Interview #22: Populism in Western Europe ain’t no domino effect

In this long and insightful interview Léonie de Jonge explains why populism is so successful and widespread in certain countries or regions while it is stigmatized or unsuccessful in others; the (few) similarities and (many) differences between the radical right-wing populist parties in Europe; details about cases such as France, Germany, Luxemburg, the Netherlands, or Portugal;  last but not least she warns against the dangers of #schmopulism.

Enjoy the read.


1) After the Dutch and French elections, some argued that the populist wave in Europe is coming to an end (although others disagree). Are these parties here to stay we have already passed “peak populism”?

Léonie de Jonge: However tempting it may seem, conceptualizing populism as a destructive wave that is flooding over Europe is misleading at best. Any talk of “peak populism” is often a very clear indication of what populism experts Duncan McDonnell and Ben Stanley have dubbed “schmopulism”. Although the term “populism” has become a popular buzzword in media and academia alike, it is not a new occurrence.
It’s important to put the rise of populist parties into perspective. While support for populist parties has increased in many countries, there is still wide variation in the electoral performances of such parties across (Western) Europe. For instance, whilst (right-wing) populist parties have formed part of national governments in some countries, including Austria, Switzerland and Norway, they have been non-existent or unsuccessful in others, such as Portugal, Ireland and Luxembourg.

There are many different reasons behind the recent electoral success of populist parties in Europe and beyond. One way to think about it is to differentiate between demand- and supply-side explanations. Classical demand-side explanations include so-called “grievance theories”, which suggest that broad changes in the international environment, such as globalisation, immigration and European integration generate insecurity and dissatisfaction with mainstream politics. Unless some of the underlying causes that fuel demand for populism are addressed, it is unlikely that populism will simply “peak” and disappear.
The political scientist Larry Bartels has written that the “wave” of populist sentiment is better understood “as a reservoir—and its political potential is still largely submerged.” If there is any sweeping generalisation to be drawn from these past years, it is that electoral politics in Europe have become more volatile and less predictable.

2) Why has *populism* become a synonym for radical or extreme *right-wing* parties in Europe? Isn’t populism supposed to be present in combination also with other ideologies?

LdJ: Most scholars would agree that populism rarely occurs in isolation; it has a propensity to cling to other so-called “think” or “host” ideologies. The obvious answer to the question about why populism is generally associated with right-wing actors is that there are simply more examples of right-wing populist parties in Europe, while the concept of “left-wing populism” is relatively new. This also helps explain why the terms “populism” and “extremism” are often used interchangeably. And because of this, populism has a very negative connotation in Europe. I think that the media are to blame for this. One of my all-time favourite studies on the use of the term “populism” in the British print media finds that left-leaning newspapers use the term for right-wing politicians, while right-leaning newspapers use it for left-wing politicians, which suggests that the term is really “thrown around with abandon”.

To be sure, populism and extremism are not the same. Unlike extremism, populism is not anti-democratic. Indeed, there is nothing inherently negative about populism – in small doses it can even act as a political corrective, for instance by flagging up pressing issues that may otherwise go unaddressed. However, as Cas Mudde has pointed out repeatedly, populists challenge certain features of liberal democracy, such as political pluralism and minority rights.

3) Do you see important differences among the European right-wing populist parties? And on the other hand, which elements do they all have in common?

LdJ: There are many differences to be noted between right-wing populist parties – even within Western Europe. For instance, the Norwegian Progress Party (FrP) embraces economic liberalism, while the French Front National (FN) advocates a strong welfare state. The Dutch Freedom Party (PVV) supports LGBT rights and same-sex marriage, whereas the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) staunchly opposes it. What unites right-wing populist parties across Europe, however, is a strong sense of nationalism and, along with that, a proclivity for exclusion. These tendencies exhibit themselves in different ways, including xenophobic party lines, a Eurosceptic discourse and – perhaps most importantly – an anti-immigration agenda (No more Muhammadism but Freedom, says the PVV video below). Their exclusionary attitude is what differentiates right-wing populist parties from more inclusive “left-wing” populist groupings, such as SYRIZA in Greece or Podemos in Spain. In addition, right-wing populist parties across Europe share some behavioural characteristics. Unlike mainstream right-wing parties, for instance, populist parties are eager to highlight cultural differences to construct clear “us-versus-them” distinctions. Finally, as Benjamin Moffitt has noted, populists also tend to have “bad manners”; in other words, they reject “appropriate” ways of behaving in the political realm.

