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Talking Policy: Cas Mudde on Western Populism

There is an ongoing struggle between retaining the key values of democracy, such as freedom of speech and peaceful acceptance of election results, and protecting society from the spread of extremism. How liberal democracies can balance these two imperatives is the question Cas Mudde, associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, seeks to answer. Before moving to the U.S., Mudde studied European extremism and populism at Leiden University in the Netherlands. World Policy Journal sat down with him to discuss the current political climate in the West.

WORLD POLICY JOURNAL: We just published our latest issue, titled “Fascism Rising,” where we looked at the rise of far-right populism throughout the world. What’s your perspective on that trend?

CAS MUDDE: Well, my first response is that I don’t think fascism is rising. With the exception of about three parties, pretty much all other relevant political parties are not fascist. That is a crucial distinction. They accept basic democratic aspects of popular sovereignty and majority rule, which means they have an interest in at least pretending to have the support of the people and actually depend on the support of the majority. And fascists didn’t have that because their system was not based on legitimacy. Fascists thought that democracy was mediocracy and led to government of the mediocre.

WPJ: So would you say populism is a more accurate term?

CM: It depends what you focus on. The vast majority of parties and politicians that we generally talk about are people like Trump or Le Pen, and they’re radical-right populists or populist-radical right. If you focus a bit broader, you include SYRIZA and Podemos as well. They would talk about a populism that specifically includes a left wing and a right wing. Both have advantages—I’m getting a little bit annoyed by the reduction of movements like Trump and Marine Le Pen to just “populism.” Trump actually became really populist only at the end of his campaign, but he was nativist and authoritarian from the beginning.

WPJ: People tend to use populism with a purely negative connotation right now, but what would you say is an example of “good” versus “bad” populism?

CM: I don’t think there is “good” populism in the sense that if your normative framework is liberal democracy, then populism by definition doesn’t accept divisions among the people. It’s also by definition moralist and the distinction is between the “pure people” and the “corrupt elite.” It is therefore in direct confrontation with liberal democracy, which believes in pluralism and minority rights—things that populism that’s worth the name doesn’t believe in. Often, “good” populism is used for two types of things: First, you have left-wing populism, like SYRIZA and Podemos, which both have the same sorts of problems as right-wing populist groups. You see that today in Greece, and you see it even more in Venezuela, where left-wing populism rules and, just like Trump, the leader is criticizing courts and independent media. Venezuela by and large has completely banned media. Others who use “good” populism, like the Dutch Prime Minister, for example, subscribe to more of a popular discourse, so it’s not really populist, but just negatively talking about immigration, European integration, and some other things without really following through on the ideological agenda of the populist radical right.

WPJ: What’s appealing about populism? That it gets rid of social class and unites people?

CM: Well, it’s attractive because you are in the pure category, right? It not only has anti-establishment sentiment in the sense that the elite are all the same and all corrupt, but it also absolves you to a certain extent from any guilt because you are pure. It also is attractive because in many countries, there is a lot of corruption among the elite. If you look at Baltic countries, southern European countries, Latin American countries, and others, the mainstream political parties are very similar. Despite all of the campaign rhetoric of fundamental choices, in the end, they often work together. The populist discourse of an elite that is essentially homogeneous, corrupt, and playing together at the expense of the people is not completely unrelated to the reality that many people experience. It doesn’t mean that it’s correct, but it’s not a complete fantasy either.

WPJ: What do you think of Theresa May’s recent announcement calling for a snap election in the U.K.?

CM: Well, I think that makes perfect sense. Obviously she goes back again on what she said before, but I don’t think anyone ever expected her not to do that. This is not about the EU. This is not even about Britain. This is about her position within the Conservative Party. She is going to have to negotiate the Brexit with the EU, and she wants to do that feeling in control of her party. Now of course she didn’t come to power through elections; this is not really her party at the moment, this is David Cameron’s party. And so she hopes through this election not just to strengthen the Conservative Party and make Labour in particular completely irrelevant, but she also hopes to homogenize the faction of the Conservative Party around her so that she has a much stronger hand when she negotiates with Europe.

WPJ: So it’s not really about Euroskepticism?

CM: To a certain extent, I think she wants to get rid of some of the most hardcore “Brexiteers” so that she doesn’t get criticized from that side. But that ship has passed. It is very clear that she is going to win this election by a landslide. It will give her credibility both in the country and in the EU because she’s not just Cameron’s replacement—she is the person with democratic legitimacy. And it will give her a much stronger grip on her own party.

WPJ: There’s been a lot of debate in the media and in politics about the role of tolerance in democracies, with one side arguing for tolerance and protection even of hate speech, because free speech is a foundation of democracy, and the other side saying you can’t allow these ideologies to spread because they will end up hurting democracy. What’s your opinion on that issue?

CM: I have a very strong opinion on it. Of course there are very different traditions. The U.S. has a very far-reaching interpretation of freedom of speech, which is not shared by anyone else. Western Europe has a much more limited freedom of speech, and there is a very broad support for sanctioning of hate speech. The main discussion is what qualifies as hate speech. And what you see is a selective defense of free speech. The right supports Islamophobic speech and the left supports anti-far-right speech. But what we’ve seen over the last decade or so is that in many countries speech has become more radicalized. What is considered hate speech, for example, toward black people or Jewish people is not considered hate speech toward Muslims. But it’s also not considered hate speech toward Christians, or toward the right.

