Interview #48 — Hindutva, from interwar fascism to Narendra Modi

Eviane Leidig brings us to India to talk about Hindutva, a very successful and powerful form of Hidu nationalism. In particular, we discuss its historical roots, including the links to fascism and Nazism, and how Narendra Modi in recent years mainstreamed this ethno-nationalist ideology. Modi, who portrays himself as a common man, son of a tea seller and victim of a news media conspiracy, has been re-elected as Prime Minister in 2019 thanks to its populist rhetoric and its references to nationalist symbols.

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Interview #45 — The Vox of which populi?

In this interview with Stuart Turnbull-Dugarte we talk about Vox, the end of Spanish exceptionalism, and the turbulent changes in the Spanish political landscape. While several aspects of Vox seem to fall neatly in the populist far right category as we see it across Europe, other aspects are rather peculiar. In particular, while immigration does not seem to explain much of the vote for Vox, the Catalan issue and Spanish nationalism deeply define the motivations of Vox’s voters.

The picture above was taken in Lisbon, Portugal, and shows a poster of Chega, a populist far right party similar in many aspects to Vox. Chega obtained one seat in the Portuguese parliament in 2019, thus shaking Portuguese exceptionalism. The party’s leader, André Ventura, in the poster is conveying the following message: “Of the storms we’ll make hope. For Portugal, for Portuguese people”. The poster has been modified and now reads: “For Portugal, for everyone”.

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Interview #43 — Populists without borders

In this interview we talk about Benjamin Moffitt’s new book, which has the rare quality of reducing chaos and summarize the existing literature with clarity, giving examples and putting the studies out there in perspective. We discuss many topics: from transational to international populism in Europe and Latin America, nationalism and coronavirus, illiberalism, and the future of democracy.

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Interview #42 — From authoritarian regimes to democracies, and back?

Using the pandemic to introduce authoritarian measures, Poland and Hungary are drifting away from liberal democratic principles. In this interview with Anna Grzymala-Busse we link the current state of affairs to the communist legacies present in the two countries.

What happens to authoritarian parties once the country starts a process of democratization? And what consequences does this have on the newly formed democratic system and on party competition?

After the democratic transition, populist actors can succeed by exploiting the weakness of mainstream parties as well as their lack of accountability and responsiveness to the voters. As a result, populists can weaken the formal institutions of democracy, going after the courts, the media, and undermine democratic values, dividing society between loyal supporters and traitorous opponents.

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Interview #41 — Authoritarian Past and the Far right in the Iberian Peninsula

Spain and Portugal share many things: the same peninsula, long parts of their history, and —until recently— the lack of success of far right parties. This, however, is no longer true. We try to understand the rise of the far right in Spain by asking Mariana Mendes questions about Vox and Chega, the memory of Franco and Salazar, opportunity structures and stigma.

Why populist radical right parties were not successful in Spain until very recently, and what has changed in the meantime? Will Portugal follow a similar trajectory or will it remain one of the rare “exceptional countries” in Europe where the far right is not successful?

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Interview #39 — Democracy, Constitutions, and Populism

In this interview, Nadia Urbinati reflects on the democratic boundaries set by different types of constitutions, the evolution of Hungary from a populist democracy into an autocracy, the future of democracy in a post-pandemic scenario, the parallels and differences between this crisis and the last one. Moreover, we discuss how certain social aspects, such as education, health and climate change, should be addressed going beyond short-term, national interests. This could be the end for populism, but only if non-populist actors will manage to take advantage of the situation and restore the public sector.

How do populists undermine democracy, and in particular the separation powers, to establish an autocracy? A populist constitution, Urbinati claims, is a majority that constitutionalize itself, because the majority bends the constitution to justify an existing power instead of limiting any existing one. Democracy is now under a tremendous stress, and here we try to understand how populists actors can try to take advantage of the situation and to what extent different types of constitutions can prevent democratic erosion.  The words of Nadia Urbinati help us to understand the present and, crucially, to imagine our future.

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Interview #38 — Populism and Climate Change

Populism and climate change were supposed to be among the most crucial topics of 2020, if not of the entire decade that just started. Then the pandemic cancelled every other topic from the public debate, but climate change did not simply ‘stop’ when swans (allegedly) came back to Venice. Actually, it will be interesting to study the link between air pollution and the diffusion of viruses, because  it seems like air pollution is likely to increase coronavirus’ death rate.

After this emergency, the populist management of climate change will re-become central in the public debate not only because – separately – populism and climate change are both extremely relevant, but also because they are strictly connected to each other. Articles, studies, and reports are increasingly  focusing on the issue, making a connection between the two phenomena. For example, thirty percent of global emissions come from countries led by populist nationalist leaders, and “resistance to climate change policies has become a feature of the populist agenda.” This, however, does not mean that populist leaders have an interest in fighting climate change. In fact,  action on climate change is often seen as an elitist attempt to take away jobs and to impose new taxes. And even those right-wing populist parties that engage in some sort of ‘green patriotism’ – which strongly supports environmental conservation – do not support climate action.

Given the relevant role of populist parties in parliaments across the world, some even argue that a left-wing variant of ‘environmental populism‘ could be a solution. So far, however, this has not been the case, while right-wing populists have ‘successfully’ ignored the issue by pretending to defend the jobs linked to the coal industry. The right-wing populist ideology, based on the antagonism between ‘the people’ and a cosmopolitan elite, goes well with skeptic positions on climate change. Meanwhile, Jair Bolsonaro insists on deforestation, which could push the Amazon rainforest to an irreversible “tipping point” within two years (in his view also coronavirus, like global warming, is just a “media trick“). And in January, while Australia was literally on fire, coal helped Pauline Hanson secure a seat in the country’s Senate, where she staunchly defends Queensland’s coal industry.

