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Populism.exe in Europe

Populism.exe in Europe The Programless Programmers

In recent years, the populist and extremist movements have altered the European Union’s political landscape, cynically capitalizing on a speech based on hate, differences, or any other topic that promised to pay off - regardless of the consequences. Starting with Hungary and Slovakia and continuing with Italy’s Five Stars Movement, or Germany’s AfD, the trend is clear, while framing the issue is a mere step towards accepting that the fundamental European principles and values are at stake. The political forecast in the EU looks rather gloomy since most of the established parties have proved unable to tackle this insidious tide. On the other hand, one must not be surprised that the issues left unaddressed year after year have led to the current political unrest. The fact that demagogy and hatred have been fully operationalized during numerous electoral campaigns with such great success suggests that there is a widespread popular discontent that mainstream politics have failed to address. The number one issue is undeniably the so-called “refugees/migration crisis”. Populists and extremist electoral gains demonstrate something unimaginable a few years ago in the liberal and democratic societies: for the first time in the last couple of decades, people have spoken openly about immigration and how difficult it is to integrate minorities, especially ethno-religious minorities (predominantly Africans and Arabs). The so-called "silent majority" prefers not to participate in debates filled with formal speeches and to sanction this "politically-correct" approach by voting all sorts of anti-system entities. The vote given to populists does not necessarily mean that people identify themselves with their narrative, but that they want to condemn the inability of traditional parties to tackle these problems for such a long period of time. 

Populism in the past and populism at present 

The list of populist movements is long and mottled (we mention here populares from ancient Rome, the Wisconsin agricultural movement in the mid-19th century, the American Know-nothings or the Argentinian Peronists of the 20th century). Even today there are countless forms of populism, from Erdogan’s Turkey to Beppe Grillo’s party, from Venezuela’s Maduro to Marine Le Pen in France. But the distinction between all these movements is that they are not united by a clear political agenda. Some favor the state ownership of the means of production, others want the privatization of prisons, others try to put politics under religious guardianship, and others want the restoration of secularism from the past. All have a common feature: aggressive speech.

In “What’s populism?”, Jan-Werner Müller, professor of political science at Princeton, says that populists have a unique way of describing the political world by putting ‟pure and fully solidary people” against ‟the corrupt or inferior morally speaking” elites.

In “What’s populism?”, Jan-Werner Müller, professor of political science at Princeton, says that populists have a unique way of describing the political world by putting “pure and fully solidary people” against “the corrupt or inferior morally speaking[1] elites. If we look at what is happening lately in Europe or the US, we can see that populists claim that they represent the silent majority of “true” Americans (or Germans, Hungarians, French) and we are witnessing increasingly attacks against elites or corrupt traitors. If many left-wing or right-wing politicians say that they speak for people or that they try to remedy the injustices of the political status-quo, populists say they want what Müller calls the “moral monopoly of representation”. This makes the populists dangerous, because they pretend to be the only legitimate political actor and seek to take control of the judiciary system and the media and to expand their influence on as many institutions as possible. When Viktor Orban began to expand control over Hungary’s key institutions, the voters encouraged him to continue this process of “putting the right people in key positions”. For this reason, Müller says we should not be naïve and believe that populists lack the discipline of governing. Viktor Orban not only leads a rather high performing government, but he has also managed to inspire governments from countries like Poland or Serbia to follow suit. Furthermore, he has begun to point the finger to several European leaders’ and he does not seem to be stopped by the triggering of Article 7 of the EU Treaty against him.

