Populism in the Twenty-First Century
An Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism
The following essay were presented as part of the day-long conference “Democracy in Trouble?” at the University of Pennsylvania’s Andrea Mitchell Center for the Study of Democracy. As the post-Cold War democratic order is straining under the dual threat of authoritarian and exclusionary movements on the national level and transnational oligarchic networks, the goal of the conference was to take account of the different facets and causes behind these developments. Originally published on the Mitchell Center’s website, these pieces are also natural fits for Public Seminar’s Vertical “Liberal Democracy in Question.”
Populism emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in Russia and the United States but remained almost irrelevant to European politics until the 1990s. Since then, populism has become a major political phenomenon throughout Europe. Today, we live in a “populist Zeitgeist” (Mudde 2004), in which populist parties and rhetoric dominate the public debate. Although there is a growing conflation of populism and nativism in academe and media, there is no doubt that populism is an important, if not necessarily the most important, aspect in the rise of so-called populist parties and politicians,
Up until recently populism could be defined as an essentially contested concept, but in recent years a growing consensus has emerged on an ideational approach, which sees populism, first and foremost, as a set of ideas focused on a fundamental opposition between the people and the elite. Whether this set of ideas constitutes a political discourse, ideology, or style is still very much debated. In many cases, however, this distinction is fairly secondary, if not irrelevant, to the question at hand.
I define populism as a thin-centered ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite,” and argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people (Mudde 2004; Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser 2017). The core features of the populist ideology are monism and moralism: both “the people” and “the elite” are seen as sharing the same interests and values, while the main distinction between them is based on morals (i.e. “pure” versus “corrupt”). Populists claim that they, and they alone, represent the whole people (Mueller 2016), while “the elite” represent “special interests.” Obviously, “the people” is a construct, which can be defined in many different ways (see Canovan 2005).
Populism is an ideology, i.e. a worldview, but it is thin-centered, meaning it addresses only part of the political agenda — for example, it has no opinion on what the best economic or political system is. Consequently, almost all relevant political actors will combine populism with a host ideology, normally some form of nationalism on the right and some form of socialism on the left. While populism does not threaten democracy in the same way as extremism did in the early 20th century, it constitutes a fundamental challenge to the main institutions and values of liberal democracy, most notably, minority rights, pluralism, and the separation of powers.
Crisis or Transformation?
Against the popular interpretation that the current “populist moment” is a direct consequence of the Great Recession, which assumes that it is a temporary, crisis-related phenomenon, I argue that the rise of populism is related to several structural social changes that have fundamentally changed European politics. On the demand-side of politics, cognitive mobilization and growing inequality have created a more dissatisfied and vocal population. On the external supply-side, a broad consensus on neoliberal economics and supranational politics has made mainstream parties less effective and more similar, while a radical transformed media landscape has provided more access and coverage for populist politicians. Finally, with regard to the internal supply-side, populist actors have become more attractive options because of better leaders, organizations, and propaganda.
The best way to see populism, particularly within the current European context, is as an illiberal democratic response to democratic illiberalism. It is, first and foremost, a response to the perceived lack of options within an increasingly closed political space. The closing of this space is clearly linked to the neoliberal hegemony of the past decades, even if it was always stronger in discourse than in policies, expressed and implemented by both national states and supranational organizations, not in the least the EU. As liberalism became hegemonic, politicians from both the center-right and center-left oversaw a remarkable abdication of power to the market (privatization), supranational organizations (e.g. EU and IMF), and technocratic institutions (e.g. central banks). This process was only nominally democratic, in the sense that democratically elected politicians took these decisions, and implemented them, but they rarely campaigned on them. They profited from a “permissive consensus” (Lindberg and Scheingold 1970), which extended beyond merely the process of European integration.
