predominant.

3) Here we are reaching a crucial and contradictory aspect of populism. Populism promises to embody the popular will and to implement the people’s will. However, if ‘the people’ is a homogeneous entity and the volonté générale is implemented in a majoritarian way, once a populist actor is in power this seems to be at odds with any form of representative and constitutional democracy based on division of powers and minorities protection. Does populism in power mean the end of liberal democracy as we know it?

NU: Populism in opposition must be distinguished from populism in power. Populism as a movement of opposition is a natural component of the political dialectic in an open democracy. It is normal to have a critique of the power, and this can come both from left and right, since democracy is based on the possibility to criticize the power in order to change the rulers. Essentially, the opposition criticizes the establishment trying to become majority itself. The point is to what extent the majority cares about pluralism or – on the contrary – how much it stresses the importance of the unity of the mass.

Populism, in this sense, represents a peculiar interpretation of the functioning of democracy. The idea of democracy that we have cultivated since the aftermath of World War II is now backfiring, and populism proposes an alternative interpretation. After 70 years, the idea that democracy can only be based on representation and anchored to constitutions that impose a division of powers (but also the protection of individual rights by limiting the power of the majority) is less and less appealing because the majority of the people is more than before suffering a social condition of stress and inequality. This particular interpretation of democracy, which has been erroneously defined with democracy tout court, was based on the idea that democracy needed to have at least some minimal elements in order to figure as democracy. This minimalism allowed to apply democracy in different contexts so that universal suffrage and regular elections combined with freedom of the press have become the main symbols of a minimalistic interpretation of democracy. Based on that, democracies can actually take different forms and be more or less authoritarian for example, more or less free and open, more or less liberal, and so on.

Now we see that the conception of democracy built as a reaction against totalitarianism is losing its appeal, while a populist conception is gaining traction. This is the case because there are two different interpretations of the people as sovereign: one is legal and juridical, and the other is social and cultural. From a juridical perspective, there is the need to identify a standpoint from which it is possible to declare the legitimacy of a government and its laws. Populism, on the other hand, reifies this juridical idea of the sovereign people and makes it concrete, historical, hence cultural and social. When a leader is able to unite several voices, needs, and preferences, around a password or an objective he embodies, ‘the people’ becomes a homogeneous and unitary subject as the only source of legitimacy, above the law and the juridical conception of the people (the principle of ad personam takes advantage over the principle of erga omnes). All the others or those who do not fit the substantive majority of the people are simply excluded. In this sense, populism is not a unitary mob claiming to speak on behalf of everybody.  It is rather a part of the people that claims to be legitimate to use the power of the state for itself. In this way, the will of a specific majority becomes identical with the volonté générale. In other words, populist actors are not a pars pro toto (a part for the whole), but rather a pars that wants to exclude the others, the cultural and ethnic minorities and/or the political opposition. The populists claim to represent the best part and therefore to deserve to govern against everybody else.

4) This populist idea of power has become increasingly appealing in the last decades. Many political actors across Europe and the Americas articulate such a discourse and more and more citizens decide to vote for them. Why do you think this populist idea of democracy is becoming more appealing than the liberal and constitutional idea of democracy that has been introduced after World War II as a bastion against authoritarian tendencies?

NU: The liberal idea of democracy has been seriously damaged by the actors that were supposed to defend it and preserve it. Either they no longer do what they were supposed to do (corruption), or they have lost credibility and legitimacy (mistrust). Political parties and independent media were supposed to operate like a zip, to connect/divide the inside and the outside, on stage and off stage politics, articulating the needs and demands of heterogeneous masses and allowing them to participate in the political struggle in a partisan way. This pluralist idea of the people as a multifaceted actor whose parts seek to become majority seems to be pointless when the political parties stop articulating and representing the social cleavages. In this way the active role of the citizens is suppressed and citizens become a mere tool for the selection of their representatives or an audience reacting to what the candidates and the elected do and say.

