The Betrayal of Populism: Why the New Far Right Is the Real Threat to Our Democracy

Much of the discussion on populism focuses exclusively on protest against the political system: the protest of “the people” against “the elite.” But elites are using nativism to redirect “the people’s” anger toward immigrants and minorities. In his new book, University of Georgia professor Cas Mudde assesses the influence of the far-right today.

 

Photo by Gage Skidmore, via Flickr [CC BY-SA 2.0]

 

The first two decades of the 21st century have been characterized by a seemingly never-ending sequence of “crisis,” from the terrorist attacks of 9/11 in 2001 to the economic crisis of the Great Recession in 2007-8 to the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015to name but the most significant (at least in the Western world). Relatedly, politics has become portrayed as an existential struggle between an embattled political mainstream and the angry masses. But this frame has become too simplistic and obscures at least as much as it explains.

 

Just two years ago, my friend Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser and I published Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017), in many ways a short summary of a combined two decades of research on a much used but little understood concept. By that time, it had become the concept to understand the main political struggles of the times. So why write a new book on The Far Right Today, only two years later?

 

In some ways, this book is an intellectual homecoming, as I wrote my PhD on The Ideology of the Extreme Right (Manchester University Press, 2000). I had only written sparsely on populism, notably an until recently not that much-noticed article entitled The Populist Zeitgeist (2004), as I believed most fundamental anti-system politics came from the right. This changed in the wake of the Great Recession, however, when (new) left-wing protest parties came to the fore and the term “populism” captured the Zeitgeist better than “radical right” or “right-wing populism.” 

 

 

But in 2016 things had changed, again, and left-wing populism was losing momentum in both South America and Southern Europe. The discussion about Brexit and Trump was increasingly about immigration, but was still covered as (unqualified) “populism.” But populism is a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” versus “the corrupt elite,” and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people. It has no singular position on immigrationleft-populist parties like Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece are among the most pro-immigrant parties in their respective countries.

 

I mainly wrote The Far Right Today to shift the focus of the debate and show that nativismsimply stated, a xenophobic form of nationalismis at the heart of the current challenge to liberal democracy, not populism. This is not to say that populism is no longer relevant. The most fundamental challenge to liberal democracy comes from populist radical right parties, like the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) or the Italian League, which combine nativism, authoritarianism, and populism. The rise of these parties had already generated hundreds of academic articles and books in the early 2000s, as I critically discussed in my Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 2007).

 

It is these parties that have significantly increased their electoral support, more as a consequence of 9/11 and the so-called refugee crisis than the economic crisis. It is their electoral success that has pushed mainstream parties far to the right, from the Danish Social Democrats to the Spanish Popular Partyand has made the boundaries between mainstream right and radical right increasingly porous (think about the French or US Republicans) or no longer relevant (think Fidesz in Hungary). And it is their politics that has become more and more mainstreamed and normalized, as a consequence of which it is now considered “common sense” that “multiculturalism has failed” or that “Islam is a threat to Western values.”

 

“Populism is a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”

 

But while the radical right, which rejects liberal democracy (i.e. minority rights, rule of law, and separation of powers), is increasingly mainstreamed and normalized, the extreme right, which rejects even democracy (i.e. popular sovereignty and majority rule), has made a return too. Neo-Nazi parties have been elected to parliament in Greece and Slovakia, while populist radical right parties and politicians openly flirt with extremist ideas, from dictatorship in Brazil (Jair Bolsonaro) to open racism in Estonia (Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, or EKRE). Hence, we should focus on the “far right” as a whole, which combines the extreme right and radical right, their complex and various internal relationships, and their effects on liberal democracy.

 

Migrants in Hungary, August 2015. Photo by Gémes Sándor/SzomSzed,  [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

 

Much of the discussion of populism focuses exclusively on protest against the political system, i.e. the protest of “the people” against “the elite.” But elites are using nativism to redirect “the” people’s anger to immigrants and minorities. And as we can see from London to Washington, “the swamp” is not really drained, but “the Other” is increasingly marginalized and rejected.

 

That this “betrayal of populism” does not seem to upset its supporters should come as no surprise. We have at least three decades of research that shows that “economic anxiety” is secondary to the support of the far right.

 

The main driver is “cultural backlash” and, as far as economics plays a role, it is in a racialized mannernativists believe that “aliens” are getting too numerous or powerful and that is why they think the national economy is in dire straits. Consequently, many Trump voters are positive about their personal economic situation, but think the national economy is in trouble.

 

The Far Right Today is meant to both educate readers about the contemporary far right in all its extreme heterogeneity and empower them in the face of its fundamental challenge to liberal democracy. Because only by understanding the key characteristics of the challenger as well as the main causes of its success can we successfully defend liberal democracy.

 

Cas Mudde is the Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor of International Affairs at the University of Georgia and the author of the new book The Far Right Today. 

 

The ProMarket blog is dedicated to discussing how competition tends to be subverted by special interests. The posts represent the opinions of their writers, not necessarily those of the University of Chicago, the Booth School of Business, or its faculty. For more information, please visit ProMarket Blog Policy.