Profesor en la Universidad de Georgia e investigador en el Centro de Investigación sobre el Extremismo en la Universidad de Oslo

“There clearly has been a rise of populist politics in the 21st century and the trend is broad and increasingly global”

Por Claudia Flores, @cjfm11. Periodista, estratega de comunicación política y Gabriela Ortega, @gabrielaortegaj. Subdirectora de La Revista de ACOP.

Cas Mudde es profesor asociado en la Escuela de Asuntos Públicos e Internacionales de la Universidad de Georgia (EE. UU.) e investigador en el Centro de Investigación sobre el Extremismo (C-REX) en la Universidad de Oslo (Noruega). Ha publicado ampliamente sobre política en Europa, Israel y América del Norte con un enfoque particular por su análisis de la relación entre los extremismos y la democracia.

Ha escrito libros de referencia sobre el populismo como “Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe” y “Populism in Europe and the Americas: Corrective or Threat for Democracy?”, publicado en inglés y griego. Sus libros más recientes son “Political Extremism”, “Youth and the Extreme Right” y “On Extremism and Democracy in Europe”. Sus próximos libros son “The Populist Radical Right: A Reader”, “SYRIZA: The Failure of the Populist Promise”, and “Populism: A Very Short Introduction”.

Actualmente se encuentra trabajando en libros sobre el movimiento de los colonos israelíes, la transformación de la política europea, y la derecha radical populista en el siglo XXI.

Cas Mudde @CasMudde será uno de los ponentes invitados en el IV Encuentro Internacional de Comunicación Política de ACOP que se celebrará en Bilbao el mes de julio de 2016 bajo el título “Nueva comunicación: ¿nueva política?”.

We often hear statements like “He/she is a populist” or “That is a populist discourse”, but not everyone understands the real meaning of “populist” and “populism”. How would you explain them in plain language?

Populists believe that society consists of two homogeneous groups who are fundamentally opposed to each other: the pure people, on the one side, and the corrupt elite, on the other. They want politics to be the expression of “the general will,” which is the supposed “common sense” solution that benefits all people (equally).

What would be a good example of populism in Europe and in Latin America?

Some of the most famous example of European populism are Silvio Berlusconi and Beppe Grillo in Italy, Pim Fortuyn and Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, Vladimír Mečiar in Slovakia, and Nigel Farage in the United Kingdom. In Latin America, there are historical examples like Argentine President Juan Domingo Perón and Peruvian President Alberto Fujimori as well as contemporary examples like Bolivian President Evo Morales and Ecuadorian President Rafael Correa.

What about Pablo Iglesias (Spain), Nicolas Maduro (Venezuela) and before him Hugo Chávez, and Dilma Rousseff (Brazil)? Are they populists? Do they have populist discourses?

Yes, all of them do, except for Dilma Rousseff. For example, Pablo Iglesias and Podemos consider the major political parties as part of one corrupt “caste” (“la casta”) and oppose them to a homogeneous pure “the people.” The late Hugo Chávez was a master of populism, often referring to himself as the personification of “the people”. Chávez was also one of the few successful populist leaders who actually came from “the people,” as in the “working people.” Quite often populism is politics for ordinary people by about extraordinary leaders – think about Silvio Berlusconi or Thaksin Shinawatra, the ousted President of Thailand, who were among the richest people in their country before they started their new career as the “voice of the people”.

With all these examples could we say that populism is a trend around the world? Are there successful cases of populist governments?

Yes, there clearly has been a rise of populist politics in the 21st century and the trend is broad and increasingly global. We see successful populist parties and politicians in all parts of Europe (East, West, North and South) as well as Northern and Southern Europe. In addition, populism is becoming relevant in some African and Asian countries as well, including in Indian and South Africa.

Whether or not there are cases of “successful” populist governments depends, obviously, on your definition of success. Several populist parties have been able to get re-elected in government, which, in today’s volatile world, is quite a success. The popularity of populist leaders like Chávez, Morales and Orbán is quite amazing compared to that of other democratically elected leaders. These leaders were also able to transform their countries in line with their ideologies, which one can also see as successful. That said, particularly in Hungary and Venezuela this has come at a very high price, particularly in terms of corruption and repression of dissent.

Against these stand many examples of failed populist governments. Populist parties like the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) split when in government and lost heavily in the next elections. In Greece Syriza has held on to power, but has given up on almost its entire agenda to do so. This has led to a significant drop in support.

So-called “21st-century socialism” has been labelled as populism, but it’s not just the Left that is stereotyped in this way. Donald Trump is ideologically on the opposite side and is also labelled a populist. Can we say that populism has one ideology, or does it have many?

Leaving aside whether or not Trump is a populist –I, personally, don’t think so– populism is one ideology, but it is a so-called “thin-centered” ideology, which means it addresses only a small sub-set of political issues. For example, populism says little to nothing about what the best economic or political system for a society is. Consequently, populism rarely exists in isolation. Most populist actors combine populism with another ideology, which I call a host ideology. Simply stated, most right-wing populists combine it with some for of nationalism, while most left-wing populist combine it with some form of socialism. It’s the difference in host ideology that explains the broad variety of populist actors.

Do you agree with Laclau´s opinion that “populism is the essence of democracy” or, on the contrary, do you believe with Hofstadter that “populism is the paranoia of the politicians”?

