Pope Francis warm welcomed by the people of Kurdistan in Northern Iraq, during his visit in Erbil on March 7, 2021.

The Pastoral Populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani

The pastoral populism of Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 

By Lydia Khalil*

In 2015, Pope Francis delivered his Easter message in the midst of the global effort to reclaim territory from the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq, a proxy war in the region and the height of the refugee crisis. In his address in St Peters Square, he prayed for “all those who suffer injustice as a result of ongoing conflicts and violence” and that the “international community not stand by before the immense humanitarian tragedy unfolding.” His prayers were not answered in 2015 as the international community did turn away from the suffering in Syria. Yet, his commitment to the region did not wane; he made multiple pastoral visits to the Middle East since and a pastoral visit to Iraq, becoming the first pope to do so. The papal visit to Iraq in the midst of pandemic and ongoing instability was done at great risk but it was heralded as a successful and significant emissarial mission to bear witness to the suffering and advocate for the rights and safety of Iraq’s beleaguered Christian minority and advance interreligious cooperation. 

 

Amid the footage of joyful celebration welcoming Pope Francis to Iraq, emerged a playful Twitter post by historian Vefa Erginbas. He posted a picture of the Pontiff’s meeting with the Grand Ayatollah Sistani showing the two leaders dressed in respective black and white robes sitting opposite each other in Sistani’s sparse home and posed the question – “What are they talking about? Wrong answers only…” Among the many quips was one that stood out  –“How are neither of us chess pieces?” If global politics is, like its often described, a chess game, then the playful remark on their contrasting robes, was an appropriate metaphor for the role that Pope Francis and Ayatollah Sistani – the black and white bishops – have played in reorienting politics to address the needs of masses and promote a new kind of populism – a pastoral populism.  

The meeting between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis is likely to be the only direct encounter between the two. Sayed Sistani is 90 years old and does not leave his home. The Pope is in his 80s and unlikely to return to Iraq. But even this one meeting was a consequential move, in that it revealed that they are working concurrently to promote a version of populism rooted in the morality of their respective faith traditions that focuses on the needs of the masses. There are 1.2 billion Catholics and Shia make up almost 200 million of the Muslim faithful. Through their moral and spiritual leadership, they have signalled to their followers and exhorted politicians in government, not only to lead, but to care and administer. As the statement issued by Sistani’s office on the meeting signalled, the encounter between Ayatollah Sistani and Pope Francis was to “urge the concerned parties – especially those with great powers – to prioritize reason and wisdom and not to promote their self-interest over the rights of the people to live in freedom and dignity.”   

Pope Francis’ Relationship to Populism

To fully appreciate the significance of their meeting and their complimentary notions of pastoral populism, it helps to understand the background that each of them brought to the board. When the Jesuit Pope took the name Francis, he went in a conspicuously different direction than his predecessor. He aligned himself with the legacy of St Francis of Assisi, which emphasises mercy for the sinner, administering to the poor, protection of nature and eschewing power and political status. Vatican commentator and author, John L Allen, observed that in taking his name, the Pope wedded the institutional church with the charismatic, populist tradition of St Francis of Assisi whereas previously they had been distinct spheres of the Catholic tradition. Like his namesake, Pope Francis has repeatedly called on the world to ‘hear the cry of the poor’ and the suffering; to put the common good and human dignity before disposable consumerist and utilitarian tendencies that dominate our post-capitalist systems. He has placed pastoral care above theological professionalism and has stood down criticism for doing so from the conservative, right flank of the Catholic church while rebuilding the Catholic church in his image.  

In harkening St Francis and through his latest encyclical – Fratelli Tutti – which he completed a few months before his Iraq sojourn and published on the saint’s feast day – Pope Francis uses that opportunity to outline an alternative pastoral populism which focuses on fraternity and pastoral style of leadership. Dr. Anna Rowlands, a professor of religion at Durham University, and one of the panellists who presented the Fratelli Tutti encyclical, makes a compelling point about the Pope’s relationship to populism and how he provides a convincing rebuttal to the forces of violent nationalism and xenophobia that often accompanies it. “He gets populism. He gets what is the drive toward it and he rescues the notion of what it means to be ‘a people’ from the hands of the [far right] populists…” The Pope has done this by identifying the insecurity and fear that drives support for far-right populists while offering an alternative framework with which to address that insecurity and fear.

Sayed Sistani’s Expansive and Pastoral Type of Populism

Sayed Sistani has symbolised and advanced a similarly expansive and pastoral type of populism within Shiism and within Middle East. The cleric, who has rented the same, sparse home in old Najaf, has also voiced the needs of the poor and marginalised and has consistently provided a counter narrative to sectarianism by encouraging temperance and unity amid Iraq’s ongoing tumultuous political transition. 

In his analysis of Sistani’s role in Iraq’s early transition to democracy, Babak Rahimi, a specialist in medieval and modern Islamic history, writes that within his Shiite Quietist tradition, Sistani could have remained completely aloof from politics while still retaining his credibility and authority. Instead, as Rahimi argues, during a time of “perceived moral decadence, political corruption, great injustice, or foreign occupation, he can become more active in political affairs by engaging in activities such as consultation, guidance, and even the promotion of sacred norms in public life.” Sistani did this time and again over the past two decades. He insisted that Iraq’s post Baathist constitution be ratified by popular vote. He urged Iraqis to vote in elections despite a deep disenchantment with the political class. He called on Iraqis to combat the Islamic State through popular militias when the state security forces fell apart in the face of the onslaught. And he rebuked many of those forces when they became Iranian proxies and perpetrated sectarian violence. 

Though Sistani’s profile in the Western world has increased after the US invasion of Iraq, the lay person could be forgiven for not knowing the true extent of his religious standing and influence. Because the fraught history and ongoing political tensions between the United States and Iran, Shi’ism in the Western imagination is most associated with the Iranian theocracy and their militant enforcers the IRGC and other Iranian backed militias throughout the Middle East, especially in Lebanon, Syria, Afghanistan and indeed Iraq. 

Yet Ayatollah Sistani is one of the most revered and influential leaders in the Muslim world and he and his allies have a theological position on the role of religion in government that  stands in contrast to the Iranian ayatollahs who established velayet-e faqih – rule by Islamic jurists – after the fall of the Shah of Iran. Sistani, who claims lineage from Prophet Muhammad and is a link in a long chain of clerics dating back to the Safavid dynasty, has arguably more religious credentials and moral authority than Iran’s Ali Khamenei. Even though we hear more about Iranian regional manoeuvres and their influence over the Shia Crescent, Sistani’s followers are by no means limited to Iraq. They span millions over the Shia world as his foundation sponsors seminaries and social programs in Iraq, Iran, Pakistan, Afghanistan and elsewhere. As important as he is to Iraq, his influence expands much wider; millions of Shia Muslims around the world turn to Sistani for daily guidance on how to live their lives.  

