Populism Social Cohesion Interview

“The European Union is a victim of its own success”

Cas Mudde on the root causes of populism in Europe

Cas Mudde on Populism in Europe and strategies against it.
© Left: Rio Gandara (Helsingin Sanomat) / Right: Leigh Phillips

Cas Mudde is one of the most renowned experts on political extremism and populism in Europe. He is Associate Professor of International Affairs at the University of Georgia and Researcher at the Center for Research on Extremism at the University of Oslo. In his interview for DIALOGUE ON EUROPE he talks about the structural reasons behind the rise of populist movements all over Europe, the failure of the traditional parties and why tax havens, unlike migration issues, are not part of the political agenda.

Professor Mudde, this year was characterised by both remarkable defeats and victories of populist parties all over Europe – Le Pen and Wilders lost in France and the Netherlands whereas the FPÖ, the AfD and ANO achieved considerable results in Austria, Germany and the Czech Republic. With regards to this, you stated – unlike many others – already way before the elections in the latter countries “populism is not dead”. Why do you think so?

First of all, even Le Pen and Wilders did not lose. Le Pen got an all-time high in the second round of the presidential elections. She did really well in the first round of both the presidential and the parliamentary elections, almost with a record. Wilders won, compared to the last election, and his result was close to his high-score. So in that sense, what they did not meet were the very high expectations that both themselves and the media had.

Hence, the reason why I argued that populism was not dead was that first of all, the results were pretty good, close to record high. Second of all, because the factors that explain the success of populism in general and the populist right in particular are much more structural. They do not have much to do with the rise of Trump or with Brexit, or even with the Great Recession, which is much more a catalyst than a prime cause.

Changing society and changing political preferences weaken the centre-right and the centre-left

So what are the root causes and structural reasons for the rise of populism all over Europe?

By and large, both political de-alignment and political protest are the causes of which populists profit the most at the moment, but they are not necessarily the only ones. First of all, this goes back to political scientist Ronald Inglehart, who wrote in the 1970s the book “The silent revolution,” which argued that the consequences of the post-industrial revolution meant a changing society and changing political preferences, which weaken the centre-right and the centre-left. He especially explained the rise of the Greens with this, but actually, when you read his book, you can also explain to a certain extent the later rise of the radical right.

The other thing is that the rise of ‘neoliberalism,’ as an easy term for pro-market thinking, created all kinds of different mechanisms that strengthened political dissatisfactions: first of all, obviously, economic inequality, and second, political convergence among the centre-right and the centre-left. It also strengthened the hollowing out of politics through privatisation and through putting things into expert bodies, such as the Central Bank.

All of that together created a feeling that on the one hand, politicians were all the same, but that on the other hand, politics is keeping important issues off the agenda because some issues were simply not addressed since everyone agreed about them. Think about European integration and, to a large extent, about immigration in the 1980s and 1990s. Later, politics became some sort of a technocratic debate where everything was answered with TINA, ‘There Is No Alternative’. All of that together created frustration with politics. Politics itself had undermined its use by adopting this pro-market idea in which the citizen was pretty much the customer, the customer was always right, and the market was the best mechanism to solve everything. So if that is the case, then why do you need politicians?

Populists are both anti-political and über-political

Populists were particularly suited to criticise that for a variety of reasons, first of all by saying that ‘all politicians are the same’. Populists are also both anti-political and sort of uber-political. They are anti-political in the sense that they take out the struggle of conflicts, by saying that there is only one people and that everyone has the same interests. But they are also uber-political in the sense that if the people want something, they should get it. So, in a sense, they argue that everything is political and that this TINA politics is nonsense. For instance, they claim that ‘if the EU does not want us to do something, then we will just get out of the EU. Whatever we want, we can get!’

All of those structural causes named above predate the Great Recession, but many of them were strengthened by it. That is also the reason why you see that since the Great Recession, populist parties have doubled their support, which also means that they were already around before. Hence, they are not caused by it, but they are strengthened by it.

You have just mentioned the convergence of the political centre. Do you blame the parties from the political centre, especially centre-left parties, because this convergence created a certain frustration within large parts of the population, who do no longer feel represented?

Socio-economically, the convergence came predominantly from the move to the right of so-called social-democratic parties, among which the most extreme examples are, of course, New Labour of Tony Blair, who by and large followed Bill Clinton and the US Democrats, and then Schröder and his ‘Neue Mitte’. They were then more or less followed by many others, like Wim Kok in the Netherlands. The French-speaking parties were a little bit more divided over it, whereas in countries like Sweden and Denmark, it went a bit slower, but all of them gave up their fundamental scepticism towards the market. The level of the embrace of the market differed, but overall, everyone did it.

