(Un-)democratic populism and new parties in Europe

by Anne Hey­er.

Pre­lude to the blog series: The new pop­ulist par­ties in Europe?

Europe’s new spectre

A spec­tre is haunt­ing Europe. No, this time around it is not Marx’ old tale of the Com­mu­nist Par­ty that haunt­ed Europe’s then brand new nation states. This time, it is a whole range of new polit­i­cal par­ties that unset­tle Europe’s by now pret­ty estab­lished democracies.

For a few decades already, these new par­ties – pop­ulist ones – have not only upset the polit­i­cal estab­lish­ment; they are sig­nif­i­cant­ly chang­ing Europe’s polit­i­cal land­scape. Start­ing from France’s Front Nation­al, the Aus­tri­an FPÖ and Belgium’s Vlaams Blok, we can con­tin­ue the list call­ing out the Dan­ish Progress Par­ty or the Swe­den Democ­rats until we reach Poland’s Law & Jus­tice Par­ty (PiS) or the Hun­gar­i­an Fides. All of these illus­trate a phe­nom­e­non of (re-)emerging right-wing populism.

In the con­text of this spec­ta­cle some polit­i­cal sci­en­tists have argued that these new par­ties are inspired by a com­mon Euro­pean nar­ra­tive: one that aims to give a voice to all those who are not unit­ed by the post­mod­ern val­ues of left­ist social move­ments.[1] How­ev­er, there are also ris­ing stars on the left side of the polit­i­cal par­ty hori­zon, such as Syriza in Greece or Podemos in Spain. Even Ger­many, a coun­try that – for obvi­ous his­tor­i­cal rea­sons — has been immune to the rise of a new pop­ulist par­ty for a long time, has acquired a new polit­i­cal actor right of cen­tre. The Alter­na­tive für Deutsch­land (AfD) does not only fea­ture a pop­ulist tone; it is also posi­tioned on the polit­i­cal right, in fact, even right of both of the tra­di­tion­al con­ser­v­a­tive par­ties of Chris­t­ian Democ­ra­cy, CDU and CSU.

A series of blog posts: Europe’s new pop­ulist parties

Many of these very dif­fer­ent pop­ulist par­ties have become quite suc­cess­ful in the way they influ­ence polit­i­cal debates and put pres­sure on estab­lished polit­i­cal actors. How­ev­er, we can also find more nuanced accounts of their recent wave of suc­cess. So what is the mat­ter real­ly with this new pop­ulist spec­tre haunt­ing Europe? Some seem to believe that this phe­nom­e­non pos­es a seri­ous threat to rep­re­sen­ta­tive democ­ra­cy. Oth­ers pro­claim the oppo­site: the rise of a new era of direct or delib­er­a­tive democ­ra­cy. These diver­gent posi­tions make it dif­fi­cult — albeit all the more nec­es­sary! – to give a dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed account of what to make of these new pop­ulist par­ties, both in the nation­al as well as in the broad­er Euro­pean context.

In the com­ing months, we will tack­le exact­ly this chal­lenge: here at our blog we will take a good look at the phe­nom­e­non of new pop­ulist par­ties. We will do so from var­i­ous dif­fer­ent angles: we will present local experts‘ analy­ses of and opin­ions on some of these ris­ing pop­ulist par­ties indi­vid­u­al­ly, but also in com­par­i­son with each oth­er when viewed in the broad­er Euro­pean con­text. The aim of all of this is to give a bal­anced account of an issue that is high­ly top­i­cal across Europe. Based on deep dives into opin­ions on dif­fer­ent new pop­ulist par­ties, we aim to pro­vide a range of per­spec­tives on what could be a pan-Euro­pean phe­nom­e­non. Tak­en togeth­er, the con­tri­bu­tions in this series of blog posts will offer unique insights into the var­i­ous per­spec­tives on this com­plex phe­nom­e­non of new pop­ulist par­ties. Even if some ana­lysts have already claimed to observe par­al­lels between the var­i­ous new par­ties in dif­fer­ent parts of Europe, we think it is worth­while to take an even clos­er look in order to iden­ti­fy both sim­i­lar­i­ties and differences.

Talk­ing to the peo­ple in the street

Aim­ing to pro­vide an alter­na­tive to the often one-sided cov­er­age that these new par­ties receive these days, our com­pi­la­tion of blog posts will offer a dif­fer­en­ti­at­ed sur­vey. Espe­cial­ly all those who have come into office through long-estab­lished polit­i­cal par­ties seem to have lit­tle nuanced to say about this new phe­nom­e­non. When asked about the rise of these new pop­ulist par­ties, estab­lished par­ty politi­cians have often crit­i­cized them as vicious­ly cap­ti­vat­ing inno­cent vot­ers with pop­ulist rhetoric, much like Pied Piper of Hamelin who lured inno­cent chil­dren out of town with his mag­ic pipe. Con­se­quent­ly, in this nar­ra­tive the mem­bers of such new pop­ulist par­ties are not indi­vid­u­als who think and act inde­pen­dent­ly, but rather are char­ac­ter­ized as weak and “sus­cep­ti­ble to this new pop­ulism”.