Sistani Offers an Alternative Vision of the Role of Religion

The 2003 Iraq war and its aftermath may have eliminated a geostrategic counterweight to Iran through the removal of Saddam Hussein and provided the opportunity for Iranian influence in Iraq. However, it had the opposite effect when it came to religious influence within Shia Islam between Qom and Najaf. Under Saddam’s rule, Sistani remained under house arrest and his influence stifled. The removal of Saddam Hussein meant that the Najafi cleric had more space to promote his own interpretation of the role of religion in governance counter to the Iran’s vision that both religious and political authority be enacted in the same body. Sistani offers a viable alternative vision of the role of religion to governance among the Shia faithful.  

In contrast to the Iranian clerics, Sistani’s authority does not come from his position as an authoritarian jurist. Rather, as leader of the Hawza in Najaf, Sistani represents the ‘quietest’ school of Shia politics and acts instead as a moral authority that does not necessarily seek to endow himself with political power. Even though Sistani and the Hawza rejects the Iranian model of velayet-e faqih and eschews a role in politics, has had to, reluctantly perhaps, fashion some role for himself during Iraq’s tumultuous political transition. Iraqi authorities remain beholden to him and his influence and he has used this influence to robustly defend the interests of the Shia Muslim community by holding political authorities to account and has done so in contrast to Iranian-backed Iraqi parties by pushing back against, instead of inflaming, sectarian tendencies.   

Like Pope Francis’ unanswered prayers for international intervention to stem the human suffering in Syria, on sectarianism, Sistani has not been entirely successful. Despite his calls for unity after the 2006 al-Askari Shrine bombing, his exhortation could not contain the civil war that followed. However, he remains a powerful and decisive force in Iraq’s political transition and healing from civil war. Sayed Sistani has, repeatedly, served as the last bulwark, in Iraq’s descent into sectarianism and civil conflict. As Iraq has lurched from crisis to crisis, and corrupt government to inept government, Sistani has played an important and unifying role. And he has done so with an eye of protecting the interests of the masses – particularly his Shia faithful – but while also linking the Shia struggle with a comprehensive vision for human dignity and solidarity across sects. This is not only the result of Sistani as an individual religious leader. It is also the result of the longstanding stance of the Hawza institutionally.

In 2019, Iraq, like other countries in the region, was engulfed in a second wave of popular protests that were met with the predictable government crackdowns. Sistani came down on the side of the popular protesters which ultimately led to the Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi’s resignation. He rebuked, once again, the political class that has maintained its power and privilege through corruption and their exploitation of the informal sectarian based quota system and their ties to Iran. Sistani’s removed intervention via his Friday sermon siding with the popular protests for dignity and economic opportunity signalled a similar approach to Pope Francis’ populism one that, as he said, “does not give an unfair advantage to current political parties, but gives a real opportunity to change the forces that have ruled the country.”

Their Pastoral Populism Focuses on the Long Game

In their separate yet similar ways, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani have articulated a pastoral populism grounded in their respective religious traditions. Their coming together is all the more consequential because both faith leaders provide models for how religion can be a force in politics and do so in contrast to, not only far right politicians in the West and corrupt authoritarian political elites in the Middle East, but the more reactionary strains within their own religious communities that have traditionally served the powerful. They have offered alternative visions to, respectively, the Catholic Right aligned with conservative far-right politics and Iranian political theocracy based on velayat-e faqih or government via Islamic jurists, both of which are more concerned with politicising and policing social norms or wielding political influence to advance their narrow interests. Their version of populism serves as a rebuttal to the recent variety of far-right populism founded on xenophobia, anti-elitism, crisis thinking and ‘bad manners’  that bombarded us from the likes of populist leaders Trump, Bolsonaro, Orban and Duterte. They are not merely ‘moderate’ leaders that preach temperance and tolerance but rather a different, more substantial vision.  

Crucially, they do not seek for religion to supplant politics, but rather insist on holding governments to account in pursuit of the common good – a different approach to other modern religious leaders who either attempt to displace the state or co-opt it in service of the religious hierarchies’ narrow interests. Sayed Sistani and Pope Francis both have an intuitive understanding that engaging with politics but not holding political power is the key to their effective advocacy for the masses. Pope Francis, in his second encyclical Laudito Si, subtitled ‘the care for the common good,’ clearly stated that “the Church does not presume to settle scientific questions or to replace politics. But I am concerned to encourage an honest and open debate so that particular interests or ideologies will not prejudice the common good.”

Similarly – Sistani views himself as a guide only. His insistence to be remove from the state is all the more significant given the power vacuum that arose after the deposition of Saddam Hussein which Sistani could been filled or becoming an overbearing influence who only advances Shia interests. Instead, Sistani continually insisted that Iraq’s momentous issues be worked through the transitional and political process and pleaded the case for the rule of law, anti-sectarianism and broader Iraqi national identity.  

Through their lived history, their similar view of the role religion should play in politics and their complementary vision of pastoral populism, they have played a role true to their metaphorical chess piece – the bishop. A ‘good bishop’ in chess – is one who has freedom of movement and is thus better able to protect its pawns and can often help win the game. The bishop is also used most effectively in conjunction with other pieces when playing the long game. Their pastoral populism focuses on the long game. It is a political and religious outlook that pushes the state to have a moral relationship with the masses- to address their needs through state social welfare, competent governance, instead of focusing on the interests of the powerful, to heal our ailing, unequal world. It is a populism, buttressed by deep theological traditions. As bishops do, Pope Francis and Sayed Sistani were able to cut across the board, making strong diagonal trajectories from the West and East, to advocate for a coordinated role between religion and politics to protect both pawns and kings. 


(*) LYDIA KHALIL is a Research Fellow in the West Asia Program at the Lowy Institute and manages the Lowy Institute’s core partnership with the Global Network on Extremism & Technology. She is also currently a research associate at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Institute and a fellow with the Centre for Resilient & Inclusive Societies. She has professional background in politics, international relations and security has focused on US national security policy, Middle East politics, counterterrorism and intelligence. She was international affairs fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations in New York where she analysed political and security trends in the Middle East. She also served as a political advisor for the US Department of Defence in Iraq. In Australia, Lydia held fellowships with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and Macquarie University, specialising in intelligence, national security and cyber security.

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.

Marine and Jean-Marie Le Pen rallied during the meeting for the celebration of May 1, 2011 in Paris, France. Photo: Frederic Legrand

Right-wing Populism in the Swedish, Greek, and French News Media

At a virtual meeting of the ECPS on March 16, 2021, the scholars Marianna Patrona and Joanna Thornborrow presented findings from an international research project. Their findings warn  journalists that neutrality is not always an effective measure of good reporting. In the fight against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, the mainstream press should proactively promote the content of democratic values.

By Gabriela de Oliveira Carneiro 

At a virtual meeting of the European Centre for Populism Studies (ECPS) on March 16, 2021, the scholars Marianna Patrona and Joanna Thornborrow presented data and findings from the international research project entitled Right-wing Populism in the News Media: A Cross-Cultural Study of Journalist Practices and News Discourse funded by the Swedish Research Council. 

The main research question centred on the challenge facing journalists as they try to balance disparate concerns while reporting on scandalous speech by right-wing populists (RWP). Based on a qualitative discourse-analytic approach, Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow examined key aspects of the discursive framing of undemocratic, racist, homophobic and otherwise scandalous speech by right-wing populists in European news reports, collected between 2014 and 2018. The issue is how these frameworks can contribute to the processes of normalizing populist discourse and agendas.