By and large, politics was just minimised to details

All of that made socio-economic politics really just policies. It was just a matter of tweaking because the goal and the assumptions were the same. The assumptions were that the market was the best mechanism, not only for economic growth but even for redistribution. Thus, the only argument was technical, and as a consequence, socio-cultural issues became more important. On the other hand, both centre-right and centre-left knew very well that their electorates were split over those issues, particularly immigration. Consequently, they had no electoral incentive to take that on. In addition to that, most right-wing parties were perceived to be relatively moderate on socio-cultural issues, so also in that sense, there was some sort of a convergence. Here again, on the whole, politics was just minimised to details.

Now later, because of the success of Schröder and Blair, various centre-right parties went to the middle as well. The most important examples are of course the Conservative Party under Cameron and the CDU under Merkel, which went both socio-culturally and socio-economically to the middle. At that point in time, the political space became minimal. At the same time, there was more and more frustration, related in part to 9/11, as well as long-running frustrations about both immigration and integration.

The European accession, particularly the enlargement, also led to frustration. At that point in time, the centre parties had become pretty much non-ideological, in the sense that they actually had a very strong ideology, namely open markets and relatively open societies, but they did not have their old ideologies anymore. They did not have social democracy, they did not have Christian democracy or Conservatism as an ideology. Instead, they responded pragmatically to the new issues. They saw these as problems that had to be solved. The trouble with that approach is that you do not define what the problem is and why, but the populist radical right does.

“Austerity clearly is dividing societies as well as the EU.”

At the same time, you could argue that the same happened with the left populists in countries like Greece and Spain. There, austerity politics have become kind of above-politics, with the mainstream parties accepting them and not really ideologically defending them, but just saying that there is no alternative. Then, Syriza and Podemos re-politicized the issue, so once more, it is this ideological vacuum of the liberal democratic parties that created opportunities for populist parties to capture the agenda and frame the debate.

Is the pro-austerity agreement within the European institutions harming the European cohesion as a such and the overall European project in the long term by boosting populist parties?

There are two answers to that. First of all, at a general level, the problem is not only austerity but also the way it is defended, by claiming that there is no alternative to austerity. The argument is no longer that it is good and that there is an ideological reason underlying it. The argument is either ‘well, we have invested in it too much to go back on it’ or ‘there is no alternative.’ Neither of these is very convincing, particularly to people who have to pay the price for it.

At a more normative level, socio-economically, I think austerity clearly is dividing societies as well as the EU. Especially the idea that Germany is making tens – if not hundreds – of millions of Euros of the bail-out is fairly perverse.

Would you therefore say that there is an ever more anti-European and anti-German sentiment in Southern European countries, because they feel obliged to conduct severe austerity measures while Germany is profiting from the current situation? Does this create more support for populist parties?

Yes, but is always goes together, and I think we cannot focus too much or too exclusively on the rise of populist parties: it goes together with declining turnout and participation. One of the most stunning things about the last elections in Greece was that the largest block were the non-voters. That is in itself not remarkable, except that Greece has compulsory voting. Under conditions of compulsory voting, the largest portion of the people did not vote.

That tells you a lot about how unhappy people are, but also about how little trust they have in their political representatives. To a certain extent, that is even worse than when they still see a voice being expressed through populist parties because at that time, they still participate in the system and they still feel that they have a stake in the system.

Besides the debate on austerity policy in Europe, tax justice is another issue. Just recently, the so-called Paradise Papers were published, showing once more the giant extent of global tax evasion performed by some wealthy individuals and multinational companies. Yet, even though there is an apparent harm for society, this topic does not really make people emotional. Instead, political parties, especially on the left, have trouble to set this topic on the political agenda – why?

I think there are various reasons. First of all, left-wing parties have a hard time putting anything on the agenda, which has a lot to do with the fact that they do not have an ideology anymore. But I think, more importantly, they are very complicit in this whole phenomenon. They have been champions of neoliberal globalisation for the last decades and have been in government during much of the 1990s in particular and also during the beginning of the 21st century, when this all happened. The idea that this would be just something done by the right is therefore completely wrong.

One of the reasons why the ‘Paradise Papers’ are not a big issue, is because most people do not believe that anyone is going to do something about this

The Netherlands, for example, is almost a banana republic. We are by now the most important tax haven, worse than Luxemburg. And this has been done under all major parties. Thus, I think one of the reasons why this is not a big issue is because most people do not believe that anyone is going to do something about this. They do not think the social-democratic party is actually going to do something about it, they do not think that the right is going to do something about it. If anyone is going to do something about it, it is the radical right, because they hate the global elite.

