Twenty-five years ago, Fareed Zakaria introduced the concept of illiberal democracy: he revealed how some legitimately elected governments undermine liberal democratic principles by eroding the rule of law and the protection of fundamental freedoms. He predicted that this new form of regime would significantly damage the status of our democracies if not appropriately challenged. After almost two decades, the 2014 speech of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán marked the official birth of illiberal democracy in modern Europe, with a discourse that echoes the 1997 article. Except that it is the exact opposite of what Zakaria hoped to hear.
Orbán’s rhetoric and attitude are supported and endorsed by several populist leaders across Europe and beyond. What the Hungarian PM represents is the result of a long democratic recession that Larry Diamond estimated to start in the early 2000s in continents such as Asia and Africa. It appears that it is now the turn of Europe, as we can deduct from the rising popularity of multiple anti-establishment and nationalist parties across the continent. Despite populism not being exclusively a right-wing phenomenon, most of its support in the EU is represented by radical right parties that are often Eurosceptic.
This aspect is also confirmed by the outcome of the last European Parliament election in 2019. The results indicate a nationalist trend and a shift from the centre-right to the far-right within the populist vote: the relative populist electoral strength was highest in two European parliament groups, namely Identity and Democracy (ID) (including Salvini’s League and Le Pen’s National Rally) and the European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) (including Brothers of Italy and Law and Justice in Poland), which are both very critical of the union and formed exclusively by right-wing (or even far-right in some cases) populist and nationalist parties. These two groups, albeit not achieving the brilliant results they were expecting, have won 135 seats in the European Parliament, and their main parties happened to be very strong nationally. Considering that the historic European People’s Party (EPP) and the Socialist and Democrats (S&D) have lost 65 seats combined from the previous election, it is not a bad outcome overall for right-wing populism.
In 2017, Bridgewater’s populism index in developed countries revealed that this phenomenon was at its highest rate since 1930s. In addition, the think tank Timbro estimated that more than a quarter of European electors vote for authoritarian populist parties, with Poland and Hungary among the four countries with most support. Political scientist Cas Mudde observed instead that the average support for these political forces is the highest since 1940s, with over 20% since 2010. Slightly different estimations are calculated but nevertheless this shows to what extent have these parties grown in recent years. One might consider these factors as alarming, since many scholars claim the expansion of populism and nationalism could eventually topple liberal democracies and favour authoritarian regimes, as already occurred in history.
What do we mean by right-wing populism?
First and foremost, before getting into the details of right-wing populism, an overall definition and brief explanation of populism must be provided. Mudde defines populism as an “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite’”. Populists also believe that all members of the ‘pure’ group have the same aims and abide by the same principles, hence they do not accept a pluralist society consisting of diverse needs and concerns. Some of them also claim that this perceived faction of ‘the people’ comprises only of one ethnicity, class and religion.
Populist parties no longer seek out compromise and consensus through tolerant and democratic practices, but instead try to overthrow what they believe is a corrupt and broken system. In this way they undermine democratic institutions such as courtrooms and media, while attacking any aspect of society that opposes the common will of ‘the people’. They also refuse the search for a balance between the needs of the majority and the minority, as they claim that disregarding the interests of the majority is a violation of democracy, thus supporting “a form of democratic extremism or, better said, of illiberal democracy”.
Moreover, the cult of the leader is crucial in the populist world. This may sound obvious because a charismatic figure is always needed in politics in order to move masses and influence opinions, regardless of the political party. However, populist leaders declare they embody the will of the people and often appeal to the worst instincts of the population, manipulating fears and anxiety to increase their support. As politics is not only made of rational thinking, but also emotions and sentiments, they interpretate fear and desperation with (sometimes false) claims and simplistic solutions to contrast complex issues.