The authors presented case studies from current, ethically problematic speeches by radical right-wing politicians and their mediated representations in print, online, and broadcast news media from Sweden, Greece, and France. The main analytical aspects in the news were: blaming the actors and/or political parties responsible for the scandals; journalistic evaluation through the language constructed in the news (explicit/implicit); and aspects of the foregrounding and backgrounding—that is, was more emphasis placed on the conflict itself or on its moral content.

The Swedish case, presented by Marianna Patrona, shows the press reaction to a November 26, 2017 speech by local politician Martim Strid (of the Sweden Democrats – SD), in which Strid railed against Muslims. According to Patrona, the Akktuelt News Group reported the controversial statement and journalistic commentary that framed the event as a clear moral transgression, comparing the content of Strid’s statement to the Nazis. Moreover, the selection of quotes condemning relevant political actors in headlines, news articles, reports and political commentaries reflects the important work of journalistic evaluation. For Patrona, media coverage helped to highlight the unequivocal culpability of a politician, while highlighting the broader values of the SD. This served as an opportunity for the SD to demonstrate a zero-tolerance policy toward anti-democratic views and the discursive inclusion of the party in a political culture of democratic and legitimate debate.

Patrona also analysed an incident from Greece: reporting on a homophobic speech made by Konstantinos Katisics, MP of ANEL and member of SYRYZA-ANEL in 2018. During a parliamentary debate over a bill that would allow same-sex couples to become foster parents, Katisics equated homosexuality with pedophilia: “Love of pedophilia is a crime, why should homosexuality be any different?” The MP’s declaration provoked widespread public outcry. He was called to account on radio and television. On the “Good Morning Greece” (ATN1 channel) program, the MP was called to explain himself; from the beginning, the hosts framed the interview controversy of legitimacy: “We have many phone calls that agree and many phone calls that disagree.” Throughout the interview, Patrona’s analysis shows that the focus was on the conflicting styles between Katisics and his peers—and not on the homophobic content. The politician was given many opportunities on several occasions to reinterpret his homophobic statement and thus dismissing all charges.

Joanna Thornborrow presented about a scandalous comment overheard by a journalist in France. During a pre-campaign cocktail hour in Marseille, ahead of parliamentary elections in May 2014, the former leader of the National Front, Jean Marie Le Pen was overheard talking with other party members about the population explosion in Africa. At the time, he said that France was “submerged” by immigration and that “Monsignor Ebola can sort that out in three months.” According to Thornborrow, the racist and anti-democratic statement was presented in a neutral manner by journalists in most of the subsequent stories, including two major national daily headlines which ran it as breaking news. It was reproduced in direct quotes or speech attributed to the politician, with no journalistic evaluation of the content. Like Katisics’s case in Greece, when JM Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, was asked about the topic at Des Paroles et des Actes, interviewers allowed her to blame the press (…) “who have totally taken his words out of context …”

Following Thornborrow, neutral media positioning on JM Le Pen’s racist comment contributes to marginalize the FN; allows the party’s leadership, Marine Le Pen, to blame the media for being biased towards the party and against “the French people”; and enables the reinterpretation of racist discourse and its dissemination across digital media, rousing FN supporters.

Based on the evidence from the three case studies, the researchers concluded that there are three journalistic practices with regards to normalizing RWP speech: 1) neutral and non-evaluative reporting; 2) the media’s propensity to frame extremist discourse as a conflict narrative, without considering the ethical limits of racist and homophobic anti-democratic discourse; 3) the “scandalous” framing, giving free publicity to right-wing populist leaders without any ethical criticism of their undemocratic stances.

Ekström, Patrona, and Thornborrow’s findings warn academics and journalists that neutrality is not always an effective measure of good reporting. In the fight against racism, xenophobia, and homophobia, the mainstream press should proactively promote the content of democratic values.

Man buying The Guardian newspaper from press kiosk with Braking news from Theresa May British Prime Minister "Brexit delayed two years" in Paris on September 25, 2017.

The Populist Hype and “the Mainstreaming of the Far Right”

Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon’s findings indicate that the populist hype has had three critical effects on the public discourse of populism: It obscures the media’s agenda-setting power and deflects the responsibility away from media, elites, and political actors; euphemizes the racist ideas and figures, muddies the meaning of populism; and gives disproportionate coverage to the far-right actors and amplifies their influence.

By Erdem Kaya

The scholars Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon made a remarkable presentation on the unintended adverse effects of the overuse of the term “populism” in the media, academic publications, and policy speeches at a virtual meeting of the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) on March 6, 2021. Brown and Mondon presented their findings in their recently published article “Populism, the media, and the mainstreaming of the far right: The Guardian’s coverage of populism as a case study” calling for a “more critical and careful use” of populism both as a descriptive term and a social science concept. 

Brown and Mondon use a mixed-method discursive analysis based on both quantitative data and qualitative insights and take The Guardian’s investigative series on populism from November 20, 2018 to November 20, 2019 as the case study. The authors explore how populism has been hyped in elite discourse and illustrate how this constructed hype has informed the respective public discourse. Their findings indicate that the populist hype has had three critical effects on the public discourse of populism. It obscures the media’s agenda-setting power and deflects the responsibility away from media, elites, and political actors. It also euphemizes the racist ideas and figures, muddies the meaning of populism, and gives disproportionate coverage to the far-right actors and amplifies their influence. 

Katy Brown and Aurelien Mondon made a presentation on the adverse effects of the overuse of the term “populism” in the media, academic publications, and policy speeches at a virtual meeting of the ECPS on March 6, 2021.

Brown and Mondon’s study exposes how the centrist parties abuse the “populist” threat and how their targeting the “populist” actors further disguises the subtle racism and xenophobia in the status quo. The study shows how the indiscriminate use of the concept of populism serves the far right’s search for a destigmatized image as well as how the editorial mistakes in media enable the far-right politicians to platform their ideas. The authors highlight that the populist hype emanated from such pervasive and uncritical uses of the term facilitates the legitimization and mainstreaming of the far-right figures and ideas. They do not argue for “the complete withdrawal of the term” but, referring to Cas Mudde’s earlier warnings, suggest a more careful and critical use of it. 

Brown and Mondon’s study draws attention to the implications of the hype in using the populist epithet for the far right. The populist hype stands for an evident causal factor in their research. However, the way and the context in which they measure the implications of this hype over the legitimization and the mainstreaming of the far right require further attention. Considering the exponential growth of the usage of the term in the last half-century and the overall rightward shift in politics in the West during the last thirty years, and against the backdrop of the ramped-up tension between global capitalism and national politics in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis, determining the causality may not be a straightforward task. 

As the authors put it, the lack of care in the pervasive usage of the term produces palatable depictions of racist ideas and turns populism into a weasel word. However, the increased frequency, the vagueness and the pervasiveness of the term are not necessarily tantamount to a legitimizing effect. Or, the fact that The Guardian’s investigative series do not represent an objective coverage of a political phenomenon and the argument that the series cannot be taken as independent of the power structures that influence the development of the public discourse on populism are not sufficient grounds to establish the causation for the legitimacy and mainstreaming of the far right.  

