EU flags in EU Council building during an EU Summit in Brussels, Belgium on June 28, 2018. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

Prof. Ruth Wodak: I am very worried about the future of Europe

“Currently, lying doesn’t matter. That is what I call ‘post shame’. You don’t have to be ashamed, you don’t have to apologize for lying, for offending people, for swearing, for being sexist or racist or whatever. It just doesn’t matter. This characterizes a new stage in the development of the far-right. Certain conventions and taboos have been violated and such new discourses have become acceptable.”

By Selcuk Gultasli

One of the leading scholars on populismProf. Ruth Wodak, said she was very worried about the future of Europe. Prof. Wodak, who is Emerita Distinguished Professor of Discourse Studies at Lancaster University, UK, and affiliated with the University of Vienna stressed that the EU is endangered as a member of the transnational club. Some EU countries abide by the EU conventions, but others do not, risking the EU’s unity. She underlined that some EU member countries like Hungary and Poland behave as if nothing has been learned from history. 

Prof. Wodak believes we are now living in a “post shame” age where all norms have been attacked by the populist and far-right parties. Lying for politicians has become so normal that nobody cares anymore whether they tell the truth or simply lie. “This shamelessness, as I call it, also implies a mobilizing capacity because many people, Trump voters, for example, were very happy that Trump ‘finally said what everybody was thinking’,” Wodak said. Despite many negative developments, Wodak thinks populist parties can be defeated at the ballot box. The latest example is the elections in the US where Joe Biden defeated Donald Trump. 

The following are excerpts from the interview. 

How does the “politics of fear” work for populist parties? How do they instrumentalize fear?

This is, of course, always context dependent. Far-right populist parties thrive whenever there is a crisis. They either construct or exaggerate a crisis or instrumentalize existing crises. They create unreal scenarios of threat and danger, and then they position themselves as the only party and the only politicians who can save “us” from this crisis and danger. In this way, they first create fear and then hope. This is an interdependent pattern. Which is, of course, not new, which has existed for many, many centuries; but they are very clever at employing this pattern.

Your book “The Politics of Fear” was published before Donald Trump and Brexit, before the surge of populist leaders, and it is very to the point. How do you explain this?

In the meantime, there is the second edition. It just came out in 2021. It’s updated: I also write about Trump and Brexit and the many new socio-political developments which occurred since the first edition. As for the first edition, it was obvious to look at the Austrian, Italian and Hungarian examples. “The politics of fear” was very successful in the far-right.

The oldest European far-right populist parties, like the Front National and the Austrian Freedom Party, became much stronger, especially after 1989 and the fall of the Iron Curtain. (Jörg) Haider’s party, the Freedom Party, for example, gained many votes because they instrumentalized xenophobic rhetoric against migrants from the former Eastern bloc countries. Interestingly, in 2015, in the refugee movement, we experienced a very similar xenophobic pattern in far-right discourse. The only salient difference was that now refugees  were coming from Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Syria, Africa, Somalia, Sudan, etc. But basically, the exclusionary rhetoric is very similar.

There Is No “One Size Fits All”

As you have stated in your lectures: almost all populist parties in Europe are successful. Why is this the case?

This is an interesting question. Again, it’s context specific because it’s very different in the south, where there exists bigger polarization. Moreover, left-wing and centre-left parties have been quite successful in Spain, Portugal, and Italy; right now, we have a technocratic government in Italy. The Lega (a populist right-wing party), which was initially very successful, had to leave the government in Italy. In Greece, there exists huge polarization. But it’s different in the rich countries—and I am now speaking of Austria, Denmark, Switzerland, and Norway, probably the richest countries in Europe. The fear was created that the people would lose out; thus, they haven’t lost yet, but they [were made to fear that they] would lose all the social benefits etc., because refugees were and are arriving. Such fear was mobilized and instrumentalized. We label this phenomenon “welfare chauvinism.” 

Then there are countries like Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, etc., which are poorer countries; [in these countries], the far-right creates fear that people might lose their “true” national identity and their national language and maintain that Christianity (i.e. the Christian Occident) is threatened. People were mobilized through such fears. For example, look at Hungary: many Hungarians had emigrated to Western countries, so huge fear was created that the “true” Hungarians would die out. This is a trope that Viktor Orbán frequently uses. In sum, there exist very different reasons for the success of the far right. There is no “one size fits all.” One must really look at the context, the history, at the socio-political and economic developments, to understand cultural developments and explain how these parties work.

When and how do populist parties become unsuccessful? Is there a way to defeat them at the ballot box?

Obviously, examples exist. In some countries that has already happened. Sometimes they even “shoot themselves in their own foot.” Like in Austria: The Coalition-Government from 2018-2019 (with the far-right Freedom Party as coalition partner) failed because of big scandals, and they lost a lot of votes. But they seem to have found a new agenda, new “enemy images,” new niches, a new way of mobilizing voters. In other cases, it really depends on other factors: if there is a good opposition, if there’s an alternative program, you might have a chance [to defeat far-right populism]. If there is no alternative program, other parties will not defeat them; one has to provide alternatives, provide more participation so that citizens feel that they are acknowledged and that their worries are being taken seriously. A third possibility is that the party vanishes but then, the conservative parties usually take on their agenda. That’s what I call, now in my second edition, “normalization.” In this way, the far-right agenda becomes normalized, and the mainstream conservatives implement the programs of the far right. Indeed, the parties might vanish or become smaller, but the agenda survives.

There Are Many Politicians Who Lie a Lot

Former US President Donald Trump with a serious look as he delivers a speech at a campaign rally held at the Mohegan Sun Arena in Wilkes-Barre, PA – August 2, 2018. Photo: Evan El-Amin

What do you mean by “post shame” age?

I think this is important. There’s a lot of talk about a “post truth era.” Indeed, there are many politicians who lie a lot. Of course, the example of Donald Trump is obvious, but lying is not new in the far right. Or in politics tout court. As Hannah Arendt and other theorists have shown, they (the liars) were sanctioned, they had to apologize, or they would lose votes; they even resigned. Currently, lying doesn’t matter. That is what I call “post shame.” You don’t have to be ashamed, you don’t have to apologize for lying, for offending people, for swearing, for being sexist or racist or whatever. It just doesn’t matter. This characterizes a new stage in the development of the far-right. Certain conventions and taboos have been violated and such new discourses have become acceptable. This shamelessness, as I call it, also implies a mobilizing capacity because many people, Trump voters, for example, were very happy that Trump “finally said what everybody was thinking.” The appeals to the people, to this alleged homogeneous people, is a very important strategy. These politicians construct themselves as those actors who can not only save the people from alleged dangers but who “dare say what everybody thinks.”

One of the terms you use is “shameless normalization.” What is so shamelessly normalized in recent years?

It is exactly what I have just mentioned. The shamelessness is making it acceptable to lie, to violate conventions of dialogue and negotiation, to denounce and defame your enemies in ways which violate many taboos. We were used to politeness conventions, to values which support and maintain interaction, and negotiations, i.e. arrive at compromises. Currently, it seems to be the case that we live in parallel worlds. We now seem to live in parallel discourse worlds, and those worlds cannot interact with each other anymore. Let’s take the example of Victor Orbán of Hungary again: The European Commission and many heads of state have criticized Fidesz’ and Orbán’s policies. Article Seven has been invoked against Hungary but it seems not to matter. Orbán will say, “okay there’s some little formal things which we can change to abide by the rules,” but basically the content of the undemocratic policies doesn’t change. The EU seems quite helpless and doesn’t really have the resources to implement the sanctions, mostly also due to the rule that all heads of European member states have to vote unanimously in such cases. In this way, Orbán has implemented some really authoritarian measures—for example, restricting press freedom, the freedom of universities and science, and so forth. 

You argue that instrumentalizing the media, both traditional and new, is part and parcel of the immediate success of populist movements. What should media do to escape the trap of the “mainstreaming” of populist parties?

That’s also a good question. If possible, media should, on the one hand, comment and explain what is happening, not just print what was said but frame it in a different way. They also don’t always have to print every provocation and scandal on page one. On the other hand, scandals sell well, so there is an important economic side, which has to be acknowledged. Right now, in Austria we are experiencing what is called “message control.” Media who are not reporting and printing what the government handouts every week in press conferences receive less subsidies, they receive fewer official advertisements—they’re basically starved by the government. It’s very difficult for them to survive as independent media; the pressure is huge. It’s not like in Turkey where journalists are being put into jail, but there exist subtle ways of disciplining the media and journalism. On top of that, there exists the option that every politician creates his/her own media. Trump tweeted; he didn’t need the media. He delegitimized the quality media as “fake news.” He legitimized what he called the alternative facts. He could do that via his own propaganda tool—tweets. He didn’t need the quality and mainstream serious media. Politicians can remain in their own bubbles, in their “parallel worlds.” That is a very dangerous development, and we observe the delegitimization of serious quality media in all the far-right parties.

US President Joe Biden defeated one of the strongest populist leaders in the world, Mr. Trump. Are there any lessons for Europe to take as it deals with its own populist leaders?

Yes, absolutely. The victory of Joe Biden has many reasons of course but one really big factor was that Trump failed in the Covid crisis. He spent a lot of money to start producing the vaccines, but he relativized the danger of the Covid crisis and, of course, the hundreds of thousands of dead Americans could not be dismissed. Covid created more dead Americans than both World Wars. Probably, without the Covid-crisis, Trump would have won. 

Secondly, Biden, only won by a small margin. All in all, he had millions of more votes, but if you look at the specific states, his victory was very small. Thus, it was important to have democratic institutions which didn’t fail. Justice was maintained. Indeed, some Republican senators abided by the rules and not to Trump’s big lies. 

Thirdly, Biden had an alternative program. Biden promised not only to fight the crisis and to provide vaccines, but he also promised better health services, higher minimum wages, to fight against poverty, tax the very rich, etc. 

Another example: There exists by Leonie de Jonge a very interesting study illustrating how such shifts happen. De Jonge works in the Netherlands. She did a study on the far-right parties in Belgium, where there are two far-right parties: one in the Flemish part and one in the French part. And there exist two social democratic parties, one in the Flemish part and one in the French part. In the Flemish part, the Social Democratic Party tried to overtake the far-right by proposing ever stricter anti-immigration measures and adopted xenophobic rhetoric. They lost heavily and the far right won. Xenophobia is the brand of the far-right. You shouldn’t compete with their brand. In the French part, the Social Democrats won. Why? Because they aligned with the media, they created a “cordonne sanitaire.” The media didn’t publish every provocation and scandal. They also proposed a left-wing program against poverty, for human rights and gender equality and anti-discrimination. The Social Democrats won; the far-right lost. This is truly like an experiment, where you can observe how different programs and alternative strategies might work.

EU: Nation States Remain More Powerful Than Transnational Entity

European Union flags against European Parliament in Brussels, Belgium.

After the Cold War, it was believed by many academicians that liberal democracy had won, and all the countries would reform themselves to attain the standards of liberal democracy. Right now, we witness just the opposite. What went wrong?

This is a question we could write many books about. I think that there are many factors. One factor is, of course, neoliberal economic policies which cut through the social welfare systems. The huge rise of inequality is obvious. Look at the United Kingdom, for example but also what happened in the European south. The second important factor is the fear “of losing out.” In the financial crisis of 2008, one could say simplistically the banks were saved but not the people; the fact that our generation cannot provide a better life for the next generation is a huge problem. The third factor is global inequality and continuous uncertainty. We all live on one planet, and we all face problems like climate crisis and migration. Countries have changed, they have become much more diverse; and such phenomena have triggered fears with respect to national identity issues, which we already talked about. And there are many other factors… 

If the trend continues i.e., the surge and the success of populist parties, what sort of a Europe shall we have in 20-30 years?

I am not a prophet, and I am also not a political scientist. I believe that the EU is endangered as a transnational entity. If the EU cannot guarantee human rights anymore, which are part and parcel of the Treaties, if it cannot guarantee the convention of child rights, it might fall apart into countries which abide by the conventions and countries which go a very different way, like Hungary, Poland, and so forth. Then, the EU might remain an economic area, but it would not guarantee what the EU, actually, stands for. 

I personally am very worried about this because we can observe such developments. For example, we have witnessed that heads of state cannot find a compromise on how to save hundreds of unaccompanied refugee children stranded on Greek islands. As if nobody has learnt from history! Strong reforms are necessary. The EU members and the EU Commission will have to consider reforms. Hopefully the citizens can participate through referenda, [determining] which direction the reforms should take. There’s an inherent contradiction in the structure of EU that, on the one hand, there exists the European Parliament. We all vote for the MEPs [member of European Parliament]. On the other hand, the heads of state are the most powerful actors. The nation states remain more powerful than the transnational entity. I think this contradiction has to be solved in some way. Otherwise, I don’t see how the EU will be able to continue in a positive, peaceful way.

Who is Ruth Wodak?

Ruth Wodak is Emerita Distinguished Professor of Discourse Studies at Lancaster University, UK, and affiliated to the University of Vienna. Besides various other prizes, she was awarded the Wittgenstein Prize for Elite Researchers in 1996, an Honorary Doctorate from University of Örebro in Sweden in 2010, and an Honorary Doctorate from Warwick University in 2020. She is past-President of the Societas Linguistica Europaea. 2011, she was awarded the Grand Decoration of Honour in Silver for Services to the Republic of Austria, and 2018, the Lebenswerk Preis for her lifetime achievements, from the Austrian Ministry for Women’s Affairs. She is member of the British Academy of Social Sciences and member of the Academia Europaea. In March 2020, she became Honorary Member of the Senate of the University of Vienna. She is member of the editorial board of a range of linguistic journals and co-editor of the journals Discourse and SocietyCritical Discourse Studies, and Language and Politics

She has held visiting professorships in University of Uppsala, Stanford University, University Minnesota, University of East Anglia, and Georgetown University. 2008, she was awarded the Kerstin Hesselgren Chair of the Swedish Parliament (at Örebrö University). In the spring 2014, Ruth Wodak held the Davis Chair for Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown University, Washington DC. In the spring 2016, Wodak was Distinguished Schuman Fellow at the Schuman Centre, EUI, Florence. 2017, she held the Willi Brandt Chair at the University of Malmö, Sweden. Currently, she is a senior visiting fellow at the Institute for Human Sciences, Vienna (IWM). 

Her research interests focus on discourse studies; gender studies; identity politics and the politics of the past; political communication and populism; prejudice and discrimination; and on ethnographic methods of linguistic field work. 

Professor Wodak has published 10 monographs, 29 co-authored monographs, over 60 edited volumes and special issues of journals, and ca 420 peer reviewed journal papers and book chapters. Her work has been translated into English, Italian, French, Spanish, Hebrew, Portuguese, German, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Polish, Arabic, Russian, Czech, Bosnian, Greek, Slovenian, and Serbian. 

Recent book publications include The Politics of Fear. The shameless normalization of far-right populist discourses (Sage 2021, 2nd revised and extended edition); Sociolinguistic Perspectives on Migration Control (Multilingual Matters 2020; with M. Rheindorf); Identitäten im Wandel. (Springer 2020; with R. de Cillia, M. Rheindorf, S. Lehner); Europe at the Crossroads (Nordicum 2019; with P. Bevelander); The Routledge Handbook of Language and Politics (Routledge 2018, with B. Forchtner); Kinder der Rückkehr (Springer 2018, with E. Berger); The Politics of Fear. What Right-wing Populist Discourses Mean (Sage, 2015; translated into the German, Russian, Bosnian, and Japanese); The discourse of politics in action: Politics as Usual’ (Palgrave, revised 2nd edition 2011; translated into the Chinese); Methods of CDS (Sage 2016, with M. Meyer; 3rd revised edition, translated into the Korean, Spanish, and Arabic); Migration, Identity and Belonging (LUP 2011, with G. Delanty, P. Jones); The Discursive Construction of History. Remembering the German Wehrmacht’s War of Annihilation (Palgrave 2008; with H. Heer, W. Manoschek, A. Pollak); The Politics of Exclusion. Debating Migration in Austria (Transaction Press 2009; with M. Krzyżanowski); The SAGE Handbook of Sociolinguistics (Sage 2010; with B. Johnstone, P. Kerswill); Analyzing Fascist Discourse. Fascism in Talk and Text (Routledge 2013; with J E Richardson), and Rightwing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse (Bloomsbury 2013; with M. KhosraviNik, B. Mral). See http://www.ling.lancs.ac.uk/profiles/Ruth-Wodak for more information. 

Professor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser.

Professor Kaltwasser: Turkey cannot be considered a democratic system anymore

Professor Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser: “The crucial question is what will happen in Turkey after Erdogan? To what extent does the AKP have a strong base of support? Will it be able to develop a new leader? I think that he probably can stay for a relatively long period of time, even with populist rhetoric … because he can still present himself as an ‘outsider.’”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

One of the leading academics in the field of populism, Prof. Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser argues that Turkey under the Erdogan regime can no longer be considered a democratic system and should now be classed as a competitive authoritarian regime. Prof. Rovira Kaltwasser—who teaches at the Diego Portales University in Santiago, Chile—also stresses that once a populist is able to entrench him or herself into the political system, as Erdogan has, he or she is likely to be at the helm of the country for an extended period of time: “And this is [what] I think that the experience from Turkey, but also from other countries like Venezuela, shows…”

Asked whether authoritarian populism is itself here to stay, Prof. Rovira Kalwasser says it will in part depend on the aftereffects of COVID-19: “I’m thinking here mainly about the social and economic aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis.” He indicates that if governments, policymakers, and people in academia can develop new approaches to deal in a systemic way with those aftereffects, populism could lose its appeal. If not, Rovira Kaltwasser says, populist forces will exploit socio-economic tensions and the aftereffects of COVID-19, which — he stresses — could strengthen populism.

The following excerpts from our interview have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

Populist Voters Tend to Have Very Illiberal Understanding of Democracy

You argue in your article on “the Populist Citizen” that “evidence suggests that populists are politically engaged citizens who do not want to overthrow the democratic system but rather push for the democratization of democracy.” If this is the case, do we not need to worry about the surge of populism?

This is an interesting question. I think it depends on how you analyze the data. What we found out when analyzing data in different countries—we have Latin America, Turkey, and a couple of European countries—is a striking commonality in all those places. The commonality is that citizens tend to have strong populist attitudes. At the same time, populist citizens tend to be in favor of the democratic system. From this study, one might conclude that democracy and populism are compatible. But I think this would be too easy an interpretation of the data because we don’t know what concept of democracy citizens have in mind. We only know that these citizens are in favor of democracy.

In fact, one of the issues we mention at the end of the paper is that we need much more research on the type of understanding of democracy that populist citizens have across all these countries. Currently, I am researching with two colleagues, analyzing data about populist citizens on the one hand and citizens’ concepts of democracy on the other. The data we have collected covers several Western European countries. What we found out is pretty interesting. We have data for those who voted for populist radical right-wing parties and populist radical left parties. One interesting commonality among those voters is that—when we ask them which concept of democracy they have in mind—they reference a very illiberal understanding of democracy. Populism can be a democratic threat, mainly because those who support populist ideas tend to have a very peculiar understanding of democracy at odds with the liberal institutions we know are crucial for consolidating a liberal democratic regime.

Populism: Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism

In the same article, you argue that the demand for populism can be interpreted as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. Does this mean populism can also be something that corrects the defects of democracy? Could you elaborate?

Well, I mean, here you’re combining two questions in one, and each of them, I think, is interesting. The first question is about whether populism is a threat or a corrective for democracy. I would say that populism is both—there are many examples in which it is very clear that populism has destroyed the democratic system.

Venezuela under Chavez is one example, as is Turkey. If you think about Turkey and what is happening in the country with Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, it’s apparent that Turkey can no longer be considered a democratic system. These are two examples in which we can clearly see that the coming into power of a populist figure represents a democratic threat. But there are also many instances in which you have populist forces that sometimes enter into government in a coalition with other parties. Think about the case of Spain’s radical left party Podemos, which is in a coalition with the Socialist Party. Or think about the case of Austria where we have radical right FPÖ (Freedom Party), which between 2017 and 2019 was in a coalition with the Austrian People’s Party. And the democratic system didn’t collapse in Austria—probably some things have been changing, but it’s not that the system has disappeared. And this is why I think that we need to be very careful with the theoretical arguments about populism and the empirical analysis. Depending on the case in question, we can say whether it is a threat or a corrective.

And the second part of your question is about this argument that I had been developing with my friend and colleague Cas Mudde that populism can be understood as an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. And the argument that we develop is that if we think about liberal ideas both in the cultural sense and also in the economic sense, to a certain extent, many of these ideas have been pushed without asking the people whether they want to go in that direction. I think that the European Union (EU) is the best example of that. This is why we see in different countries within the EU that many citizens ask themselves whether this is the kind of EU they want. People are questioning the extent to which “we, the people” can control those liberal institutions, and I think this is a good question. While populism probably is not offering the right answers, it’s posing the right questions.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan.