Populist groups are usually considered ‘catch-all’ movements, meaning that they follow the popular support rather than choosing a specific side. However, it could be discussed that this wide definition of populism is reductive. In fact, French economist Thomas Piketty deems it as a generalisation and refrains from using this word since there is a variety within that group: any party criticizing the current establishment is labelled as ‘populist’ without differentiating the diverse forms of this phenomenon. For instance, right-wing populists are usually hostile to immigration and minority rights, whereas left-wing populists are often culturally inclusive.
It could be further discussed that the argument about the people versus the elite tends to be overused as we have cases in which the political system is widely corrupt, and thus brings to legitimate concern and popular discontent to demand for more transparency and equality, such as in Greece, Spain and Italy. The movements that have emerged in these countries (Syriza, Podemos and 5 Star Movement respectively) showed a different approach to politics in comparison to prominent right-wing populist parties, as they have not undermined or taken over democratic institutions when elected to govern their respective countries.
Nonetheless, the majority of European populist parties have right-wing tendencies. This type of nationalist populism (also defined as ‘national populism’ by British academics Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin) is mainly based on xenophobic and protectionist sentiments, in addition to be against the neo-liberal establishment. Right-wing populist parties tend to regard nationality as a rigid and unmodifiable homogenous identity (mistakenly connected only to ethnicity), and they are therefore against any form of pluralism, whether it is based on culture or sexual orientation. Although some national populists consider themselves patriots defending their sovereignty, it could be argued otherwise. Italian scholar Maurizio Viroli observes in his book that the terms ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriotism’ are often misused: while the former mostly reflects a protectionist and isolationist approach (rather than sovereignty), the latter is also based on the respect of other cultures.
Furthermore, most right-wing populist parties are willing to live in a democratic context, but they are against the liberal values of present-day democracies, such as media freedom and minority rights. As a matter of fact, they believe they represent the true nature of democracy, which focuses on the needs and interests of the majority that felt excluded and neglected by the ‘corrupt elite’ in recent years. Nevertheless, by emphasising the importance of the majority at all costs, they end up discriminating who is not part of ‘the people’, hence appearing to be a regressive and undemocratic response to a legitimate concern.
What are the causes of the global rise of populism?
Political scientists Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris suggest that the rise of populism is mainly due to economic inequality, which was partly caused by phenomena such as globalisation and austerity. The shift from the industrial age to what Piketty describes as a “globalised era of hypercapitalism and digital technology” has created high levels of inequity around the world. Piketty also argues that the concentration of wealth is disproportionate because the ratio of economic growth is lower than the so-called ‘return on invested capital’, hence much of the resources end up in the hands of a microscopic part of the population. Indeed, the latest Credit Suisse report indicates a great disparity in the world, with 1.1% of the population owning almost half of the global wealth (45.8%), and the bottom 55% of the population possessing only 1.3% of the total resources.
While globalisation had its own advantages (such as giving work to millions of people in emerging economies), it has also displaced many low skilled jobs and produced economic stagnation in developed countries. This has resulted in an ever-increasing wealth gap; this disparity, in turn, has created underserved communities who began to distrust the global system. Already twenty years ago economist Joseph Stiglitz (in his book Globalization and Its Discontents) warned us that rising inequality would pave the way for the rise of anti-establishment parties, such as nationalists and populists.
The 2008 financial crash further deepened the economic gap: the main consequences of the so-called ‘Great Recession’ have been high levels of unemployment, growing inequality and impoverishment of the working and lower middle classes. Moreover, in the aftermath of the financial crisis, the austerity policies implemented by the European Union, including tax raises and spending cuts, exacerbated the situation. The austere measures were in fact not combined with effective social protection systems, hence degrading the conditions of workers as well. This circumstance thus led the EU into an identity crisis, which we are still experiencing today with the rise of several Eurosceptic parties.
Some might discuss that this is connected to the decline of liberal democracy, as the European Union is mainly based on liberal values. Mudde observes that the crisis of democracy results from the failure of the liberal establishment in the political system, and not from several external challengers trying to undermine it. In fact, he also claims that “contemporary populism is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism”. The fact that the liberal system could be or become undemocratic is not unrealistic as it sounds, especially if we consider that in history liberalism was not always applied in democratic contexts, such as in many European countries in the 18th and 19th centuries.