Likewise, although the association of populism with illiberalism deflects attention away from “populism” and implicit racism within the centrist political structures, it may not generate a legitimizing or mainstreaming effect. Depending on the context, associating populism with illiberalism or placing the populist actors as outside liberal democracy may strengthen the centre but can also raise the expected awareness. So, the unintended consequences of using the concept of populism may not entirely negate the intended consequences. For especially the cases in which the populist parties in power, speaking truth to power and naming the populist demagogue -without attributing harmlessness to the far-right ideas- are not worthless.  

As Brown and Mondon point out, the populist hype is not all about emitting “a positive or ambiguous light” on the concept of populism. They do not treat the full coverage of populism in The Guardian as problematic. They also do not deny that there is a “generally negative slant” in the overall usage of the term. So, whether the extensive use of the term populism or the lack of care in the use of the term facilitates the move rightwards in European politics and the mainstreaming of the far right is disputable. Populism, as a political style or a floating signifier, still has a negative connotation, while far-right political actors tend to stick with populist rhetoric to expand their voting base. But, even though the far-right groups receive undue coverage, the influence of the coverage of populism in totality might even be the other way around. 

Brown and Mondon’s study avoids selection bias to a large extent by adopting The Guardian—a left-liberal leaning newspaper—as its case study. However, further research is needed to establish a sound causal connection between the populist hype in elite discourse and the mainstreaming of the far right. Discourses do constitute social realities but theorizing the implications of the populist hype on the mainstreaming of the far right may require collecting longitudinal data over the course of different time frames as well as exploring cross-national variation.

Photo: Mustafa Kirazlı

Does Erdogan offer a populist blueprint for Modi and Netanyahu?

Right-wing populism beyond the West

This series profiles electorally successful right-wing populists outside the widely studied contexts of Europe and the Americas. We commence with empirical studies of Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Narendra Modi and Benjamin Netanyahu. In a next step, we probe the commonalities and discontinuities of these three populist leaders and reflect on the global phenomenon of right-wing populism and its relationship with processes of democratisation and democratic backsliding. These op-eds are based on research published by the authors in Democratization, Volume 27, No. 8 (2020), available at https://doi.org/10.1080/13510347.2020.1795135

By Julius Maximilian Rogenhofer 

Taking the study of populism beyond the familiar geographies of Europe and the Americas, my series of commentaries for the ECPS explores how right-wing populism undermines fragile democracies, particularly in Turkey, India and Israel—countries that are all marked by deep social, ethnonational and religious divisions. This final commentary argues that, despite differences in size, history and institutional culture, all three democracies exhibit a remarkably consistent populist strategy. 

What distinguishes Turkey, India and Israel from polarised societies in the European Union and the Americas is each countries’ dangerous, conflict-ridden neighbourhood, which makes threats to the nation an ever-present reality. Fear of conflict nurtures the populist strategies employed by each country’s leader. Military interventions in neighbouring countries, such as Erdogan’s ongoing campaigns in Libya, Syria and Iraq, Modi’s strikes on Pakistan in 2019 and Israel’s confrontations with Palestinians in Gaza serve to rally nationalist sentiment in ways that make membership of- and exclusion from the “people” morally salient. All three countries deny the national aspirations of a substantial minority – the Kurds in Turkey, Kashmiris in India and Palestinians in Israel – and threatens to conflate rights-demanding minorities with terrorists. 

While the relationship between populism and democracy remains disputed[1], populism’s antidemocratic potential is notable across the countries examined in this series. In fact, the populist playbook employed by each leader is comparable, with Erdogan offering a broad blueprint for the measures employed by Modi and Netanyahu. 

The right-wing populist strategies used by Erdogan, Modi and Netanyahu have three pillars: First, their neoliberal economic policies break from early conceptualizations of populism as advocating economic equality. Second, their conflation of nationalism, patriotism and religion allows leaders to address issues of belonging within the national community and to sow divisions between “us” and “them.” Third, the undermining of independent news media has emboldened each leader’s attack on democratic institutions. 

This common populist playbook is neither statist nor unabashedly free market. Though each leader’s policies differ in the types of intervention each leader is willing to make in the national economy, each leader undermined state institutions, preferring to bolster growth through the private sector. All three replaced social and welfare services available to all citizens with benefits that specifically target the “people”, thus, undermining the liberal citizen-state relationship. Membership of an exclusively defined “people” becomes preconditions for access, thereby nurturing unmediated relationships between the leader and the “people” outside of formal state structures. The resulting relationships of dependency allow the populist leader to conflate the government with the state. 

Erdogan’s justification of his policies concerning an Islamic mandate, Modi’s embrace of Hindutva and Netanyahu’s emphasis on Israel’s Jewishness all point to a conflation of religion with the national vision.

Unlike former US President Trump and populists across Central and Eastern Europe, Erdogan, Modi, and Netanyahu are not primarily resisting social changs like those attributed to large-scale, irregular migration. Although refugees have recently become an important political issue in all three countries, the developments analysed in this series precede the emergence of irregular migration as in issue on the national stage and shape how this issue is perceived in each country—namely, in sectarian, ethnoreligious terms. 

Instead, each leader studied in this series attempts to homogenize an intrinsically heterogeneous society by mobilizing one authentic, ethno-religiously conceived “people.” By infusing definitions of “the people” with pre-existing sectarian conflicts Erdogan, Modi, and Netanyahu undercut minority rights and liberal democratic values. They also jeopardize relatively stable, if reluctant, compromises between the ethnic and religious groups in each state by seeking to exclude their political opponents from the national political community.

Each leader’s adversarial relationship with the fourth estate corresponds with wider trends in twentieth- and twenty-first-century populism, which span Donald Trump’s allegation of “fake news” and the Alternative for Germany’s invocation of the Lügenpresse (lying-news-media). The cultivation by Erdogan and Netanyahu of their own loyalist media and Modi and Netanyahu’s use of state resources to support their favourite news outlets suggest that populists in power are not opposed to institutions per se provided that the institutions in question are their own. 

The similarities between these three leaders have not escaped local critics: Netanyahu’s war on democratic institutions led his political opponents to warn of his “Erdoganisation” (Ahval, May 25, 2019), while the revocation of the special status of the region of Jammu and Kashmir, prompted commentators to decry the “Israelification” of India (Middle East Monitor, December 24, 2019). Our analysis supports such claims.

In short, this series argues that Turkey, India and Israel signify different stages on the slippery slope between fragile democracies and authoritarianism. Turkey appears furthest down this path of democratic decay. While Erdogan has gradually stripped Turkey of all meaningful democratic choice, democracy in India remains free- though not fair- despite the severe erosion of minority rights. In Israel, fiercely contested elections and Netanyahu’s struggles with the Supreme Court suggest that he has not yet monopolized Israeli democracy. Our concern for all three countries is not the descent to absolute dictatorship, but rather a rescission to formal democracy, where elections take place but clientelism, incitement against minorities and assaults on democratic institutions skew the political playing field so as to deprive voters of a say in national politics.


[1] Compare Abts, Koen, and Stefan Rummens. (2007). “Populism Versus Democracy.” Political Studies. 55, no. 2: 405–424. doi:10.1111/j.1467-9248.2007.00657.x. with Laclau, Ernesto. (2005). On Populist Reason. London: Verso.

