A bimonthly magazine on international affairs, edited in Germany's capital

Feeding on Discontent


Mainstream politicians need to stop pressing the snooze button and 
wake up: Protest politics and xenophobic populism are endangering Europe’s liberal democracies and open societies. They must be addressed.


(c) REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Populism is not going away. Syriza has come to power in Greece, and for the first time there is a real chance that the Front National will win the presidency of France. New parties like the Five Star Movement in Italy and Podemos in Spain have quickly attracted new voter bases, and a series of elections lies ahead that will bring more populists into national parliaments, in countries as diverse as Finland, the UK, Poland, Denmark, Portugal, and Spain. New political movements are growing in the North and South of Europe, in both debtor and creditor countries.

The problem is that many mainstream politicians, rather than waking up and smelling the coffee, are pressing the snooze button. They close their eyes and mumble to themselves: “It’s just because of the crisis.” “When growth returns, voters will come to their senses.” “We can’t fight these demagogues – and we shouldn’t descend to their level.” “Better to ignore them. Don’t give them the oxygen of publicity.”

The snooze button is dangerous in politics, however, and while it is true that the economic crisis has fueled protest votes, many of the new trends in European politics predate the euro’s problems. Southern Europeans have long felt frustrated with elite-centric debates and corruption, while Northerners’ anxiety about the future of welfare states was growing before the euro started to wobble. The crisis has exacerbated and accelerated these trends, and the austerity policies that followed resulted in the EU getting much of the blame.

Gaining Ground

Deeper, longer-term trends are fueling the rise of populism. Protest voting is the result of anger and fear among the public as the decline in the power of individual governments becomes apparent. Voters still expect the politicians they elect to be able to protect them even as governments’ power to insulate their populations from the results of global economic trends and problems in other parts of Europe is reduced. The crisis has now shown European voters the dark side of global interdependence and a single currency that makes one country’s liabilities the problem of all.

Protest voting is not new, but it carries greater weight in government as populists begin to capture votes from both former social democrat and conservative supporters. In previous decades, xenophobic and anti-EU populist parties tended to gain the votes of only a small proportion of the population in only some of the EU member states. Now they are gaining electoral ground in most countries and overtaking mainstream parties in a few. In political discourse at both EU and national levels, the core logic of populist politics – mistrust of elites, cynicism about political institutions, and demands for the exclusion of newcomers – is spreading as mainstream parties take it up. Many parties of the center are leaning much further to the right on immigration and starting to lean to the left in their rhetoric on protecting the welfare state.

The rise of populism on the extremes is perhaps inevitable as the center has become more crowded. Since 1989 there has been a structural shift in party politics across Europe toward the center, which has left much more room on the fringes of the political spectrum for new parties to occupy. Neoliberal economics became widely accepted after the collapse of communism and the liberalization of European economies to global markets through the Single Market program. Mainstream parties of the left and right moved to the center of politics, largely agreeing on the fundamentals of macroeconomic policy. The political game has changed from a fundamental left/right contest over the role of the state in the economy to a question of how much and in what ways to protect the losers of globalization through the welfare state and limits on migration. This has left plenty of space for populists to blame all mainstream parties for being self-serving and deaf to the concerns of the people, ignoring the complexity of the problems and proposing simple, radical solutions. They seize the opportunity to play to public fears and appeal to identity arguments rather than arguing about policy options.

Much of what they propose is unfeasible unless their countries withdraw from the global economy, and their measures would damage liberal democracy. But they are still gaining ground, and their style of politics is affecting other parties too. Populists occupying the fringes are not a temporary exception but the new normal. Their way of organizing supporters through exploiting social media, blaming elites, and offering charismatic leaders rather than policy alternatives is here to stay, and mainstream parties need to adapt quickly.

Preferring the Original

But the centrist parties should not run after the populists and feed intolerance. As Marine Le Pen has observed, voters prefer the original to the copy. If they want to survive the populist onslaught, mainstream parties should look more deeply into why so many more voters than ever before are leaving them – and how liberal values can bring them back. Membership in mainstream parties is in freefall in many countries in Europe. Record numbers of voters have become what political scientist Catherine Fieschi terms “reluctant radicals” – people who previously voted for mainstream parties but have become disillusioned. They can be won back if centrist liberal parties address their real concerns, which lie below the anger, fear, and apathy.