Erdogan Still Presents Himself As an “Outsider”

You’re currently researching Turkey’s ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP), showing voters for the party are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories about malign global forces than those who vote for other parties. Why is this the case?

Well, this is the topic of a new article that I have written with two colleagues from Turkey. They know much more about Turkey than I do but based on the findings from our article, I can say two issues are quite interesting here. This article is based on survey data that we have for contemporary Turkey. The first finding is very peculiar. We realize that those who support the AKP tend to have less populist attitudes than those supporting other parties. And this is sort of a paradox because we know that Erdogan and the AKP articulate a populist discourse.

But our data shows that those who support the AKP and Erdogan are not that populist compared to those in the opposition. So how can we interpret the paradox? And the argument that we develop here, and this is also based on literature covering other countries, is that once you have a populist force in government who can stay in power for a long time, that sort of populist actor becomes the establishment. I mean, Erdogan has been in power for more than ten years, so he’s controlling the system. So, in this sense, those who support Erdogan and AKP, for them populism is not really the key driving force for their support because they know that they are part of the elite, so to say.

But here comes the second finding that it’s also interesting, and this is related to your question. We find out that those who support the AKP tend to have a much firmer belief in conspiracy theories against global forces. And I think this is the sort of discourse the AKP is developing. This is the discourse populist forces typically develop in government. They say, in fact, “we are not the real elite of the country because the real elite who controls the country lives outside of the country, and they are controlling the system.” And this is why we cannot do all the things that we want for “the people” because we have these outside forces that are blocking the will of the people. And in this way, the populist figure can still present himself or herself as an outsider. And I think this part of the analysis that we develop in our paper and analyzing this interaction between conspiracy theories and populist attitudes is very promising for the case of Turkey, but probably for many other places in the world as well.

Erdogan Can Stay in Power for a Long Time 

The AKP has been in power since 2002 as a single-party government. How long do you think the AKP can stay in power as a single party, given the rising populist rhetoric of Erdogan?

Well, again, I’m not an expert on Turkey, but based on my knowledge, my main fear here is that it’s apparent that Turkey can no longer be considered a democratic system. It is, in fact, what many scholars call a competitive authoritarian regime. Turkey is a country in which you still have elections. Elections take place, there is opposition, but running against the AKP and Erdogan is very, very complicated. And this is why I think that the experience from Turkey, but also other countries—like, for instance, the case of Venezuela—shows that once you have a populist figure who is able to entrench itself into the political system, this figure can stay for an extended period of time. In the case of Venezuela, in fact, Hugo Chavez died, but even he was able to appoint (Nicolas) Maduro, who is the head of the government now. I think the case of Turkey, it’s very, very dependent on the leader Erdogan, so the crucial question is, “can we have AKP without Erdogan?” A similar question arose in Argentina a long time ago, “can we have Peronism without Peron?” In Argentina, that became a possibility.

The crucial question is, what will happen in Turkey after Erdogan? To what extent does the AKP have a strong base of support? Will it be able to develop a new leader? I think that he probably can stay for a relatively long period of time, even with populist rhetoric, as I mentioned before because he can still present himself as an “outsider.” [Propagating the idea that] powers from outside are controlling the country … is the sort of language that many populist leaders in government develop.

Hugo Chavez is seen during his last campaign for presidency. Photo: Luis Arismendi

Are populist systems able to stay in power for a long time, or are they prone to collapse? Can you offer examples for each one?

Well, you can see it all if you look at different cases across the globe. I mean, you have cases in which populist figures could come into power, and they had to leave quickly because they were not able to build a strong alliance with crucial actors. Or there was an economic collapse or something like that, and because of that, they had to leave power relatively fast. If you think about Brazil at the beginning of the 1990s, they elected Fernando Collor de Mello as president. A huge corruption scandal popped up, and after two years, there was an impeachment, and he left office. His brief story was one of a very unsuccessful populist figure.

But we also have other instances, as in the case of Turkey, where Erdogan has been in power for more than ten years. So, I think it’s difficult to generalize based on different examples. For example, Alberto Fujimori in Peru was ten years in government, and after that, he left office and disappeared from the political scene. But the division within society in Peru, to some extent, falls on whether you are in favor of Fujimori or against him. If you go to Venezuela nowadays, the whole political debate is the same: whether you are for Chavismo or against it. And I can imagine that, for example, in Turkey, there will arise a debate after Erdogan of whether you were in favor of Erdogan or not. Then you have the emergence of a new political cleavage. That is not necessarily a cleavage between left and right politics but a cleavage between being in favor or against that sort of populist project.

Liberal Institutions May Challenge the Will of the People

How do you explain the recent success of populist parties in the EU, which was once seen as the embodiment of liberal democratic values?

This goes back to our discussion before about this idea of undemocratic liberalism. I think that the EU, to a certain extent, is an example of pushing liberal values in an undemocratic way. If you think just in economic terms, consider that the EU has been developing both the eurozone and a whole infrastructure concerning economic integration and economic liberalization. Very often, citizens were not necessarily in favor of that process. However, politicians at the national level said, “Well, this is what Brussels is doing, and we cannot do anything.” To a certain extent, these politicians were using the EU as a foil, displacing responsibility to Brussels for these developments, which they supported at the national level but did not want to be held accountable for.

Later came the Great Recession (2008–2009), and then we realized the power of the EU economic structure. You had the European Central Bank telling certain countries, particularly in Southern Europe, you have to do A, B, and C. Then you realize that you have these liberal institutions that challenge the will of the people. If you asked people in Italy, in Greece, or Spain, they were saying, “we don’t want these policies.” So, you have here a supranational institution — a liberal institution —pushing against the will of the people. This is just one example that has not been completely developed in an engagement with the will of the people, and because of that, now we have the rise of populist forces of both right and left. They are politicizing specific issues that are relevant for certain sectors of the electorate.

Nigel Farage arrives at the House of Commons to lend support to the Leave Means Leave campaign in London, UK on January 15, 2019. Photo: Brian Minkoff

British political scientist Paul Taggart argues that “populism requires the most extraordinary individuals to lead the most ordinary people.” Do you agree with him, and could you elaborate?

Yes, I one-hundred percent agree with that beautiful sentence from Paul. This is again a sort of a paradox because populist figures usually talk about ordinary people. But if you think about populist figures very often, they tend to be very peculiar. Think about Donald Trump, think about Nigel Farage, think about Fujimori and figures like that. This is part of the paradox because populists’ leaders try to do two things simultaneously to rise to prominence. The first thing that they try to do is to break certain taboos. If you break certain taboos, you will get a lot of visibility, and therefore they’re very good with social media because they say certain things that generate a lot of tension within society. So, in this way, they are in the news the whole time. At the same time, populist figures are very clever in presenting themselves as outsiders, although they’re not necessarily real outsiders. Take the example of Donald Trump. He’s a billionaire—I mean, he’s not a real outsider. But he presents himself as an outsider within the political system, and in that way, he generates a lot of publicity. This is part of the paradox that very well describes that sentence from Paul Taggart.

Socio-economic Inequality and Declining Legitimacy Threatens Liberal Democracies

After the end of the Cold War, it was predicted that liberal Western democracy had prevailed, and all the other systems would try to be like these democracies. However, as you mention in your book Populism: A Very Short Introduction,populism is at odds with liberal democracy. What went wrong, and why did Francis Fukuyama prove to be wrong?

Well, I think that the problem is, at the beginning of the 1990s, when we saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and also a process of re-democratization in most Latin American countries, many people, I mean many people within academia— Fukuyama is probably the best example of that sort—thought this was “the end of history,” in the sense that we expected the prevalence of liberal democracy all over the world. But I think that sort of prediction was a bit naive, and it was based on seeing the expansion of democracy across many places of the world in a very short period of time. In contrast, what we’re experiencing today is an unambiguous signal that to have liberal democratic systems that can stabilize over time, we need specific prerequisites that are not necessarily present across all—or even most—societies. This is a problem not only for Latin America or for Turkey—for developing countries, so to say—but this is also a problem in developed countries like in Europe and the United States.

I think the two prerequisites are, to a certain extent, under stress today. The first prerequisite is legitimacy because most citizens believe that democracy is the only game in town. As I mentioned at the beginning, my feeling is that there is an important section of the electorate across different societies with a very peculiar understanding of democracy. I mean a non-liberal understanding of democracy. And this is why legitimacy is failing in many countries across the globe. The second prerequisite, I would say, is related to the issue of socio-economic inequality. To have a democratic system that can prevail over time, you need a certain minimum and a safety net within society. And if you don’t have that, there is a real chance that many people will start to feel deprived on either a subjective or an objective level because they’re saying the system is not working in a fair way. And this is a real problem for most countries of the world because of economic globalization. Socio-economic inequality and declining legitimacy are two of the main—although not the only—reasons that liberal democratic systems across the globe are under stress today.

How Is the World Going to Look After COVID-19?

Do you think current populist authoritarianism trends will continue? If yes, what sort of a world is waiting for us in the next five to ten years?

Well, I don’t have a crystal ball to predict the future, but I think this is probably related to the major crisis that we’re experiencing today. This is the coronavirus, and the question is, how is the world going to look after COVID-19? One of the trickiest aspects of the COVID-19 crisis is that it generates a lot of social and economic inequality within countries and across the world. Take the whole debate, for example, about vaccines—we are seeing what is happening in India, a developing country that is not able to get enough vaccines. And this is generating a lot of tensions within that country. Also, we realize that social and economic inequalities are getting wider within countries. As mentioned, the expansion of socio-economic inequality is one of the main reasons there is democratic fragility across much of the world.

So, in this sense, the answer to your question of whether populist forces will continue to experience success in the near future is related to how well we can deal with the aftereffects of COVID-19. I’m thinking here mainly of the social and economic aftereffects of the crisis. And I think if governments, policymakers, and people in academia can develop new approaches to deal with the aftereffects of the crisis in a systemic way, the likelihood is that populist forces will continue to diminish. But if this is not the case, I think the opposite will be true, and we might see populist forces of the radical right or the radical left exploit the tensions that arise with the aftereffects of the COVID-19 crisis.

Who is Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser?

Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser is a full professor at the School of Political Science of the Diego Portales University (UDP) in Santiago de Chile and an associate researcher at the Centre for Social Conflict and Cohesion Studies (COES)

Kaltwasser received his PhD in political science from the Humboldt-University of Berlin in 2008. His main area of research is comparative politics and he has a special interest in the ambivalent relationship between populism and democracy. Before his current job Kaltwasser worked as a research fellow at the University of Sussex, the Social Science Research Center Berlin (WZB) and the Human Development group of the Chilean Bureau of the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP).

Together with Cas Mudde (Georgia University), Kaltwasser has written the book “Populism. A Very Short Introduction” (Oxford University Press, 2017), which has been translated into several languages, including Dutch, French, German, Greek, Italian, Japanese, Portuguese, Spanish and Thai amongst others.

Secretary of Northern League, Matteo Salvini, and PVV leader, Geert Wilders, after the closing press conference of the first ENF congress at the MiCo center in Milano on January 29, 2016. Photo: Marco Aprile

Prof. Bertjan Verbeek: Populist foreign policy weakens soft power

Discussing the impact of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV) on the countrys foreign policy, Professor Verbeek highlighted his observation that the reputation and soft power of the Netherlands in international diplomacy weakened. Dutch diplomats had to rescue the image of the country and Dutch economic interests abroad.

Interview by Alparslan Akkus

In an exclusive interview with the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Professor Bertjan Verbeek of Radboud University in the Netherlands argues that—depending on how they define the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite”—various populist parties may approach international politics differently.

According to Verbeek, a left-wing populist party often defines the “pure people” in terms of class. Class is not a national concept; in principle, it is a transnational concept. So, a left-wing populist party would look upon the “pure people” as the working class globally, and the “corrupt elite” may well be then policymakers within international organizations like the International Monetary Fund (IMF) or the World Bank. On the other hand, Professor Verbeek underlines that for right-wing populist parties, the “pure people” is the native population of the country, whereas the “corrupt elite” is the national elite that ignores the interest of the “pure people.” Thus, right-wing populists judge foreign policy in terms of what it brings to the “pure people” within the nation.

The following excerpts from our interview with Bertjan Verbeek have been lightly edited for clarity and length.

Your work has drawn on Cas Mudde’s notion of populism as a “thin-centered ideology.” Could you clarify how you understand populism in these terms?

First of all, the work I have written is co-authored with my colleague Andrej Zaslove at Radboud University. He is more the populist expert, and I am the foreign policy expert. We feel a focus on thin-centered ideology is important because there is so much debate on what populism actually is. And there are many ways of approaching and defining it. They all have their merits, but we see value in drawing a distinction between those who are really populists and those who use populist strategies for other purposes.

For instance, mainstream parties can adopt populist tactics and strategies because they want to fish in the same pond as the populists. So, we feel that it is difficult to tell whether an actor is a genuine populist or whether he or she is just using populist rhetoric. If you focus on populism as a strategy or as a style—which are two different alternative definitions of populism— you risk confusing the people who imitate the populists and those who really are.

So, that is why we preferred Cas Mudde’s suggestion of populism as “thin ideology” because it makes clear, first of all, what populism is really about. Populists see the world as the “pure people” against the “corrupt elite.” That is the core of all populist thought. The basis of that is ultimately a notion of the sovereignty of the people, which may result in proposals that relate to what we might call “direct democracy.” In such cases, the people are given more say in politics in whatever form. That is the core of the populist ideology.

But, as we all know, it is not enough for a political party to emphasize the notion of “the people.” You need to have additional ideas about what you want to do in a society policy-wise. This is where the idea of thin ideology comes from—these parties usually borrow from other ideologies to have a more or less coherent and efficient way to link their perceptions of society with what they want to accomplish in terms of policy. They might borrow from the left; they might borrow from the right. They might borrow, as we argued elsewhere, from more regional notions or liberal notions.

So, depending on where they borrow from, a populist party or organization or movement is more or less left- or right-wing. However, the core is always the notion of the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” More importantly, populist parties can differ on actually who constitutes the “pure people” or the “corrupt elite.” Beyond this, they can differ in terms of the kind of thick ideology they borrow from to develop a comprehensive vision that presents a whole variety of potential populist positions.

You argue that research on populism has focused more on domestic politics, thus neglecting the links between populism and foreign policy. In what ways does populism influence the foreign policies of states and affect relations between states?

There are several dimensions to the question. The first concerns how they define the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” Populist parties—let’s focus on parties for the moment—may have a different idea of what international politics looks like. So, if you are a left-wing populist, you often define the “pure people” in terms of class. And class is not a national concept, in principle—it is a transnational concept. Thus, they would view the “pure people” as the global working class or the global poor. And the “corrupt elite” are—in the perspective of a left-wing populist—typically international organizations or their representatives like the IMF or the World Bank. This is a different kind of perspective to the more nationalist or nativist populist party that would say the “pure people” is the native population of the country, and the “corrupt elite” is the national elite that ignores the interest of the former. This party would judge foreign policy in terms of what it brings to the native population. That is the first dimension in which populist parties might differ vis-à-vis what international politics is about in the first place.

The second important element is the position of power or influence of a political party or a movement. Some populists are outside the parliament. They mobilize people in the streets and put pressure on the government. Some are in the parliament but not in government, so they can have some influence. Some are an official part of the government or even dominate a government like Fidesz, the ruling party in Hungary. Other parties are not formally part of the government, like the Dutch Party for Freedom (Partij voor de Vrijheid, PVV). The PVV is a nationalist, right-wing populist political party in the Netherlands that formally supported the Dutch government between 2010 and 2012 but did not hold cabinet seats.

In contrast, the Danish People’s Party (Dansk Folkeparti, DF) is a right-wing political party in Denmark that has been in government for many years. Nevertheless, while outside the cabinet, the PVV still negotiated a formal agreement with the governmental parties on policy. That agreement gives them more impact on formulating policies in general and hence also on foreign policy. The second dimension is the relative power position of the political party in the system and how close it is to governing.

The third potential element is how the rest of the world views a robust populist movement or a solid populist party. What do international and transnational actors think? How do they react? This is ultimately what global politics is about. So, my colleagues and I investigated the impact of the Dutch PVV on the country’s foreign policy. One of the most interesting points was that the reputation of the Netherlands in international diplomacy weakened when the PVV was supporting the coalition government between 2010 and 2012. This is curious since the foreign minister was not from the PVV (because the PVV did not join the cabinet). Yet Dutch diplomats were still concerned. The soft power of the Netherlands suffered from this reputational loss. Dutch diplomats then had to rescue the Netherlands’ image somehow and protect Dutch economic interests abroad. The case shows the impact of this third dimension — how other countries or international players view a populist party’s role in the system — can affect a country’s reputation and its soft power. This is true even when the party is not strictly in the government.

Brexit May Intensify Scottish Nationalism and Separatism

Brexit suporters, brexiteers, in central London holding banners campaigning to leave the EU on January 15, 2019.

You argue the rise of populism in Europe in the early 1990s coincided with three major international transformations—the end of the Cold War, the advent of globalization, and the intensification of the European integration process. How do you relate the success of populist movements within this international context?

Well, again, in very different ways… But first, I think it is a good question because I feel like this has been one of the most neglected elements in the study of populism. At the end of the Cold War, the ideological balance of power between left-wing and right-wing in many European countries—both West European and Central and Eastern European—ended. When communism died as an ideological enemy, domestic political systems became ripe for ideological realignment. In many countries, there were specific political parties that had been in power for a long time, partly based on the idea that “Well, you have to choose us because if you don’t elect us, then the communists will come to power.” The Christian Democratic parties often played this game, but not only them. The room for electoral volatility increased a lot because people became less attached to the dominant political parties.

The most disturbing effect of Brexit is that it has bolstered, not quieted, English nationalism. Brexit may thus also have indirect unintended consequences—namely, fueling further Scottish nationalism and thus separatism.

In addition, the established parties—particularly the Social Democrats—had no ideological alternative to appeal to voters. Indeed, in a way, neoliberalism captured the field ideologically and in terms of political discourse. The end of the Cold War, in this sense, created the possibility for a new politics.

Now, in different countries, that void was filled with different types of parties, and in some countries, it was populist parties that stepped into the breach. Some of them—for example, regional populist parties like the Lega Nord (a right-wing, federalist, populist, and conservative political party in Italy) or the Vlaams Belang (VB) in Belgium, originally the Vlaams Blok (a Flemish nationalist right-wing populist political party. It dissolved after a trial in 2004 condemned the party for racism and was reconstituted as the Vlaams Belang). The VB had already been engaged with European integration, not necessarily in a negative way.

As the Lega Nord did in northern Italy and VB in Flanders, they were also mobilizing masses, saying that Europe is an advantage because we can use it to promote the regional aspect central to our brand. So, the European Union’s (EU) importance was significant for some populist parties because they saw an opportunity to strengthen their regional position vis-à-vis the mainstream parties. Later that changed because of migration and the perceived adverse effects of European integration. Populist parties often took a much more negative attitude toward Brussels, but that has not always been the case. So that is how the EU comes in. But we should also interpret the role of the EU in the context of globalization.

Neoliberalism has become increasingly dominant on a global scale. European integration, just like any other regional integration scheme in the world, has served partly as a kind of protection from the effects of globalization by creating a bigger common market. And globalization has produced winners and losers. The EU, to a certain extent, protected some of the losers and maybe promoted some of the winners. The critical point is that some of the losers felt that the EU was not protecting them. Thus, the EU created its own perceived losers and winners through its integration scheme. So, in very different ways in different countries, globalization and European integration have provided grist to the mill for both left-wing and right-wing populist parties, who can cast these dynamics as threats rather than opportunities.

The fourth and final dimension is how the end of the Cold War changed matters in Eastern Europe. Populism in Eastern Europe has been driven by a failure to reckon with the role that politicians and parties played during and immediately after the collapse of communist regimes. Sometimes, like in Hungary, it relates to events that happened after the end of World War I in terms of loss of territory and prestige. That is a different type of populism, and sometimes we miss the point that it is more complicated than just anti-immigration. It taps into something much more profound. It relates as well to the end of the Cold War, which opened the possibilities for new parties and the possibility of pursuing a foreign policy that reflects less the current circumstances than the international politics of Europe in the 20th Century.

What is your take on the role of populist forces in the Brexit process?

Well, I’ve always been a little bit in doubt about whether or not to call UKIP (the UK Independence Party, a Eurosceptic, right-wing political party in the United Kingdom) a populist party. It seems more like a single-issue movement driven by a mission to correct a single historical mistake — namely, Britain’s entry into the European Community in the 1970s. At the same time, though, it is clear that the UKIP and later the Brexit Party have clear populist elements. They claim to represent the “pure people”—the citizens of Great Britain—and they perceive the presence of an apparent “corrupt elite,” the so-called Eurocrats. And they started with typical populist notions of trying to give the “pure people” a direct say in politics.