Another major danger of populism is exclusion. For some to be categorized as “true citizens”, others must be excluded. And as each populist movement is different from another, so do the exclusionary principles. Some go against moral, religious, economics principles or sexual orientations. But in the last 20 years, most are heading against different ethnicities. Throughout Europe, states that have defined themselves as mono-ethnic or monocultural have experienced mass migration and are now struggling with the slow and painful transition to a new model of belonging to a nation. Christopher Caldwell in his book, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe”, writes that the success of the United States is largely due to the ability to turn waves of immigrants into “true Americans”[2]. It is not quite clear whether the reason for this transformation is the confidence in American culture, the narrow diversity of particular immigrant groups or their ability to integrate into the labor market. However, the result is that the second generation of immigrants did not behave differently from the native Americans. The influx of immigrants required few changes in communities, but did not cause major changes in society. “Most Europeans …”, Caldwell wrote, “…have accepted that the societies in which they live must become multiethnic and will have to accept that people of different ethnicities and other color will become their compatriots, but a great part of them do not accept. Many immigrants, on the other hand, have learned the local language and adopted the core values of new societies, but a significant minority did not. The resulting tensions have opened in the last decades the most significant political cleavage in most Western European states.

That is why progress in Europe on this subject is limited. Even though countries like Germany and France have had different approaches to immigration policy, most of the European nations failed to assimilate the newcomers. In most of Europe, unemployment rate among immigrants is high, and they do not speak the local language and refuse to adopt the local customs, tending towards a strong segregationist practice, or rather, self-segregation. More than half of Europeans say they do not have friends of other race, while it is twice as likely for an immigrant to say he does not feel accommodated/integrated in the country of adoption. And the cleavage seems to be worsening generation after generation.

If many left-wing or right-wing politicians say that they speak for people or that they try to remedy the injustices of the political status-quo, populists say they want what Müller calls the “moral monopoly of representation”.

Caldwell even writes about a cultural transformation that happens so slowly that we do not realize it: “Europe is in a race with Islam for the immigrants’ faith. For now, Islam is leading this race in a clearly demographic and less philosophical way. Under these circumstances, words like majority or minority mean little. When an insecure, malleable and relativistic culture encounters a secure culture, confident and strengthened by common doctrines, it is generally the first to change to fit with the latter.” Let us reinforce this scenario with the plot of Michel Houellebecq’s second to last novel, called “Submission”. In the face of the choice between the far-right candidate in the Le Pen mold or the leader of a supposedly moderate Islamic party, the French political establishment decides to support the Islamist. Finally, it proves not at all moderate, and the narrator of the novel, a proxy for modern European man, converts to Islam and marries 3 women[3], as France’s remaining conservatives discover common ground with the Islamists against the latter’s prior liberal allies. This scenario is extremely likely in the electoral future of the European countries. But, taking into consideration how the political framework looks today, it is possible that the political establishment in every European state will choose populism or reaction instead of Islamism. 

Migration crisis and populism in Eastern Europe 

A strange phenomenon and hard to explain to European political scientists is the anti-immigration feeling in countries like Hungary, Bulgaria or Romania, as strong as the one in Western Europe, although the number of non-European immigrants to Central and Eastern Europe is lower than in Western Europe. Orban’s popularity has begun to grow (and not only in Hungary) when he built fences at the border to stop the influx of migrants to Budapest. Ivan Krastev, a Bulgarian political scientist, notices a paradox of today’s Europe: “Since the fall of the Berlin Wall, Europe has not built or started to build up 1200 km of fences in order to keep others out. Attracting tourists and rejecting migrants is the short version of the world order that Europe wants.” If most nations in Western Europe believe that they will take advantage of this new world order, residents in Central and Eastern Europe have a gloomy vision of the future. For instance, in the last 25 years one in ten Bulgarians have left the country. By 2050, Bulgaria’s population will shrink by more than a quarter, and this demographic trend is valid in most of the countries in the region. The outcome is the fear of “ethnic disappearance”, mostly among small nations for which the arrival of migrants can signify the beginning of their exit from history. And the oft-repeated argument that Europe’s aging population needs migrant labor, even as Caldwell’s book warns against “solving temporary labor shortages through permanent demographic changes”, only strengthens the level of existential melancholy. The result is that even if there are visible disagreements between Western and Eastern Europe, the concerns in both regions, especially those highlighted by populist discourse, are similar. 