The democratic crisis was also caused by the deterioration of traditional parties that lost touch with the lower middle and working classes, which have stopped trusting a system that has sold them false promises and has not met their needs. As a matter of fact, the level of trust towards parties across the EU has been in a declining trend in the last decade (just over 20% in 2019). This is also demonstrated by factors such as lower electoral turnout and decreasing participation in political activities, but also by the growing interest towards non-traditional parties. This aspect is critical because once you cease to identify in a political movement, you automatically find refuge in national identity, ideology or religion.
Furthermore, the advent of right-wing populism has cultural determinants as well: the 2015 migration crisis has indeed displaced millions of asylum seekers and economic migrants, many of which coming from Muslim countries. Their religion is a key aspect because right-wing populists have increasingly exhibited xenophobic attitudes towards Islam, which is seen as a civilisational threat, particularly after 9/11 and the rise of ISIS. Whereas there is no justification for such discriminatory behaviours, raising a question about EU’s handling of the migrant crisis may be a legitimate concern. According to Article 79 of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European Union, the union “shall develop a common immigration policy aimed at ensuring, at all stages, the efficient management of migration flows”. It could be discussed whether some member states have not put enough effort and resources to cooperate and find a common solution, but it is also true that the EU could have anticipated the crisis by implementing appropriate immigration controls and reception systems. In fact, Mudde acknowledges that migration policies were often “undemocratic in spirit”, meaning that they were not the outcome of collective discussions and decisions taken together with the population. Hence, right-wing populist parties have exploited this crisis to criticize the EU with improbable scapegoats: for instance, describing migration from Africa and the Middle-East as an invasion or claiming that NGOs and liberal institutions are plotting for an ‘ethnic replacement’ of the European people.
As a result, right-wing populists (or at least most of them) reject liberal democratic values rather than democracy in its entirety: those values that are entrenched in the EU and other international institutions. However, the populist response does not seem to respect EU fundamental goals and values, nor basic democratic principles. The main issue is the approach used to criticize the liberal system. Populist movements tend to appeal to the fears and anxieties of the voters to attack the elites, which are perceived as always corrupt and distant from the population. This cannot be accepted as a fair argument, because, as we cannot generalise that all populists are fascists or xenophobic, then we cannot assert that the so-called elite is all corrupt either. As a result, neither the growing populist sentiment nor the liberal establishment are to be completely eradicated, but rather challenged and improved through collective discussions and decisions.
Moreover, the rise of right-wing populism is not the consequence of a single issue, but it is driven by a combination of mutually reinforcing economic and cultural aspects (from unemployment and wealth inequality to racism and xenophobia). These factors are the result of a series of events that affected our society in the last decades, such as globalisation, the Great Recession, the 2015 migrant crisis and the decline of traditional political parties. It would be thus too simple to only blame the vulnerabilities of the liberal establishment or the opportunism of populist leaders, as both approaches have had negative repercussions on the public.
On the one hand, populists have gained popularity due to genuine issues that liberal institutions have failed to deal with. On the other hand, they have also promoted ‘culturally exclusive’ behaviours (racism, xenophobia etc.) through demagogy and propaganda, often accompanied by the spread of disinformation. Nonetheless, the liberal system has perhaps not effectively dealt with crucial challenges and has showed weaknesses that exacerbated the socio-economic crisis we are witnessing, hence allowing right-wing populist parties to flourish. The more the people have felt left behind by the system, the more they have found refuge in national identity and intolerant ideologies. Therefore, the first step to take in order to explain and fight populism would be to bear responsibility for the inequal policies implemented through the years that have left many communities marginalised and prone to vote for anti-establishment parties. A card that does not seem to have been played well (or at all), since right-wing populist parties are increasingly on the rise in many countries around the world.