Siren Songs: Reflections on Contemporary Populism in Europe’s Old Democracies

In summer 2016, we experienced an epic populist moment in one of the world’s oldest democracies: Brexit. As will be well known to readers of this newsletter, this British referendum on whether or not to leave the EU resulted in a small, but clear, majority in favor of leaving.

The referendum is one of the preferred democratic mechanisms of the right-wing populists I have studied during the past 15 years. While seldom explicitly argued, the underlying reason why many populists like referenda is that they regard the will of the majority as normatively good. To populists, this view is a matter of doctrine or instinct. It is not an empirical question or a question to be debated.

From the premise that the popular will is good, it follows that the purpose of institutions and leaders should be to find out what this will is and to put it into practice. In this populist reasoning that underpins their support for referenda, all institutions should be regarded with suspicion. Representatives, too, even when elected, are from a populist point of view always in danger of corruption in so far as they become distanced from ‘the people.’ Distance from ‘the people’ can be geographical (think about how centers of power become negatively charged —Brussels, London, or Washington); social (way of life, ways of speaking, and dressing); or  economic (abuses of the public purse; personal wealth). If they become removed from ‘the people’, political representatives and others in power, have according to populist reasoning, parted with ‘the good’ side. They have become obstacles to, or even threats to, the realization of democracy.

Quite naturally, since populist reasoning is so suspicious of people in power, populist ideas have a tendency to be more appealing to those who do not have it. Furthermore, since populist movements are so critical of government and governing institutions, they tend to experience upswings in support in times of governing crises or political scandals. Most political scientists who study populism as an empirical phenomenon note its Janus-faced nature (Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser, 2013).

On one side, populism can be a positive corrective that helps bring together the powerless against the powerful, thereby contributing to throwing the rascals out, or at least scaring them sufficiently to start needed reform. On the other hand, populism can be a set of deeply anti-systemic impulses that undermine the institutions that generate the compromises necessary for democracy to work, the necessary authority of representatives, and the value of pluralism. Most worryingly, populism clearly has an authoritarian streak in its ignorance of the very existence of a myriad of ways of living and thinking and the potential this generates for real conflict among ‘the people.’

Brexit has, at least in Europe, raised a discussion about whether or not an increase in referenda now is our predicament on a global, or at least regional, scale. In my view, we should not be surprised if in the future we see more initiatives mobilizing to ‘democratize’ the least democratic field of policy-making –foreign policy. The institutions most vulnerable to such possible calls for the ‘democratization of international politics’ will be not only the EU, but also international courts and international trade agreements. Whether we like it or not, there can be little doubt that there is a clear potential for populists to have a profound effect on future global developments through their insistence that institutions and representatives be more democratically accountable. It is not unlikely that populists will propose more referenda as their preferred solution.

As much as it would be quaintly aristocratic, or even authoritarian, to fail to acknowledge that a populist corrective can be good for democracy, it is dangerous to ignore that it also can be a real threat to it. The versions of populism that rely on an inflexible notion of ‘the people’ and that legitimize turning against minority groups while simultaneously undermining the legitimacy of the institutions protecting these minorities and the political representatives speaking up for them are rightly seen as threats to Democracy.

I am often asked by journalists and policy-makers if I believe that the populist right movements in Europe, who mobilize opposition to immigration, are dangerous (Ivarsflaten, 2008). My answer is that it depends. It depends on the exclusion criteria they use to identify those who do not belong to ‘the people’, what they believe about these outsiders, and how they treat them. It depends on how vicious their antipathy to political representatives is. And it depends on how apocalyptic their ideas are of how elites and outsiders conspire to corrupt societies.

After years of empirical research on the demarcation line between legitimate and illegitimate actors on the far right, I have come to the conclusion that this particular boundary of democracy is crucial for understanding political dynamics in Europe’s old democracies. Still, this boundary is a much more complicated and contentious matter than we all would have preferred. In particular, the relationship between populism and far right extremism is not at all clear: Some extremists are also populists, some populists are also extremists; but not all populists are extremist, and not all extremists are populists. So knowing that a movement is populist tells us something about what energizes it. But many crucial aspects of the political initiative are not conveyed by the “populism” label, including whether or not the populist initiative is truly democratic.

The right-wing populists that have put their markon European politics during the past 30 or so years are all problematic in democratic terms, primarily because of how they exclude entire minority groups living within the state territory from the notion of ‘the people’ and how they actively contribute to scapegoating these groups for societal and economic problems that are not their fault. In the Brexit campaign, the Eastern.

European labor immigrants were scapegoated not only for the government´s austerity policies and the Limited UK welfare regime, but also for National Health Service lines and rises in housing prices. We have seen time and again in Europe that in the absence of convincing policy solutions to real economic and social problems, finding someone to blame (immigrants, the EU) carries the day.

Their lack of convincing solutions to the very real problems that feed the current surge in support for populist initiatives in Europe, is the most fundamental weakness of the populist movements that we have seen so far in Europe. Most problems in Britain will not be solved by reducing immigration and not even by leaving the EU. The discrepancy between the scale of the problems raised and the solutions offered by the populists is a fundamental reason why populists in Europe have either changed or, most often, not lasted very long in government (Deschouwer, 2008). This does not mean that populist initiatives can be safely ignored. Brexit would not have happened in this way and at this time in the absence of the right-wing populist party, UKIP.

Comparative political scientists have a lot of important work ahead of us on the topic of populism. We need to vigilantly and continuously examine the ideas, the rhetoric or styles, the organizational structures, and the leaders and supporters of the populists movements in Europe and elsewhere (Gidron and Bonikowski, 2013). I hope that an over-arching contribution of this work will be to inform, analytically and empirically, the likely never-ending effort of distinguishing between the true proposals for improving democracy and the siren songs.

Both may appear, at first glance, as populist

The article is published in the APSA Comparative Politics Newsletter, Vol 2, Issue 2, Fall




Published Nov. 8, 2016 3:41 PM