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.

Celebration of the Labour Day in Prague, Czech Republic on May 1, 2017. Banner is illustrating democracy as a leaf bitten by caterpillars with names: Putin, Kaczynski, Orban, Babis, Trump, Fico. Photo: Jolanta Wojcicka

Prof. Heinisch: The end of liberal democracies is possible

Prof. Reinhard Heinisch has predicted we will likely see more illiberal democracies, which build from the top down, as in Hungary, or populist democracies, which are built from the bottom up. He has underlined that the institutions in Western Europe and the United States are strong against the populist onslaught; however, the rest of the world is prone to populism’s dangers.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

One of the leading experts on populism, Prof. Reinhard Heinisch, of Salzburg University, has argued that the end of liberal democracies—or the dawn of illiberal democracies—is possible. Prof. Heinisch has predicted we will likely see more illiberal democracies, which build from the top down, as in Hungary, or populist democracies, which are built from the bottom up. Heinisch has underlined that the institutions in Western Europe and the United States are strong against the populist onslaught; however, the rest of the world is prone to populism’s dangers. “Outside Western Europe and North America, where these institutions are less well entrenched, we have seen the biggest backsliding in the quality of democracy,” he said. Prof. Heinisch also criticized European Union (EU) for not taking necessary measures in a timely manner.

The following are excerpts from our interview with Prof. Heinisch.

Why do you think Austria has been the cradle of populist and far-right parties? Is it about culture, politics, or what? 

There were two main factors: to recover from civil strife and WWII, Austria created the ultimate consensus democracy—to the point that elaborate power sharing mechanisms between the two major parties, the Social Democrats and Christian Democrats, dominated national politics for over 40 years. Their complete control of all political institutions—and even civil society—resulted in power cartelization, influence peddling, and political nepotism. This, in turn, provided the initial raison d’être for the radical-right Freedom Party to style itself as an anti-system, protest party fighting corruption.

The second factor is sociocultural: The forebearers of today’s Austrians considered themselves largely German. The experience of Nazism—and the need to distance the country from its German past—left Austrians with a highly ambivalent and insecure national identity. Often local customs, lifestyle, and widely shared sensibilities serve as superficial substitutes for a deeper understanding of what it is to be Austrian. To be a “real” Austrian often just means to like and do certain things and not others or to look and behave a certain way. Cultural outsiders and immigrants challenge these ideas and force Austrians to confront their own ambivalent identity. Political operators can effectively appeal to this sense of cultural insecurity by claiming that Austrian culture is under threat. Austrians also have a selective view of their past, often glamorizing the imperial legacy but exorcising the darker chapters. External criticism has in the past led to a rally around the flag that was exploited by populists. 

In your article with Fared Hafez, you argue that right-wing populism has changed Austria’s political approach to Islam. In what ways did these changes occur? Can you please elaborate?

Austria had very tolerant and liberal political approach to Islam going back many decades. While this was in part a consequence of Austria not having a [large] Muslim population, this also did not change once the share of guestworkers and immigrants, especially from Turkey and the former Yugoslavia, substantially increased the population. Also, a number of terrorist attacks in and around Austria carried out by Middle Eastern commandos in the 70s and 80s never resulted in a discussion about Islam. Even after 9-11, this was essentially not the case. Only the radical-right populist Freedom Party (FPÖ) mobilized against Islam in the 1990s, opposing the construction of mosques and minarets, raising the issue of headscarves and foreign imams, and constantly associating Muslims with terrorism and the subversion of Christian civilization. Gradually this language was picked up—especially by the Christian Democrats, who adopted an anti-Islamic discourse and aim to pass new legislation directed against what they call “political Islam.” Under Chancellor Sebastian Kurz, the Christian Democrats moved substantially to the right in an effort to steal voters away from the Freedom Party.

Islam has been one of Austria’s official religions since 1912, yet it is so alien. What is the correlation between the rise of populism and Islamophobia?

Islam is the third largest religion in Austria, ahead of Protestantism, and the fastest growing. In Vienna’s largest district, the name Mohammed was the most popular name for a baby-boy in 2020. In general, the Austrian [Muslims] population has grown substantially in recent decades (by about 20%) resulting in sizable increases of both foreign residents (18.5%) and Austrians with an immigrant background—for Vienna, this percentage is 34%. 

Activists of the identitarian movement Austria block the access-road to the border from Hungary to Austria at Nickelsdorf on October 17, 2015. Photo: Johanna Poetsch

Immigration and asylum also mean increases in the Muslim population, which is now 8% of the total population but highly concentrated in certain areas. At the same time, we have seen a general decline of traditional Austrian religions, which has prompted traditionalists and the radical right to frame the issue of immigration and asylum as a battle for national identity and culture. The extent to which populism is an ideology framing politics as an antagonism between corrupt elites and dangerous outsiders on one hand and the virtuous people of the heartland on the other, allows populists to score political points by portraying Muslims as the “cultural other” who pose a threat to the “heartland,” whose identity and way of life is in need of defending. Immigrants—especially from outside Europe–are the most palpable sign of global change in everyday life and can be easily framed as a danger and scapegoated by populists, whether in Austria or in the US of Donald Trump.

Francis Fukuyama in his famous article The End of the History claimed that liberal democracy had won, and it [liberal democracy] would spread all over the world. Yet today we see a surge of populism and populist parties. What went wrong? Why are illiberal democracies gaining ground, in particular in Central Europe?

Like all complex developments, this one is multicausal and represents a confluence of developments. First and foremost, there is a loss of political legitimacy of established institutions and parties who have committed failures of representation. A growing number of people have the sense that vital decisions affecting their daily lives are made by unaccountable elites in far off capitals, in opaque international institutions and trade organizations, in Brussels or some boardroom. These policies may in and of themselves be efficient, rational, and in the long-run economically beneficial, but for countless people the consequences are disruptive, divisive, and feel at best technocratic. 

Second, globalization and the spread of sociocultural liberalism resulted in traditionalist and parochial backlashes. We may not necessarily agree with Huntington’s Clash of Civilizations, but most of us clearly underestimated the ability of political actors to mobilize on the basis of identity and construct identity narratives. 

The third cause is technical in the sense that new forms of electronic communication and the internet have resulted not only in competition at a global level but also in raising both expectations and fears. Whereas the former may induce merely discontentment or a willingness to migrate, the other breeds resentment. In times of change that induce distress and pressures to adjust, people crave stability and a return to the status quo. This is when authoritarians and populists can excel by promising order and thus a modicum of protection and safety. Populists are change agents who promise that in the future, the present will be more like the past, a familiar place where the community was whole, and everyone had their place—Make America Great AGAIN. In Eastern Europe, the return to a rose-coloured past is precluded by the negative historical experience, so populists construct an imagined and idealized national destiny, be this a hyper Catholic Poland or an ultraconservative and authoritarian Hungary that has moved past its Trianon trauma.