So, yes, I accept that we could call UKIP populist. But we cannot understand their success without looking into the less-than-politically-astute actions of then Prime Minister David Cameron of the Conservative Party, who deliberately took a gamble in putting this before the English public. His bet was that whatever he had negotiated with the EU to improve Britain’s position in the EU would see the British people back him unreservedly so that the internal critics within his Conservative Party would be silenced. Instead, he harvested a rejection of the very idea of Britain’s membership.

Even seeing UKIP as a populist party, we cannot understand its success without that strategic error or miscalculation of the Conservative Party and its leader. But, in the end, Brexit is still not over. The negotiations are over, but its implementation is still ongoing, as is often the case with international agreements. I find the most curious effect of Brexit—which drew most of its support in England outside of London and the southeast—is that it seems to have boosted, rather than quieted, English nationalism. Brexit may thus also have indirect unintended consequences—namely, fueling further Scottish nationalism and thus separatism.

A right-wing populist party considers diplomats to be representatives of the national elite, wasting resources on cocktail parties and global jet setting, forgetting what ordinary people want in foreign policy. So, populists seek to bypass the diplomats and engage in more direct foreign policies—strong leader to strong leader—rather than through complicated multilateral diplomatic engagements.

Do you think there is a populist foreign policy? How shall we understand the foreign policy outlook of different populist parties based on the demarcation–integration cleavage?

Well, what my colleague Andrej Zaslove and I tried to do was first to establish how the various populist parties define “pure people” versus the “corrupt elites.” Next, if we know what type of thick ideology they draw on to complete their political program, we felt it should be possible to make some tentative predictions about what different populist parties might put forward in foreign policy.

If you are a real left-wing populist party that has a global outlook in which class contradictions are central, then you would favor foreign policies that are distributive on a global scale and that are somehow directed at opening up and gaining more influence over international institutions such as the World Bank, the IMF, and the WTO. You would link up with transnational movements that seek to open up such international institutions, make them more pluralistic and inclusive. So, that is what we would expect from a left-wing populist party.

Meanwhile, we would expect a more right-wing populist party to see the “pure people” as a kind of national element, maybe even a nativist one. Arguably, representatives of the national elite in foreign policy would be the diplomats who are—from their perspective—mainly engaged in cocktail parties and jet setting, forgetting what ordinary people want in foreign policy. So, we would expect populists to bypass the diplomats and engage in more direct foreign policies—strong leader to strong leader—rather than through complicated multilateral diplomatic engagements.

Moreover, we would expect populists to protect the “pure people” through their foreign policies by spending less on development assistance and transfers in the EU. Because they are likely to be particularly critical about migration, we would expect them to toughen up migration policies or engage in anti-migration policies in general. So, in that sense, we believe that we can formulate expectations about those foreign policies, but again—as I indicated before—whether they materialize much depends on the relative strength of such parties or individuals in their respective political systems.

All politics, in the end, is about compromising unless you enjoy an absolute majority like Fidesz in Hungary. The latter may be the best case to observe populist foreign policy. Hungary under Viktor Orbán clearly displays populist foreign policies—keeping out migrants, not complying with EU external policy (such as vis-à-vis Russia), or ignoring attempts to create European solidarity regarding Covid-19 vaccinations. All in all, they pursue a much more unilateral foreign policy. So, I guess that comes, reasonably, close to a populist foreign policy.

How do you make a distinction between the often-conflated concepts of populism and nationalism? How does a populist foreign policy differ from a nationalist foreign policy?

Well, we attempted to tackle this conceptual problem at some point. We are not sure whether we succeeded at that. The problem is the notion of nationalism. That is a complicated concept in the first place. One idea of nationalism suggests a common identity related to a shared past, present, and future. This identity is usually connected to a particular territory. The nation embracing the identity usually asks for and might be prepared to strive for some degree of autonomy or even full-blown independence.

Sometimes nationalism and populism may overlap. In foreign policy, nationalism is usually linked to promoting the nation’s interests abroad or protecting it from foreign interests (say, by subsidizing exports rather than opening up to the free market or by trying to conduct one’s own monetary policies despite fiscal and economic globalization). There are other things we can think of that might constitute some kind of nationalist foreign policy. If that is done by a country representing one nation, forming one sovereign state, then this notion of nationalism is unrelated to populism. This will also be the case if the sovereign state pursuing a nationalist foreign policy represents several nations within the state that somehow have built an inclusive set of institutions.

The populist element will only come if the nation is not considered an inclusive entity —namely, a situation in which some groups would not be considered part of the “pure people” that the sovereign state is supposed to represent in its foreign policies. In that sense, populist nationalism is much more internally divisive, rather than uniting the entire country behind the idea of the nation.

How do you explain the influence of populist foreign policies on multilateralism and global governance?

In the first lesson, a teacher of international relations would tell you that you should not just focus exclusively on the domestic side because any country with similar national interests would act similarly. For instance, Italy is a country that has very few natural resources. It depends on gas and oil from so many countries. For this reason, Italy often pursues unilateral foreign policies, sometimes deviating from the EU line. So, Italy strikes its own deals—like energy deals with Russia, Iran, and Libya—in the national interest, not because it is a populist thing to do.

It is a thing that may be any government would do given the dependency of this country on energy sources. Therefore, we need to be careful in that sense to explain everything based on party politics. After all, party politics is just one aspect of a more extensive system.

Trumpism Is a Product of a Divided Society

A Tea Party rally at the Federal Building, Los Angeles, CA on September 12, 2009. Photo: Joseph Sohm

The Trump administration pursued a populist foreign policy dubbed “America First,” as the president put it. Donald Trump’s unilateralist foreign policy constrained multilateralism in the WTO (among other intergovernmental organizations) and created the impression that a wave of neo-mercantilism against free trade was in the offing. What do you think about the implications of the mercantilist tendencies of populist parties or leaders in power? And do you believe populist parties may trigger a process in which global trade becomes fragmented along neo-mercantilist lines in the near future?

I am going to take a very long road to answer this question. I may, at first, underestimate the importance of Trump’s personal style and his individual actions also in foreign policy. Having said that, though, I still feel that the success of Trump, being elected in 2016, can only be because a minority, but still, a sizable group of Americans voted for him. In that sense, Trumpism is also the product of a society that it is divided, of a society where at least some people have a clear notion of what we may call populism. I mean, Trump’s success heavily depended also on the organizational strength of the populist Tea Party for a long time.

The Tea Party was populist, I would say, in at least one important way. One wing of the Tea Party represented the traditional fear of an overweening federal government. So, it is about limiting the federal government based on the “pure people.” The “pure people,” of course, are the gun owners who consider bearing arms a legitimate way to protect themselves from government overreach.

Moreover, there is a potent populist sentiment that is traditionally very well organized within the Republican Party. On the one hand, I think that this thin ideology is pretty much unique for the United States. Of course, there are populist elements of style, some of them copycat behaviors, particularly the way Trump engaged in political debate in the first place—namely, the divisiveness that is part of his style. But I find the fundamental idea of the “pure people” very peculiar to the United States. I don’t think that is easily exportable to other countries, even though we may see everywhere little Trumps but not backed up in the same way or so forcefully by that type of populist organization.

The Conflict Over Global Trade Is Likely to Continue

The second element is that the United States is in relative decline. China is growing faster. India is growing faster. Foreign producers outcompete many American economic sectors. In that sense, no matter whether we have a Democratic or a Republican president, they will never be able to ensure global free trade on solely American terms. However, as we have often claimed, there will always be protectionist elements, neo-mercantilist elements in American foreign policy, if only to secure certain vital voters every two years in the midterms and their presidential elections. This mechanism will not readily disappear.

Trump has made a difference as Joe Biden will make a difference. But they have different styles. They have different interest groups to protect or to cater to. Within those boundaries, I think there will be a little bit less neo-mercantilism because Biden is slightly more open. He is engaging with the world, and he wants the United States to play a significant role. He wants the damaged reputation of the United States to improve. But I don’t expect him to be a complete free trader. Traditionally, the Democrats have been the party of protectionism more than the Republicans.

It will mean that the United States will still play a very active protectionist role in international trade. We should not forget that the American reluctance to engage in multilateral agreements has been there maybe even since Clinton, but certainly since Bush and Obama. So, the United States has always had a kind of preferred strategy to strike bilateral deals with states before engaging in multilateral deals on the same subject because the bilateral approach strengthens their hand. First, having concluded the bilateral agreement, then going to the WTO for multilateral agreement— helps ensure the multilateral deal is closer to US interests.

That would, in general, of course, be an improvement in terms of more free trade. That is true, too. But that approach to global trade has been there under four presidents already, which will only continue, given the rise of China and India. After all, China and India —and Brazil for that matter— want to have more say in global trade and global finance, and the United States is getting weaker economically.

Gradually, but slowly, we will have to compromise if these countries want to stay in the same institutional framework. We know that if China is unhappy with the prevailing international arrangements, it is prepared to start its own international institutions, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization. And Washington will probably find out that if they don’t compromise, or at least open up in a way to China’s interests, then China will work its way around the United States. So, briefly speaking, I don’t expect the United States to suddenly return to being the hegemon that it may have been in the past and magnanimous toward the rest of the world. In that sense, conflicts over global trade and global finance are likely to continue.

Professor Bertjan Verbeek

Who Is Bertjan Verbeek?

Bertjan Verbeek is a professor of international relations at Radboud University in the Netherlands. He is an expert in the influence of populism on foreign policy, the role of international organizations during crises, and the learning ability of governments during and after crises. He is currently undertaking an international comparative study on crisis decision-making in foreign policy. He argues that, despite the populist radical right’s popularity among political scientists, little scholarship has focused on its influence on foreign policy. For Verbeek, this lack of study is due, in part, to a general lack of attention to the role of political parties in foreign policy, both in comparative politics and international relations.

People hold placards and shout slogans during a protest against Donald Trump's environmental policy at conference attended by Trump climate advisor Myron Ebell in Brussels, Belgium on Feb. 2017. Photo: Alexandros Michailidis

Prof. Michael M. Bell: We have to understand knowledge as a social relation to understand authoritarian environmental populism

Talking about environmental populism and authoritarianism Professor Michael Mayerfeld Bell, who is also an author and a composer, explains the importance of protecting environment through the philosophy of one of his compositions called “Respiration.”  “Whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”

Interview by Mehmet Soyer & Heidi Hart 

Michael Mayerfeld Bell, a composer, author, and a professor of community and environmental sociology at the University of Wisconsin, Madison where he is also part of the Environmental Studies program, as well as in Religious Studies and Agroecology program, said in an exclusive interview with the ECPS, that we have to understand knowledge as a social relation in order to understand authoritarian environmental populism.

Stating that environmental populism is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism, Professor Bell gave “brown ecology” in National Socialism as an example. “There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that,” said Bell. He quoted a former executive director of Acres USA, an organic agriculture organization, who claimed we are having a rise of homosexuality in society because of “the use of pesticides.” Bell stated that “So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument.”

Professor Bell stressed the social relations of knowledge behind the seductiveness of arguments like these: that is, how what we take to be relevant and trustworthy knowledge depends upon its relations of identity. He argued that environmentalists often take environmental findings as mere facts, without considering the identity relations in which they are embedded, and thus whether people will trust or pay attention to these findings.   

He discussed his own work to reach across such “cultivations” or bubbles of identity through music. Talking about a recent piece titled “Respiration,” which is about both climate change and COVID-19 pandemic, Professor Bell explained that “The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath.”

The following excerpts from the interview have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Mehmet Soyer: I know you from the environmental sociology field, and I had an “Aha” moment while reading your ecological dialogue theory, which holds that each is the seed of the other. In one of your presentations at a conference, you asked why populism is so seductive; we’re in modern liberal society that’s supposed to be done with that kind of thinking, so how would you answer your own questions?

That was a sarcastic comment, of course. But the issue that’s at the heart of populism is the issue of inequality, and modern liberal societies are by no means beyond that. Indeed, the main issue that we need to think about is the basic bargain that those societies are based on. If you want to call it that, [the bargain] was that we would establish equality of political standing and not address material standing. Right, everyone gets to vote … so the promise goes: “Happy now, that you all get to vote?” And we don’t have to worry about anything else. But that’s really [only] half equality, if you like, an equality of inequalities. The claim was that any inequality of material standing, after you had equality of political standing, was your own fault, right? And that’s just not the case. You can’t have one without the other. We need them both; material standing is part of political standing. So we need what I like to call an equality of equalities, or what I call “isodemocracy” (democracy founded on equalities in both political and material standing— democracy in which the concerns of everybody, and every body, are the concerns of everybody). But we don’t have that, and it rightly pisses people off. Now, unfortunately, some people are channeling that populist anger in an authoritarian way. But I understand pissed-off part.

Count On Us Women’s March 2020: Reporter asking protesters about their Donald Trump and Adolf Hitler comparison sign in Washington D.C. on October 17, 2020. Photo: Julian Leshay

Authoritarian Populism Diverts People from the Real Sources of Their Troubles

Heidi Hart: Right, thank you, that was very succinctly answered. It’s a tough question, but it gets to the core, and, as a follow up, how do you think authoritarian populism, in the face of growing economic inequality, has affected the global green shift? On the one side, we have democratic countries like Germany, who are greening their economies, on the other side, an authoritarian country like China is also attempting to green its economy. Do you see any contradiction here?

Authoritarian populism, it seems, is basically a cruel sham. It diverts people from the real sources of their troubles, and ecological exploitation is surely one of those. But I don’t think I would call China an authoritarian populist country; it’s an authoritarian country. And I don’t see China’s leaders as trying to create an image of an elite that is oppressing the common people, which is the essence of populist thought. It seems to me that Chinese politics is more based upon nationalism. It’s us, China, versus the rest of the world.

In any event, the reality of the challenges that ecological exploitation creates is evidently seen as significant. Enough so that such diverse countries recognize it and are trying to do something about it. Maybe we’ll actually get there.

Heidi Hart: Even in the Democratic Party in the US, the Green New Deal is controversial. What do you think about the Green New Deal? Is it doable, and why has been seen as a “socialist” move?

Because the right is basically trying to undermine it using socio-cultural cues. And this I suppose gets to the question of “what is socialism?” In my view, socialism is just organizing life for social benefit. It’s also the idea that collective benefit leads to individual benefit, as opposed to the capitalist argument, which seems to be that individual benefit somehow leads to collective benefit. “Just trust us, the invisible hand will take care of all that” – which it doesn’t, because of the power differences that the capitalist approach immediately sets up. So, the big scare the right likes to use is the idea that socialism means economic nationalism, or nationalization, collective ownership of the means of production. But I don’t think socialism is defined by a specific economic practice. It’s defined by social goals. It’s a social theory, not merely an economic one.

Achieving those goals may indeed involve nationalization and collective ownership, but that’s a debate that we need to have economic sector by economic sector. How best do we organize our economy, as well as the other aspects of our lives, for collective benefit? They just want to scare us: “Oh, they’re just going to nationalize everything and it’s going to be the Soviet Union or what have you.” Because they’re basically trying to keep the bargain I talked about earlier, which is, “OK, we gave you the right to vote, or at least most of you (we’re trending that back a little bit, but we hope you don’t notice we’re doing that), but yeah, we gave you that, so we don’t need to address the material stuff, do we?” So, they are trying to keep that bad bargain alive through confusing people. And the Green New Deal is a credible effort to confront that bad bargain and make it a fair one.

The Kehlsteinhaus (also known as the Eagle’s Nest) on top of the Kehlstein at 1.834m is the formerly Hitler’s home and southern headquarters in Berchtesgad, Germany.

An Environmental Populist Argument May Turn into An Awful Right-wing Argument

Mehmet Soyer: What do you think about environmental populism? Would it be a solution to ‘save the world’?

Well, I think it’s a question of populism of what? It seems to me that you could have an environmental populism that is confusing people, diverting them, and even encouraging authoritarianism. A horrible example of that is what scholars sometimes call brown ecology, which was the very strong ecological argument in National Socialism. There was a highly populist framing of things. It was very authoritarian, and it was argued to be environmental, with the whole “blood and soil” [rhetoric], the Hitler Youth going off and doing their backpacking in the countryside, and all of that.

I remember once many years ago, I was at the annual meeting of something called Acres USA. Acres USA is a major organic agriculture organization, doing a lot of work on agroecology. I was in Iowa at the time, and I was doing some ethnographic work, so I thought I probably had to go to this meeting. So, I did, and I listened, as the then-executive director of Acres USA proceeded to explain “why we are having a rise of homosexuality in society: because of the use of pesticides.”

So, here is an environmental populist argument, even with an economic dimension, in the sense of corporations controlling agriculture, encouraging herbicides and industrialization of agriculture. And yet it turned into this awful right-wing argument. So, the trouble is that the environment is very much bound up in these ideas of nature.

We have done some of the most beautiful things we have ever done in defense of nature, and some of the most horrible things we have ever done [also] happen in defense of so-called nature. So, to go back to your question, it depends on [which] environmental populism.

Knowledge Is A Social Relationship As Well

Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on that, because one thing I’ve been writing about for this organization is eco-fascism and the temptations of purity culture, which certainly have roots in Heidegger and Nazi Germany. But what about the sort of climate populism that has arisen around figures like Greta Thunberg in Sweden, the more left-wing populist impulse? What are your thoughts about that as a potential to make a difference?

Well, I think populist arguments have a lot of basis in them, if we can just get our facts straight. And I think [Thunberg] is helping us to do that, with the facts that are straight on: there are a lot of moneyed interests who are trying to keep people down and keep them divided, in order to pursue their particular agenda[s]. I think the facts bear that up. Climate change is a real.

Heidi Hart: This actually brings us to our next question. We have been bombarded by fake news about environmental issues such as climate change. Do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders and/or of conspiracy thinking?

Yes, and that is to recognize that knowledge actually is not just about facts. Knowledge is a social relationship as well, [what] I like to call the cultivation of knowledge: understanding the relationship between knowledge and identity. We spend all of our days actually ignoring stuff way more than we pay attention to it. Right now, why are you talking to me here, [when] there are 7 billion other people on this planet? Why aren’t you talking to them? I’m sure they have really interesting things to say. Why did I go to [Mehmet Soyer’s] class, and not some other class? Why did I look at the New York Times today and not the National Review? Why did I watch CNN and not Fox News?  There are so many things out there to not pay attention to, but how do you know that those things actually are not relevant and important to your life, if you haven’t looked at them? So, you use your social relations to help guide you in these decisions, what you’re not going to pay attention to. This can be the cultivation of un-knowledge, maybe even more than a cultivation of knowledge. That is to say, then, we have to understand identity relations in what is knowledge. That’s why someone like Greta is so powerful, because she actually is a relatable figure and can help cross social ties and boundaries, if you like, cultivation boundaries, field to field, of knowledge identity that are otherwise in place.

One of the problems, I think, the environmental movement has had is that it’s been heavily guided by wonkish people like me, who sit in offices like this, and on campuses where we think about facts, we think about what’s in the journals and what the other scholars are saying, and we actually identify with that. So, we have identification issues going on there that we probably don’t even pay attention to (“By the way, who have you cited in your article?”). So those relations are very much part of academic life as well, but when we talk to the public, we forget about that, right? And we also don’t listen to the public, and we don’t consider their knowledge as potentially part of our cultivations, because we’ve decided that the people we pay attention to are those with the author-date citations. So, we have to get past of all that. I think the first place is to recognize that when we’re talking about knowledge, we are also talking about social relations.

When Populist Authoritarian Leaders Go, Their Networks Collapse

Mehmet Soyer: Following up on the previous question about fake news, which reminds me of Donald Trump, how much do you think distrust of elites has fed climate skepticism among right-wing populists? And what about the wealthy supporters of leaders like Trump who claim similar ideology?

Well, you know that Trump is addressing people who feel that they have been left out and kept down. And that’s actually most of us. So, now he has a little bit of a rhetorical problem. He was born with a gold spoon in his mouth. And he loves the color gold. You know that as soon as he came into the Oval Office, the first thing he did was to replace the drapes and make them gold colors. The apartment in Trump Tower has gold everywhere. So, what is Trump going to do? He’s going to emphasize ideas that he thinks will resonate with those who feel left out and kept down. He’s going to say, “I’m full of resentment and therefore I resonate with your resentment,” and he’s going to say, “By the way, I don’t need that fancy stuff, I eat hamburgers and French fries.” Also, the way he speaks is basically to divert attention from the fact that he has a degree from an Ivy League university. And he’s been enormously effective at this. It’s very central to the kinds of networks that Trump has built. They’re really built around his personality, right? There are very strong identity relations associated with Trump creat[ing] a vast network of cultivation. But it’s also very fragile. So, when major populist authoritarian leaders go, their networks often collapse extremely fast [as well].