Populism and migration 

While the differences between East and West are often overstated, those between North and South Europe are often understated. On the continent, growing inequities and stagnation of living standards have hit hard, especially the youth. However, in Northern Europe, there is still the certainty that if young people succeed in perfecting their education they will find a decent job and enjoy a comfortable life. This is not the case in Southern Europe, in countries such as Greece or Spain, where at least a quarter of the population has been unemployed in recent years. This reality, amplified by the economic crisis, has generated a lot of skepticism in society and made it question the principle of democratic meritocracy, fueling movements such as Syriza, Podemos or the Five Star Movement in Italy.

Even though countries like Germany and France have had different approaches to immigration policy, most of the European nations failed to assimilate the newcomers.

All of these entities promote a style that can be seen as inspiring for the young generation struck by the economic crisis and its effects. When Silvio Berlusconi was at the height of his career, no politician or journalist had the ability to confront him successfully, except for Beppe Grillo, the comedian. While most populists turned their attention to scapegoats, Beppe Grillo focused his anger on the “corrupt political cast”. John Judis, in “The Populist Explosion”, explains that the difference between Grillo and Le Pen is highlighted by the distinction between the dyadic and tryadic forms of populism[4]. According to him, left-wing populists are trying to form a dichotomy between people and elites, trying to generate a conflict similar to what happened with the classes in the French Revolution of 1789. By contrast, right-wing populists are creating an antagonism between people, elites and a third segment of the population that is presented as “spoiled” by the political establishment: Muslims, immigrants, drifting intellectuals, etc.

The implications are obvious: tryadic populism is pernicious while the dyadic is relatively benign. Unfortunately, reality is much more complicated than that. Many populists are benign when they begin their political career, but later turn their attention to vulnerable minorities as they reach political maturity. Grillo was first seen as a hero of the Italian left, and 5SM was animated by progressive ideals. Each of the five stars was a progressive ideal: maintaining water utilities under state ownership, improving mass transit, prioritizing sustainable development, the right of Italians to have free access to the Internet and environmental protection. It did not take long until Grillo turned his rhetoric against migrants. Another example that show political values do not mean much today is Greece's left-wing PM, Alexis Tsipras, who entered the government as a member of a far right coalition.

And the problem with left-wing populists is not just the inflammatory rhetoric which they use. Even though their diagnosis of society is correct and their passion for economic justice is real, the solutions they propose are as simplistic as those promoted by right-wing populists. Just like them, they promise voters that politics is simple and that all the problems of society can be solved by someone who really represents people. And, just like the right-wing populists, disappoint their followers once they get into high offices. The purpose of the populists has become to overthrow the current order, not to change it. 

The decline of traditional parties and the speech proposed by populists 

For many decades, electoral campaigns have hinged major political subjects such as more or less taxation, as well as a smaller or more extensive welfare state. Today, these debates have lost their purpose and meaning, and political language is increasingly apathetic, becoming ever more simplistic and lacking in nuance. Since the economic crisis, we have experienced an unlikely revival of the extreme left and an equally unlikely political return of the extreme right, while the usual political language has begun to disappear. Thus, similar to when the mist dissipates leaving the sun to shine above the sea, the disappearance of the mainstream political language has revealed a terrifying landscape.

John Judis, in “The Populist Explosion,” explains that the difference between Grillo and Le Pen is highlighted by the distinction between the dyadic and tryadic forms of populism.

There are many ideas today that animate electoral campaigns regarding both politics and the economy. But our efforts to counter the political crisis we are facing are not ambitious enough. We have made real progress in understanding the nature of populism, a moderate progress in analyzing its causes, but little progress in identifying potential remedies. The fate of liberal democracy depends on our ability to formulate a reformist and forward-looking vision for more efficient public policies that could unite citizens in search of a more tolerant and prosperous future, and not a vision that concludes that the current political system is beyond repair[5]. But, in order to put forward an effective defense against the false promises of populism, what we have to do is much more than define the threat. We need to formulate ideas, slogans and policies capable of renewing liberal democracy. 