The integration of economies and the creation of large markets created new forms of competition and winner and losers…

Yes, this is an important aspect in global or integrated markets: the economic winners can uncouple themselves from the local economic losers. As a result, the experience of two groups within the same political system become detached from each other. In Austria, wages—especially of male workers in certain blue-collar jobs—have experienced significant stagnation. As such, they [blue-collar male workers] become susceptible to populist politicians scapegoating immigrants and purportedly uncaring elites. In Austria, the radical-right, populist Freedom Party has been the dominant blue-collar party going back to the late 1990s.

Looking at the huge surge of populist leaders all over the world, shall we start talking about “the end of liberal democracy” and the “dawning of illiberal ones”?

I think both are possible, and we are likely to see further increases either in illiberal democracy from the top (cf. Hungary) or populist democracy from below (unchecked majoritarian dictates through clever mass mobilization). However, as we saw in the US and also in Austria when populists were in government (2017-19), in long established democracies, institutions are quite durable and sticky. Despite Trump’s best efforts, he was unable to bend election officials, the courts, and the media to his wishes. It is the institutions of liberal democracies and the roles of individuals therein that give me confidence in the durability of democracy. Outside Western Europe and North America, where these institutions are less well entrenched, we have seen the biggest backsliding in the quality of democracy. 

Facing a huge boom of populism, do you think the European Union has taken necessary steps to counter it? Fidesz has left the EPP only yesterday!

Clearly no! Democratic institutions are not set up to fight democratically supported parties and groups operating from within democracy. This is what makes populism both so effective and dangerous in that it plays within the rules of democracy. Populists are responsive but not responsible actors; however, democracy generally rewards responsiveness more than responsible action. The EU especially often acts responsibly by being measured, deliberate, and bringing in diverse interests but this is precisely what gives it a bad reputation in the eyes of those who see only their own interests, favour quick but simple solutions and focus on headlines and messages.

In the cases of Hungary and Poland, there was a clear failure of imagination on the part of the EU. Brussels and the member states would have had to take actions much sooner and much more decisively. They would have had to imagine effective mechanisms that work even if more than one-member state decides not to play by the rules and that result in automatically suspending the offending member countries. Unfortunately, the ill-conceived action by EU member states against Austria in 2000 because of its inclusion of the radical right in the government backfired badly and spooked the EU later, when forceful action would have been warranted.

Nested dolls depicting world autocrats Vladimir Putin, Donald Trump and Recep Erdogan on the counter of souvenirs in Moscow

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

This thesis of success in opposition and failure in government, which is the title of my most frequently cited article, needs to be qualified. There is something in the DNA of populists that makes them a poor match for running governments because populists are fundamentally voter-seeking in their strategy; thus, their operation and organization, their candidate selection and campaigning, is geared toward maximizing votes. This means they simplify and overpromise and ignore policy talent and policy expertise in favour of popularity and charisma. This catches up with them in government.

However, this is mainly a problem when populists need to interact in government with non-populists, such as in coalitions with mainstream parties (Austria, the Netherlands, Denmark, Norway, etc.) or with strong democratic institutions (the US). There, populists either fail or are sufficiently tamed/mainstreamed that they have little lasting effect. However, where they end up in complete control of government and where institutions are weak, they are able to dominate the discourse and reframe the issues, engage in conspiracy theories, and explain away their own failures as the result of the machinations of “fake news media” (Trump) and “corrupt elites” (think of Orban’s campaign against George Soros). This is why successful populists try to change the rules (election laws, the constitution, the composition of high courts) to give themselves more control. Orban, Kaczynski, Erdogan, and Putin are each in their own way good examples. Trump was trying hard to do likewise but failed this time.

What will replace eventually failed authoritarian populists? Liberal democracies or harder dictatorships?

This is hard to say. Social scientists are not good at predicting the future as we do not have hard data on what will come next. Even successful authoritarians such as Erdogan, Putin, or Orban differ from a more totalitarian system like China in that power in the former is highly personalized. Take the person out, what happens? These are all not young men (Trump included). While the formula for power is clear, it is still not easily transferrable because in each case leaders also require personal attributes that make them successful—successful populist leaders were each able to convert certain personal abilities and strengths into political power, and they will each leave a certain vacuum that may result in wars of the Diadochi. Venezuela, with the transfer of power from Chavez to Maduro, is the most successful example. Personalized power that is neither dynastic nor based on a police-state like structure is hard to preserve when leadership changes. We would expect that after the leader’s demise, these systems will revert to flawed liberal democracies prone to seeking populist answers to political problems when needed, so that at some point the cycle may start again.

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

As argued above, my answer revolves around liberal institutions. I know this is unpopular, because these days it is all about grassroots activism and mobilization against political evils, and people often do not trust institutions. But my concern is that mobilization can go in different directions, and, of late, we have seen a lot of mobilization against Coronavirus measures where neo-Nazis, populists, people waving rainbow flags, and leftists were all marching in lockstep. Conspiracy theories come in all stripes, and people who are convinced that they are right and need to do what they need to do to save the planet or save something will ride roughshod over those standing in their way. Strengthening liberal institutions is an important antidote by providing sufficient funding for courts, prosecutors, and the justice system, for shoring up media independence and investigative platforms, for training civil servants, for supporting NGOs and watchdog groups, for strengthening parliaments to increase staff and boost the policy expertise of MPs, to fortify election systems and enhance the democratic accountability of social media platforms. Politically, we know that a so-called cordon sanitaire—that is the ostracization of populist actors—has worked to weaken their policy influence (e.g., the Vlaams Belang in Belgium) whereas adopting populist policy positions by mainstream parties may strengthen populists in the long run because it legitimizes these positions. As populism is a multicausal phenomenon, the answer is also multicausal—there are no silver bullets.

Some argue that populism has, to a certain extent, a democratizing aspect in terms of increasing democratic participation. Do you agree? When do you think populist parties/actors start to pose a danger to democratic values?

There is good empirical work on this by two of my former students, Robert Huber and Christian Schimpf, who have shown that in opposition, populism can have a democratizing effect by bringing into the political arena new or politically marginalized groups (this was especially the case in countries like Bolivia, Venezuela, Ecuador, etc.). Populists also successfully draw the spotlight onto existing problems and democratic corruption (Austria, Italy, France) or on policies that were quite unpopular but hard to change within the existing political system (Switzerland, Denmark, Norway, Sweden, etc.). There are also scholars who persuasively argue that politics and political systems require conflict and choices between opposites and that in late capitalist liberal democracies, all this has vanished. By reintroducing conflict into the political system, populism serves a purpose. However, we have also seen that once in government, especially when they are not controlled by checks and balances, democratic quality suffers, and corruption goes up substantially. So, if populists gain too much power, they do pose a danger to democratic values, which was clearly on display in the US following the relentless campaign to overthrow the outcome of the last election and culminating in the storming of the US Capitol.

Who is Reinhard C. Heinisch

Reinhard Heinisch is Professor of Comparative Austrian politics and also Head of the Department of Austrian Politics in Comparative Perspective at Salzburg University. His main research interests are comparative populism, Euroscepticism, and democracy.

He is the author or co-author of numerous publications including Understanding Populist Organization: The West European Radical Right (Palgrave 2016), Political Populism; A Handbook (Nomos/Bloomsbury 2017) and Populism, Proporz and Pariah: Austria Turns Right (Nova Science 2002). Other publication appeared in West European Politics, Democratization, Comparative European Politics, and others. He is currently co-editor of a special issue of Comparative European Politics on Populism and Territory as well as contracted for a book with Routledge on the same subject.