Since the political parties became institutions with the main goal of maintaining their power, they are organized in cartel-like and occupy the state to nurture themselves. Party democracies have become oligarchies and this has left the people alone, outside the realm of politics, without a real representation and impact over the politicians. In this context, Internet has been a revolution that allowed the citizens to organize themselves, get together, and defend their interests outside and even against parties. Since the people are orphan of the articulation and organization previously offered by political parties, they seek to express their will in new forms, and this paradoxically leads to new forms of caudillismo because a strong leader is more likely to coalesce the various and somehow very diverse needs and preferences of a multitude.  We may say that party democracy has become a cartel system and this is one of the factors of the populist transformation of democracy.

What happened in Italy after Tangentopoli (Bribesville) in 1992 is a textbook example. Since all the old parties collapsed or became exclusively electoral machines, since they took advantage of the style of the old ideological parties and used identity partisanship in an exploitative manner, in order to strengthen net of connections, corruption, favors, and other illegal activities, once they have been swept away by the judicial system the door was left open for any type of populism: North League, Italy of Values, but also Berlusconi – who started as a populist – Five Star Movement and the very Democratic Party, whose charter made also both strongly identified with its leader in a plebiscitarian way. Unsurprisingly, the constitutional reform proposed by Matteo Renzi in 2016 (which was then rejected by a popular referendum) went also in the direction of a populist democracy: he proposed to centralize more power in the hands of the Prime Minister while debilitating the check and balances, regional autonomy and the role of parties. Indeed, Renzi perfectly embodies the “party of the Nation” according to an idea based on a plebiscitarian crowning of the elected leader as well as on the idea of a very more independent executive power. Renzi (and those who proposed the constitutional reform) tellingly stigmatized the 60% of Italians who voted ‘no’ as nostalgic people, anchored to an old-fashioned idea of party democracy or parliamentary democracy.

Let’s put it this way: with the triumph of populist democracy, World War II has finally ended.


Although inequality clearly did not.

5) The liberal idea of democracy seems to be strongly questioned also in two countries which were considered as textbook examples of post-Soviet democratization: Hungary and Poland. Why do they seem to have embraced a populist model of democracy?

NU: These two countries, as well as less ‘famous’ cases such as the Baltic republics, show a revulsion against what they perceive, once again, as an alien power questioning their identity as nations. These democratic systems have developed within countries that witnessed a violently interrupted democratic experience. Therefore, they developed forms of democracy as a reaction towards an imposed regime (yesterday the USSR and today the EU) and as a reactive expression of their national will. Within the European Union, countries such as Poland and Hungary – characterized by an opposition against the Communist regime – display the same type of opposition although against the European ‘regime’. This is the case because they identify Europe as a violation of their territorial sovereignty. For this reason, they adopted constitutions that impose the will of the elected majority. In a way, these are cases of ‘intolerant democracy’ towards separation of powers, which in this case in understood and perceived as an external imposition from Europe.

Hungary has created the first example, in Europe, of a populist regime that changed the constitution transforming the majority into a constitutionalized power. This modified the relationship between state’s powers, in particular the relationship between the political power of the elected majority and justice with the prerogative protection of individual rights of minorities right. This shows us how populism looks like when from an opposition movement becomes a regime. We should carefully observe these cases in order to understand how to prevent this phenomenon to spread and become hegemonic.

6) Hungary and Poland, you say, should teach us a lesson. Indeed, this model of populist democracy is defended by major political parties also in Western Europe. For example, in Italy the Five Star Movement proposes a majoritarian vision of power that strongly resonates with the recent developments in Eastern Europe. What would happen in case the Five Star Movement would win the next elections?

NU: First of all, when talking about populism, it is extremely important to contextualize it.  We can imagine populism as a sort of parasite within and of democracy. The ivy, for example, doesn’t have its own stem, but lives by exploiting other trees or rocks to climb, hence taking the shape of the hosting organism. This analogy of the parasite can be used to study populism.