Trump is actually still with us. But I’ve been really quite, or a little, optimistic about the fact that he has largely disappeared in the last few months. He’s been submerged much more than people expected. You know I don’t want to wish for his death, or for anyone’s death, but when he does finally go, as we all will, even more you’ll see the opportunity for really significant re-alignment of those relations of knowledge and identity.

Heidi Hart: I want to follow up on this one, because the personality cult is so powerful, even though it does seem to be fading. Trump adherents are now resisting vaccination and have tended to be climate change deniers as well. What do you see is the relationship between the personality cult and the denial of scientific fact?

Because of this interrelationship between knowledge and identity, and what people are not paying attention to … there are these major bubbles that that separate us. I think what we need to do is find ways to reach out across and burst those bubbles, and we have to burst them from inside our own bubbles, to try to rewrite the ways that we’ve been ignoring each other.

Heidi Hart: That’s beautiful, thank you. Maybe this next question is related: as a fellow musician working in arts and politics, how far do you think the arts can go and bursting these bubbles, or at least fostering environmental awareness, perhaps reaching across political divides?

Absolutely, I think it’s what moves me all the time when I’m onstage, if I’m able to play some music to a diverse audience, and somehow it gets found out: “Did you know he’s a college professor?” So, I think music has very strong opportunities for that. I wouldn’t call it a universal language, but it is one of many ways that we have to lead our lines of identity – what we pay attention to, who we appreciate, who we care for – in different ways.

Whatever You Breathe In, Someone Else Breathes Out

Mehmet Soyer: There is a group called Brave Combo. I don’t know if it’s a local band, or a national band, but they were really active in protesting fracking development in Denton, Texas. They organized a concert and wrote lyrics about the issues. There is intergenerational support for music, so I really believe in art and also the power of the music in these protests.

Right. I do write political songs, and sometimes I sing them at events, but the main group I work with is a group called Graminy, which comes from the Latin word for grass. What we try to do is to merge grassroots traditions with classical traditions. We call it “grass-class.” I think you can probably see that implicit in there is a social point: we want to bring more grass to class, and we want to bring more class to grass.

A recent piece that we did, about a 20-minute piece, is really about climate change and about COVID at the same time. It’s called “Respiration.” The piece tries to make a basic point that I think everyone can appreciate, which is that whatever you breathe in, someone else breathes out, and whatever you breathe out, someone else is going to bring breathe in. [This] includes non-human beings as well, and that’s the basis of the climate issue, understanding breath as a point of connection … because of course breath is the source of life. As life is the source of breath. Hopefully we’re in a place where we can talk about these issues without saying, “By the way, I’m a socialist” or, “By the way, I’m a Trumpist.”

Heidi Hart: It’s a challenging thing to do with the arts, I think, because they can be very sticky with ideology and appropriated, as we’ve seen with Trump claiming music in his rallies that goes against the political beliefs of the musicians themselves. But I think it is powerful. I’m currently working with some musicians and sound artists on a climate grief project that is very much connected to breathing, eco-regulation, and co-regulation through rhythm. There are a lot of different ways we can approach these issues that are embodied. If we involve the body, that helps people to relate to each other, too.

Great, and I just want to give a quick shout-out also to an organization here in Wisconsin that I work with a lot. They’re called the Wormfarm Institute, and they work on rural-urban integration or what they sometimes call “rural-urban flow” through the arts. They run this wonderful annual festival they call Fermentation Fest, which is a celebration of fermented foods, which include bread and beer and cheese, but so many other things are fermented, and there’s a sense of aliveness there. Through food we’re able to [create] rural-urban flow, which food is very much a part of, and get to that embodiment that you were just talking about.

Mehmet Soyer: Thank you, Mike, for a great conversation and for joining us today.

Who is Michael Mayerfeld Bell?

Michael M. Bell is an author and scholar, as well as a composer and performing musician. Bell is the author or editor of eleven books, three of which have won national awards. His most recent books are the Cambridge Handbook of Environmental Sociology (Cambridge, 2020; Legun, Keller, Carolan, and Bell, eds.), the 6th edition of An Invitation to Environmental Sociology (Sage, 2020; Bell, Ashwood, Leslie, and Schlachter), and City of the Good: Nature, Religion, and the Ancient Search for What Is Right (Princeton, 2018). He is currently finishing a book on the sociology of heritage, with Jason Orne and Loka Ashwood.

Professor Bell serves on the faculty of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where he is Chair and Vilas Distinguished Achievement Professor of Community and Environmental Sociology, as well as a member of the faculty of the Agroecology Program, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the Center for Culture, History, and Environment, and the Religious Studies Program.

Bell is a prolific composer of classical and grassroots music, as well as environmental and progressive song. He performs regularly on mandolin and banjo with the award-winning “class-grass” band Graminy, and on guitar as a soloist and in the Elm Duo. Discover his composition and performance at his separate music site. Bell is passionate about progressive politics, their challenges and possibilities. He currently serves on the board of the Dane County Democrats.

Caricature of The Five Star Movement in carnival parade of floats and masks, made of paper-pulp in Viareggio, Tuscany, Italy in January 2018.

Prof. Paul Taggart: I do not agree populists will inevitably fail

British political scientist Paul Taggart does not regard populism as a “pathology” nor as “evil” and contends that it could be even useful in terms of heralding the problems of democracy. “Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously,” says Taggart.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Prof. Paul Taggart of Sussex University does not agree that populist politics will, in the end, fail, as some of his colleagues argue. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, Taggart said populist leaders sustain their power by resorting to authoritarian mechanisms. The British political scientist does not regard populism as a “pathology” nor as “evil” and contends that it could be even useful in terms of heralding the problems of democracy. “Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously,” he says.

Stressing that there has been no significant surge in the number of populist leaders around the world, Taggart says populism should be assessed in perspective. He underlines that there is no magic formula to fight populism as populists in power do not all behave the same way. According to Taggart, once in power, populists can pursue several distinct strategies—either moderating their populism, reshaping political institutions to suit their populism, or behaving like an opposition in power. Given there is no single model, Taggart says the response to populist leaders should be tailor-made.

The following excerpts from the interview have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

You argue that you do not regard populism as a “disease” or a “pathology” nor as “evil.” How have you come to this conclusion?

This is an assumption and not a conclusion. I think we need to consider populism as objectively as we can. The fact that it is “thin-centered” and fuses with other ideologies means that we need to be careful about generalizing about it without considering whether we are focusing on populism or on the ideas that it attaches to.

You use the term “democratic corrective” in relation to populism. Does this mean populism is useful to a certain extent?

Populism can be an indicator that something is not working well with democracy. If many people support populists who claim that politics is not working well, then we should take this seriously. That does not mean to say that we should uncritically accept whatever populists say. But it also means that we should not automatically dismiss populist critiques of democracy. Instead, we need to be alive to the possibility that populism may be correct to assert that politics is not working well.

You also argue that populism is becoming one of the main challenges to the liberal-democratic regime. Is there a contradiction between this argument and populism being a “democratic corrective”?

Liberal democracy has two elements. On the one hand, it embraces the idea of popular sovereignty, and this means representation and majority rule. But it also stresses the importance of process, the rule of law, and the protection of minorities, and of core rights. There is often, in liberal democracy, a tension between these two aspects. Populism is a challenge to liberal democracy in that it focuses on the first aspect of liberal democracy—popular sovereignty and representation—at the expense of the liberal aspect. Populism rarely talks in terms of rights or minorities. You need both for liberal democracy. Suppose popular sovereignty—and the representative connection—is weak. In that case, populism might be useful to call for that link to be strengthened, and so it can potentially be a corrective for democracy. But if this is at the expense of rights, the rule of law, and minorities, this will undermine liberal democracy.

Is there a magic formula to deal with or contain populist parties once they are in power?

No, there is no magic formula if you want to combat populism in power. Populists in power do not all behave the same way. They tend to pursue one of three strategies —moderating their populism, reshaping political institutions to suit their populism, or behaving like an opposition in power. These different approaches to power mean that any response needs to be tailored to whatever approach is being used.

It seems the EU is not very successful in dealing with populists when they are in power. What is Brussels problem?

I am not sure it is the EU’s role to deal with populism. The rise of populism in many European states says as much about those states as it does about the EU itself.

After the fall of the Berlin Wall, there was a flurry of articles predicting that liberal democracy had won and would spread worldwide. Yet we see a surge of populism and populist parties. What went wrong? Why are illiberal democracies gaining ground, in particular in Central Europe?

It was wrong to say that liberal democracy had “won.” Politics is not a sports game in which a result is clear—it is an ongoing process and to expect a clear “score” is naïve. We are seeing a lot of populism around at the moment. But we are also seeing a lot of other forms of politics. Populism is spectacular, which means that it commands attention and that some people tend to over-generalize it.

Looking at the massive surge of populist leaders worldwide, shall we start talking about “the end of liberal democracy” and the “dawning of illiberal ones”?

There is no massive surge of populist leaders. There are a few around the world, but most leaders are not populist. We need to consider populism in perspective.

Populists usually and inevitably fail because they do not know how to govern. However, some populist leaders like Erdogan, Orban, and Putin have kept the power for a long time. How can their extended stay in power be explained?

I don’t agree that populists inevitably fail. Some populists sustain themselves in power by resorting to authoritarian means.

Are there any tested successful ways to fight against populist leaders and populist movements? Will they keep gaining ground?

If you want to fight populism, then there is no magic formula. The one thing that does not seem to work is to pretend it does not exist or completely shun it from political life as this only feeds the idea that populism represents the excluded. Historically, populism has usually had a limited shelf-life. It has not built lasting political families as other ideologies have done. I suspect that it will fade—but that it will also re-emerge later.

Who is Paul Taggart?

Paul Taggart is a professor of politics at the University of Sussex. He has previously served as the Director of the Sussex European Institute, Head of the Department of Politics, and Deputy Head of the School for Law, Politics, and Sociology at Sussex. He has acted as an external examiner for Strathclyde University, Birkbeck College, Aston University, the University of Bath, and Goldsmiths College, London. His focus is on comparative politics, and his research focused primarily on populism and on Euroscepticism, and more broadly on the domestic politics of European integration. He has published six books and numerous articles in these areas.

Professor Taggart is also a former editor of the journal Government and Opposition and is now chairs the journal’s Board of Directors. He is the former editor of the journal Politics and co-Convenor (with Prof. Aleks Szczerbiak) of the European Referendums, Elections and Parties Network (EPERN). He has been a visiting scholar at the University of Gothenburg and the University of Sarajevo, a visiting scholar at the Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University, and a visiting professor at King’s College London. Taggart is a regular commentator on British, European, and US politics for BBC local radio.

Paul Lendvai.

Paul Lendvai: Orbán’s Hungary is a “Führer Democracy”

Viktor Orbán has built an extraordinarily centralized strongman regime, which can be described as “Führer Democracy.” Nowadays, Paul Lendvai argues, even the term “Führer Democracy” is no longer valid for Hungary, since the first part of the term [führer] is getting stronger and stronger whereas the second part of the term [democracy] is getting weaker and weaker. Soon, all that will be left is “Führer.”

Interview by Alparslan Akkus

In 1989, a 26-year-old law student addressed a protest in Budapest’s Heroes’ Square. In his speech, the young Viktor Orbán called for an end to the communist dictatorship, the withdrawal of Soviet troops from Hungary, and the holding of free elections. Later on, Orbán attended Oxford on a scholarship funded by George Soros, and after turning back to Hungary, he founded the political party FIDESZ or the Alliance of Young Democrats. He was hailed as the future of a new Hungary.

Today, Orbán is Vladimir Putin’s closest ally in the European Union. He obsessively attacks George Soros as an enemy of the people and considers China and Turkey as role models. In our interview with Paul Lendvai— a Hungarian-born Austrian journalist who has written extensively on Central and Eastern Europe for more than 60 years—we discussed how Orbán turned into one of the most successful populist autocrats of our times.

Lendvai’s latest book Orbán: Europe’s New Strongman (2018, Hurst and Princeton University Press), has been published in English, German, Hungarian, Slovene, and Polish (and later this year in Croatian). It portrays Hungary as an authoritarian system under the rule of Orbán. Exploring the deterioration of the country’s rule of law, the end of the separation of powers, and mass clientelism, Lendvai succeeds in tracing Hungary’s rapid slide toward authoritarianism in his excellent book.

The following excerpts from our interview with Paul Lendvai have been lightly edited for brevity and length.

Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán gives a speech to convince his respondents in Szeged on March 4, 2014.

The term “populist” carries negative connotations in current political culture. However, this may not sound valid for a ruthless authoritarian leader who is often referred to as the “Viktator.” Do you think being defined as a “populist” just serves to shadow Viktor Orbán’s more negative features?

Every politician can be called populist, but basically the question is whether it’s claiming to represent people without really paying attention to the issues and does everything to get or remain in power. There is no question that, in this sense, Orbán is a populist. In the early 1990s, he changed his political line because he realized that he could not get elected with his earlier ideals. He left the center-left position and moved then to center-right, then more and more right, and that is how he seized power in 1998. Then, he lost power in 2002, and following that, he showed his ability as a politician by getting re-elected after eight years in 2010. He is often described as right conservative in the international media. But actually, he is a right-wing populist nationalist. Regardless of the adjectives, his only ideology is to use every means to remain in power.

Do you think Orbán inherited much of his ruthlessness and vengefulness from his father, who is a product of “goulash communism” under Janos Kadar? And if we can speak of a sort of Kadarism creating a populist leader like Orbán, what should we expect for the future generations raised under Orbánism?

As a matter of fact, Orbán was a very rebellious person, and it is something of a personal contradiction that someone who was such a rebel could turn into a kind of authoritarian strongman in politics. He rebelled at school and in the army. And he also rebelled against his father, who was a typical product of Kadarism. His father, Gyözö Orbán, was not only a party member, but he was also allowed to go to Libya as an expert. He is now 81 and has become extremely rich. Orbán has luxurious private residences—one is a little bit like Putin’s palace, although not that huge—but it’s all under the name of his father and his son-in-law. His two brothers are also in business.

But turning back to your question, in terms of education and upbringing, Orbán’s father was very ruthless, beating Viktor up even at the age of 16. Perhaps we need a psychological study to fully understand how he became the person he is today.

Very Skillful Politician and A Very Cynical Person

As you note in your book, today, the country’s president, the speaker of parliament, and the author of Hungary’s 2012 constitution all happen to be Orbán’s friends from Bibo College days—indeed, from the very start of FIDESZ, the Alliance of Young Democrats that Orbán and his friends set up in 1988. How do you emphasize the characteristics of this political brotherhood?

It is something exceedingly rare to see this kind of fraternity in the top leadership of a European country. They were a group of young people who were very committed to their ideals. They started their movement in 1988, and, in effect, the critical party positions have been retained by these 20–25 people or their relatives. It is not only the speaker of the parliament or the president but also many other positions. For instance, the chief justice is the wife of a former European MP who wrote the new constitution. She has now become a member of the Supreme Court for ten years. Following his second electoral victory in 2014, Orbán wanted full power over his party, his government, and the country. Therefore, he broke with his close collaborator, Lajos Simicska, the man who had built up the entire business empire of FIDESZ.

Another feature of Orbán is that he gets rid of people who can be potentially dangerous but never kicks them totally out. For instance, the present president [János Áder] was allegedly planning a plot against Orbán in 2006. He was then “exiled” to Brussels when he was elected as a European MP. When the FIDESZ government had the chance to nominate the president in 2010, he was passed over. Only later did Orbán call him back, and he was given a second chance. In 2017, he was re-elected for another five-year term as president. So, Orbán is very clever in the way he deals with potential adversaries. He has complete control over this tightly knit group, making him the most powerful politician in the European Union (EU).

To what extent Orbán’s “plebeian” roots played a role in transforming once liberal, anti-clerical, and anti-nationalist FIDESZ into an illiberal, clerical, and nationalist–populist party? And how do you assess FIDESZ’s policies toward minorities, especially the Roma people, its antisemitism, particularly against Soros, and its Islamophobia?

Orbán is a very skillful politician and basically a very cynical person. Take the Roma issue as an example. In 2011, when Hungary took over the rotating chairmanship of the EU for six months, Hungary promised to do many things for the Roma people (officially numbering 300,000 in Hungary; in reality, probably over 700,000). In practice, they did nothing. They just appointed a figurehead under their control; he was a profoundly corrupt figure. So, it was very cleverly handled without really doing anything essential.

We can see a similar move by Orbán with respect to the 100,000 strong Jewish community. As to antisemitism, no one has ever heard Orbán utter an anti-Jewish statement or remark in public. The point is not whether he personally is antisemitic or not. What really matters is what his politics are. He rewrote Hungarian history in an entirely new constitution, which the youngsters learn at school from the very beginning. It’s all about whitewashing Hungarian history in contrast to Germany or, to some extent Austria for the last 20 years.

Orbán is also deft at splitting the Jewish community or splitting the political opposition. Orbán is on good terms with a Jewish Hasidic Rabbi, who represents perhaps five or eight percent of the Jewish community in Hungary but has many wealthy supporters in the US. And he has excellent relations with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu of Israel. So, if anyone attacks Hungary about antisemitism, then this Rabbi objects to that.

On the other hand, Orbán conducted an antisemitic campaign against the Hungarian-born Jewish billionaire George Soros, who had donated hundreds of millions of dollars to Eastern Europe and Hungary. Still, no one can attack Orbán as an antisemitic; Netanyahu and his Hassidic friends would reject these claims.

Controlling Media and Judiciary Is the First Step Toward Authoritarianism

Drawing necessary lessons from his defeat eight years earlier, Orbán made two bold moves after his triumphant re-election in 2010. First, he took away most of the Constitutional Court’s power, and second, he took over the public and most of the private media. Which one do you see more critical-controlling the judiciary or the media? And do you think that controlling major checks on power is a first step on the way to authoritarianism?

I think they’re both extremely important. The judiciary was the basic steppingstone since they can approve everything [a government does] in contrast to Poland. For instance, the Hungarian centralization of power has always been seen as above board because the Constitutional Court approved most of the measures. FIDESZ started by appointing new judges and bringing the court gradually under their control. It took a certain amount of time, but there is no question that the Constitutional Court of Hungary is no longer a balancing to the executive.

As for the media, the move against the free press and the setting up of his own media, by chance, coincided with Hungary taking over the rotating chairmanship of the EU in 2011. Already after a year in office, it was quite clear internationally that Hungary’s public television and radio had come under government control and the other media outlets were under pressure. In the last years, the media has been subject to near-total pressure by the government. Some 80 percent of the news today is supplied either by government media outlets or by media companies controlled by oligarchs who are very close to Orbán or FIDESZ personally.

Both of these checks are especially important in a democracy and are connected. After all, an independent judiciary is a guarantee of the freedom of the press, and the free press is the guarantee of an independent judiciary. Unfortunately, both of them are under government control in Hungary today. Now the entire justice system will be totally taken over. And, of course, controlling these sectors is the first step toward authoritarianism.

Anti Immigration poster from Viktor Orban government in the streets of Budapest during the 2018 general elections campaign.

Thinking of Orbán’s building a fence on the border with Serbia to keep out refugees and representing himself as the last protector of Europe, how do you assess the relationship between FIDESZ and the EU? Hard- or soft-Eurosceptic or Europhobic? Could you detail how FIDESZ has turned its anti-immigrant and xenophobic policies into an advantage in its relations with the EU?

These are two different but interconnected questions. Number one is the refugee issue, which was used by Orbán to consolidate his power and was unfortunately met with a high degree of approval by the Hungarian public. As a result of the hate campaigns by the government-controlled media, building a fence on the border and the entire anti-refugee policy was approved. But the situation has also changed in Germany and other EU countries.

And the other point of your question is about the EU’s approach toward Hungary. Ever since 2011, Hungary has been a target in numerous resolutions. But, FIDESZ remained a member of the European People’s Party, the EPP, for almost a decade. It was only in March this year that Orbán has recalled his 11 MPs from the EPP.

But it is a different matter regarding Hungary’s membership as a state in the EU. Once you are a member of the EU, it is tough to discipline a country defying the European principles of human rights and equality. Thus, over the next five or seven years, Hungary is in line to receive a minimum of €18 billion in transfers from the EU budget, plus €7 billion from the COVID-19 reconstruction fund.

Orbán Built Up A Kleptocracy For His Friends And His Family

How do you think corruption and kleptocracy paved the way for Orbán’s Hungary to emerge as a mafia state?