In this con­text, the term “pop­ulist” always bears a pejo­ra­tive con­no­ta­tion. This is quite sur­pris­ing con­sid­er­ing that pop­ulism orig­i­nates from the Latin word “pop­u­lus”, which sim­ply refers to the peo­ple. Even among the most cre­ative accounts of democ­ra­cy, the peo­ple are still con­sid­ered to be democ­ra­cy’s main source of legit­i­ma­cy. By the way, democ­ra­cy derives from the Greek word “demos” which – sur­prise, sur­prise! – also refers to the peo­ple. If we want­ed to pro­voke an argu­ment here, we could even say that the lead­ers of these new pop­ulist par­ties, UKIP’s Nigel Farage or Syriza’s Alex­is Tsipras, are doing exact­ly what they should be doing accord­ing to the def­i­n­i­tion of democ­ra­cy: talk­ing to the peo­ple in the street. This idiom report­ed­ly goes back to the father fig­ure of all Protes­tants — Mar­tin Luther.

What exact­ly is pop­ulism? Is it dangerous?

So is there any point at all in dis­tin­guish­ing the new pop­ulist par­ties from old, long-estab­lished ones? First of all, there is obvi­ous­ly a dif­fer­ence in chronol­o­gy: his­tor­i­cal­ly the “old” par­ties were estab­lished before the “new” par­ties. How­ev­er, some of these “new” par­ties are more than four decades old. France’s Front Nation­al, for exam­ple, cel­e­brates its 40th anniver­sary this year.

In addi­tion to chronol­o­gy, these new par­ties seem to dif­fer from estab­lished ones in their form and in the con­tent they raise. In an effort to bring the peo­ple clos­er to the pol­i­tics, and the oth­er way around, they often fare rad­i­cal demands for sim­ple polit­i­cal solu­tions that involve emo­tions and ele­ments of direct democ­ra­cy. For those new pop­ulist par­ties that find their place right of cen­tre, there is also a notable shift towards a notion of the com­mu­ni­ty built on shared val­ues and cul­ture (as opposed to pre­vi­ous and out­dat­ed notions of an eth­nic com­mu­ni­ty).[2] Assum­ing that the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of plu­ral­is­tic inter­ests is one of the pil­lars of democ­ra­cy, this claim of cul­tur­al unique­ness pos­es a seri­ous threat, not only to the polit­i­cal elites but also to us, the gen­er­al public!

Pos­si­ble sim­i­lar­i­ties of new pop­ulist parties

  • Posi­tioned as true rep­re­sen­ta­tives of the peo­ple as opposed to the polit­i­cal (often cor­rupt) elites or oth­er estab­lished actors
  • Demand sim­ple solu­tions to com­plex problems
  • Mis­trust or even oppose the EU as a polit­i­cal project

Nonethe­less, we have to ask the ques­tion whether pop­ulism in itself is a prob­lem for demo­c­ra­t­ic soci­eties. Many estab­lished par­ties also resort to pop­ulist rhetoric – and I am not only refer­ring to Germany’s omnipresent Horst See­hofer, head of the Bavar­i­an branch of the rul­ing Chris­t­ian Democ­rats, who him­self claims to have a soft spot for pop­ulist state­ments. Oth­er high-rank­ing politi­cians who have uttered “clear state­ments” in “plain lan­guage” – arguably con­tain­ing a cer­tain pop­ulist ele­ment – can be found in any Euro­pean democ­ra­cy: an illus­tra­tion is this col­lec­tion of quotes by Germany’s vice chan­cel­lor Sig­mar Gabriel or – my per­son­al favourite – a rare breed of genet­i­cal­ly mod­i­fied pep­pers who had their com­ing out in Austria’s 2015 elec­tion cam­paign of the Green Party.

In the con­text of the ris­ing Alter­na­tive für Deutsch­land (AfD), for exam­ple, a num­ber of ana­lysts have debat­ed the ques­tion in how far estab­lished par­ties are doing any­thing dif­fer­ent from what this alleged­ly new pop­ulist par­ty is doing (e.g. die Zeit and der Spiegel). Inter­est­ing­ly, the ear­ly demo­c­ra­t­ic par­ties of the 19th cen­tu­ry also adver­tised with slo­gans address­ing the peo­ple as opposed to the polit­i­cal elites. And it is prob­a­bly not coin­ci­den­tal that the slo­gan that peace­ful­ly top­pled the GDR in 1989 was that of “We Are the Peo­ple”. As a con­se­quence, accord­ing to a num­ber of polit­i­cal sci­en­tists, pop­ulism can be seen as an impor­tant pil­lar of democ­ra­cy.[3] It is address­ing the emo­tion­al side of our minds, in con­trast to the ratio­nal side that con­sid­ers facts and works towards com­pro­mise. In this light, we could even argue that the phe­nom­e­non of new pop­ulist par­ties is giv­ing estab­lished democ­ra­cies a sort of epiphany: that walk­ing only works on two legs!