Robert Huber is one of the best scholars on populism, and he recently published an excellent article about the association between populist attitudes, climate skepticism, and support for environmental protection. Let’s hear what he has to say.

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Interview #37 – The end of Portuguese exceptionalism?

Portugal has been a dictatorship for almost half a century, until the Carnation Revolution (1926-1974). In the forty-five following years (1974-2019), Portugal has become an “exception” since it seemed to be immune to far right parties, populism, and all the other phenomena that in the meantime were characterizing the rest of Europe. Last October, however, Portugal went to vote (well, not many people, the turnout was below 50%). Is Portugal still an “exceptional” country? Who are André Ventura and Joacine Katar-Moreira? We asked Alexandre Afonso to answer these and many other questions about the lesser known of Iberian democracies. In the next months, the focus will be often on Portugal and Spain, so stay tuned…

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Where do we go now? – Five years of #populism (2015-2020)

They were so powerful they wrote the laws to benefit themselves. They got away with everything because they banked on us, all of us, to trust the system, that was our vulnerability and they took advantage of it. (…)
Everything we’ve been through led up to this one moment: the greatest redistribution of wealth in history. We just Robin Hooded those evil motherfuckers! *

In February 2015 appeared the first post for Political Observer on Populism. It was titled Sheep in New Zealand, Pinocchio and Robin Hood. It discussed topics such as Brexit, the role (and style) of Yanis Varoufakis in the unfolding economic crisis, the possibility of an “Italeave” promised by Five Star Movement and Lega, the political use of conspiracy theories, and so on. The benefit of using Twitter to spread the content of the blog seemed self-evident, although over time the air has become increasingly toxic, like in every other commercial social media. As long as it will be worth it, the Twitter account will remain active: probably, however, it won’t be for much longer. What matters is the content published here, the exchange of ideas it feeds, the connections it creates, the people saying “keep the good work up”. This blog already constitutes a powerful tool to better understand populism®, it gives voice to the most brilliant scholars on the topic, and if you want to contribute pass by –> here.

Half a decade later POP is still around and Brexit too, modern Godot which will surely come but not today, maybe tomorrow. Lega and Five Star Movement have formed a government together — which already ended in farce — and contrary to their promises they never mentioned leaving the Euro. The book Varoufakis wrote in 2015 (Adults in the Room) has now become a movie. Populism has been normalized and mainstreamed even in Germany and Scandinavia. Podemos governs Spain together with PSOE, crystallizing and institutionalizing the instances of the Indignados, bringing the previous cycle of struggles right into power, waiting for the new one to reject its compromises. In 2015 Obama was going towards the end of its second mandate, now Donald Trump (under impeachment) and Boris Johnson lead a plethora of populist and nativist politicians with a terrible haircut, which however does not qualify them as a working class phenomenon.

In the meantime, the unfolding of history in front of our eyeballs taught us that no country is immune to populism and nativism, Poland and Hungary can hardly be considered liberal democracies with Fidesz and PiS in power, and Green parties seem to finally be able to compete with right-wing populism for the votes of disillusioned voters who no longer feel represented by mainstream parties. After the Great Recession and the refugee ‘crisis’, climate change and global warming seem to be the third critical juncture of the 21st century. In the next decade they will probably fill the news in a cyclic repetition worthy of Sisyphus. The economy goes down, a wave of refugees, global warming cannot be ignored anymore, the economy goes down, a wave of refugees, etc etc…

Capture

Available here.

2019 saw protests raging around the world: Chile, Hong Kong, Algeria, Catalonia, Brazil, Venezuela, Iran, to mention just a few cases. The Gilets Jaunes and the scandal about Cambridge Analytica ideally connected street protests against old-fashioned capitalism and a global movement against “surveillance capitalism”. Direct democracy proved to be easily manipulated, a new nationalist wave is crossing the continents, and authoritarian tendencies confirm more than ever that democracy is not the only game in town. Spain spent months discussing about Francisco Franco’s remains, Portugal discussed the possibility of a museum (or study center) about the dictatorship in Salazar’s home town, and in Italy the crypt with Mussolini’s tomb has been re-opened to the public. The past is coming back and it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore it. It’s the fascist Zeitgeist, baby.

Two parties that are exceptionally good at exploiting the lack of historical perspective are the League and the Five Star Movement. In a country like Italy, that created fascism and then found more convenient to hide behind the Resistance, selective amnesia opened the doors of power to (post)fascists already in the 1990s. I was asked to write an article about their ideological roots, and in a few days this piece took form. It is not the first time I talk about these two parties, but I never did it at such length, and I believe that the type of populist discourse they articulate, post-ideological in one case and nativist in the other, offers an interesting insight into the kind of populism that will characterize the 2020s.

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Populism in the hybrid media system

In this article, Niko Hatakka presents the idea that the hybridization of the media system affects populism as a political logic to the point that it makes it less likely to constitute a corrective for democracy. This is the case because, even though populist movements do not have to be anti-pluralist or illiberal, the hybrid media system will make them appear like they are. As he claims in his book, media systems of the 21st century are hybrid: the access to the public sphere has become more inclusive and horizontal, allowing more people to get involved in defining how we should view the world. But what does it mean for the articulation of “the people” when anybody can speak or be perceived to speak in the name of “the people”? 

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