There is a significant difference between other countries and Hungary. For instance, in Italy, Silvio Berlusconi was elected prime minister four times. But he had become very rich before he seized the top position. In the case of Hungary, Orbán was a politician who first occupied the top political position and only afterward built up a kleptocracy for his friends and his family. There is the famous case of Lörinc Mészáros, a gas fitter in a small village. Mészáros went to the same elementary school as Orbán. And they met again in this small village of 1,800 people, and he became a close friend of Orbán. Then he became mayor of this little town and then the chairman of the local soccer club. He was running a small firm on the edge of bankruptcy. Today, he is the second richest man in Hungary, with assets of €1 billion across 200 different companies. This man has been accused in parliament by the opposition of being a crony of Prime Minister Orbán. Orbán’s spokesman says that the prime minister has nothing to do with business affairs.

Officially Orbán’s assets are tiny—half of a small flat with his wife in Budapest. Actually, it all works differently. For instance, one of his daughters is married to a young entrepreneur. Suddenly, this man, at the age of 32, became the 33rdrichest person in Hungary. So, this is all done in a very clever way. The people don’t get worked up by abstract overall figures. Several studies on the mafia state in Hungary conclude that were there a real change of government system through free elections and the imposition of a functioning system of rule of law, the group of people at the top would end up behind bars.

Orbán’s cabinet contains quite a few women. Yet he is on record saying he considers women to be insufficiently tough or cut out for politics. How do you see the relationship between populism and gender issues?

Until 2018, there was no woman in his cabinet at all. Proportionately, Hungary has the least number of women MPs in Europe. For instance, there are more women even in the Albanian parliament than in Hungary. In 2018, Orbán appointed two attractive young women; one as Minister of Justice and one as Minister for Women’s Affairs. They speak very good English. So, they can sell the government policies much better than their predecessors. But it doesn’t change the fact that the country has very strict anti-lesbian and anti-homosexual laws, prohibiting same-sex marriages or same-sex couples adopting or fostering children, etc. It is a much more restrictive and conservative society in this sense compared to Western Europe, and gender issues so far have not triggered massive protests.

From Left: Hungary PM Viktor Orban, Poland PM Beata Szydlo, Czech PM Bohuslav Sobotka and Slovakia PM Robert Fico pose prior their meeting in Prague on February 15, 2016.

As a journalist who spent several decades reporting on Central Europe for the Die Presse and the Financial Times, do you think Orbán would export his regime to Visegrad Four (V4)?

Yes, definitely. He uses this Visegrad Four group for this purpose. The four countries—Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, and Slovakia—emerged in 1990 mainly as a symbolic group. It became only in 2015 under Orbán’s leadership a kind of protest alliance against the influx of refugees. The turning point was the election of the right-wing PiS [Law and Justice Party] in Poland in 2015. There still exists a so-called Hungary–Poland axis for the moment. But there is one major difference between Hungary and Poland in terms of their relations with Russia. Despite the close collaboration between Budapest and Warsaw, one must not forget that the Poles are very suspicious of Russia and vehemently opposed to the Russian interference in the Ukraine. Whereas Orbán has met Putin at least nine times bilaterally in the last eleven years, and they have excellent relations. The network of corruption also connects the two regimes in Hungary and Russia. 

And a newcomer as an Orbán ally is Slovenia, the most developed country in Central Europe, which was the first to join the Eurozone and NATO. It has been run for a year now by Prime Minister Janez Jansa, who in 1990 was a courageous anti-communist but has now become an extremely right-wing and corrupt politician, and above all, a very close friend of Orbán.

Biden Administration Knows What Is Going On In Hungary

The Hungarian leader seeks to be a European figure. Orbán was the first European leader to congratulate Donald Trump after his election victory in 2016, and the US didn’t raise any objection to Orbán during the Trump era. The honeymoon is now over because the new administration has a totally different policy toward Hungary. The new Secretary of State [Anthony Blinken] has close ties with Hungary; his mother is Hungarian, his father served as the US ambassador to Hungary between 1994 and 1998. So, this administration knows what is going on in Hungary.

You settle on the term “Führer Democracy” to emphasize the extraordinary centralization of power in Orbán’s hands. Can you please clarify how we should understand the term “Führer Democracy”?

The term “Führer Democracy” was not invented by me but by the moderate Hungarian political scientist Andras Körösenyi. And, it’s a very apt term. It means he is a führer and has a very strong position that cannot be overthrown by peaceful means like elections. As the great Austro-British political scientist Karl Popper said, democracy is based on the principle that bad rulers can be gotten rid of without bloodshed, without violence, by majority vote. But it is no longer possible in Hungary due to the change of the election system, gerrymandering, and the power positions the Orbán regime has built up.

As a matter of fact, even if there were a change of government in 2022, it doesn’t necessarily mean the system will change immediately. Every key position is in the hands of Orbán loyalists. So, the “Führer Democracy” is basically a strongman regime. It is, however, different from China, which is a führer regime but not a democracy. And, unfortunately, nowadays, this “Führer Democracy” term is no longer valid for Hungary either, since the first part of the term [führer] is getting stronger and stronger whereas the second part of the term [democracy] is getting weaker and weaker. So, in the end, only “führer” will remain. For the moment, the term seems to stick because there is the pretense of a democracy.

Orban Might Resort to Strong-arm Methods

The last chapter of your book is entitled “The End of the Regime Cannot Be Foreseen.” With Orbán as the dominant central power against the two major opposition parties—the post-Communists and the far-right party, Jobbik, which seem unable to unite against the government—how do you predict the future of Hungary?

No regime lasts forever, but you have to take into account several things in addition to the basis of the system like the army, the secret police, the prosecutor’s office, the judiciary, the media, the Constitutional Court, the election system, and so on. In addition to this, Orbán is only 58 years old. I raised eyebrows in Hungary very recently when I said in an interview for US media that he could lead the country for 20 more years. I mean, if you look at Joe Biden, for instance, he is 78 years old.

But you can’t predict anything. Everything is possible in politics. for instance, A combination of economic and social crises could arise. Orbán has no real advisers. Like every strongman, he is also intoxicated by power. If there were to emerge a real strong opposition threatening his power in the elections, then Orbán would take off his gloves and become a naked strongman. We are not yet there, but in the last year or so, state control has been tightened in the cultural and educational fields. Traveling abroad is free, but the state of emergency resulting from the epidemic helps him consolidate the power and tighten his grip. We don’t know what the results will be of the epidemic and the economic downturn. There will be unpredictable consequences. And the EU, despite everything, might tighten the rules. In that sense, everything is possible.

But on the present assumptions, I am rather pessimistic that anything major, dramatic will happen in the foreseeable future. The lack of a real united opposition allows him, for the moment, to do whatever he likes. Actually, Orbán is a very clever political operator. Thus, he pre-empted the right extremist party, Jobbik, through his strict refugee policy, by demagogy, and by helping the most impoverished working families through public works, by cheating, and by corrupting Jobbik MPs as he did with the socialist party.

The big question is whether the opposition parties can ever combine forces. If all the opposition parties were to join forces, they could theoretically win the elections. I don’t exclude the possibility that the opposition could threaten Orbán’s power in future elections. He might then resort to strong-arm methods. For the moment, however, the opinion polls don’t show a dramatic change.

Who Is Paul Lendvai?

Paul Lendvai was born in 1929 in Budapest to Jewish parents. He worked as a journalist but was arrested and jailed in 1953 and banned from the media until the Hungarian uprising. In 1957, he sought political asylum in Austria. He was the Vienna correspondent for The Financial Times for 20 years, covering Eastern Europe. He subsequently worked as editor-in-chief of the Austrian state television, again covering Eastern Europe, and director of Radio Austria International, the shortwave broadcasting service. Lendvai is the author of 18 books published in 10 languages.

Back view of Donald Trump, former President of the US as speaking to a large crowd at "An Address to Young America" in Phoenix, Arizona on June 23, 2020.

Prof. Pratt: Populist Leaders in the West Tend to Have Short Political Lives

Professor John Pratt: “I think, democracy has largely held firm. The Netherlands, for example, I think there was an election there just the other week and the populace didn’t vote much for populists. Which isn’t to say that you haven’t got populist leaders and doing well in other countries. You know, the picture is very fluid, obviously. But, I don’t think it’s as gloomy a picture as some people make out of it. I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists. Often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns.”

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

In an exclusive interview with ECPS Prof. John Pratt of Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand argued that in Western democracies populist leaders who gain power usually have short political lives. Prof. Pratt underlined that the reason for this was populist leaders were quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. He added that the best example was former US President Donald Trump but stressed that the situation in non-Western societies was different. Because democratic institutions were not as strong as in the US, the populist leaders were staying in power for long periods of time.

Despite the rise of populism and populist leaders worldwide, Prof. Pratt sounded optimistic about the future of Western democracies. Stressing that democracies have largely held firm, he argued that populist leaders were ‘ignorant clowns.’ ‘I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists, often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns,’ said Pratt.

The following are the excerpts from the interview:

Thank you very much Professor Pratt for the interview, my first question is, how do you define penal populism and how popular is it in different countries, and what lies behind it?

Well, let’s take that one step at a time and, first, I think I would define penal populism by first defining what populism is:what it means to me. It refers to the moods and sentiments and voices of distinct and significant sections of the public that feel that they’ve been ignored by governments. They feel there are more favored and less deserving groups. They’ve been left behind or disenfranchised in some way by government policy. These significant sections of the public does speak out against the machinery of government which they judge of being complicit in conspiracies against the worthy members of society that they see themselves as being.

And if you take that on to penal populism, then that refers to the way in which criminals and prisoners are thought to be favored at the expense of crime victims, in particular, and the law abiding public in general. It feeds on expressions of anger, disenchantment and disillusionment with what it sees as the insidious workings of the criminal justice establishment. That is to say senior officials, ministers of Justice and corrections department judges, academics, members of the police and parole boards. It holds these members of the establishment responsible for a much too liberal criminal justice policy which has put ordinary people at risk of crime.

And so, remind me again the second question. 

Populist Politics Is a Different Phenomenon From Penal Populism

How popular is it in different countries. And what lies behind it?

Well, I think it’s been particularly popular or virulent in the Anglo American world. Not so much in the other European countries, although they haven’t been free from it, but certainly I think it’s been most strongly experienced in the Anglo American world. It is no coincidence that it’s been in those countries that the conditions necessary for penal populism have been strongest and its effects are being seen with the dramatic rises of imprisonment in most of the Anglo American countries.

What lies behind it, well, I think it emerges out of the neoliberal restructuring that began to take place in these societies during the early 1980s and onwards which produced significant benefits for many in terms of access to wealth and freedom to choose how they spend the money through lower taxes and so on, but which, at the same time left as I’ve said already, a lot of people behind. A lot of people didn’t share the benefits and they only experienced anxiety and uncertainty as the world around them seem to be changing very rapidly due to this restructuring and they struggled to find a legitimate place for themselves in it. How did they then turn their attention to crime and worry about crime in an era when crime itself has been rapidly declining? Well part of that restructuring has involved deregulation of the mass media and privatization of the media.

Up to the mid 1980s in most countries, the TV was terrestrial and consisted of access to just a few channels. With deregulation, with technological development, it’s opened up to a massive 24/7 television network, a lot of those channels are news programs competing with each other. What’s the best way to attract an audience and buy advertising, because they don’t receive funding from the state? Well it’s concentrating on crime and it’s the same to do with the way in which the newspapers have become much more tabloid entity feeding on sensational stories rather than the kind of authoritative statements of government policy that used to find in the broadsheet press.

Social media takes public discourse further away again from control by government and allows all manner of opinions to be expressed, but mostly to do with crime and fear of crime, and you know that’s a very strong theme of talkback radio. So that combination of factors swirling around together with neoliberal restructuring let loose in conjunction with growing distrust of central government and in career politicians and what they can achieve: all these lead to this phenomenon that I’ve referred to as “penal populism.”

Right and what gave birth to penal populism, you already answered this question. Does each populist government has penal populism?

Well, I don’t think it does. Because I think our penal populism, for the most part, as I said, it’s been concentrated primarily in the developed world in the Anglo American society, but now you are getting the rise of populist politics right across Western society. That’s a different phenomenon from penal populism and, in some ways, it uses the same mechanisms that made penal populism more powerful relying on common sense, anecdotes, and downright lies.

If you look at the Scandinavian countries, the Nordic countries, you find right across quite strong populist parties. But, the emphasis is not so much on crime, it’s on fear of immigrants and what they might do to those societies. Populist parties have become very powerful in that region by wanting to keep those Nordic countries as they are with their very strong welfare states, a strongly protective state, for what they see as authentic citizens of those countries. That doesn’t include the wave of immigrants that are headed towards that region over the last 10 years or so, both legal and illegal immigrants.

Populist Politicians Are Quickly Shown Up to be Fraudulent and Full of Empty Rhetoric

After the failed coup in Turkey in 2016 Turkish President has imprisoned tens of thousands of people with flimsy evidence and sacked hundreds of thousands, without any meaningful objection mechanism, how long can a leader use penal populism, to consolidate his power?

It’s a difficult question to answer, and I wish I could give you a definitive answer to that. I think if you look outside of Turkey, you see, in the Western democracies, politicians who try to use populism to gain political power tend to have quite short political lives. Because, they are quickly shown up to be fraudulent and full of empty rhetoric. One of the best examples of that is Donald Trump in the US. Fortunately for American citizens and the rest of the world, the democratic processes were held up against all the efforts he made to undermine them. So there you have very strong tradition of democracy and it takes a much more astute, more intelligent and more clever politician than Trump to undermine it. In Turkey, I think, it is rather different because you haven’t got such a strong tradition of democracy. Your democratic institutions of government are not so firmly embedded and it allows the current president to disregard what we in the West would see as absolutely central elements of the rule of law.

How long, he will last in in power, I can’t give you a prediction. In populism, I think, wherever it takes root usually has a finite life. It may be shorter in some societies, longer in the others.

Professor, why does penal populism decreases when populism increases?

Again, I’m looking primarily at the Anglo American world where those countries that most strongly experienced penal populism and what I’ve argued in some of the work I published is that penal populism was used by neo liberal governments to essentially maintain the status quo, and that is to say, they didn’t think de-structuring programs that neo liberal governments were pursuing despite all the inequalities and divisions that it created. 

Having penal populism, as part of the program of government performed a very useful function, because it told the general public that: Look your enemies are criminals and law breakers or people who are putting you at risk. We are prepared to use really extraordinary measures. So look how much we’re taking care of you against those who pose the greatest risk to your well being. So it was a way of maintaining social cohesion and allowing the status quo of neo liberal governments to be pursued. Now, it decreases when populist politics become stronger. Because there comes a point when penal populism wasn’t able to fulfill that function, it wasn’t able to maintain the status quo that neo liberal politicians had hoped for.

And I think there are two reasons for that. First of all, was the 2008 global financial crisis which increased social disadvantage and inequalities and allowed a minority to become even richer, so that those inequalities became more and more glaringly obvious and thereafter as well, it was followed by the high levels of immigration, particularly from the Middle East to the West or South to the North, East to the West. And those who had already been left behind in the Anglo American world, seem to feel threatened even more by immigration. Not only did it seem to be endangering the jobs or their prospects of getting a job, but it seemed to be an endangering on all left to cling to, like national identity.

Because immigrants were bringing different traditions, different cultural values with them into these societies. So,populist politics which are using and exaggerating many of the tactics associated with penal populism was no longer interested in maintaining the status quo. Its appeal to its supporters like Trump supporters, for example, was that you know we’re going to change things, we’re going to have a revolution. We’re going to make America great again by turning the clock back to some sort of dream time or the 1950s when America was ruled principally by white men. With the Brexit campaign in Britain, we want to stop all this collusion with foreign people in Europe, because Britain can make it on its own; sort of replaying themes from Second World War and the days of empire and all the rest of it.

Populist politics in those societies have arisen out of the failure of penal populism to maintian the function that was expected of it. That is, the failure of penal populism, to maintain social cohesion and, which would then have allowed the neo liberal program of government to continue. After the 2008 crash and growth of immigration, populist politics says no, we don’t want to maintain the status quo, we want to dramatically change. And, the way to do that is to trust on strongmen leaders who know best, who know better than the experts, who know better than career politicians and civil servants and bureaucrats people like Trump and (Boris) Johnson in Britain.

In your works, you have quoted Francis Fukuyama. You know hes famous for the argument that human race has reached at the end of history, and we would witness the universalization of western liberal democracy. However,liberalism seems to lose ground to populism. What went wrong?

Well, I am sure that Fukuyama himself with that knowledge was being wildly over optimistic when making that comment. It was certainly not the end of history, it was the start of a new chapter in history characterized not by the tradition of social democratic post-war governments. “The end of history” that he was talking about i.e. the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Iron Curtain already coincided with the growth of neo liberal program of governments. Economic and social restructuring that occurred witnessed a lot of people became winners and enjoyed things they could never previously have dreamed of, but many people who got left behind felt embittered and trapped.

Trapped in what we call in New Zealand: Modern societies’ bargain basement. They had no way out of it for the $2 stores. Outside the $2 stores, they could see all the winners or in these casino economies that’s been created, all the winners gliding up the escalator of success, but they were stuck in the bargain basement.

That was what went wrong with Fukuyama’s prediction. It wasn’t the end of history at all and the continuance of Social Democratic policy came to an end. It was the beginning of neoliberal governments which caused great social divisions.I’ve come home to roost in all kinds of ways in the last few years in western societies. 

Specialist in hazmat suits cleaning disinfecting coronavirus cells epidemic in Ukraine.

Things Successful Against Covid19 Are Antithetical to Populism

Professor, you argue that Covid-19 pandemic has turned into an antidote against populism. Can you please elaborate a bit on this?

It is remarkable in some ways, given all the damage that Covid-19 has done to individuals and societies. But at the same time, I do believe it does act as an antidote to populism and that’s because all the things that have been successful against Covid-19 are at the same time antithetical to populism.

I’ve argued in papers, I’ve written, that the most successful ways to control the virus have been ways which simultaneously contradict and undermine populism. For example, it’s been the way in which science and expertise have come to the fore again and being able to convince governments that they know best.

It’s also been strong central government, but accountable government, who are able to tell the truth to the citizens. Whether it’s bad news or good news they’re conveying to them. They’re not afraid of the truth, unlike populist politicians like Trump or Johnson who feel that they have to tell good news all the time that’s the only way in which they can keep the public on their side. But in New Zealand, we’ve had a very strong central government, which has been absolutely straight with the population, the whole time. So, two things that are anethema to populism: science and expertise. They know more about the virus and how to cure and control it, than the ‘the strongman’ leaders who say ‘I’m a magician. I know best.’ No, you do not know best. People don’t want their snake oil cures. They’d much rather believe in or hear what science and expertise have to offer, and then you got strong democratically accountable government which is able to win the trust of the public. 

At the same time, people have been very anxious to find out about the virus and what risks it carries. Many of course turn to social media and listen to all the conspiracy theories i.e. that it is unleashed deliberately by China or it’s a plot by the democrats to undermine Trump and so on. But, most people have turned back to state broadcasting organizations and the BBC, for example, has been enormously popular because it tells people the truth. People trust it much more than social media. Something very similar has happened in New Zealand which has had great success in controlling the virus.

For example, Radio New Zealand’s audience increased dramatically with its news broadcast so people turning back to the state broadcasting because that’s where the truth is. At the same time, I think, despite all the damage that Covid-19 has done to societies it’s actually helped to develop social cohesion, at least in some societies.

One of the reasons why New Zealand has been so successful is because of the very strong social cohesion that exists in this society due to willingness to support the government in the fight to control the virus. 

In societies where there has been success against the virus we see very strong compliance with things like wearing a mask, social distancing and so on. And, at the same time, the social cohesion has meant that people are not so distressful or antagonistic towards strangers.

In many ways the homelessness problem is being tackled by governments in many societies, because they recognize if you’re going to control the virus then it’s not a question of dividing societies, you have to unite them and all have to be helped and cured and protected from the virus. If you leave some people out then it’s likely they’re going to spread the virus. Social cohesion have also lead to all kinds of volunteer groups helping the poor and disadvantaged to a much greater extent than before. Then the virus itself is being defeated, but at the same time, this is a different kind of politics and a different kind of social action.

But I get some other examples from this part of the world as well. In our election last October (2020), which was a triumph for the Labour Party and Prime Minister Jacinda Arden because of the successful way she has managed to control the virus and keep New Zealanders safe through these strategies that I’ve just told you about. Meanwhile, the right-wing populist party in this country, New Zealand First, disappeared from Parliament.

There have been similar types of state elections in Australia as well, another success story against the virus where you get the triumph of mainstream political parties and right-wing populist parties have been largely defeated.

Penal Populism Is Essentially Used to Undermine Human Rights

Professor it has been witnessed in many countriesfor example in France, that many new criminal statutes have been accepted for their impact on public opinion rather than the actual effectiveness at reducing crime? How do populistsinstrumentalize legislation for the sake of penal populist objectives?