From the 1950s to the 1990s, most populations in Western Europe either (implicitly) supported, or at least did not oppose, the integration consensus of the economic, political and societal elites. This integration consensus refers to a broad range of economic, political and social policies, which all are fundamentally based on the idea that integration and openness lead to progress. First, there is the ideal of European integration, a direct consequence of the mass destruction associated with nationalism in the Second World War. The belief was that economic and political integration would make wars on the European continent a thing of the past. Second is the ideology of integrated markets, often referred to as neoliberalism or neoliberal globalization, which became hegemonic in the 1980s. Third, and last, is the idea of cultural integration, both among the nations of the European Union, but more importantly within these nations, as a consequence of mass immigration.
As politics became hollowed out (Mair 2013), and politicians reduced to secondary players, falling back to a “responsible” There Is No Alternative (TINA) politics, people grew increasingly dissatisfied and the already ongoing process of dealignment intensified (Dassonville and Hooghe 2018). The most popular responses were non-voting by those who lost faith in the system (exit) and voting for populist parties for those who believe the problem is the elites, not the system (voice). However, while most voters of populist parties support the democratic system, they support parties that undermine the real existing system of liberal democracy in their country, by weakening minority rights, the rule of law, and separation of powers. In other words, they provide an illiberal democratic response to the perceived undemocratic liberalism.
Whether the votes for populist parties are a sign of realignment, and therefore rejuvenation of democracy, as some scholars argue (e.g. Kriesi 2014), is too early to tell. While it is true that some populist radical right parties have (had) the most loyal voters in their country, such as the National Front (FN, now RN) and Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ), even these parties have gone through high ups and downs. Many other populist parties have proven to be the flash parties that much of the early postwar literature on populism assumed. While some populist flash parties leave an impact on the political system (e.g. List Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands), this is more likely to be the case in the established party systems of Western Europe than in the more fluid party systems of Central and Eastern Europe. Moreover, even where populist parties transform the political space, by adding a new dimension of electoral competition, this is mostly a consequence of their host ideology. For example, the much-discussed dimension between ‘globalists’ and ‘nationalists,’ which has been ‘introduced’ by different scholars under various names, is much more a result of the populist radical right parties’ nativism than the populist parties’ populism.
Given that the transformation of European societies is structural, populist politics is here to stay. It is no longer “episodic” or “niche.” Populist challengers have come to power in countries like Greece and Italy, in populist coalitions no less, while mainstream actors have transformed into populist ones in countries like Hungary and Poland. This means that populism is now at the heart of Europe, and the European Union, and whether or not it will succeed at fundamentally transforming European politics depends on whether the liberal democratic mainstream will be able to adapt to the new circumstances. What is already clear, is that neither copying illiberal democracy nor increasing undemocratic liberalism will save liberal democracy.
Cas Mudde is Stanley Wade Shelton UGAF Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA) and Professor II at the Center for Research on Extremism (CREX) at the University of Oslo (Norway). Among his recent publications are The Far Right in America (2018), Populism: A Very Short Introduction (2017), The Populist Radical Right: A Reader (2017), and On Democracy and Extremism in Europe (2016). He is a columnist for Guardian US and tweets at @casmudde.
Canovan, Margaret (2005). The People. London: Polity.
Dassonville, Ruth and Marc Hooghe (2018). ‘Indifference and Alienation: Diverging Dimensions of Electoral Dealignment in Europe’, Acta Politica, 53:1, 1-23.
Kriesi, Hanspeter (2014) ‘The Populist Challenge’, West European Politics, 37:2, 361-378.
Lindberg, Leon N. and Stuart A. Scheingold (1970). Europe’s Would-Be Polity: Patterns of Change in the European Community , Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Mair, Peter (2013). Ruling the Void: The Hollowing of Western Democracy. London: Verso.
Mudde, Cas (2004). ‘The Populist Zeitgeist’, Government and Opposition, 39:4, 541-563.
Mudde, Cas and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser (2017). Populism: A Very Short Introduction. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Mueller, Jan-Werner (2016). What Is Populism? Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press.