Populism or neo-nationalism?

In this thought-provoking article, Alexander Svitych* argues that nationalism constitutes the ideological core of modern radical right and radical left parties. Hence, he proposes to use the term neo-nationalism (or populist nationalism) to describe the ideology articulated by political parties often described as radical, populist, or nativist. He argues that neo-nationalism is a broader ideology than populism, and that it can be found both in right-wing and left-wing populist parties. He claims that neo-nationalism emerges at the intersectionality of three dimensions: nationalism, populism and radicalism. The ideology articulated by contemporary radical left and radical firght parties shows both populist and nationalist traits, and therefore it should be labelled as neo or populist nationalism.

rrp_muddeThere has been a voluminous number of studies on the success of political parties labelled as extreme/radical/far right, ultra-nationalist, populist, nativist, and so on. Although these characteristics are often treated as synonyms, they imply somewhat different sets of ideas. Cas Mudde has argued that such a “terminological chaos” is due to the challenge of circularity, that is “we have to decide on the basis of which post facto criteria we should use to define the various parties, while we need a priori criteria to select the parties that we want to define.”[1]

With the intent of bringing some coherence into the discussion, I propose neo-nationalism (or populist nationalism) as a more suitable term to denote the political ideology espoused by contemporary radical parties. My starting point is the observation made by Benedict Anderson:

Behind … the ability to realise that my grievance is equivalent to everyone else’s grievance, is the idea of the nation, the idea of a society which ought to be equal, where no-one is looked down upon, humiliated, or marginalised. The appeal of populism to this vague but radical egalitarianism is rooted deep in the idea of the nation.[2]

Admittedly, “nation” is the key concept to characterize “far right” parties. Their core ideological feature is nationalism, understood as a political doctrine demanding congruence between cultural (nation) and political (state) units. Nationalism can take an allegedly more inclusive civic form, with the state being the primary unit of organization; or an exclusive ethnic form, with the ethnic nation being the basis of human organization. In practice, however, nationalism always includes both the political and cultural aspects, while different political actors can mobilize their constituencies along either of the dimensions.

politicsoffearwodakYet, conceptually, nationalism is still broad as a common denominator for the radical political forces. The reason is because “nationalism” subsumes both the “mainstream” identity-building nationalism and the more recent identity-maintaining nationalism fanned by both radical right and left parties. In this regard, Cas Mudde has proposed the term *nativism* as xenophobic nationalism giving exclusive priority to the native group (nation) and treating non-native elements as a threat to the nation-state. Moreover, nativism gives rise to what Ruth Wodak calls the “politics of fear”  (see interview to Prof. Wodak) whereby populist parties use ethnic, religious, or migrant minorities as scapegoats for most problems and treat them as a dangerous “Other” towards “We,”[3] while Takis Pappas goes further and makes an analytical distinction between the nativist and populist groups.[4]

In view of these and many other classifying attempts, I contend that “neo-nationalism” is a more accurate term to denote the political ideology propelled by the radical parties in Europe and beyond. The concept was first coined by anthropologists Gingrich and Banks to characterize radical right parties in the EU, and defined as the re-emergence of nationalism in the current phase of transnational and global development. [5] While this term originated in the European context, it may be used to refer to contemporary surges of nationalism anywhere across the globe. There are several payoffs from using “neo-nationalism” as part of our analytical vocabulary.

GingrichNeo-Nationalism1) It covers nationalist movements and parties on either side of the right-left ideological spectrum. This contrasts Pappas’ “populist-nativist” dichotomy which, in my view, overlooks the nationalist “common denominator.” While today’s neo-nationalism is mostly associated with the right (e.g., Jörg Haider’s FPÖ in Austria, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s FN in France, or Pauline Hanson’s One Nation in Australia), as Luke March points out, neo-nationalism can also be found on the left (e.g., the Party of Democratic Socialism in Germany, the Scottish and the Dutch Socialist parties).[6]

The left-wing variant of neo-nationalism combines a democratic socialist ideology with a populist discourse, thus expressing the “voice of the people.” They oppose capitalism on the grounds of inequality and adopt an egalitarian, universalist agenda. Neo-nationalism thus occurs both on the left and the right of the political spectrum, which renders the terms “far right,” “extreme right,” and “radical right” misleading.

imagined_communities2) “Neo-nationalism” depicts the premises of the new political forces, i.e. nationalist ideology, in contrast to methods (radical, extreme), policies and rhetoric (populist) or political spectrum (right, left). Neo-nationalism implies assertive identity politics whereby a nation is constantly re-imagined and a national identity is reinforced through a specific “political imaginary”, i.e. fascist and Nazi pasts, a perceived danger from migrants and ethnic minorities, or a traditional Christian agenda, etc.