 

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

Populist International (II) – Geert Wilders, an Agent of Anti-Islam Populist International Alliance

Geert Wilders’ populism is based on Islamophobia. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda. 

By Mustafa Demir & Omer Shener 

Looking through the lens of global populism, the relationship between the Dutch right-wing populist politician Geert Wilders and like-minded political figures in the Western world is striking. Wilders’ efforts to reach out to like-minded groups and leaders go beyond courtesy visits. Through such efforts, Wilders attempts to construct an international front built on the common ground of anti-Islamic ‘concerns’. These ‘concerns’ are overhyped, with the aim of constructing an international, if not a transnational, front to challenge the Western world’s long-standing liberal norms of:

“Wake up, Christians of Tennessee! Islam is at your gate! Do not make the mistake which Europe made. Do not allow Islam to gain a foothold here… My friends, fortunately, not all politicians are irresponsible. Here, in Tennessee, brave politicians want to pass legislation which gives the state the power to declare organizations as terrorist groups and allowing material supporters of terrorism to be prosecuted. I applaud them for that. They are true heroes.”

This is how the Netherlands’ right-wing populist Geert Wilders addressed a crowd gathered in Cornerstone Church in Tennessee in May 2011. If, as Arditi (2007) suggests, populism is ‘the awkward dinner guest’ who, after drinking far too much, asks ‘inappropriate questions’, then Wilders’ populist dinner table discourse has been all about hype, defamation, and demonization.

Five years later, in July 2016, Wilders was in the US again, this time having been invited to Cleveland by US Senator Bill Ketron to attend the Republican National Convention. Wilders was in a state about Donald Trump’s nomination as the Republican candidate for president, expressing his excitement with the following words“I wish we had political leaders like this in the Netherlands who defend their own country… and forget the rest.”

In another gathering, Wilders addressed the crowd as followsIn America you see the same happening as in the Netherlands. The hard-working people, what they call the blue-collar workers here, no longer feel represented by the political elite. That people no longer want the policy of open borders, immigration and Islamization.”

On the other hand, his host, Senator Ketron, responded to Wilders’ critics and ‘justified’ extending an invitation to Wilders by saying: “He just wants to take his country back like Mr. Trump and supporters want to take our country back. If you wanna come here and assimilate and live by our laws is his position as well as mine.” 

Wilders’ populist outreach is not limited to the US. In 2013, the Q Society of Australia, a far-right anti-Islamic organization, organized a speaking tour with Wilders. In Melbourne, amid protests, Wilders spoke to the rally, warning Australians about Islam as follows: “I am here to warn Australia about the true nature of Islam. It is not just a religion as many people mistakenly think; it is primarily a dangerous totalitarian ideology… If we do not oppose Islam, we will lose everything: our freedom, our identity, our democracy, our rule of law, and all our liberties… Yes, my friends, there is hope. But only if we outgrow our fears and dare speak the truth… The future freedom of Australia, the liberties of your children – they depend on you. The ANZAC spirit helped keep Europe free in the past; the ANZAC spirit will keep you free in the future. Be as brave as your fathers, and you will survive.

This very same society organized a conference titled “Islam and Liberty” in Melbourne in 2014. The purpose of the conference, according to the Q Society’s spokesperson, was to bring “together many people who are concerned about the march of Islam into many western democracies, and how it changes the laws and values of western democracies… You get segregation when you get Muslims coming in, because their core belief is that Muslims are better people than non-Muslims… We’re keen to have integrated societies, but we think it’s important to have integration, not segregation.”

On the first day of the conference, Wilders was welcomed in a pre-recorded message in which he cheered a new anti-Islam party, the Australian Liberty Alliance. He spoke as follows: “Like you, good people in Europe, America and Canada have had enough of politicians who don’t share our values and foolishly declare that all cultures are equal and who lack courage to speak the truth and say that Islam is the biggest threat to freedom today. You too will soon have the opportunity to turn the tide in Australia.”

In 2015, Wilders visited Australia again to launch the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), a new anti-Islamic right-wing populist party led by Debbie Robinson, former president of the Q Society in Australia. Speaking to the media in Perth, he urged Australians to be vigilant about migration from Muslim countries with the following words: “You will have millions of people coming to Australia, like we do in Europe, and you will not be able to handle it…You should be a sovereign country that closes your borders to those kinds of immigrants.”

Praising the ALA and the potential ‘protector role’ it will play for Australia, Wilders told the media: “If you read their manifesto it is clear that they are the freedom fighters of Australia… They have none of the political correctness that so many of the leaders in the world have today… and [they want] Australia to stand firm and stay Australian without the appeasement and giving in to multiculturalism, I think it will have a lot of support.”

Deciphering Wilders’ points made during the press conference, Calla Wahlquist of The Guardian newspaper explains that: “‘Those kinds of immigrants’ are Muslims. Opposing Islam is the central tenet of Wilders’ Party for Freedom, which has been leading the polls in the Netherlands since August. It is also the key policy of the Australian Liberty Alliance (ALA), the new party that Wilders flew to Australia to launch.”

Wilders’ populist appeal is, of course, not limited to Australia. He is actively engaged in the politics of European countries and has been forging closer ties with like-minded populists across the globe. He does not shy away from showing up at right-wing populist rallies all over the Western world. In March 2015, Wilders was invited to a gathering of Austria’s far-right Freedom Party (FPÖ) organized by FPÖ leader Heinz-Christian Strache and addressed the rally with similar anti-Islamic rhetoric. 

To recap, Wilders’ populism is based on an Islamophobic worldview. His appeal is directly linked to the strong demand by Islamophobic groups for high-profile individuals who utilize populist, Islamophobic rhetoric. Whether in the US, the Netherlands, or Australia, Wilders uses populist discourse to further his Islamophobic, anti-Islamic agenda. Returning to our earlier discussion of populism as ‘the awkward dinner guest’, despite the discomfort, this gauche visitor can, in fact, help uncover underlying problems in society (Moffitt, 2010).

Populism can be a positive force, one that demonstrates the shortcomings of the system and challenges the status quo. However, it can also hinder the proper functioning of the democratic system if it violates the principles of democracy and human rights. In the same way, populism can also be a force for good if it can ‘identify otherwise overlooked political problems’ and become the voice of minorities and ‘marginalized groups’ (Gidron & Bonikowski, 2013). However, as discussed above, Wilders’ rhetoric does the opposite: it turns minorities and marginalized groups into scapegoats.

References

Arditi, Benjamin. (2007). Politics on the Edge of Liberalism. Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press.

Gidron, Noam & Bonikowski, Bart. (2013). Varieties of Populism: Literature Review and Research Agenda. Working Paper Series, Weatherhead Center for International Affairs, Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press.

Moffitt, Benjamin. (2010). “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner? Populism as the Awkward Dinner Guest of Democracy.” Connected Globe, Conflicting Worlds: Australian Political Studies Association Conference, University of Melbourne.