After all, one person’s “populist” is another person’s “authentic democrat in touch with the common people,” and there are often legitimate grievances behind even the illegitimate expressions of political outrage. Long-standing public concerns are not being addressed by mainstream politicians, and that poses a problem for democracy if it results in falling public trust in political institutions. There is no replacement for political parties as the fundamental institution offering voters choice, but many old political parties with a long pedigree in the 20th century are in danger. Rather than calling the new parties untouchable, mainstream politicians and commentators need to look carefully at what exactly they espouse. It is vital to distinguish between legitimate protest and criticism of elites, and exclusionary politics that seek to blame the most vulnerable in society and to bring down the whole infrastructure of institutions and policies that protect them. The many parties that are called populist have different motivations, tactics, and rhetoric. The ones that threaten the openness of European societies are the politicians who call for the exclusion of marginalized groups, such as migrants, ethnic minorities (from Roma to Muslims), and the lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender (LGBT) community, and criticize EU policies, laws, and funding protecting rights and personal freedoms.

Populism is by its nature illiberal in that it denies pluralism and refuses compromise. Moreover, it usually seeks to exclude at least one minority group in order to give itself legitimacy as the voice of the “authentic” people of the community. But most dangerous for open societies are the xenophobic populists, who make exclusion and denial of equality the main plank of their electoral platforms.

This xenophobic populism is starting to meet and merge with euroskepticism. Several parties that started as mainly anti-EU – for example, the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) – are increasingly using xenophobic rhetoric, including demands for the exclusion of migrant newcomers as part of their discourse. Conversely, some of the parties that started as openly racist – for example, the French Front National (National Front) – have moved to blaming the EU and calling for an exit from the euro to broaden their appeal. These two discourses converge when populists blame the EU for immigration and attack its protection of fundamental rights.

In his fundamental defense of liberal democracy The Open Society and its Enemies, published in 1945, Karl Popper warned of the threat of totalitarian ideology to open societies. For Popper, the defining feature of liberal democracy is that it allows institutional change without violence. The EU has developed the capacity for change without violence on an unprecedented level. One of the main reasons why populists attack European integration is that it limits the excesses of governments: EU laws prevent the rollback of protection of rights and freedoms. Membership in the Union ties countries into a system of international commitments to liberal democracy that makes it harder for them to squash press freedom and dissent, or to treat immigrants and minorities harshly.

The Fidesz government in Hungary is testing the limits of the EU’s restraining power, and if it continues to receive little criticism from fellow member states, other countries’ leaders will be tempted to follow. Trying to outflank UKIP’s europhobia, the British Conservatives are threatening to leave the European Convention on Human Rights (which all EU members must implement). Both governments criticize the restrictions on sovereignty that EU membership imposes. What is surprising about their domestic debates is how few voices point out to the public that these restraints protect them from government excesses. The populist logic has gone mainstream.

How to Tell One from Another

There is much confusion about the definition of populist parties. Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde made a seminal classification of populist radical right parties in Europe that continues to distinguish well between these diverse groups. Mudde defines populism as an ideological feature – not merely a political style – that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” Populist ideology puts the “general will” of the people first, even when it clashes with human rights or constitutional safeguards.

If this dichotomy between the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite” is taken as the core of populism, the term covers parties across the political spectrum. In the European Parliament formed last year, populist parties under this definition would include a substantial number of the anti-austerity and anti-bailout parties on the left end of the hemicycle. The key difference determining whether they threaten the openness of societies is the extent to which they espouse the exclusion of minority groups and xenophobia toward people who are different from the “pure people” they claim to represent. While parties like the Greek Syriza (Coalition of the Radical Left), the Italian Movimento Cinque Stelle (Five Star Movement), and the Spanish Podemos (We Can) position themselves as representatives of the people in the struggle against corrupted political systems, they are essentially egalitarian parties that do not make xenophobic claims or espouse a nationalist ideology. On the contrary, these parties advocate forms of emancipation, in that their party programs and structures aim to offer ways for excluded citizens to achieve meaningful democratic political participation.