Well, I think, when they do that, it galvanizes public opinion against particular groups in society who may or may not be dangerous, usually, in a not very big way. In so doing, the strategy of penal populism is essentially used to undermine human rights.

Instead of protecting the rights of individuals, caught up in the criminal justice process, penal populism argues that it’s the rights of the public to protection that government should take care of. So, they try to redefine what constitutes human rights and there’s usually as well, a very large bill to pay for these kinds of policies. Because they nearly always involve increases in imprisonment with very damaging economic and social effects and by starting these campaigns, they intensify division between particular sections of the society.

What kind of risks and threats emerge through the politicization of criminal justice because of populist punitive law and order tactics in an attempt to gain support from the public?

I think, as I’ve said, they relate to the erosion of human rights, which have been a feature of Western society, particularly in that post-war era from 1945 through to the early 1980s. One of the ways in which Western societies distinguished themselves from other social formations was to say “well look, we have the rule of law here.”

If individuals get into difficulties or in trouble here, then we protect their human rights, and that is what makes us world – at least that is what we used to say. Now, it strikes me that one of the dangers penal populism present is the way in which it erodes that understanding of human rights and tries to substitute a new understanding based around public protection by using measures that involve variously retrospective legislation or hybrid legislation or changing rules of evidence to make convictions easy.

These kinds of strategies that fundamentally undermine the rule of law and allow for initiatives that were previously thought to have no place in democratic world. I’ll give you an example. We have public protection orders in New Zealand which mean that if sex offenders coming to the end of a finite prison term are still judged to be a serious risk to the public. The Court can order that they must be detained in prison at the end of this sentence indefinitely. They don’t call it ‘prison’, because this is the West and we don’t lock people up arbitrarily when they haven’t committed a crime. It’s called ‘civil detention’, but essentially they stay in prison.

Once Populists Come to Power, It is Shown to be Nothing More Than Ignorant Malevolent Clowns

Penal populism gives way to harsher mechanisms for social control to address the publics demand to be tough on crime. How do you assess ties between penal populism and authoritarianism?

Well, I think those who are associated with it, and promote it as strategies, usually say that “We’re doing this, to protect democracy. We are the defenders of democracy against these criminals, law breakers, terrorists who pose such a risk to us.” And, at the same time, they’re very coy with the language they use. I just gave you the example, the way in which post-prison detention in New Zealand isn’t actually called ‘prison,’ it’s called ‘civil detention’ to give it some sort of legitimacy. Whereas in authoritarianism, I would guess, they just don’t bother to pretend they are defending democracy at all. Democracy, in the eyes of authoritarian leaders would seem to be a dangerous exercise all together and it’s much better to have strongman leaders like Trump and do away with democracy, all together. Because, people make the wrong choices, or the wrong people vote. They are more likely to try to involve the military to prop up the rule because they got no particular interest in pretending that they’re defending democracy. So, that is the distinction, I would make between them.

All right Professor, my last question: When one talks about penal populism, it is the name of the Philippines’s Duterte that first comes to mind. However, he is not only the one in the world, could you please make a short list of penal populists or law and order populists around the world?

I don’t know how good my geography is and I don’t have knowledge of all the world’s leaders. I mean my knowledge of the world is confined in the mainly to Western Europe and some of the Asian countries. Rather than giving you a list of leaders who have relied on penal populism, to maintain their power, I would give you governments or countries where you’ve had triumph of social democracy against populism and we’ve had that in New Zealand you’ve had that in a number of Western countries like the Czech Republic, Slovakia, Slovenia.

I think, democracy has largely held firm. The Netherlands, for example, I think there was an election there just the other week and the populace didn’t vote much for populists. Which isn’t to say that you haven’t got populist leaders and doing well in other countries. You know, the picture is very fluid, obviously, but I don’t think it’s as gloomy a picture as some people make out of it. I think social democracy by and large, is holding up reasonably well against the thrusts from populists. Often because, once they do come to power, it is shown to be nothing more than ignorant malevolent clowns.

Trump is the best example of that. But, we’ve had other examples. I think, in Italy, the collapse of the populist government is another example of the way in which leaders who rise to power on a populist wave of support quickly get found out and come undone. In Austria, something similar happened. So, I think there should be hope around the world. I think Covid-19, despite everything it’s done and the damages caused, one of its biggest casualties will prove to be populism.

All right, Professor. Thank you so much for your time.


Who is John Pratt?

John Pratt is a Professor of Criminology at the Institute of Criminology, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand. His fields of research are comparative penology and the history and sociology of punishment. He has published in eleven languages. He is currently undertaking research on the relationship between risk, populism and criminal justice.

Racist and hateful message saying "Refugees Go Home", painted on a traffic sign with stickers and paint all over in Karlskrona, Sweden on January 13, 2016.

Dr. Mette Wiggen: Racism Is Key to Understanding the Far-right Everywhere

Dr. Wiggen: “Without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, I can’t see how you can understand the development of the far-right anywhere. Many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. To challenge racism and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.”

Interview by F. Zehra Colak

Dr. Mette Wiggen from the University of Leeds studies radical right trends in Scandinavian countries and welfare chauvinism. She has argued that without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, one cannot understand the development of the far-right anywhere. She notes that many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. In this series of interviews on populism, Wiggen observes that “To challenge racism, and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.”

Dr. Wiggen focuses closely on the new racism, extreme-right-wing parties, and their impact on mainstream politics and public opinion concerning immigration and welfare. Her research underscores that while most people do not see immigration as a threat, politicians and the media have tried hard to win political gain from scapegoating immigrants, especially during the pandemic.

According to Dr. Wiggen, the colonial mindset is very much at play in Scandinavia despite a political focus on equality and “state feminism,” which has never included “the Other.” She notes how a “lack of awareness and unconscious bias seems worse in Norway than in the UK.” Referring to the role of ignorance around diversity, sexism, and racism in explaining the reproduction of inequality, Wiggen stresses that right-wing populist views have not necessarily made the representation of Muslim women worse in Western societies. “It has probably got worse for men who have been targeted as anti-feminist and oppressive,” she argued.

The following excerpts from the interview with Dr. Mette Wiggen have been lightly edited for length and clarity.

How do you think the radical right has gained a strong foothold in Scandinavia? Do you think the mainstreaming of the far-right is linked to the instrumentalization of immigration issues?

There are many reasons, and it varies from country to country. In Norway and Denmark, where the radical right (RR) has been the strongest and most successful, you need to look at where the parties came from. By 1990, such parties were well established and accepted as part of the democratic party systems. They had also started gaining more than 10 percent in national elections. There was a breakthrough then as they put anti-immigration on the agenda in the late 1980s. In both countries, the forerunners of the established RR parties started as anti-taxation parties protesting the social democratic universal welfare state, high taxation, and the redistribution of wealth.

The parties were libertarian with no focus on immigration. Nor did they have any links to a fascist past, making the threshold of voting for RR parties lower than in countries where they have clear links to Nazism or fascism. This doesn’t mean that the Scandinavian parties didn’t attract voters with neo-Nazi or fascist sentiments. From the 1990s, the mainstream was challenged by the electoral support the parties got, but instead of confronting the anti-immigration ideology, they embraced it. In Sweden, the mainstream has to this day refused to accept the Sweden Democrats (SD) as a legitimate party despite the SD gaining nearly 18 percent in the last elections (they are now polling at 20 percent).

“Scandinavian Solidarity with Migrants Has Always Been Exaggerated”

Scandinavia is considered nearly the strictest in Europe in legislating immigration, with confiscation of refugees’ assets in Denmark, deportation of young Afghans in Norway, and the construction of refugees as a burden on public finances in Sweden. So, what happened to the famed Scandinavian solidarity with and tolerance toward immigrants?

I think Scandinavian solidarity with and tolerance toward migrants has always been exaggerated. But because of the generous universal welfare states run by genuine social democrats, there wasn’t so much protest in the past. With the privatization of the welfare state and welfare retrenchment across the board, neoliberal politicians have turned limited access to welfare and competition around rights to resources into a central political issue. Most people probably believe there is not enough money to go around. They also hear from the top that the costs of including immigrants are too high but nothing about international obligations.

Liberal democracies have never been particularly tolerant toward immigrants and have often portrayed immigrants as “outsiders” as a “problem” and a “burden” rather than focusing on solidarity, international obligations, and the richness migration can bring. In Scandinavia, scapegoating immigrants (and refugees in particular) as a drain on society must be linked to right-wing ideology and neoliberalism. In the past, the universality of the welfare state sheltered those in need more, and as services were universal, there was broad support for them. Most parties on the “left” as well as the right are, in fact, neoliberal now and argue that the countries can’t afford to extend the welfare state to immigrants and refugees.

With the economic crisis in the early 1990s, there has been a massive drive to privatize healthcare, especially in Sweden. With that comes a focus on profit and not tolerance, solidarity, and human rights. The idea that there isn’t enough to go around has become normalized, and most people fear what might come as they worry about what they might lose if “the Other” is entitled to the same support as those with family roots and connections. This development has coincided with an enormous boost to RR parties in Denmark and Norway as they were the first such parties. Now that it has become so normalized, it’s difficult to know the difference between the RR and mainstream parties on immigration. The Danish social democratic party with their anti-immigrant prime minister, Mette Frederiksen, are particularly extreme. The government recently stripped 94 Syrian refugees of their residency permits, claiming Damascus is a safe place to return to. Amnesty International says the decision is appalling and a “reckless violation of Denmark’s duty to provide asylum.”

In your work published after the terror attacks in Utøya and Oslo in 2011, you hold mainstream political parties responsible for not confronting racism, sexism, and ignorance in debates around immigration and integration, rather for reproducing anti-immigrant extreme right-wing rhetoric. How do you explain this reticence among mainstream politicians in Norway to defy right-wing populist views? What might have they done to effectively respond to the far-right?

I think a lot of it has to do with unconscious bias—many politicians and journalists can’t see it. But many do, and it was made very clear by the then PM Jens Stoltenberg that racist anti-immigrant rhetoric had to stop. It didn’t, and the social democrats kept drifting to the right on immigration. Some of the explanations as to why the social democrats weren’t clearer and more supportive of immigration and immigrant might be found in their concern about electoral competition from the right. Denmark becoming stricter on immigration was also an issue; some central Norwegian social democrats said they were concerned about immigrants coming to Norway instead of Denmark if they didn’t follow Denmark’s lead. The strategy didn’t work, and in the 2013 national elections, the far-right Fremskrittpartiet (Progress Party) was invited by the mainstream right to join a national coalition for the first time. The media has a lot to answer for when it comes to anti-immigrant rhetoric and reporting. I’m actually shocked to see how much of the media compare rates of COVID-19 infection with “country-born” against “foreign-born” and how they have created the term “imported infection” as they focus on various immigrant groups’ behavior without adding any analysis of socio-economic factors.

“Most People Don’t See Immigration as a Threat”

In one of your articles, you mention how the populist and nationalist Senterpartiet (Center Party, SP) in Norway is gaining popularity by tapping into the grievances of people suffering from uneven development and without referring to immigration issues. What might explain this rhetorical shift? Do you think the “migration issue” is losing popularity among populists because the current mainstream attitudes toward immigration already reflect right-wing populist views?

I don’t think SP ever was an anti-immigration party, nor are they on the right. They don’t see immigration as a problem in the same way as the RR or the social democrats, who for many years seem to have copied RR immigration policies. I think the “migration issue” is losing popularity, especially among young voters across the board. Still, the RR has toned it down a bit, considering very few refugees have arrived in the last few years. Local municipalities appeal to the government to accept more refugees saying they have more than enough capacity. Most people don’t see immigration as a threat and have other more pressing issues to think about. Still, politicians and the media have tried hard to win political gain from scapegoating immigrants during the pandemic. There are national elections in September 2021, and the electioneering seems to have started.

What are the specific characteristics of the Scandinavian populist right-wing parties compared to the far- or extreme-right populist parties in Europe? How do you explain similarities across the European far-right, especially regarding the “issue ownership” of immigration and Islam?

In Norway and Denmark, the parties have no links to a fascist past (Sweden is a different matter). Still, more answers can be found in the countries’ and the parties’ colonial past and a shared anti-immigrant, nativist ideology and welfare chauvinism. The links are easier to understand, or more obvious, if you look at Rassemblement National (the National Rally) and its forerunner, the Front National, and legacies of colonialism and anti-republicanism in France. French settlers in Algeria—the so-called pieds-noirs (“black feet”) who came back to the south of France after independence—played an important role in the party’s success that was to become the Front National, one of the most influential RR parties in Europe.

In Norway and Denmark, RR parties have also long been accepted as “normal” by the other parties and have worked in local coalitions, even with the social democrats. In Sweden, as in many other countries, a cordon sanitaire was in operation; mainstream parties refused to accept them as legitimate political parties, never mind collaborating with them in coalitions. This has backfired in Sweden, where the Sweden Democrats have established themselves as the main opposition party. The SD has long listened to working-class people’s grievances and now poll at 20 percent.

In your analysis of the radical right, you refer to the history of intolerance and inequality targeting ethnic minorities, such as the Sami population in Sweden and Norway, and the culturalization of racism to establish difference. How do you explain the role of racism in understanding the development of the far-right in Scandinavia and why most analyses of the far-right fail to acknowledge its importance?

We have to understand history and colonialism and how that shaped our world and its prevailing ideas. There is an ongoing competition over resources both in Sweden and Norway over the right to continue exploiting and demanding resources on Sami territory. Still, the Sami are gaining support from international organizations. Without understanding or trying to understand the role of racism, I can’t see how you can understand the development of the far-right anywhere. Many analyses focus on parties, party competition, discourse, policies, definitions, classification, electoral support, and quants without linking that to capitalist development. To challenge racism and the shortcomings of liberal democracy with its obvious links to racism and anti-immigration isn’t particularly attractive to research councils whose entire raison d’être and funding depends on the same system.

“Right-wing Populist Views Are Worse for Muslim Men”

Your work looks at how Muslim women have been targeted by Western media and politicians and inaccurately represented as victims of their culture while their voices are significantly overlooked. What reasons do you think lie at the root of this obsession with the so-called emancipation of Muslim women in Western societies? How has the normalization of the right-wing populist views in Scandinavia affected the representation of Muslim women in mainstream public and political discourses?

I think we can understand this best by putting it into a historical context. Many Western feminists are still influenced by colonialism and don’t understand “feminism is not a

Western invention,” as the late scholar Nawal El Saadawi said. Saadawi reminded us that women fighting the patriarchy and capitalism is historical and global.

In Scandinavia, this colonial mindset is very much at play despite a political focus on equality and “state feminism” that goes back to the 1970s, one that never included “the Other.” On the contrary, the lack of awareness and unconscious bias seems worse in Norway than here in the UK. Ignorance around diversity, sexism, and racism ensures the reproduction of inequality. There is also a sense of superiority and arrogance that comes with being “the best country in the world,” as several journalists used to report when UNDP human development reports showed Norway on the top. I don’t think right-wing populist views have made the representation of Muslim women worse. Instead, it has probably got worse for men who have been targeted as anti-feminist and oppressive. In Norway, a survey showed that Muslim women had easier access to the labor market than Muslim men. But there is still an obsession with head coverings—wearing the niqab, and the burqa was banned in Denmark and Norway in 2018.

Black Lives Matters Protest in Stockholm, Sweden on June 3, 2020.

“Young People Need to Be Heard and Taken Seriously”

Different analyses show how the far-right in Europe has tried to capitalize on the Covid-19 pandemic. In contrast, others have argued that the pandemic has exposed the political incompetence of the far-right parties. How have the far-right parties in Scandinavia responded to the pandemic, and what might be the pandemic’s consequences for far-right there?

Radical right parties in Scandinavia have largely supported the governing parties, apart from in Sweden where there was no lockdown and more than 13,400 have died to COVID-19. The Sweden Democrats asked for stricter border controls and targeted immigrant communities and blamed immigrants for spreading the virus in March 2020. The governments in Norway and Denmark took a very different approach and locked down on March 12, 2020. The death rate in Denmark is just over 2,400, and in Norway, only 650 and the governing parties have gained support while the RR is weaker than ever. However, this is not due to political incompetence exposure but more because the governing coalitions have adopted the RR’s anti-immigration rhetoric and policies largely across the board.

Your work also focuses on increasing the engagement of young people in politics and society. Why is it important to foster political engagement among youth, and what are the most effective ways to facilitate their active and critical participation in responding to the global challenges that affect our contemporary society?

At the top of my list is the eradication of poverty. There must be access to and funding of education for all, from nurseries to primary and secondary schools, colleges and further education, universities, youth clubs, music, and sports. There must be an end to austerity and welfare retrenchment. Young people also need to be heard and seen and taken seriously. The young have made an enormous contribution to climate change demonstrations, protests to improve women’s safety, and Black Lives Matter marches in the last year. It’s worrying how police treat protesters, especially in the UK at the moment where things are moving in the wrong direction. Freedom of assembly to demonstrate and protest is more important than ever. A new bill the UK government has recently proposed could lead to legislation that will ban protest. That would be detrimental to democracy and young people’s participation in politics and their chances of having their voices heard.

Dreamcatchers in a breeze in Monument Valley, Utah, USA.  Photo: Jane Rix

Shoshone Nation leader Darren Parry: All decisions should be based on the ‘seventh generation’ principle

Darren Parry, the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City, calls for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead.

Interview by Mehmet Soyer & Heidi Hart

Darren Parry is the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City. In an exclusive interview with the ECPS, he speaks about his call for US legislators to take the ideas of the Iroquois People as a model and, in particular, to adopt the “seventh generation” principle. This principle counsels decision-makers not to make any decisions without considering the effects on those living seven generations ahead. The “seventh generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that seeks to ensure a sustainable world seven generations into the future by informing how we make decisions in the present.

Parry also emphasizes the need for Native Americans to be included in civil rights struggles. “Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.… We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion? … Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was (nearly) erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.”

Assessing former US President Donald Trump’s populist policies, Parry has expressed criticism: “(Under) the former president… in my communities we saw rollbacks to protections not only of the land but the wildlife. We also saw weakened environmental regulations. We have also seen the failure of the pandemic response, which has killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today.” On the issue of oil and gas extraction, which in conservative states like Utah tends to be underregulated, Parry notes that Trump deregulated everything. “He thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is—in every case—the extraction industry,” Parry said. He also discussed the pressures on the Ute tribe, which has environmental protection “in its DNA” but also benefits financially from the oil industry.

After a long time serving as the tribal Chairman of the northwestern Shoshone Nation, Parry stepped down last year to run for the US Congress, seeking to advance his political message of accountability, education, and Indigenous land rights. He believes that Native culture can better advance with Congressional representation and is deeply pleased that his friend Deb Haaland, a member of the Laguna Pueblo Nation in New Mexico, now leads the US Department of the Interior. Parry still serves as a council member on the Northwest Shoshone Tribal Council.

Parry grew up in Utah, which has always been home for him. His grandmother was a fierce advocate for her people. Parry says he has tried to continue her work, telling the Shoshone story from the tribe’s perspective, which — after several centuries of dislocation, genocide, and boarding school “re-education”—is seldom heard. He thinks that the more information people have about other communities that do not look like them, the better off that society as a whole will be. Today, Parry lives in Cache Valley, a place that his people have called home for centuries. He says that there is no better place to be.

Darren Parry, the Vice-Chairman of the Northwestern Shoshone Nation, a Utah tribe with headquarters in Brigham City.

 

The following excerpts from our interview with Darren Parry have been lightly edited.

Mehmet Soyer: Could you tell us about the Shoshone Nation and your culture’s ways of relating to the land?

We [the Shoshone Nation] look at land a little bit differently [than many non-Native communities]. But the relationship that we have with this land that we live on … is something so sacred and special that we call this land our mother—Mother Earth. She has always been the provider of our livelihoods. So, you know, in the mountains, in the streams … we believe the seasons walk around annually. We don’t distinguish ourselves as being superior to the land. If you look at Native ways, we consider ourselves [connected] not only to the land but also with our animal kinfolk, as we like to call them. From that perspective, we are not superior to the animals.

When you see injustice taking place not only with humans but with the Earth, with climate change, and extraction industries, it really hits home to Native Americans because we feel like they [our animal kinfolk] are a part of us. We feel they have a spirit, and they are a living entity. Our human way of thinking is not superior in any way to the values that the Earth and the animal kingdom hold.

At the Bear River Massacre Site [The Bear River Massacre, or the Battle of Bear River or Massacre at Boa Ogoi, took place in present-day Franklin County, Idaho on January 29, 1863], we are doing a lot to tell the story of our people. But how can you tell the story of our people without doing the work to heal the Earth that is there? [For example, by] getting rid of the species that should not be there. So, the work of land restoration is just as important in being able to the story and restore our people’s story and the traditions that we hold. We don’t look at it any differently.