Conclusions and prospects 

Just like the September 11 attacks have permanently changed the way international relations relate to terrorism, the refugee crisis has shaken the idealism of the European Union. The predicament was obvious – European leaders did not want to accept the extremely large number of refugees, but they also could not say this publicly because they would have violated their own constructed image of the fundamental principles and beliefs of the “Founding Fathers” of the European community. The refugee crisis also brought forward controversial issues not only from the perspective of conservatives or traditionalists, but also through the approach of modernists, such as the LGBTQ community, same-sex marriage and other associated rights, abortion, the negative effects of globalism and globalization coupled with a dilution of national identity and so on. The liberal political elites preferred to look the other way, to award as many rights and privileges as possible to defined minorities, preserving the principle of individual freedom for which so many people died, but ignoring the fact that all these rights, often lacking in any obligations generated alongside them or prone to conflicting interpretations because of their negative nature, sparked grievances which were in no way addressed. Social and societal changes are normal in any community and any element that brings change is viewed with suspicion at first, but the rapidity of current changes on the historical level and the perceived arbitrariness of these changes has disturbed the impacted populations. All this has led to the election of Donald Trump in the US, to Brexit and the rise of populist parties in Germany, France, the Netherlands, Italy, Hungary, Sweden, despite the news continuing to present these electoral processes as successes of anti-populist parties.

Lately, the rise of extreme right-wing parties has radically changed Europe's political map, and refugees and asylum seekers have become a hot topic for European voters. In an electoral landscape fragmented by the decline of mainstream parties and the emergence of new alternatives on the political scene, populist parties are becoming increasingly important regardless of whether they win 5%, 10% or 15% of the popular vote. Even when they join the opposition, this posture allows populists to constantly bring to the attention of public opinion subjects that damage the mainstream parties which have an outward ideology more inclined towards “politically correctness”. This is the starting scenario for the election campaign in the European elections and #road2sibiu. The nationalist and far-right political factions are in full swing not only in many Western European states, but also in the Center and East of the continent. Whether they succeed in gaining important positions or became the main opposition parties, these parties already set the political agenda in many countries and forced the traditional parties to reconsider positions they have held for decades.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel and outgoing European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said, on the same day, in separate speeches, that the rise of populism and the extreme right represents an existential threat to the future of the European Union. Merkel and Juncker also warned about the effects that they can have on EU cohesion, as refugees continue to reach Europe. The German Chancellor, criticized in her country for her immigration policies and obstinacy in their maintenance, said that illegal immigration has become the defining issue of the entire continent. Germany has become more and more divided by fears that it will lose its national identity. Additionally, a series of incidents involving refugees - accused of killing Germans - have provoked violent clashes in various German cities. In Merkel's opinion, future politics will be centered on the immigration debate, and the effects on the cohesion of the bloc will be even more important than the Eurozone crisis. The EU's lack of solidarity in relation to the issue of immigration is the "Achilles' heel" of Europe, Merkel acknowledged. Solutions, so far, seem to be absent, which will make the influence of nationalists and populists on the Old World grow, admittedly slowly, but surely.

[1] Jan-Werner Müller, “What’s populism?”, University of Pennsylvania Press, 2016.

[2] Christopher Caldwell, “Reflections on the Revolution in Europe”, Anchor PH, 2010.

[3] Michel Houellebecq, “Submission”, Flammarion Publishing House, France, 2015.

[4] John Judis, “The Populist Explosion,”, Columbia Global Reports, USA, 2016.

[5] Matthijs Rooduijn, „Populism has been used to describe countless and often conflicting political parties, but it can be defined”, Democratic Audit UK, 2017.



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