4) Geert Wilders (PVV), Marine Le Pen (FN) and Frauke Petry (now former AfD) met in Koblenz this year, in a sort on international meeting of European right-wing populists. Is there any chance that the fragmented family of right-wing populist parties will join forces and create a movement at the European level?

LdJ: While the prospect of a European alliance of far-right movements has generated quite a media frenzy, these parties will always remain strange bedfellows. As I’ve pointed out elsewhere, in the face of divergent ideologies and competing nationalist agendas, the formation of a stable, united “Nationalist International” seems highly unlikely. Besides, some of the “driving forces” behind the infamous Koblenz meeting are now preoccupied with internal rivalries and domestic political challenges: in the Netherlands, Geert Wilders is facing competition from Thierry Baudet, the suave leader of the far-right Forum for Democracy (FvD), who won two seats in the Dutch parliamentary elections in March 2017; in France, Marine Le Pen waved goodbye to her party’s long-term strategist, Florian Philippot, who resigned in September following a period of internal quarrels; and in Germany, the newly-elected Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) witnessed the departure of Frauke Petry, who had played a key-role in the party’s success in the 2017 federal elections. These internal struggles make the creation of a European “brown network” even more improbable.

5) For decades, Germany has been a country immune to the sirens of right-wing populism, but at the last elections Alternative for Germany (AfD) became the third party in the Bundestag and obtained 94 seats. What has changed?

LdJ: A breeding ground for right-wing populist sentiments has arguably been present in Germany for a long time. However, given the country’s past it has been very difficult for any far-right contenders to gain ground. In order to win seats in the Bundestag, a party must pass an electoral threshold of five percent (i.e. the “Fünf-Prozent-Hürde). This institutional obstacle was designed to keep the extremist fringe movements out of power, as it reduces new parties’ likelihood of entering parliament. Besides structural hurdles, far right movements in Germany generally struggle to gain legitimacy. Indeed, the political climate has long been very hostile to the creation of right-wing populist parties; every new political movement that emerges to the right of Merkel’s CDU on the political spectrum is faced with very strong reactions from mainstream political parties, the media and civil society.

Because of these factors, Germany remained relatively immune to far-right tendencies up until these past elections. What changed this time was Angela Merkel’s announcement to welcome Syrian refugees during the summer of 2015. Merkel’s ‘liberal’ refugee policy offended some of her more traditional, conservative electorate. When mainstream parties shift towards the centre, they risk failing to address issues that are of concern to their core voters, thereby creating room for new parties to establish themselves on the fringes of the political spectrum. In Germany, Merkel’s stance on refugees (dubbed Willkommenspolitik) generated a lot of frustration, which helped set the stage for the AfD. In the absence of a more traditional conservative right-wing party such as the CSU, a party that only runs in Bavaria, voters proceeded to cast their ballots for the AfD. Therefore, it is not surprising that the AfD has entered the Bundestag. Any healthy liberal democratic system should reflect the different opinions of its demos, so if there are voters who hold more conservative views and are, for example, in favour of restricting immigration, then they ought to have some representation in Parliament. In fact, it might even be healthier to have these views exposed and out in the open, rather than suppressing them. What is problematic and alarming, however, is that the AfD is a relatively new political movement that is loosely held together by a range of different factions, ranging from more moderate voices to outright Neo-Nazis. The big question is which of these factions will dominate.

6) As a reaction to the global changes characterizing the 21st century, in the middle of a terrible economic recession, with the migrant crisis constantly on the front page, many countries turn to right-wing populist parties. Why do you think there are still some exceptions?

LdJ: Some of the countries that were hit hardest by the 2008 global financial crisis (e.g. Spain, Ireland and Portugal) have yet to witness the rise of a right-wing populist contender. This seems a bit counter-intuitive. More broadly, we might ask: why have some European countries witnessed the rise of right-wing populist parties, while others haven’t?
My PhD project is motivated by this exact puzzle. In my research, I focus specifically on Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg – also known as the Benelux region. The Benelux region provides an ideal laboratory to investigate the asymmetrical electoral performance of right-wing populist parties, since these parties have rallied broad support in the Netherlands and Flanders (i.e. the northern, Dutch-speaking part of Belgium), but failed to do so in Luxembourg and Wallonia (i.e. the southern, French-speaking part of Belgium). Wallonia is a particularly fascinating “non-case”, as it appears to have a particularly suitable breeding ground for right-wing populist parties. So why aren’t there any successful right-wing populist parties yet?