Frederique Vidal, French Minister of Higher Education and Research. Photo: Gerard Bottino

France’s attack on academics is an attempt to silence debate on race

By launching an investigation into academic studies of race, gender, and postcolonial studies that supposedly corrupt society and universities, the French government aims to diminish the legitimacy and importance of these fields of research and validate the scrutinization of academics.

By F. Zehra Colak & Erkan Toguslu

The French minister of higher education, Frédérique Vidal, has recently announced an investigation into so-called “Islamo-leftism” in the country’s academic institutions. She has accused scholars of colonialism and race of “looking at everything through the prism of wanting to fracture and divide.” This attempt to discredit scholars working with critical and postcolonial perspectives by targeting them with an ambiguous pseudo-concept —“Islamo-leftism” — underlies a strategy of silencing conversations about racism, white supremacy, and the impact of the colonial past to maintain an unrealistic image of France as a post-racial and egalitarian society. 

The use of the term “Islamo-leftism”—islamo-gauchisme in French— has gained traction in France among some academics and right-wing politicians. It refers to an unlikely political convergence between the far-left and radical Muslim movements standing against imperialism and neoliberal globalization. Today, it is used pejoratively by the current government, the far-right, and conservative media and academics in France to accuse left-wing anti-racist intellectuals of being overtly occupied with racism and Islamophobia and of justifying Islamism and terrorism. The widespread use of this tag by government figures risks stigmatizing all Muslims and left-leaning academics by lumping them into a crude category that carries extremist undertones. 

Even the National Center for Scientific Research, which Vidal assigned the task of investigating the fields of study concerned, has described “Islamo-leftism” as a poorly defined term with no relation to scientific reality. The center has also warned against “the instrumentalization of science” and infringing academic freedom in France. While the fuss over the term “Islamo-leftism” appears to be restricted to France, similar political trends are visible across Europe, where ministers often attack critical social theories depicting them as being against the “people.” Extremism experts have also attempted to link postcolonial theory with certain Muslim communities. 

The long-standing and dominant conviction about continental Europe having achieved a post-racial and egalitarian status still serves as a substantial barrier to recognizing systemic racism and the ongoing impact of colonial legacy on Black and racialized minorities. While the removal of “race” from public and academic discussions in the aftermath of the Holocaust has by no means diminished systemic racism, it has made it difficult to name or redress the profound consequences of racial inequity. France is no exception as it refuses to face up to its colonial past and denies racism by reproducing the rhetoric of a universalist and color-blind Republican ideal, which prioritizes national identification over racial or religious identity. 

In other words, Frenchness is seen as essential to achieving integration, whereas references to racial inequities are interpreted as identity politics endangering societal cohesion and leading to segregation. The establishment refutes references to institutional or structural bias as racism is seen as an individual moral flaw rather than being systemic. There are no race- or ethnicity-based statistics, and the term “race” was removed from the constitution in 2018. Such a race-blind ideal based on the myth of shared universal rights disguises the harmful consequences of racism by serving to sustain structures of racial inequity rather than dismantling them. This, despite the persistence of widespread discrimination targeting racialized minorities across societal institutions. 

Recent global and national incidents, such as the brutal killing of George Floyd in the US and the death of a Malian French man, Adama Traoré, in 2016 while in custody in France, triggered riots and protests against police violence and brutality in France. They have fuelled heated debates about race, discrimination, and the widespread concern about the racialization of security targeting young men living in French banlieues. People are demanding justice for those exposed to racial profiling, police brutality, and the systematic discrimination entailed in targeting racialized populations.

In France, young activists particularly have been vocal in defying the national narrative of color-blindness. The protests have galvanized long-brewing grievances leading to intense discussions about white supremacy, deeply ingrained systemic racism, and demands for decolonization. While fostering broader awareness and encouraging activism among a younger generation, such nation- and European-wide debates and protests have also increased fears that racial identity politics—ridiculed as woke culture—is being imported from the US. 

President Macron, who is tilting further to the right, made derogatory comments accusing academics of racializing socio-economic issues in the aftermath of anti-racist protests in France. By defying calls for racial justice as the influence of American multiculturalism and constructing demands for racial equity as a divisive threat, Macron’s government is attempting to gloss over the impact of racism on the everyday realities and experiences of France’s racialized minorities. In fact, Dan Hicks, a professor from Oxford University working on colonial violence, interprets the French government’s pushback against the progress made by anti-racist movements as the “invention of a culture war.”

Macron’s hardening rhetoric and attacks on academics and his recent campaign against the so-called “Islamist separatism” following the murder of Samuel Paty, a middle-school teacher, need to be understood within the context of wider socio-political circumstances in France. Macron portrayed himself as a defender of free expression after the beheading of Paty, who had shown his students caricatures of the Prophet Muhammad during a lesson on free expression and censorship. The recent attacks by Macron’s government on certain fields of academic inquiry, however, suggest otherwise. Some see Macron’s pandering to the French far-right on immigration issues, Islam, and labeling academics with defamatory terms as a strategy to capture support from conservative voters against the far-right leader Marine Le Pen in next year’s presidential election. Such divisive and stigmatizing government narratives targeting selected groups carry the perilous risk of aggravating existing social and systemic problems and further harming the very social cohesion it purportedly seeks to protect. 

Indeed, by launching an investigation into academic studies of race, gender, and postcolonial studies that supposedly corrupt society and universities, the government aims to diminish the legitimacy and importance of these fields of research and validate the scrutinization of academics. The concern over being targeted by the French government has been expressed by some academics on social media, including Michael Stambolis, an American sociologist teaching race in France, who wrote on Twitter: “When you’re literally an American sociologist in France who studies sexuality, runs a gender studies program, and teaches race, intersectionality, etc., it’s impossible not to feel targeted. I’m most concerned for my students and colleagues of color.

Despite the French government’s unprecedented attacks targeting academics working in postcolonial, race, and intersectionality studies, only 2 percent of publications in French academic journals since the 1960s have been dedicated to these studies, according to Philippe Marlière, a professor of French and European politics. So, if these studies are incredibly marginal in French academia, why is there so much concern about them? This is because their findings strongly challenge the national myth of a race-blind and egalitarian French society with no issues of systemic racism or colonial abuses. 

According to Macron, however, the (grand)children of African and Arab immigrants “revisiting their identity through a postcolonial or anticolonial” discourse poses the risk of nurturing “self-hatred” against France. Against Macron’s claims, these fields of academic inquiry mainly offer a way of critically engaging with the colonial legacy and a racialized system drawing inspiration from minority epistemological perspectives that have long been ignored. If anything, what they offer the (grand)children of African and Arab immigrants who study them is a deeper sense of knowledge, understanding, and a critical awareness about their position in a societal structure that fails to acknowledge and value their realities and experiences. 

Studying these critical perspectives is particularly important for racialized students who are trying to make sense of their place and negotiate their multiple identities in higher education settings, which often function as spaces of exclusion and marginalization. Suppose Macron wants the (grand)children of immigrants to forge positive identities as multicultural French citizens. In that case, he should better encourage universities to decolonize their curriculum and more actively participate in structurally engaging with the (post) colonial past and the experiences of racialized minorities in contemporary France. Because persisting racial inequities in a society cannot be solved by pretending that race does not exist and smearing academics who are researching it.