This has to do with this broader issue of convergence, complicity, and people basically not seeing any difference between centre-left and centre-right in essential politics. And I think that, to a certain extent, very few centre-left parties have tried to make this a major issue. Again, in my opinion, there is a very clear reason for this: as soon as you start to dig, you see that the leaders of social-democratic parties in almost all countries involved knew full-well what was going on.

Is it not also difficult to put Offshore Leaks, like the Paradise Papers, on the political and media agenda because this topic is so much more complex than, for example, migration issues, which are often thematized by right-wing populists?

I fully disagree. I think the whole argument about ‘we lose the debate because they are simplistic, and we discuss things in its complexity’ is just a cop out. First of all, at the political, ideological level, these things are not complex. What is complex is how to exactly shape it in the best way, which shouldn’t be the debate. Yet, when you are ruled by pragmatics and technocrats, then that becomes the debate. But actually, the debate is pretty simple. The debate is about social justice and whether you have a right not to pay taxes when you are rich.

The debate is pretty simple, it is about social justice and whether you have a right not to pay taxes when you are rich

The problem is that the whole elite, from the centre-left to the centre-right, has convinced itself that no one can do anything against that because of “globalisation,” and that it is complex. It does not have to be complex. But it is complex if you believe that globalisation, particularly through an integrated market with a minimum role of the state, is the key model. If that is the key model, then yes, you cannot do much. But you can do all kinds of things. You can punish the people who bring their money out. You can tax the companies that take their money out. You cannot do that within the current EU, but you can change the EU. All those kinds of things, they are all doable if you have an ideological program. But that is exactly the point. If you accept to a large extent the status quo, then you are going to talk about tweaking the system. And tweaking the system is not necessarily complex, it is boring.

On the other hand, immigration is an incredibly complex issue. There are all kinds of different types of immigrants, all types of different regions. Clearly, we cannot have totally closed borders. We also cannot have totally open borders. The issue with Islam and its role within Western societies is very complex, everything is complex. The question is, do you make it complex and technocratic, or do you talk about the fundamentals?

And the fact that social-democratic parties do not predominantly speak about issues of social justice, in terms of class and solidarity, is to me the fundamental downfall of these parties. It makes them by large redundant because we already have parties that believe that the market is the best mechanism.

Can we then say that it is not all about actions but about communication? Have the traditional parties, especially from the political centre, been communicating in a too complicated and incomprehensible manner in the past?

No, I think this whole communication thing is exactly the same issue. It is again exactly the technocratic aspect. It is not that centre-left parties do not communicate well. It is not about how you package the message, it is that you do not have a message, that is the point. Since pretty much the ‘Neue Mitte’, the only thing that Social Democrats have done is focus on communication. And every single time that they get hammered in the elections, they will say, ‘well we didn’t explain it well enough’. No, people get the point.

If you do not have a message, it does not matter how great your communication is

The challenge is, by and large, that social-democratic parties only have a marginal difference to centre-right parties, in terms of socio-economic policies and to a certain extent in socio-cultural issues. Yet, people are not interested enough in that marginal difference to vote for them. If you do not have a message, it does not matter how great your communication is. You might win one election, but in the end, you have nothing to sell. And to me, social-democratic parties today have nothing to sell.

That actually brings me to my follow-up question: what is the best counter-strategy against populists? Ignoring them, copying their rhetoric or treating them just as any other political actor?

The best counter-strategy is to, first and foremost, focus on what actually is rather than on what you think there is. Populist parties on average get about 18 percent of the votes throughout the EU. So, this idea that we cannot beat populism is completely nonsensical. 82% of people do not vote for populist parties. That’s the first.

The second is, we focus way too much on the messenger and too little on the message. There is this myth that populist radical right politics is exclusive to populist parties or populist radical right parties. However, what we see today is that many of the authoritarian and nativist messages come from within the mainstream too. And obviously, they are problematic from a liberal-democratic point of view. The problem is the message, not necessarily the messenger. Consequently, we should focus on that message in the first place. Similarly, if the wrong messenger has the right message, he is not a problem.

That is why I do believe that we should treat populist actors the same as any other actor, which means that if you have things in common, you can work with them. If you do not, you do not work with them. To me, a ‘cordon sanitaire’ is completely unnecessary, because no liberal-democratic party can fundamentally work together with a populist party who wants to implement the core of its programme, because that goes against liberal democracy.

We should treat populist actors the same as any other actor

The question here is about agenda-setting, much more than anything else. Populists, with some exceptions, do not make policies. They are at best junior partners in coalitions, but mostly they are not even in the coalition. However, they have been setting the agenda over the last decade, in determining what we talk about and how we talk about it. The only way to change that is to set the agenda again. And the only way you can set an agenda is to have an ideology. If you do not have an ideology, you cannot determine what is a problem or not.