Of course, it’s impossible to single out one reason; there are lots of “variables” at play. But the one that I find most fascinating is the role of the media. I’m currently in the process of interviewing editors-in-chiefs and journalist to gain insight into how the media approach the populist right in all four cases. In Wallonia, there appears to be a relatively strict agreement to isolate far right movements. This agreement is known as the cordon sanitaire médiatique. A “cordon sanitaire” is a guarded line put in place to prevent the spread of infectious diseases. In this case, it’s a measure designed to limit the spread of (right-wing) extremism. Audio-visual media outlets in particular are committed not to provide a platform to movements or people that might be considered “liberticide” (i.e. opposed to liberty). This implies that these politicians will never be invited to debates or featured on live television. To be sure, the media do not seek to censor these movements – they do talk about them, and they do cite them; however, quotations are always contextualised. In such a “hostile” media environment, it is particularly difficult for fringe movements to gain ground. Apart from the media, I believe that mainstream parties play a crucial role in the success and failure of right-wing populist movements. Right-wing populist parties do not operate in a vacuum; instead, they compete with other political parties. If mainstream parties succeed in addressing the concerns of their core electorates, they can act as a buffer to populism. However, if mainstream parties fail their voters, it can generate dissatisfaction, thereby generating demand for populist parties.

7) The situation in Eastern Europe seems even more serious than in the West. Is there the danger of an authoritarian turn in Poland and Hungary or do you think that the European institutions will have the power (and the political will) to protect liberal democracy in the East?

LdJ: What’s happening in Poland and Hungary is worrying; Jarosław Kaczyński and Victor Orbán are posing a real threat to liberal democracy as they seek to exert influence over the judiciary and civil society actors whilst simultaneously curtailing academic and media freedom. Their actions run against some of the EU’s core values. The European Parliament has responded with a call to trigger Article 7, which could ultimately result in sanctions, and the European Commission has threatened to take legal action against both governments. However, the EU’s institutions lack the political will to take more concrete action against the governments in Warsaw and Budapest. In fact, the EU is relatively weak when it comes to dealing with the internal affairs of one of its member states because many of them are concerned with safeguarding national sovereignty. From a more practical point of view, triggering Article 7 seems highly unlikely because it would require unanimity, and Victor Orbán has vowed to remain loyal to Poland. Because the EU’s hands are tied, pressure must come from elsewhere, including the member states and civil society.

8) In the United States populism has been present since the 19th century. Now, with Donald Trump, it seems like the fascist and racist impulses of the country found an institutional legitimization. Do you find any similarities between European and American populism?

LdJ: It is true that the election of Donald Trump was a bit like holding a match to a powder keg; his presidency has really brought to the fore some of the lingering racist and extremist tensions in American society. It is also true that Donald Trump shares some of the characteristics of European populist leaders, including a tendency to generate rigid “us-versus-them” dichotomies as well as a tendency to reject “appropriate” behaviour. Despite these parallels, however, it’s important to bear in mind the historic specificities that differentiate Europe from the United States (on this topic, see also Nadia Urbinati and Hans-Georg Betz).

9) In conclusion, under which circumstances populism thrives and, on the other hand, when do populism is defeated by mainstream and established parties? Is there a magic formula?

LdJ: No, there isn’t. (That’d make my PhD-life so much easier.) Unlike physics or maths, politics isn’t an exact science where always end up with a successful populist party if you mix together a certain number of ingredients. Similarly, there’s no blueprint on how to deal with populism. In countries that have a long history of dealing with (right-wing) populism, such as Austria, for instance, mainstream parties have tried just about everything ranging from avoidance, to imitation and cooperation – none of these strategies have proven to be very effective in the long run (see Catherine de Vries’ Twitter thread below).
In general, as Russell Dalton, ‎David Farrell and ‎Ian McAllister have noted, “political parties must be like sharks, they must keep moving to adapt to changing conditions”. The only way to “counter” populist parties and politicians, in my opinion, is to engage with them. Many mainstream parties have lost touch with their electorates and need to come up with creative ways to re-engage with their voters. Mainstream parties should not ignore populist challengers, nor should they resort to copying them; instead, they should challenge them, take voters’ concerns serious and, above all, try to address some of the underlying issues that generate demand for populism in the first place.

Léonie de JongeLéonie de Jonge is a third-year PhD Candidate in Politics & International Studies at the University of Cambridge. She holds a BA in International Relations from Cornell College (Iowa, USA) as well as an MPhil in International Relations from the University of Cambridge. Her PhD research focuses on right-wing populist parties in the Benelux region. Specifically, she is interested in the question as to why such parties have been more successful in the Netherlands and Flanders than in Wallonia and Luxembourg. On Twitter she is @L_deJonge

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