I personally am a complete and utter free speecher. I think everything should be said in part because I don’t think it is possible to police it in a fair and neutral way, and so what generally happens is that certain groups are better protected than other groups and you get double standards. And I think one of the clearest double standards you see is with regard to Muslims. What you can say about Muslims is much more than what you can say about black people or about Jews.

WPJ: I noticed that on your Twitter account recently you said, “Only three more weeks before the rise of far-right distraction is over and we can focus on the real Achilles heel of Europe: Italy.” Could you elaborate on what you mean by that?

CM: I think particularly the whole discussion about the Dutch elections was ridiculous. I might be wrong and I will Tweet endlessly if I am proven wrong, but overall, there’s an incredibly small chance that Marine Le Pen will win the French presidential election. And in the German election, the far right plays no role whatsoever. So we have been obsessed with these three, under the frame of an emboldened populism fighting an embattled status quo. And at the same time, you have one of the biggest economies in Europe and in the eurozone, Italy, which has been teetering on bankruptcy for a decade now, where the biggest parties include the Five Star Movement and Legano, and almost certainly the next government is going to be incredibly fragile, if not including the Five Star Movement. Now, this is relevant for two reasons. First, the Five Star Movement has said over and over that it wants to hold referendums, including about Italy leaving the eurozone, which will be pretty competitive according to polls. More importantly, the reason why Italy is not treated as bankrupt is because of confidence in the leadership. That confidence will be gone as soon as the Five Star Movement is in power, and that means that one of the biggest economies in the Eurozone is going to crash. And that means that the eurozone could potentially crash, because this is not Greece. Greece is only 1 or 2 percent of the eurozone in terms of economic power. Italy is many times larger, so we cannot bail out Italy—we just don’t have the money for that. While I understand that there is a lot to be said about the French election, and about the rise of populism in general, Europe has all kinds of problems, and populism is just one of them.

WPJ: If you could pick one thing you feel the media gets wrong the most often, what would you choose?

CM: What it has wrong the most is this two-party-system idea of populists on one side and democrats on the other, which has been strengthened by the Brexit vote and the Trump vote. Neither case was actually an example of a populist vote. Brexit had a populist element, but was not in itself a populist movement. And Trump himself was partly a populist phenomenon, but the U.S. elections were first and foremost elections between Republicans and Democrats. And so that type of frame doesn’t apply to parliamentary elections and it completely obscures all kinds of other divisions. I think, again, that the Dutch elections are very important. In the Dutch elections, the populists won marginally, but the right shifted toward the populace, and that has been noted. But at the same time, two of the parties that are the most fundamental ideological opponents of Geert Wilders and right-wing populism, D66 and GreenLeft, won too. It would be nice if the media had a little more of an eye for complexity.

WPJ: Do you think some people are just looking at these developments from an American lens and not from a European perspective?

CM: Yes. In the international media, there were two Dutch elections: one in the Dutch media and one in the international media. It was not only the U.S. I think the U.S. has this incredible tendency—on the one hand it is great that, for the first time I can remember, U.S. media is closely following international elections. But it all has to go through the framework of the U.S., so we talk about “Trumpism”—as in, it all started with Trump, as if these parties are the same as Trump. And although there are similarities, Marine Le Pen leads a party that is four decades old. Trump came out of nowhere and might go into nowhere. The National Front will survive, irrespective of Marine Le Pen. And so we don’t have Danish Trumpism or Dutch Trumpism, we just have radical-right ideologies that existed before Trump and will exist after Trump. Americans have a deep desire to be the leading force in the world, and even when it comes to bad phenomena like Trumpism, they still want to be the original. But I also think there’s an unspoken, unconscious desire for other countries to also make those mistakes. Because the thing is, at the end of 2017, it’s possible that the only major country with a populist, radical-right government is the U.S. And that would probably make a lot of Americans very unhappy about their country.

WPJ: If we take everyone else down with us, it’s not so bad.

I noticed you wrote a piece for The Guardian about Viktor Orbán in Hungary—do you think he’ll be able to shut down Central European University? What is the fact that he’s attempting to do this reveal about the future of Hungary?

CM: I honestly think that he is going to budge and he is going to compromise on CEU, which means that CEU is going to continue to exist in Budapest, though with a couple of new restrictions so he can sell it to his base. But the price that is will be paid is probably even worse. Orbán has just introduced an NGO bill that almost comes straight from Russia, where any NGO that gets foreign funding has to be labeled as such. It’s clearly a law to intimidate independent civil society. And so I worry that the EU and the U.S. will push very hard on CEU because it is in some ways a Western institution, and Orbán will give way on that but then will make the NGO bill very harsh. This has happened before; this is what he is very good at. He will present various problematic laws and will then give way on one thing that stands out the most, which could be the Central Bank or the media, but then pretty much takes everything else. And as long as he gives that one thing—such as CEU—then his backers in the U.S. and the EU will be able to say, listen, it’s important that we keep him integrated in our system, because that way we moderate him. That’s my fear. On the one hand, the situation is better than it’s ever been because there’s actual debate about whether Orbán can be kept within the European Peoples’ Party and within the liberal democratic structure of the EU. On the other hand, there’s still a lot of pressure on him to just compromise on the CEU and then say “we’re all good.”



This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Visit the Talking Policy archive page for more World Policy interviews!

[Interview conducted by Yasmin Merchant]

[Photo courtesy of piero tasso]

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