Then, the only thing that you are going to do is what Tony Blair introduced and what many parties these days do. That is engaging in polling and focus groups and thinking about what the people are concerned about. The problem is that people are concerned about what the media write about. And the media write about what people on Twitter shout the most about. And that is mostly what the radical right is talking about. So, this idea that there is some autonomous population that defines its own problems is just totally mistaken.

I think that particularly social-democratic parties and centre-left parties need to set the agenda and to talk about the issues that they find important and that their people find important. Yes, immigration is a part of that, but it is a small part. Many people are concerned about pensions, about unemployment, about health care, about education. They want to hear a vision and they do not want just some policies and technocratic arguments. They want to hear a vision of why we believe this is important. If they talk about these issues, the media will report about it and other people will talk about it. So I think in that sense, it is about reclaiming politics, it is about reclaiming the political agenda.

At the same time, there are a few countries where populism is dominant. Hungary, Greece, to a certain extent Italy and Poland. There, populism is in power or might soon be in power. That is an issue for the EU. That is a problem for everyone within the EU. So far, most political parties through their political groups have been highly opportunistic. The European People’s Party and the centre-right speak out against Poland because the country’s ruling party is not in the EPP. S&D speaks out against Orban because he is not in S&D. ALDE speaks out against Smer but does not speak out against ANO or other types of movements. The point is that you cannot completely be tied to the European project and argue that there is a ‘community of values’ that we stand for, and at the same time allow certain countries to stand for everything which is against these values.

The struggle is not only reclaiming politics within your own national context. It is also about what you want the EU to be

The national and the international, at least the national and the European, are directly connected. Thus, the struggle is not only to reclaim politics within your own national context. It is also about what you want the EU to be. And at the moment, the EU is just a big market. Clearly, the question on which the EU is willing to forcefully stand up against populist parties, be it Greece or Hungary, is about markets. It is not about liberal democracy.

I think that is again a reflection of what politics has become under both the centre-right and the centre-left. If centre-left and centre-right parties are again going to enforce their ideology, be it liberalism, be it Christian democracy, be it social democracy, this will not only have a consequence at the national level but also at the international level.

“‘Remain’ lost because the argument that the alternative is worse, is not enough. You need to sell your own agenda.”

One final short question: Are populism and Euroscepticism threatening the EU to an extent that it might not exist anymore in 10 years time?

No, I do not think that the EU will die, hardly ever, but definitely not in 10 years. Institutions do not disappear that quickly. Populism and Euroscepticism are different things. Almost every populist is Eurosceptic, not every Eurosceptic is a populist. Personally, I think that Euroscepticism can play an incredibly important role in reforming the EU. Being a deep Eurosceptic myself, I think that the EU is, just like social democracy, a victim of its own success. It has become so hegemonic and unchallenged that it has stopped thinking why it did something and stopped convincing people about the reasons why it was a good idea.

I think European integration needs to be challenged, it needs to be challenged from all perspectives so that it rekindles its initial spirit and ideas. For about the last 15 years, European integration has been ideologically dead. Much of the argumentation was simply ‘well this is good’ or ‘the alternative is worse’. It has been the whole response to the Great Recession, starting out with the Germans saying that austerity works, based on their own very narrow experience within the German unification process. After a while, everyone pretty much agreed that it was horrible but that they could not come up with anything better.

That is what European integration has become. That is what the ‘Remain’ side argued in the United Kingdom and that is why they lost – because it is not enough. The argument that the alternative is worse is not enough. You need to sell your own agenda rather than say that your opponent or the other position is worse. And to do so, you need to be challenged.

Therefore, I wish that pro-Europeans would take Euroscepticism more seriously – not just the simplistic one. Now, anyone who criticises the EU more fundamentally is sort of put away as a Eurosceptic and as the same as Golden Dawn or something. That is a very convenient way to marginalize Eurosceptics, but it also means that you do not address some of the very valid criticism that is being directed at the EU.

Interview conducted by Benedikt Weingärtner.

Cas Mudde (PhD, Leiden University) is Associate Professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA) and Researcher at the Center for Research on Extremism (C-REX) at the University of Oslo (Norway). His research agenda addresses the question: how can liberal democracies defend themselves against political challenges without undermining their core values? His recent book publications include On Extremism and Democracy in Europe (Routledge, 2016), SYRIZA: The Failure of the Populist Promise (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017), The Populist Radical Right: A Reader (Routledge, 2017), Populism: A Very Short Introduction (Oxford University Press, 2017), and The Far Right in America (Routledge, 2017). He is regularly consulted by various media, NGOs and state institutions, is a columnist for HOPE not hate, and a regular op-ed contributor to international media (e.g. The Guardian, Huffington Post, New York Times, VICE News). He tweets at @casmudde.


Uwe Hiksch