The land, and how we look at the land, and how we are stewards over the land, is really the most important thing to Indigenous communities. We have never felt like we own the land. A lot of people think, well, Native Americans feel like they own the land. It was never our land to own. We were just given stewardship over this land. And so, you know, those differences are really stark in comparison to Western culture today.

Heidi Hart: Populism, in combination with authoritarian government, is on the rise around the world. How do you think populism has affected Indigenous populations in the US?

Well, for one thing, it has just ensured the status quo. The more things change, the more they stay the same—especially in Indigenous communities like ours. And I think populism … has always [been a way for] people … to look at the past, to romanticize the past as “the good old days.” But you know what? The past has never been kind to Indigenous communities. It was often dark. It includes genocide or a complete erasure of people and culture. And, at best, history celebrates assimilation, which is still an erasure of communities. When we talk about that and its effect on our communities, it has just given us less of a seat at the table.

Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark. Because I really celebrate diversity, inclusion, equality, and I try to speak out on those issues as much as I can…. Our past has been dark, and so the future under certain administrations has looked just as bleak and dark.…We hear talk of diversity, inclusion, and equality—especially concerning our Black communities, Latino communities, and LGBTQ+ communities. But how often are Native Americans included in that discussion?

I have never seen Indigenous communities included as part of the four or five things that we always include when we talk about diversity and equality in America today. Those other groups play a prominent role, as they should. I am not saying they shouldn’t at all, but if we really want to be inclusive, then all groups that are marginalized need to be included, including Native American groups. Not only have we been marginalized, but our culture was [nearly] erased completely. So, I think when we talk about diversity, inclusion, and equality, Native Americans need to be included in that discussion.

‘We Have Seen Rollbacks to Protections of Land and Wildlife Under Trump Administration’

Mehmet Soyer: So, and what have Native communities experienced during the Trump era that will change approaches to activism in the future?

That is a great question. [Under] the former president… in my communities, we have seen rollbacks to protections of not only the land but the wildlife. We have seen weakened environmental regulations. We have seen the failure in the pandemic response that killed my people way more than any other people and killed more people of color than any other group in America today. So, as I look at that, [I ask] how might the pandemic change the way we go forward? I think our communities need to be much more organized and prepared. And I think we live in a different world today than 150 or 80 years ago. And we need to make sure that we elect politicians that can make a difference. We get in the court system and fight injustices that way. I used to think my way—activism—was the only way.

Let me just quickly explain the way I handle things. My way is gentle. I am not a loud, in-your-face activist carrying signs, marching down the street … In my world, it seems like other leaders have different opinions than me, that [they think the gentle way] is not the way to go about it. You know, it kind of puts them on the defensive…. In the past, I always thought: “well, if they just do it my way, if they are humbler about it to try to effect change, then everything would be okay.” As I have gotten older, I have learned about all of the different ways we tackle problems; [and] when we look at activism; it’s all important.

What the children at Standing Rock did was hugely important. They were loud, but they were respectful in most cases. They had a message, and it resonated. What it did is that it moved the needle a little bit, [but] it did not move it the whole way.… So, people [who] do not carry the big hammer can come in and kind of make a change to all different aspects of activism … I think at the end of the day, we really need to make sure that our activism leads to change. And change means a change in our political leaders and people that are like-minded. And then we can lean on the court system. I hate to [leave it] all, everything that we hold dear, to the courts, but sometimes, in the world that we live in today, we are eventually going to get there anyway. So, it is just really important that we look at all the various ways of doing activism and realize that we all play an important role in bringing about change, wherever that is on that spectrum.

Winter on the Bear River near Brigham City Utah. Photo: Josh Munns

Heidi Hart: In your recent book about the Bear River Massacre in the 19th century, you discuss the complex relationship between your people and white settlers in Utah and Idaho. How has this complexity affected your ability to speak to groups across political differences?

I am not so sure it has affected [me] … I think, over time, I have gotten to the point that my reputation—especially with political leaders that really do not, maybe, have my best interests at heart—means they know they are not going to be hit in the head with a hammer when they meet with me. And, I think that reputation has really helped me to engage with people that I think we can start making differences with.… I could be terrible in every interaction I have with the [Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day] Saints and hold them accountable at every turn. And they should be held accountable. But my story is always about acknowledging atrocities from the past. You have to acknowledge [that] if there is going to be a reconciliation; however, not remaining there [is important]. It is [about] recognizing the past, but [then asking] how do we move forward together? I think [things improve] when you take that approach with people who believe differently than you do—asking: how can we move together even though we do not agree politically on everything? What can we do to make this world a better place?

So, I think having that mindset has really helped me navigate some of these political waters that we swim in. I have a lot of good Republican friends.… Working together and having them respect me enough to listen to what I have to say; I think it can really make a difference going forward.

‘The Feelings of Trumpists Are Raw and Real’

Mehmet Soyer: So, I am seeing you as a bridge-builder. Since you are a bridge-builder, do you have advice on how to engage with followers of populist leaders who are caught in conspiracy thinking?

I get to exercise this [skill] a lot. Melody, my wife, flew to Florida yesterday to see her son and her granddaughter. He is a conspiracy thinker and a Trump guy. He is gonna be talking about Donald Trump 20 years from now. He is a “35-year-old kid” who is sometimes really hard to deal with. But what I have learned over time is … to listen. That is hard to do, especially when you are hearing [farfetched] things. I have come to realize that, as I listen, even though it might be hard, I show a little bit of respect for some of what they are feeling. Their feelings are real; they are raw, and they do not bring it up to just cause trouble. They have certain things in their mind that are problems. I always try to listen in a way that respects what they are saying. As I do that [with my wife’s son], he has been much more willing to hear me. …

When you engage with people like that, you need to make sure [everyone is] looking forward. Because those people always want to look in the past. They are always looking in the rearview mirror. But I think it’s important that we … support new policies that reflect the values of today. We need to prepare [ourselves] for change and diversity. The thing, I think, that is lacking in our society is an education system that trains people for social change. Today I think, we are failing miserably in our education system. And what that means is [we need to ask] how we are training our kids to interact with people that have different views than us.… How can we really do a better job of educating our kids, so they can deal with people that have completely opposite views … in a way that is constructive and a way that we can work together, moving forward?

But we have done a really poor job of teaching our kids the social skills needed to critically think of ways to be able to work together. And then we just need to do a better job investing in people, in education, and training and family, health care, and it is going to probably require a progressive tax that should fall more heavily upon those who benefit the most. So, I think our country has had it backward for a long time if you look at it from the view that I have always looked at it. I am a Christian, and I believe in Jesus Christ, but it doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or not. If you believe in a higher power, you have got to come to the same conclusion that the higher power loves and cares about everyone, not just those in power and those who have money.

It is plainly important to me that we spend much more of our effort with [marginalized] communities. [As] my grandmother used to say—we are only as strong in a community as our most vulnerable. Well, what does that mean? If we are going to be a strong community, we need to make sure that we are taking care of the most vulnerable in that community, who are the most marginalized, and those who have never had a seat at the table; remembering that common ground probably does help, and talking with people who do have these raw feelings. However, ideas can seem so strange and scary sometimes.

Heidi Hart: Oil and gas extraction, especially on federal lands, is a thorny issue, and regulation has been very controversial. How has leadership change in the US affected these controversies among Indigenous populations?

That is a loaded question. Because in the last five years, we have seen the pendulum swing from one extreme to the other. We had a president, Trump, who deregulated everything, and he thought it was okay to sell our public lands off to the highest bidder, which is, in every case, the extraction industry.

For me, not getting elected to Congress was really a blessing. I never really thought I would [win], but it was important to me to get the issues that are important to me out there and maybe set an example for Native American youth who might see what I did. [That way, they might] run in the future, [and my example] might make a difference, give them the confidence… [Speaking of] the current administration in place, that victory was really important to so many communities that have been marginalized. It was especially important to our environment. And when we talk about extraction and oil and other things, then not only President Biden being elected, but [also the appointment of] my friend Deb Haaland, a Native American, who was appointed to lead the Department of the Interior. Being in charge of federal lands—one-fifth of the United States is under federal control—she will now lead a department where she can really make a difference going forward. So, I am really heartened by that appointment; [and I read] in the newspaper that she will be making a visit to Utah in April.

When I went out to the Ute Nation in the winter to do a little campaigning and met with tribal leaders, I don’t think there were any young people that really voted for me, even though, generally speaking, tribal nations vote democratic. Because there is a complex story in that area: we see a Native tribe that was relocated to what was thought then [to be] the worst land in the world. But now they find gas and oil under their land. And so here you take an Indigenous population that has never had money, never had any means to sustain themselves … Now they have millions of dollars because of [what] the gas and extraction industries provide. Their DNA is wired to what I talked about earlier—about how we honor the land and how we need to make sure we take care of it. But now you have given a people that has never had anything a real taste of colonization or the Western world in the form of millions of dollars [in royalties].

‘I Am So Heartened With Deb Haaland’s Running the Interior Department’

They walk a tightrope as far as I am concerned because their Indigenous upbringing reminds them of our stewardship of the land, but their economic [resources] and how they take care of their people … go together. So, my message to them was, “look, I do not want to shut down your oil industry tomorrow, but we need to start looking for ways that we can get away from those things…” I mean, it is not a point of contention, that those things need to go away. But we need to make sure that we are replacing them with something sustainable and something that they can make money on for their people and really give them away to get back to who they are, as Native people. So, while I am so heartened with Deb Haaland’s running the Interior Department, we’ve certainly got to do a better job. I think the current administration and Haaland are the perfect fit for what we want to do in America going forward.

People in native Indian clothes performing a traditional dance in front of the world famous Monument valley rock formations in Utah in 2013. Photo: Milan Rademakers

Mehmet Soyer: At a time when the populist right exploits nativism to push their agenda, hurting Indigenous, and minority populations in the process, what can be done to educate people and counter this kind of thinking?

Well, that is a big task. If there was an easy solution, we would have done it already. But we have kind of failed miserably with that…. I think our future leaders really need to reflect our values and how we are looking at things, going forward today, not looking at the past. But I read that [newspaper] article reporting that Haaland is coming to Utah, and there was a sentence that really struck me, and I wrote it down. One of the elected leaders … said [Haaland’s] visit to Utah would allow her to speak with people who live and work on the land and whose voices often go unheard. If you were just to read that quickly or to think, “yes, the Native Americans who have lived on that land whose voices of often gone unheard—those five Indigenous tribes that called Bears Ears their home.” But that is not who they were referring to. They were referring to the ranchers and the locals that have lived there the last 100 years who took the land from the Natives who had stewardship over it.

So, it got me thinking; we have got a big job ahead of us because our elected leaders today are thinking this way. They are not thinking of the Indigenous people that were displaced not very long ago. Well, that is just crazy talk to me—it is looking at the situation in a completely different way than I would look at it…. The task ahead and what we can [achieve] is really overwhelming if you look at it that way. But if you start breaking it down, those elected leaders are good people. [However] if we really [want] social change in America today, locally, we need to re-elect leaders that reflect our values more. I think that is the way you can really make a significant change going forward…. We need to look at it differently … at the people that have lived in America [for] 200 and something years and … at people that have lived here for thousands of years.

I think it is a big thing ahead of us. I am really heartened because, during my campaign, most of my staff were students at Utah State University. So, I am looking at the next generations. If we can activate the youth to really make a big change, even here in Utah, which is ultra-conservative, I think we are not very far away from seeing a huge shift. The people who worked on my campaign … want some change and want to be a part of it. Once we start getting more of what I see on the horizon with leadership, the possibilities are really heartening for me. I think we are going to be able to see some big changes.… I also love old-timers, but you know, here in Utah, they were raised in a different way and a different environment. Their value systems are a little bit different, less inclusive.

Mehmet Soyer: You have tried to reconstruct the narrative between White and Indigenous populations. Can you talk about your efforts in the community to create solidarity?

That is a great question. Look, in our culture, our elders are the most important commodity we have … in a culture that relies on oral history and oral stories. Our elders are so important to carry the stories that teach our children the values that we have today. When you erase a certain segment of that culture through boarding schools [and] assimilation processes—and you are raising a generation that could have grown up in a different way, with different ways of looking at the world—there is distress there. My grandmother had such a big influence on me. I guess what I can say is the way she taught me through stories she had learned. She was one of the very first generations that began writing these stories down and preserving our history and culture. And when you start doing that, we retain that old way of learning things, and we retain those old stories much better because we are not relying on just storytelling per se. The volumes of literature that we have from my grandmother now really speak to generations. They can read her works and get a feeling for the old traditional ways of our people.

‘Native Americans Can Best Balance Culture and Change’

However, knowing that change is inevitable, I have always been one that believes that the most successful Native Americans today are those who can best balance culture and change. That has been my guiding force going forward is honoring the deep, rich [Native American] culture by realizing that we have got to change a little bit going forward. We cannot rely on the ways of the past to be successful in the future. So, everything I have tried to do is honor the past as much as I can with every fiber of my soul. Since I realized that we live in a changing world today, that is why you see me with different groups. It is important to me that they hear from an Indigenous leader, maybe in a new way, different from the way their grandparents would have heard.… We are not going back to the old ways as much as we would want or celebrate that. That ship has sailed, and so [I ask] what can I do as a Native American leader today to prepare the youth to change and succeed with it? And if I had one thing to say, it would be “education.” Education is the key, and so that is always my focus, and my goal is to make sure that our youth are being educated in a way that can help their people going forward to a better way of life, but still respecting, and honoring the old ways.

Shoshone Falls in southern Utah.

Heidi Hart: Thank you so much. As we finish up here, could you say something about “Seventh Generation” thinking?

I wish the Shoshone Nation could take credit for that kind of thinking, even though I am sure we have that thinking [Editor’s note: the “Seventh Generation” principle is based on an ancient Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) philosophy that the decisions we make today should result in a sustainable world seven generations into the future]. The Iroquois People and Iroquois leadership do not make any decision without considering its effects … seven generations ahead. I tell that story because I think one of our leaders took that to heart. If all the legislation they proposed considered the effects on seven generations down the road, would we make the same decisions?

I don’t have any oral history or storytelling about that. All I know from a Shoshone perspective is that we have always considered what effect it would have upon the land, our animal kinfolk, and things going forward. So the “seven generations story” really resonates with me, and I think it resonates with a lot of people about how our stewardship is. When you see populism and nativism and things like that, it is about the here and now. To me, the story is never about the past [either]. We can honor the past and look at it as a way to educate ourselves and to use a measuring stick to see where we are going. But the story is always about the future: “What can we do today to make our future better not only for my kids and me but for our grandkids and great-grandkids?” That should be the message.

Professor Brian C. J. Singer, a Senior Scholar at Glendon College, York University in Toronto. Photo: Erdem Kaya

Prof. Singer: Populism’s thin ideology renders performative truth

"Populism tends to exploit democracy’s symbolic resources to the point of their possible implosion, potentially resulting in a transition towards either authoritarian forms of political rule or increasing ungovernability, even civil war. This is less likely to happen when the populist movement arises from the bottom up and retains both its internal divisions and a critical distance relative to its leaders."

Interview by Erdem Kaya

Professor Brian C. J. Singer is a Senior Scholar at Glendon College, York University in Toronto. He is the author of two monographs and numerous scholarly articles and book chapters in both French and English, covering a range of topics in philosophy and social theory, especially French social and political thought.

In this series of interviews on populism, Professor Singer asserts that ideology supposes a relation to truth, as it seeks to justify a given socio-political order and its corresponding power. But to the extent that populism entails a “thin” ideology or, possibly, no ideology, its relation to the truth of external reality can be dramatically diminished. In such a performative truth, one can ignore or oppose the facts when the facts appear contrary to the truths that people claim for themselves. A lightly edited transcript of the conversations follows.

There is much debate in the populism literature as to how to define populism. But you come up with a particular definition that speaks of a loose and symbolic “logic” while drawing on Marcel Gauchets argument. Could you clarify how you define populism

It is a bit of a fool’s game to seek to define populism empirically, as if one could establish a set of traits that all discourses, movements, and governments must have in order to merit being called “populist.” There is a necessary, minimal definition that opposes “the people” to “the elite” — particularly the political elite. But almost every democratic government (and many that are not properly democratic) claims to govern in the name of the people, and most opposition parties (and even some parties in power) claim to be against an existing political elite. In other words, this minimal definition, however necessary, barely distinguishes populist from non-populist regimes. 

Of course, the claim to oppose the people to an elite can be made more or less adamantly and understood more or less literally. There is, thus, a “populism light” that remains merely rhetorical and a “populism heavy” that promises or threatens much more than just another change in government. Concerning the latter, reference is made to what I would call democracy’s founding “primal scene,” when “the people” overthrew an aristocracy, monarchy or dictatorship, and established a democracy—though here the reenactment of the primal scene would occur within an already existing democracy, however discredited the latter may be. 

It Is a Fool’s Game to Define Populism Empirically

In this sense, such a “populism heavy” appears as a revolution, not of democracy, but within democracy, a revolution achieved by an election, thus a “revolution without a revolution,” but introducing its own torsions. In speaking of this reenactment of a “primal scene,” I am suggesting that populism draws on democracy’s most fundamental symbolic resources, insisting on the rule of the demos, the idea of the people as sovereign, a people whose power is absolute, the source of all legitimate powers. 

In drawing on such symbolic resources, populism can initiate a far-reaching, if loose, symbolic logic, as it seeks to translate the imperatives that result from this appeal to the sovereign people. Who are the people that are being appealed to? Clearly, not people in their empirical diversity, but a people formed discursively with purportedly distinctive traits. And what does it mean to represent such a people when the very existence of political representation threatens to divide the representatives from the represented and thus betray the people? And in the appeal to the people, is one conjuring up a sovereign constitutive power that, no longer held in reserve, is actively opposed to the constituted powers associated with government institutions? To what degree is one seeking to overturn the institutional mediations that seem to distance the people from the immediacy of what is said to be their will? 

When speaking of a loose symbolic logic, one is referring to tendencies to respond to such questions in certain coherent ways. But whether a given “populist” movement or government so responds very much depends on the context and whether that context supports, and how it supports, such tendencies. This is why it is a fool’s game to define populism empirically in accordance with a delimited set of defining characteristics. 

Crowd of people walking on the street of Moscow. Photo: Anton Gvozdikov

To follow up with Gauchet’s work, how do you understand the difference between “the political” and “politics” and with the rise of populism, how do you explain “the revenge of the political” in terms of the socio-historical dimension? 

The distinction between “the political” (le politique) and “politics” (la politique) is used by other thinkers besides Marcel Gauchet, though often with different nuances. “The political” exists in every society, as every society has to, as it were, establish sufficient distance from itself in order to identify itself as a specific society, to describe and reflect on its order, coherence, and values, and to act on itself as a coherent whole. In pre-modern societies, this place at a distance entails a reference to the divinity or divinities, or some cosmic principle—in short, to a heteronomous power that transcends those humans who live in that society. With modern societies, there is a movement towards establishing an autonomous human power—that is, to individual and collective self-determination.  For Gauchet, this movement is away from all figures of transcendence towards a totally disenchanted world.  

In my view, this claim must be qualified. First, because we still speak of, and indeed argue about, values such as justice or truth that speak to the socio-political order not so much as it is, but as we would like it to be—values that, therefore, transcend society as it presently exists. And second, because the reference to a sovereign people, which exists in the singular and is said to have absolute power (at least within its own frontiers), does not refer to an existing, empirical people. The reference is to a power that is simultaneously above and beneath society, both within and without; within in the sense that it is composed of those who live (and sometimes who have lived or will live) in that society; and without both in the sense that, as a power, it is established less by the people than it establishes the people as a people, and in the sense that it still corresponds to the distance from society presented by “the political.” In this regard, the sovereign people can be said to bear an immanent transcendence; it carries more than a whiff of the sacred. 

The term “politics,” in contrast to “the political,” is deemed exclusive to democracies, both because in democracies power, being autonomous, politics occurs largely “within” society, and because, even as it is “within,” it is only one sphere of activity amongst several, each with its own set of institutional mechanisms and norms. It should be noted that often—though less in the case of Gauchet—“politics” is seen, relative to “the political,” as less oriented towards “transcendent” matters, being more concerned with the often rather dirty struggle for positions of power.  

The expression “the revenge of the political” is Gauchet’s. His argument, which is not without merit, is that in the last fifty years, the economic sphere (with neo-liberalism) and the juridical sphere (with the emphasis on charters of rights) has eclipsed the political, seemingly rendering democratic politics increasingly impotent and irrelevant. Populism appears as a reversal of this situation, as the return of politics with a vengeance. Suddenly the stakes of politics have been raised enormously. But the degree to which populist politics then seeks its revenge on neo-liberal economics and individual rights claims is contestable, at least relative to the United States. Donald Trump’s economic policies could be described as “neo-liberalism in one country,” and his supporters refused to wear masks or socially distance themselves in the name of their individual, constitutionally guaranteed freedoms, effectively blocking a political response to the pandemic, with the tragic results that we are all aware of.