Populism should be considered as belonging both to the democratic and to the fascist family. It shares common elements with both. Moreover, it is not a contested term, but rather an ambiguous one, and its ambiguity constitutes its strength because it makes it able to adapt to the surrounding environment. The Cartesian method (defining an object by coining a clear and perfect idea) is not best way to understand populism because this definitional simplification would impoverish our knowledge of its plurality. A better method is Wittgenstein’s family resemblance. If we overlap the many ‘pictures’ of populism with democracy and fascism, we can perhaps obtain a type or image that can better guide us.

If we take the case of Italy, for instance, we see that populism developed in a certain democratic environment, and therefore it adapted to it. After 1945, the new democracy already contained a strong populist movement: L’uomo qualunque (Common Man’s Front). Italian democracy was born with people-centrist populism within. The Common Man’s Front was an anti-establishment movement that opposed parliamentarianism and party pluralism, in order to defend the interests of the common people against the elites. Originally, these themes where confined in the right-wing variant of qualunquismo (which could be translated as “anyone-ysm”), with center and left-wing parties solidly anchored to a vision of democracy based on parties and institutions.

Fronte dell'uomo qualunque

Symbol of the Common Man’s Front – 1946

Nowadays those parties are as said no longer present, and that type of discourse is ready to be resumed and adapted to the new condition.  Therefore, populism in Italy doesn’t take the shape of Orban’s or any other defender of Christianity, but rather its original form of ‘gentismo’ (‘gente’ in Italian means ‘people’, therefore it might sound like “people-ism”) or the appeal to the general many against the elected.[2]

Beppe Grillo perfectly embodies the renaissance of that old gentismo.  On the one hand, he follows the opinion of the “man in the street” and proposes to replace the corrupt politicians with honest citizens, but on the other hand he proposes to close the borders, thus combining universal populist elements with specific ones. In case the Five Star Movement will win the elections, it will first have a serious problem of lack of political skills and competence (which is a solvable problem after all), but eventually the country will change. I cannot know how exactly it will change; Italy has already many problems of legitimacy, and we can only hope they will not add new ones.

7) Now populism is a much debated topic, but less attention is devoted to the other side of the coin: technocracy. It represents, compared to populism, an alternative solution to the lack of credibility of the political parties. Starting from the same assumption (the parties pursue particular interests and ignore the people’s will or do not have enough competencies to achieve the common good), one might propose to rely on experts given that the common people do not have enough time, resources, and competences to take informed decisions. Taking a look at your crystal ball, do you believe that the future of democracy resembles more the populist or the technocratic ideal?

Well, the two things go together; one might even talk of techno-populism. The common point consists in interpreting politics as a non-partisan activity, since political parties are seen as biased, partisans, interested only in bending the institutions to their own interests. Therefore, these two interpretations share in the myth of a homogeneous people with identical interests, as Laclau noted.

For example, Beppe Grillo claims that each decision should be taken by competent and expert people rather than by parties and politicians. This corresponds to an essentially populist myth: the necessity to manage the common good in a de-politicized way, outside the partisan structures of political and oppositional parties. In this, technocracy is extremely similar. Already the US populists of the 1890s expressed a vocal critique of politics and political parties. This is based on the idea that it would be better to substitute political representatives with experts that are allegedly objective, neutral, and interested in the common good.

In this sense, populism and technocracy can become natural allies. But there is another level to consider. Populism and technocracy converge also because our societies are gradually penalizing humanistic disciplines while celebrating technical-scientific disciplines. The outcome will consist in citizens whose forma mentis makes them oriented towards an evaluation of political issues in mathematical and scientific terms rather than in terms of values. In this way, the political dimension would perhaps be destined to narrow down and elected organs to lose power. After all, the way municipalities are managed nowadays resembles a board of directors. This is, in my opinion, a possible direction for the future evolution of politics.

[1] Let’s not forget that the name of the war changes as soon as we stop reading the US accounts. Indeed, in Vietnam the war is known as “Resistance War Against America”.

[2] On “why the Italian language has so many peculiar populism-related terms” should be dedicated a separate article.

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