I would say that I disagree with both, even if there is some truth is each statement. Of course, my disagreement is in part rooted in my understanding of populism, which is different from both Laclau, who saw it much broader (i.e. as any type of meaningful politics), and Hofstadter, who equated populism with the far right. I think populism is essentially democratic, i.e. supporting popular sovereignty and majority rule, but is not “the essence” of democracy. Moreover, populism goes against core elements of liberal democracy, notably minority rights, pluralism, and separation of powers, which is a more accurate term for the type of democracy we live in. And, while there is certainly paranoia among populist leaders, there is also paranoia among non-populist politicians (e.g. Hitler and Stalin) and there are non-paranoid populists. In general, however, I am not a fan of using medical or psychological terms to describe political phenomena.

What would you say is the main characteristic of a populist candidate, and what would it be for an extremist one? Are they similar?

I don’t think there is “a” populist candidate, just like there is no one specific type of extremist or democratic candidate. The stereotypical populist candidate is a strongman, i.e. a macho man with an authoritarian background and personality –such as Juan Perón or Hugo Chávez–. But this specific type emerges particularly within specific countries and cultures, such as Southern Europe and South America. In Western Europe some of the most successful populist leaders have been female, such as Siv Jensen (Norway), Pia Kjærsgaard (Denmark) and Marine Le Pen (France). Similarly, while some leaders come from “the people” (e.g. Chávez), many come from “the elite” (e.g. Shinawatra) or from groups normally associated with the elite – like academics, such as Pablo Iglesias (Spain) or Pim Fortuyn (Netherlands).

Elections are more polarized each year. Candidates push their followers to confront those of other candidates. In this sense, is populism a trigger factor of extremism?

Polarization is not necessarily extremism. You can have perfectly democratic politics that are polarized, as was the case in the UK in the 1960s and 1970s. Populism is essentially moral, or moralistic, politics, where the main division is based on values, not interests. That polarizes, as you cannot compromise on values. If the pure people compromise with the corrupt elite, the people get corrupted!

The polarization comes in when the so-called “democratic” parties, i.e. the mainstream parties, respond to the populist challenge by defining themselves essentially as “anti-populist”, because anti-populism is, essentially, also a moralistic discourse. This is what you see today, where politics is increasingly defined in terms of “good versus bad” by both camps. The political campaigns of both the Leave and Remain camps in the British EU referendum are not essentially about different political visions addressing different ideals and interests, but about moral arguments, which each camp accusing the other of wanting to “destroy” or “corrupt” their world.

How can extremism be combatted? Or does democracy just have to live with it?

Every democracy will have some extremism in it, i.e. people and groups that do not believe in, and possibly even actively oppose, the democratic system. As long as they don’t become violent and well-organized, this is not a problem. Again, populism is not so much anti-democratic, i.e. extremist, but rather anti-liberal democratic. They won’t abolish elections and parliaments, but underline the powers and rights of the opposition, if they have enough power to do so (see Hungary and Venezuela).

Liberal democrats should be able to convince the (vast) majority that it is a superior system of government. Without that, it cannot survive. You cannot have a real democracy by simply banning all fundamental opposition. That will lead to a tyranny of the many and, probably in the end, the few. Liberal democrats should develop ideological visions of their preferred society and consistently and coherently try to achieve that society through elections and government. They should critically engage with populists, and even extremists, by putting their alternatives against theirs. They should, however, not only react to their challengers, because that means that their challengers set the agenda. While liberal democrats should address some of the issues the challengers raise, particularly if they concern their own voters, they should address them from their own ideological vision, not from the perspective of weakening the populists.

What are the causes of extremism? Could we say that economic crisis, terrorism or migration are the main components of extremism?

The rise of populist parties is linked to a broad range of factors that, overall, have created a population that is no longer tied into subcultures and parties and that is increasingly critical and negative towards politics and politicians. Many factors are structural, linked to the so-called post-industrial revolution, which has marginalized the manufacturing industry and the working class within Europe, while other factors are temporary, like the economic crisis and the refugee “crisis.” While economic, security and social conditions influence politics, they are also translated politically, by experts, journalists, and politicians.

One of the most remarkable develop­ments of the past decade has been the decline of the liberal democratic narrative. In the last two decades of the 20th century almost all major parties subscribed to roughly a similar vision, which embraced European integration and multiculturalism. While there was little true debate, as almost all accepted parties to the debate shared core values, there was a passionate defense of the ideological agenda. It seems that the various “crises” have destroyed the self-confidence of the political establishment as well as their belief in their previous ideals. Rather than defending or selling their own ideals, they are mainly reacting to challenges from newcomers and outsiders, mostly populists. This defense is mainly aimed at criticizing the populist view and/or adopting part of it, rather than defending their own alternative view. This strengthens the beliefs among parts of the population that (1) the political establishment doesn’t know what to do; and (2) the populist do have good solutions.

What does the future hold for extremism and populism?

There is no doubt that populism is here to stay, at least for the midterm. In several countries they will be in power, or constitute the main opposition party, such as Austria, Denmark, France, Greece, Hungary, Poland and Spain. Like established parties, they will loose support when in government, return to opposition, and try to reinvent to get back to power. The most extreme parties will remain ostracized – like Golden Dawn in Greece or the German National Democratic Party (NPD) – while others will continue their movement into the political mainstream – like the Danish People’s Party or Syriza. The main question is what will the established parties do after the various “crises” have waned: will they return to their pre-crises vision of an integrated Europe or continue with a pragmatic, opportunistic, Populism Light approach, in which they no longer defend an alternative vision, but mainly try to hold on to power while slowly but steadily implementing the policies of their alleged opponents.

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