Can right-wing populism have a positive effect on democracy or on the European Union? The fact that such a provocative thesis is now being discussed in earnest signals a new social development driven by three interwoven mechanisms: First, public opinion has drifted increasingly to the right. Established politicians and political parties have started to draw on populist slogans to appeal to a large cross-section of voters.
The case of France illustrates the dangers inherent in this approach: Nicolas Sarkozy fished for right-wing voters in the hope of mobilizing constituents of Marine Le Pen’s Front National for his own party. The result was not only a strengthening of the Front National but an increasingly intolerant and divided society. Sarkozy’s immigrant policies became so restrictive that they violated the French Constitution and several European treaties. For example, Sarkozy presided over the forced expulsion of Romanian Roma from France.
There is a healthy dose of populism
Second, the use of the term “populism” has changed. The “populist trend” isn’t confined to the extreme right but also includes left-leaning and centrist parties. Its intensity varies. But because a majority of Europe’s populists belong to the right-wing, we tend to treat “populism” as synonymous with “right-wing radicalism” – which obscures important differences between the two terms.
Third, right-wing parties embrace the conflation of the two terms. They aim to occupy populist positions and try to re-brand themselves as populists rather than as extremists. Indeed, right-wing parties used empty democratic rhetoric as early as the 1990s to signal their alleged willingness to respect the democratic process. Suddenly, journalists began to refer to them as “right-wing populists” rather than as “right-wing extremists.” There was a kernel of truth in the new terminology: Political actors who commit (at least rhetorically) to democracy, individual rights and personal liberties position themselves differently than extremists who swear adherence to an explicitly anti-democratic value codex.
But what distinguishes populism from right-wing populism? We can see populism as a structural agenda: Its proponents defend democratic principles like popular sovereignty, demand more participatory powers, and criticize elites and established parties for their aloofness from the concerns of common citizens and for the lack of political representation. Populists want to mobilize against the system of representative politics and seek the inclusion of ordinary citizens in political decision-making processes.
A democracy can benefit from a healthy dose of structural populism. Before the Berlin Wall fell, hundreds of thousands marched in East Germany to chants of “We are the people.” On the contemporary European stage, more participatory politics may indeed deepen democracy.
But populists also suffer from an anti-institutional bias: They attack institutions and procedures that aim to guarantee democratic representation, and seek to replace them with a direct relationship between the people and the leader based on personal trust. Authoritarian rulers can have unblemished populist credentials. Additionally, populists tend to see the world in black and white: If you’re not with them, you’re against them. This perspective over-simplifies and scandalizes political discourse and prevents public discussion. It impoverishes democracy.
The distinction between friends and enemies is ideologically justified. Left-wing populists draw on Marx’s conception of class warfare to divide society into a privileged elite and an under-privileged mass of proletarians. Economic elites and capitalists are seen as the enemy.
Right-wing populists draw on other ideologies. They see “the people” as an organic and cultural unity (which they often define in ethnic terms), and seek to distinguish themselves from political elites as well as from “foreign elements”: Non-nationals, Jews, communists, Leftists, et cetera. This ideology is extremely dangerous: It presents discrimination as a harmless process of distinction and renders it socially acceptable.
Populism is the bridge that transports right-wing extremism into the heart of our democratic society and helps to undermine ideals about equality, pluralism, and tolerance. When Marine Le Pen links her insistence on personal self-determination to a call to arms against “non-French” ways of living (and singles out homosexual couples and immigrants for criticism), her democratic façade begins to crumble. Behind it we see the ugly idealization of a homogenous society, the rejection of pluralism, and the endorsement of racism.
In Norway, intolerance is the real reason behind the populist fight against “gradual Islamization”: Islam is conflated with Islamism, and both are framed as integral threats to the country’s homogenous society.
Populism has infiltrated the discourse
Over the past years, populism has also infiltrated many discourses about the European Union. Xenophobia and anti-elite agitation are deeply intertwined: The Portuguese and the Greeks are denounced as lazy and corrupt and blamed for the European crisis. This doesn’t exactly qualify as constructive criticism.
Right-wing populism isn’t ambivalent or conducive to democracy – it’s a destructive force. It muscles its way onto the democratic playing-field, where it violates established rules and spits anti-democratic ideas. We need a watchful public to counter the gradual erosion of public discourse by populists, and we should not commit the error of seeing populism as a harmless phenomenon.