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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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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Interview #34 — Populist parties as ‘the new normal’

Populist parties are the new “normal” in European democracies, and even when they do not dominate the political arena they might receive constant attention by the media. In short, a process of normalization and legitimation is making populist parties a permanent feature of European political systems.

But how many populist parties are there in Europe? Are they mostly right-wing as we tend to assume? How do they integrate in the political system of their respective countries? In order to be considered as populist they must be anti-elitist, but how can they remain opposed to the elites when they become integrated in the political system? I had many questions, and decided to ask them all to Mattia Zulianello.

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Trump and Brexit Vs working class – A double Interview

In this double interview, Aurelien Mondon and Aaron Winter look at Brexit and Trump as *white* phenomena rather than working class revolts. They argue that the ‘working class’ narrative grew in recent years and it has uncritically suggested that the far right has become predominantly supported by the working class, while this is not the case. The first step in the creation of this narrative has been to ignore the role of abstention in the working class. In turn, the working class has become increasingly represented as the white working class, ignoring its diversity. Therefore, Mondon and Winter claim, those pushing these agendas are not only legitimising racist ideas, but also encouraging classism in an extremely condescending manner. This also obscures that in both cases (Trump’s election and Brexit), the bulk of the reactionary vote comes from the wealthier parts of the population.

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Interview #32: Media Opportunity Structures for Populism

In this interview, Nicole Ernst argues that while Twitter and Facebook are now essential elements of the political sphere, traditional media are not dead an it would be a mistake to overestimate the influence of social media.

On the other hand, social media are definitely a populist paradise (Facebook more than Twitter). Indeed, they allow politicians to create a connection with the people by sharing elements of their private lives, emotions, and feelings. Moreover, they provide a selective exposure that reinforces the populist beliefs of the public, and by criticizing the mainstream media as servants of the ruling elites they create a sense of community.  

Mainstream media give space to populist content generated on social media because populist messages are often controversial, emotion-evoking, dubious, and polarizing. Populist actors also tend to take extreme positions on hotly debated issues, while journalists pay attention to what populist politicians argue on other media channels – especially on social media – and incorporate those arguments into their newspaper articles. This means that populist politicians do not use social media solely to bypass traditional news media but above all to influence the news media agenda with their posts and tweets.

This interview completes a trilogy on the relationship between populism and the media. The first —with Dominique Wirz— on populism and emotions is here, while the second on populist citizens and their media diet —with Anne Schulz— is here.

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Interview #31 – The Contagious Effect of the Radical Right

In this interview, Tarik Abou-Chadi explains that when radical right parties are successful (and especially when they enter parliament), mainstream parties shift toward a more anti-immigrant position. This is hardly surprising. However, according to his studies, this is a totally counterproductive move, and established parties should not go in pursuit of anti-immigration discourses because that would make them lose votes. If there is an “original” nativist and anti-immigration party, why voting an imitation?

Moreover, he claims that the shift toward more anti-immigrant positions of established parties that we have witnessed in the past 20 years is not simply a representation of public opinion, but a strategic move towards the success of radical right parties. In fact, in most Western European countries attitudes toward immigration have become more positive.

In other words: would we have seen the same anti-immigrant shift by established parties had the radical right not been successful? 

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Gender as a Rhetorical Tool for Strengthening Illiberal Democracy in Hungary

In this article, Bianka Vida explains how the Hungarian government uses gender as a rhetorical tool to strengthen its illiberal regime. The so-called “gender theory” is a threat to any right-wing populist government, including Fidesz in Hungary. Starting from the Hungarian example, Vida illustrates how gender is exploited by right-wing political parties to expand illiberal democracy. What is the role of the EU in this illiberal transformation, and what will be the future of Universities proposing courses on gender studies?

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Interview #29 – Populist Citizens & The Media

Anne Schulz investigates the relationship between populist citizens and the media. People with strong populist beliefs reject the media as an enemy because they seem to think that the media conspire together with the political elites. They mainly rely on soft news media and commercial TV. Moreover, populist citizens are strongly projecting their opinion onto public opinion. In other words, they believe that everybody else share their views. Finally: guess which social madia they prefer between Facebook and Twitter?

This, and much more, in a new interview. Enjoy.

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Interview #27 – Populism and Liberal Democracy with Takis Pappas

The promise is that in a democracy we will be able to have some significant degree of control over important issues that affect us. But even supposing that ‘we, the people’ can combine our diverse interests and opinions into a coherent collective will, the hard facts of political and economic interdependence often make that an empty promise. This ambiguity affects democracies regardless of their scale, and cannot be avoided either by participatory democracy in face-to-face communities or by the global democracy now projected in some quarters.

Margaret Canovan, Trust the People! (1999)

In this interview Takis S. Pappas presents his forthcoming book comparing populism across countries and over time, in order to address two crucial points: what causes populism’s rise to power and what happens under and during populist rule. He shows that populism is the outcome of extraordinary leadership acting within conditions of democratic representation crisis and able to set into motion a chain of specific micro-mechanisms until populism emerges as a significant political force. Moreover, engaging in a great populist travel from Fujimori to Papandreou through Cristina Fernández Kirchner, we discuss the peculiar traits of Donald Trump’s populism.

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