Former US President Donald Trump at rally in support of Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach who is the Republican candidate for governor in Topeka Kansas, USA on October 6, 2018. Photo: Mark Reinstein

The Chances of Populism Returning iEven More Brazen Form in the US Are All the Greater

In this respect, what are the characteristics of American populism that distinguish it from the European brand? 

There are three characteristics that I would like to note:

First, right-wing populism in Europe today appears very much a reaction to (in some cases the threat of) increased immigration, particularly from the Islamic world. In American right-wing populism, the opposition to immigration cannot be separated from America’s original racial divide between whites and blacks (and, to a lesser extent, the indigenous population). Trump’s reference to Mexicans as “murderers and rapists” is a perfect example of condensation, these epithets having been used against blacks for centuries.  Thus, in Europe, populism claims to be preserving Europe from a recent external threat. In the United States, where blacks, not to mention the indigenous populations, have existed on American soil before most whites, one faces a problem that is not recent and cannot simply be projected outwards. The “race problem,” with its dynamics of backlash and what Jeffrey Alexander calls “frontlash,” has dogged the United States from its beginnings. This renders the definition of the people at once more contested and more fraught.

Second, the American right has long traditions of anti-government folk libertarianism, which Trumpism has only exacerbated. This is why, to allude to the previous question, right-wing populism in the United States appears opposed to the welfare state, whereas in Europe, notably Eastern Europe, populist parties have expanded the latter, if selectively, to benefit their supporters. And this is why the response to the pandemic was politicized in the United States in the name of the defense of individual liberties. Trump, who, one must remember, is a germaphobe, made a calculation—which was correct in itself but politically disastrous—that his supporters would balk at mask-wearing and social distancing. Right-wing parties in Europe, by contrast, can draw on much more centralist and openly authoritarian traditions. 

And third, the United States has a two-party system. Until recently, populism appeared limited to third parties (e.g., those of George Wallace or Ross Perot), so it seemed unlikely that it would gain political power. But once one of the two parties became populist, its success could be all the more complete, particularly to the extent that it succeeded in dismantling the system of checks and balances. By contrast, in most of Europe (the exceptions being Hungary and Poland), populist parties can hold government positions, but as part of a multi-party coalition, which neutralizes at least some of their influence. Because the United States remains a two-party system, the chances of populism returning, and returning in even more brazen form, are all the greater. 

“Populist discourse often seems to swing between claims to a more direct democracy and a barely disguised representative despotism.”

Regarding Michel Foucault’s “power and knowledge” approach, where the two were almost echoes of each other, you argue in your recent article for a new approach—namely, “separation of power from knowledge.” How does this separation occur? Could you elucidate it a bit more?

In pre-democratic Europe, monarchic power was modeled, if at a distance, on the divine power, which was said to be all-powerful and all-knowing. In this sense, monarchic power did not separate power from knowledge, and as such, was tasked with maintaining truth—at first, the truth of religion and then the suppression of untruths through censorship. The struggle against the latter by the Enlightenment supposed a different understanding of the relation of truth and power: where truth does not have its source in power; where power does not (or should not) regulate the production of truths; and where, at times, truth should speak to (i.e., oppose) power.

When Michel Foucault sought to bring power and knowledge together, it appeared scandalous, another of his anti-Enlightenment moves. But note that he brought them together not in the visible domain of political power but in the relatively concealed domains where power was hidden by expertise and woven into non-political institutional practices.  

For those interested, I have written two articles with Lorna Weir, in which I discuss Foucault’s claims concerning “knowledge/power” with reference to democracy as a symbolic regime (in European Journal of Social Theory, Vol. 9, No. 4, 2006 and Thesis Eleven, No. 94, 2008). In these articles, we argue that the separation of knowledge and power at a political level is not a “screen” covering over what is really happening, but a condition for, but also a limit on, the sorts of things that Foucault examined.

You also indicate that the separation of power and knowledge cannot be absolute. What makes this separation unstable? 

When one claims that the people are sovereign, the claim is that their power is absolute (within the limits of the nation-state), not that their knowledge is absolute. On the other hand, the claim that the people are absolutely separated from knowledge (i.e., that they are congenitally ignorant and irrational) is an anti-democratic trope. Democratic discourse must defend itself by establishing a weak relation between the people and truth, if only in the longer term, by speaking of some notion of moral virtue, common sense, or public opinion, often attached to some pedagogical project.

Even populism claims that the people understand the truth, the truth of who they are, and what is required to preserve their sense of themselves and their well-being. Thus, if the people claim something to be true (e.g., that crime rates are rising despite data demonstrating the contrary), then something must be taken as if true. There is another, more practical reason why the separation cannot be absolute, though it applies not to the people but their representatives. If they are to be at all effective with regard to their ends, the latter must have some knowledge of the environment in which they are acting. Again, even Donald Trump, despite his apparent disdain for much scientific expertise, listens very carefully to one set of experts, those who are versed in the “techne” of winning elections.  The Cambridge Analytica affair, which supposed a sophisticated knowledge of psychological modeling, as well as the digital world, was a demonstration of how far right-wing populism is willing to go in this direction.

Authoritarian Leaders Appear Less Intent on Speaking the Truth

In explaining the fusion of power and knowledge under monarchic regimes, you state that “representation renders present what it represents” to point to how representation itself shapes and gives meaning and form to the real world. So, “what is represented” loses its positive existence, and “representation” becomes the only reference point. Do you think such a fusion of power and knowledge can serve a new modern and secular form of apotheosis of the representative leader? I mean the authoritarian-leaning leaders that remain or expected to remain in power for life with nearly unlimited powers and turn into a kind of savior “god-king” in the eyes of the supporters since they are the ones not necessarily representing divinity like the monarchs of the middle ages but becoming reality itself and speaking “the truth” in spite of the establishment. 

When stating that “representation renders present what it represents,” I have in mind, amongst other things, the concept of sovereignty, including popular sovereignty. The latter does not represent that which already exists independent of its representation; it refers to the people’s symbolic, not its empirical, existence. Thus, it is wrong to think that such representation is exclusive to democracies. But in democracies, if we follow Claude Lefort’s discussion of “the empty place of power,” the political representative can never fully embody the place of power held by the sovereign people.

The question here, however, concerns secular, non-democratic forms of power. In the totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century, the leaders sought a fusion of knowledge and power but had to seek their knowledge in this world, that is, in representations that represent what is present in the real world, in this case, the laws of history, whether given by a “racial science” or by “scientific materialism.” (Xi Jinping in this regard claims a form of such fusion, as his thought is now capitalized and incorporated in the Constitution of the Chinese Communist Party and mentioned in the preamble of the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China).  The problem, of course, is that, in the end, actual events tend to give the lie to the sciences that claimed to know and master them.

Aleksandr Dugin, Russian political analyst, strategist and philosopher, in a press conference in Bucharest in 2017.

It is noteworthy that the populisms of the “post-truth” era appear to oppose science and scientific truths rather than claiming to speak in the name of a superior (pseudo-)science.  Today’s authoritarian leaders appear less intent on speaking the truth, at least relative to an external reality, than one undercutting not just claims concerning reality that they see as threatening—they seek to undercut the very existence of that reality as a horizon of possible knowledge. One thinks of the title of Peter Pomerantsev’s book, Nothing is Real and Everything is Possible: The Surreal Heart of the New Russia. Whether such a strategy is possible in the long term is another matter. Even Putin references, at least for local consumption, the neo-fascist, Aleksandr Dugin, who sought to revive the notion of an “eternal Russia” as the third Rome.

You argue that Ernesto Laclau’s concept of a “constitutive outside” obscures the arbitrariness of the populist representation, and you criticize his singular emphasis on political rhetoric and disregard of populists’ truth claims, such as the definition of the “real people” and “the enemy.” How do you think the representatives’ truth claims shape the relation of the people to the truth?  

The problem is not with Ernesto Laclau’s idea of a “constitutive outside,” which implies that the meaning of a term is given by its relations with other terms. And Laclau is quite aware that a “constitutive outside” introduces a degree of arbitrariness in a term’s meaning, as the latter changes with a change in that outside. The problem is that the “constitutive outside” is understood in terms of simplified semiotics based on binary oppositions, such that the “constitutive outside” appears opposed, and thus as a threat, to the “constituted inside.” In other words, the sense of “the people” is defined by its enemies, and if one wants to change that sense, one can find new enemies. What Laclau does not state is that when the “inside” is constituted by its enemies, the sense of the “inside” hardens and thus loses its arbitrariness, at least in appearance.  

A more complex semiotics would understand meaning as given “diacritically,” but that implies only a web of differential terms. Canadians define themselves as “not-Americans” without seeing Americans as their enemies. At the same time, Canadians see themselves relative to other peoples, as well as in relation to values that they are supposed to have, geo-historical adaptations they are supposed to have made, traditions they are supposed to keep, and so on. It is all really quite complex, fluid, and subject to constant questioning and revision. Of course, if Canadians were single-mindedly focused on an enemy, as in times of war, the sense of being Canadian would be simplified, not to say rigidified, and all questioning would be discouraged. Populism often entails a focus on an enemy for precisely these reasons. 

For Laclau, politics is about the formation of a people, that is, the formation of its identity as a people, and in the manner just criticized. In truth, most of the time, politics is not about the identity of a people but about different policy options. Most Canadian elections are not about who we are as Canadians, certainly not directly. Politics is only about the identity of a people when that identity is (or is made to appear) under threat and cannot, therefore, be backgrounded. In seeking to foreground the appeal to the people, to its identity as a people, populism often exploits such a sense of threat.  

Populism often claims an identity between the people and their representatives, but a complete identity would render one of the two terms redundant, either the representatives (as the people could speak directly) or the people (as the voice of the representatives would be the more than adequate substitute for the voices of the people).” 

Still, Populism Is Not Able to Entirely Fill the Place of Power

In this context, could you also clarify how we should understand the interplay between “the empty place of power” and the populist claim of appealing to the people

When Lefort claimed that democracy implies an “empty place of power,” he meant that those who held power, the powerholders, held it only under the sufferance of the people who may well decide in an election to “throw the bastards out.” Suppose the people, as the sovereign, can be said to hold the ultimate power. In that case, the representation of their power is necessarily uncertain, as the people and the will of the people are “introuvable” and “immaîtrisable”—that is, they can never really be determined (both because it is divided and changeable) and thus can never be mastered. 

Brazil President Jair Bolsonaro poses with anti riot police agents after cast their ballot in Rio de Janeiro on Nov. 29, 2020.

The loose symbolic logic of populism seeks to reduce the emptiness of the place of power without, I would argue, being able to fill it entirely. This requires two moves. First, a move to lessen the indetermination of the people, such that the identity of the people, its purported character, appears more determinate. This often entails a rhetorical division of the people into those who are the real, genuine, or authentic people and those who are not. The second movement concerns the reduction of the division between the people’s representatives and the people themselves. Populism often claims an identity between the people and their representatives. However, a complete identity would render one of the two terms redundant, either the representatives (as the people could speak directly) or the people (as the voice of the representatives would be the more than adequate substitute for the voices of the people).

Thus, populist discourse often seems to swing between claims to a more direct democracy and a barely disguised representative despotism. And when a populist movement is clearly identified with its leader, there is a tendency to suppress divisions, not just between the representatives and the represented, but divisions within the representatives and within the people—divisions that ensure the “openness” that is characteristic of a functioning democracy. Still, populism cannot entirely fill the place of power, at least in so far as the populist leader can still be overturned in an election and cannot embody the will of the divine, the principles of truth or justice, the laws of history, and so on. 

Then it comes to the question of the relationship between populism and post-truth politics?

Populism has been described as having a “thin ideology.” Beyond the claim that there is a crisis of political representation, which opposes the people to their political (and other) elites, the definition of populism requires no other content. Of course, any given populist movement may borrow an ideology (Chavez in Venezuela borrowed from socialist ideology, Bolsonaro in Brazil draws from the ideology of the military dictatorship of the late sixties and seventies). Ideology supposes a relation to truth, the truth of an external reality, though one whose relation is distorted, as ideology seeks to justify a given socio-political order and its corresponding power. 

But to the extent that populism entails a “thin” ideology or, possibly, no ideology, its relation to the truth of external reality can be dramatically diminished. For the only truth with which it is concerned is that of its appeal to the people, to its sense of identity, and to the symbolic wounds that nourish this sense of identity. And such an appeal can be powerful in a very literal sense, for it conjures up the sovereign, the power at the base of all power. Now, note that this appeal “renders present what it represents,” that is, it presents its own truth, at least to the extent that it resonates with those to whom it appeals—such resonance being precisely the measure of its veracity. In effect, one is dealing with a performative truth, one that can ignore or oppose the facts when the latter appears contrary to the truths that this people claims for itself. Indeed, given the fragility of the identity of the people, opposing the facts that threaten it cannot but appear to strengthen its truth claim.

Having said this is a form of “post-truth politics,” how can democratic societies fight against conspiracy theories that, as you stated, present the world as totally opaque but potentially totally transparent? 

There is a sense in which one cannot fight against conspiracy theories, particularly what Muirhead and Rosenblum (in A Lot of People are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy) characterize as contemporary conspiracist theories, which thrive on mere assertion and repetition — these theories too are, in a sense, performative. One cannot argue with claims that, by virtue of their refusal, both facts and any logical criteria cannot be disproved. And attempts at the regulation of social media and the public sphere more generally, however desirable, will have only limited effects and can potentially be quite dangerous. 

More promising, at least in the middle to long term, would be efforts to improve civic education (thus providing greater political literacy regarding democratic institutions, their strengths, but also their weaknesses). And such education should examine how to judge the validity of an argument, realizing that arguments can be more or less true and some conspiracies are genuine. Still, the problem with contemporary conspiracism is not primarily epistemological but “psycho-social.” In this respect, there are certain things that one should not do, such as rub salt in the symbolic wounds. Attempting to demonstrate to people that they are deluded, ignorant, immoral, racist, etc., is liable only to cause them to double down, as such demonstration only threatens an already embattled and fragile sense of self. In truth, conspiracy theories bear on a more general topic. 

Claude Lefort spoke of democracy as dissolving the markers of certitude. Sometimes and for some people, the degree of uncertainty appears, or is made to appear, unbearable, particularly when things are not just going one’s way, but when they no longer appear to make sense, leaving one feeling totally alienated and disoriented—“a stranger in one’s own land.” This is when matters appear totally opaque, and one reaches for the magic formula that would render them entirely transparent. A functioning democracy is one that enables and, indeed, teaches people to live with a certain level of uncertainty. This, however, supposes that they also live with a level of certainty sufficient to allow them to believe that they can work and struggle for a better future. 

“At the level of political form, populism tends to exploit democracy’s symbolic resources to the point of their possible implosion, potentially resulting in a transition towards either authoritarian forms of political rule or increasing ungovernability, even civil war.” 

Is it correct to demonize populism at all? Isn’t there any argument that populist movements truly raise? For instance, almost all populist movements claim to speak on behalf of “the people” rather than “ruling elites” and “bureaucrats,” as this argument intrigues the masses. And the record of ruling elites so far is not so promising all around the world. 

Populism supposes a crisis in political representation, which often reflects a larger, “organic crisis.” In this respect, it is a response to a failure, or a perceived failure, of the ruling elites and their policies. Populism today, both in its right and left-wing versions, is generally a response to the failures of neoliberalism and globalization. Of course, a response can be progressive or regressive. Here, I believe, one must distinguish between political content (the different policy options) and political form (which plays at the level of what I am terming “loose symbolic logics”).  

Bolivian president Evo Morales participates in the traditional Aymara New Year ceremony in Tiwanaku, Bolivia on June 21, 2019. Photo: Radoslaw Czajkowski

As populism is “thin,” it can deploy very different political contents, some of which may be progressive. The People’s Party in late nineteenth-century America prepared the way for the Progressivism of the early twentieth century; the classical Latin American populism of Peron in Argentina and Vargas in Brazil, but also of Morales and MAS in Bolivia (to take a more contemporary example) certainly improved on the oligarchical regimes that preceded them.

My argument is that, at the level of political form, populism tends to exploit democracy’s symbolic resources to the point of their possible implosion, potentially resulting in a transition towards either authoritarian forms of political rule or increasing ungovernability, even civil war. This is less likely to happen when the populist movement arises from the bottom up and retains both its internal divisions and a critical distance relative to its leaders. Such was the case with the original People’s Party and, it would seem, Bolivia’s MAS, assuming it succeeds in sidelining Evo Morales. 

“We are living in a period where the future appears in crisis.  Contemporary right-wing populist movements play on this, presenting a vague reference to a better past, with few concrete policies to confront the problems posed by the future as, to quote Hartmut Rosa, conservatives no longer believe in conservation, liberals in progress, and the left in the Revolution.”

There Are Convincing Ways to Fight Populism

A handful of scholars and a small number of NGOs that favor a free world strive to fight against rising populism despairingly. Their outreach efforts do not appear to resonate among the masses since populist movements are discrediting “elites.” Do you think a convincing way to fight populism exists?

There are, to be sure, convincing ways to fight populism, as evidenced by the fact that populist movements and governments often suffer defeat, most recently in the United States. Here I would emphasize two points. First, one needs to struggle to maintain the integrity of democratic institutions. Donald Trump’s attempt to overturn the results of the last election only failed because members of the Republican Party in key states and key positions chose to defend democracy as a set of rules and processes over the wishes of their party’s leaders. These people are presently being purged, even as the parties in Republican states are seeking to change the rules of democratic functioning. This is extremely worrying. At the same time, I realize that elections are generally not won at the level of the defense of seemingly arcane democratic norms.  

Second, one must acknowledge the failures that led to the rise of populism while offering alternative and ultimately more credible solutions. This often requires a critique of earlier policies and of those who advocated them; it may entail the rise of new parties or at least a considerable circulation of elites. We are living in a period where the future appears in crisis. Contemporary right-wing populist movements play on this, presenting a vague reference to a better past, with few concrete policies to confront the problems posed by the future as, to quote Hartmut Rosa, conservatives no longer believe in conservation, liberals in progress, and the left in the Revolution.  

Trumpism, in particular, seems to present itself as a sort of survivalism (both individual and collective) in the face of an increasingly dangerous world. The alternative must reconstruct a vision of a future, a better future, one that brings us together. The alternative must also reconstruct the institutions that enable us to feel not just that the future is being reconstructed but that we can actively contribute to that reconstruction.

You argue that the division in knowledge—I mean the differences between the “instrumental” knowledge of the representatives of people and the “substantive” knowledge held by the people—is a potential point of vulnerability for populists. What do you think is the best way to widen and make use of this division in knowledge for the fight against populism?

Nobody likes to feel that they have been hoodwinked, particularly by politicians. But some have invested more in the con than others and will find it easier to divest themselves of its more fantastic elements (which they never really believed in). However, they may still remain with the party because everyone they know identifies with the party, and they hate the alternative.

On the other hand, for those who reveled in—and felt empowered by—the con, it takes a particular inner strength to admit one was blind to what was going on. In this regard, what is happening to the right-wing militias in the aftermath of the invasion of the Capitol on January 6, 2021, is illuminating. Clearly, many now feel that they have been duped: the fantasies of QAnon proved to be just that, fantasies; the politicians in whose names they felt were acting ultimately condemned them, however ambivalently; they now feel exposed to the “deep state’s” retribution; and in the case of the Proud Boys, there are doubts about the loyalty of their leader.

As a result, some are clearly drifting away, and one can imagine that a few of these will find careers as “deprogrammers” of hate groups. However, some are reinvesting themselves in the same sorts of narratives, but without, as it were, the semblance of an official stamp of approval. In other words, they are fragmenting, moving further underground, and dreaming ever more desperately of the Great Reckoning. One can use this division in knowledge between instrumental and “substantive” forms—and between the representatives and whom they represent—to fight populism, but the results will not always be happy.

Who Is Brian C.J. Singer?

Professor Brian C. J. Singer is a Senior Scholar at Glendon College, York University in Toronto. He is the author of several books and of numerous book chapters and articles. Singer’s first book, Society, Theory and the French Revolution(1986), presents a fascinating reading of the period of the French Revolution (1789 –94) that sheds new light on the revolutionary imaginary of the period and its heritage. His most recent book, Montesquieu and the Discovery of the Social(2013) offers a new reading of Montesquieu’s The Spirit of the Laws. It uncovers the multiple ways “the world’s first social theorist” defined and used “the social” and the important implications of Montesquieu’s work for our own time. This interview mentions an article of his that recently appeared in Thesis Eleven on March 9, 2021.