All qui­et on the South­ern front?

This per­spec­tive is rein­forced when we look at what is hap­pen­ing in South­ern Europe: Greece’s Syriza or Spain’s Podemos illus­trate that the phe­nom­e­non of new pop­ulist par­ties is, in fact, not nec­es­sar­i­ly lim­it­ed to only right-wing pol­i­tics. Ele­ments of pop­ulism are also dis­cernible left-of-cen­tre. Can we com­pare these left-wing pop­ulists with their step­broth­ers on the right hand of the polit­i­cal spec­trum? Intu­itive­ly, we have to ask the ques­tion what it is exact­ly that these new par­ties – whether right or left of cen­tre – have in com­mon. What else do they share, besides the obser­va­tion that they all are fair­ly new kids on the block? And – to put it straight – is it jus­ti­fi­able to claim that all of these left- or right-wing pop­ulist par­ties are part of the same phe­nom­e­non? Or do we rather have to eval­u­ate them inde­pen­dent­ly, each par­ty in its own nation­al context?

One fea­ture that all new pop­ulist par­ties in Europe have in com­mon is their dis­trust of and oppo­si­tion to the influ­ence of the EU on nation­al pol­i­tics. A neg­a­tive image of Brus­sels is what uni­fies these new par­ties across Europe, left and right of cen­tre. For many of them, this oppo­si­tion towards Euro­pean inte­gra­tion also played a key role in their found­ing nar­ra­tives. At this point we can thus con­clude that there are at least some sim­i­lar­i­ties and dif­fer­ences that deserve a clos­er analysis.

Pos­si­ble dif­fer­ences between new pop­ulist parties

  • Organ­i­sa­tion­al structure
  • Found­ing his­to­ry, cir­cum­stances and time
  • Posi­tion on the polit­i­cal left-right spectrum

For the com­ing months, we have a whole series of blog posts in store for you that will build on these first insights. Rough­ly on a month­ly basis, we will pub­lish con­tri­bu­tions of var­i­ous local experts, who will pro­vide their views on new pop­ulist par­ties and what they could have in com­mon with their Euro­pean coun­ter­parts (if any­thing at all). Our con­trib­u­tors take us on a road­trip all across Europe from its South­ern bor­der, where Greece’s Syriza deserves atten­tion, to the East, where the Pol­ish PiS made its way into gov­ern­ment, and all the way to the North­west, where Britain’s UKIP is an infa­mous addi­tion to the polit­i­cal land­scape. It is local experts who will pro­vide unique insights and allow us to see the big­ger pic­ture of a Euro­pean devel­op­ment (or not). Even if the length of these posts will prob­a­bly not increase pro­por­tion­ate to the length of day­light, I promise an excit­ing spring on this blog.

It seems that the bios­phere of Euro­pean democ­ra­cies is chang­ing for good. This series of blog posts will intro­duce a new species of polit­i­cal par­ties to you that you should not miss to learn about. We will first turn to the Unit­ed King­dom Inde­pen­dence Par­ty (UKIP) before we move on to Poland’s PiS and Greece’s Syriza. Stay tuned, check this blog again in a cou­ple of weeks or fol­low us on Twit­ter or Face­book to find out what these new pop­ulist par­ties have in com­mon and which oth­er par­ties we will compare.

Anne Hey­er is an Affil­i­ate at d|part.


The views and opin­ions expressed in this arti­cle are those of the author.

[1] P. Ignazi, “The Cri­sis of Par­ties and the Rise of New Polit­i­cal Par­ties,” Par­ty Pol­i­tics2, no. 4 (Octo­ber 1, 1996): 549–66.

[2] Jens Ryd­gren, “Is Extreme Right-Wing Pop­ulism Con­ta­gious? Explain­ing the Emer­gence of a New Par­ty Fam­i­ly,” Euro­pean Jour­nal of Polit­i­cal Research 44, no. 3 (2005): 413–37.

[3] Mar­garet Canovan, “Trust the Peo­ple!  Pop­ulism and the Two Faces of Democ­ra­cy,”Polit­i­cal Stud­ies 47, no. 1 (March 1999): 2.

Pic­ture: ‘L’uo­mo con il mega­fono — The man with the mega­phone’ cour­tesy of Ango­lo Bian­co, released under Cre­ative Commons.

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