The parties that threaten openness in European societies are those that Mudde terms “populist radical right parties” (PRRPs). Central to the identity of such parties is the ideology of nativism, which “holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (‘the nation’) and that non-native elements (persons and ideas) are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation state.” Nativism combines xenophobic and nationalist ideas, although the grounds for defining non-nativeness may vary across parties. For some parties the criteria are ethnic, while for others they are national, racial, religious, linguistic, or even cultural. Based on this exclusionary vision of society, PRRPs oppose the fundamental values of a liberal democracy, most notably political pluralism and the constitutional protection of minorities.

Mudde excludes non-nativist right-wing populists from the PRRP umbrella, mostly because their core ideologies are not nativist (e.g. UKIP), even though they may include far-right factions or at times employ xenophobic or nationalist rhetoric (e.g. the Finns Party). But some of the parties that have gained support in recent elections are borderline cases under Mudde’s terminology. These parties are generally considered more legitimate political actors than their more radical counterparts because they are not so openly racist and exclusionary; nonetheless, their rhetoric can be very harmful to the open society when their leaders erode the social norms of inclusion and anti-racism in the broader political discourse, for example by blaming an entire ethnic group, such as the Roma, for crime. Moreover, PRRPs are influencing the policies proposed by mainstream parties, particularly on immigration.

The European Parliament now contains a fragmented group of xenophobic populists. While some PRRPs lost seats at the European level, including the Italian Lega Nord (Northern League) and the Dutch Partij voor de Vrijheid (Party for Freedom Party), others lost all representation, such as the Bulgarian Ataka (Attack) and the British National Party. However, new parties like the Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (German National Democratic Party) also entered and, taken together, PRRPs gained 15 seats. This resulted in 52 Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) from ten parties. To these must be added six borderline cases. Some have far-right factions like the Finnish Perussuomalaiset (Finns Party) and the Latvian Nacionālā apvienība Visu Latvijai! (National Alliance: All for Latvia!); others, like the Polish Prawo i Sprawiedliwość and Konfederacja Polski Niepodległej (Law and Justice and the Confederation of Independent Poland), advocate the limitation of rights for specific minority communities – notably in relation to LGBT and gender equality; still others use xenophobic discourse to advance other standpoints, including anti-EU claims like those advocated by the British UKIP and the Hungarian Fidesz (“Hungarian Civic Alliance”). The total number of MEPs in this category amounts to 62, from five countries. Overall, that makes 114 xenophobic populist MEPs (15.2 percent) out of a total of 751.

The outcome of the 2014 European Parliament elections will affect the success of populists in national elections as well – there is a general election in the UK on May 7, and in Portugal, Denmark, Poland, and Spain in the fall – because gaining MEPs has given these parties opportunities to build greater visibility through the media, gain legitimacy, and receive more public money.

Don’t Join the Blame Game

The most dangerous kinds of populism emerging in Europe are those that denigrate political institutions and attack the public policies that protect vulnerable minority groups in society. Mainstream parties must stand up and defend this vital infrastructure for societies to remain open. They also have a duty to defend one of the EU’s greatest achievements: the consolidation of much of this infrastructure in institutions and commitments at European level.

But the established parties cannot beat the populists by trying to outflank them in the blame game. If they dance to the populists’ tune on exclusion by blaming minorities and migrants for Europe’s woes, they will find it impossible to stop the music.
Instead, they need to appeal to the “better angels of our nature,” in Abraham Lincoln’s words. Liberal norms of tolerance and anti-racism are still strong in European societies, and parties can regain support again by defending them robustly rather than adopting the same language as the populists.

Anti-immigration rhetoric is used to make underlying racism socially acceptable – this cannot be allowed to stand. Mainstream politicians can reclaim the debate by talking about the real issues that need to be tackled: the violent conflicts that cause people to flee the Middle East and Africa, the poverty that impels people to risk their lives on the Mediterranean. These are issues that deserve a responsible political debate and solutions at the EU level.

Nationally there is a desperate need to tackle the exclusion and disillusion of second- and third-generation migrants, as illustrated by thousands of young Europeans fighting for the Islamic State in Syria and Iraq. Increasing inequality – a topic in many European public debates – must also be addressed by the existing elites. So far, populists have failed to offer anything here as they avoid campaigning on detailed policy solutions.

Karl Popper’s idea of the open society remains a very attractive one in Europe. Politicians of the center-left and -right need to defend it as central to the freedoms and rights that all Europeans enjoy. That is the best response to the new populism.

Read more articles from the April 2015 issue FOR FREE in the Berlin Policy Journal App.