Furthermore, such a nationalist ideology may serve as the basis for social policies as demonstrated in the idea of “welfare chauvinism” requiring states to ensure social security (job, housing, and other social benefits) for the “insiders” while keeping the “outsiders” away (hence the names and slogans “National Front,” “True Finns,” “Danish People’s Party,” “One Nation,” “America First,” etc.). To a certain extent this dovetails with Pappas’s idea of the “political liberalism for the natives.”[7]

However, theoretically and practically liberalism builds on the notion of free and equal individuals, while – in Pappas’s own understanding – they are the interests of a national community that are at stake. Here I share Ben Margulies’s view that nativists are populists, and not liberals.[8] Yet I add an additional nuance by anchoring these forces in the “neo-nationalist” camp, with populism being an additional part of the “maximum definition” as discussed below.

3) Sociologists Maureen Eger and Sarah Valdez have demonstrated convincingly that parties often labelled as “radical” or “far right” have qualitatively changed since the 1990s: they no longer favor neo-liberal pro-market policies and support public spending instead, while their nationalist ideologies aim at boundary-maintenance rather than nation-building project.[9] While economic issues were central to the “old far-right,” nationalism is the primary political concern for neo-national parties.

The table summarizes the three points mentioned above. 

This also explains why parties like Hungary’s Fidesz and Poland’s Law and Justice parties, the Austrian People’s Party, or Japan’s Liberal Democratic Party are not populist per se, as Takis Pappas claims.[11] Instead, this is an example of how populist-nationalist appeal has influenced the political mainstream by pushing less radical parties to “re-nationalize” their agendas, which appears to be a matter of political expediency rather than part of ideological apparatus.

Finally, populist nationalist ideology can be tinted with radicalism calling for drastic changes in the existing political and economic system, e.g. the neo-liberal democratic hegemony, such as the case with the Greek Syriza, for instance.While nationalism constitutes the ideological core of the radical right and left parties, two other distinct features need to be considered – populism and radicalism – which makes many scholars and observers refer to “populist” or “radical” parties. Following Cas Mudde, populism can be understood as an ideology that views society divided into “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite.” Moreover, since populism is a “thin ideology” discursively constructed through “equivalential logic,” to use Ernesto Laclau’s terms, it is theoretically and practically compatible with the core concepts of both left (class) and right (nation). [10]

In sum, neo-nationalism (or populist nationalism) emerges at the intersectionality of three dimensions: nationalism, populism and radicalism. Nationalism as the underlying feature invokes the inter-related issues of welfare, sovereignty, and identity, and unites the radical right and left. Ben Margulies rightly argues that we need to be cautious of simplistic typologies anchored in the populists’ own worldview. The notion of neo-nationalism – either in its minimum or maximum definition – can clarify and enhance our intellectual arsenal to capture the underlying political ideologies of the radical right and left parties.


[1] Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 13.

[2] Benedict Anderson, “Afterword,” in Kosuke Mizuno and Pasuk Phongpaichit, eds., Populism in Asia (Singapore: NUS Press, 2009), p. 219.

[3] Ruth Wodak, The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean (London: Sage, 2015), 3.

[4] http://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/03/28/what-makes-nativists-and-populists-distinct/

[5] Andre Gingrich, Marcus Banks, eds., Neo-Nationalism in Europe and Beyond: Perspectives from Social Anthropology (New York: Berghahn Books, 2006).

[6] Luke March, Radical Left Parties in Contemporary Europe (London, UK: Routledge, 2011).

[7] http://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/03/28/what-makes-nativists-and-populists-distinct/

[8] http://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/03/28/nativists-are-populists-and-not-liberals/

[9] Maureen A. Eger and Sarah Valdez, “Neo-nationalism in Western Europe,” European Sociological Review 31:1 (2014), 127. The knowledge that far-right parties have adopted leftist economic policies has been corroborated by many scholars. See, inter alia, Michael Minkenberg, “The Renewal of the Radical right: Between Modernity and Anti-Modernity,” Government and Opposition 35 (2000), 170-188; Sarah de Lange, “A New Winning Formula? The Programmatic Appeal of the Radical Right,” Party Politics 13 (2007), 411-435; and Daphne Halikiopoulou, Kyriaki Nanou and Sofia Vasilopoulou, “The Paradox of Nationalism: The Common Denominator of Radical Right and Radical Left Euroscepticism,” European Journal of Political Research 51 (2012), 504-539.

[10] Ernesto Laclau, “Populism: What’s in a Name?” in Francisco Panizza, ed., Populism and the Mirror of Democracy (London & New York: Verso, 2005), 37.

[11] http://www.democraticaudit.com/2018/03/28/what-makes-nativists-and-populists-distinct/

Alexander* Alexander Svitych is a PhD Candidate with the Department of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.

His dissertation explores the relationship between the structural socio-economic forces transforming nation-states into capital-states, and the revival of nationalism.

His broader research interests include International Relations, International Political Economy, Comparative Politics, Globalization and State, and Identity.

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