Populist parties and actors entered the western political stages a long way back, and Nico Horn describes how populism has now become ‘real.’
A spectre is haunting Europe, but this time it is not the shadow of communism, but the rise of populists all over the continent. One month before the presidential elections in the United States, one can also say that it’s taking control overseas. A few months ago most expected the mystery of Donald Trump to disappear with the date of the elections coming closer, but he remains a serious competitor for Hillary Clinton. In several western countries populist presidents are no longer an illusion and in Eastern Europe radical right parties are already ruling, with Austria, The Netherlands and France next in line.
Forget Black and White
The – not baseless – hysteria in dealing with populists makes it difficult to communicate with them in the right way. There is not just the one type of populism either and according to Dr. Bartek Pytlas (an expert on populism and lecturer at the Munich Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität, who I spoke to on the topic), it should instead be understood as a political narrative, used by different parties. Of course there are also left-wing populist parties and in Greece and Spain they are in fact very powerful. Keeping this in mind, it isn’t surprising that populists differ in various aspects. For example, while many populists refuse the marriage of homosexuals, the Dutch radical right politician Geert Wilders is a supporter.
In fact there is only one distinctive characteristic; their claim of exclusivity. Dr Pytlas explains: “Populists are claiming that they are the only voice of the people and only the ones they regard as worthy are part of this group”. Minorities are excluded from the nation and are declared as enemies. Many assume a correlation between the financial crisis of 2007 and the rise of populism in the western world, but most studies don’t see this interdependency. This is a far more complicated issue and can’t be put down to one factor.
Doctor Pytlas emphasises that societies always have to deal with the unequal distribution of material goods, a permanent trouble spot. “Populists are political operators. Specific critical situations, for example a combination of an economic and political crisis, can strengthen the advancement of populism”. Populist actors use the imbalance within society and point at specific conflicts or create conflicts themselves.
One example is the so-called “refugee crisis”. Instead of facing the real task, namely the integration of a huge number of refugees all over Europe, right-wing populists evoke a shroud of scepticism around national identity. UKIP, the German Alternative für Deutschland and the French Front National provide simple answers for complex questions. You could describe them as the political Frank Abagnale, the impostor that Steven Spielberg’s film Catch Me If You Can was based on. In the case of the “refugee crisis” they play on the fears of many people. They profess that incoming refugees would be criminals and steal the jobs of the homogenous national community, which these strangers certainly don’t belong to.
The construction of enemy images is a constitutive feature of populist parties and it creates the division of good and evil. “Very often populists argue that they are no longer interested in the classic cleavages in society, because the ‘real’ conflict exists between poor and rich or people with and without a migrant background”, says Dr. Pytlas.
Insufficiency of the mainstream parties
This easy solution for all problems attracts many people who are in search of stability. We are living in a complex world and nearly all the political ideologies have failed to give answers to the common man, but now the globalised world provides us with globalised problems. Populist parties claim that they have the patent remedy for everything and people fall for it.
The German chancellor Angela Merkel is strongly blamed for opening the national borders during the “summer of migration” last year, but she had to consider a lot of different actors. Economists wanted her to open the border in order to get qualified employees for the domestic job market. On the other hand nationalists, forced her to keep the borders closed because they saw the “holy nation” sink.
Established parties are no longer able to represent the interests of the largest part of the population. What we are witnessing right now, is the death of catch-all parties in many countries all over Europe. Dr. Pytlas makes it clear, it is not the case that “the mainstream parties don´t want to represent major interests, they simply are not able to do so.” The interests are getting more and more diverse, so it’s no longer possible to catch the entire population with one issue.
Argue them – you can!
“What the parties tried, is to address the broadening mass”, illustrates Doctor Pytlas and it’s a desperate attempt to save the big party. The result is the disappearance of the old divisions of left and right. Everybody wants to catch the voters, but this tactic is a fallacy. Furthermore, the mainstream parties adopt the arguments of populists.
Dr. Pytlas is sure that this strategy is counterproductive: “At the end of the day, the adoption of radical thinking strengthens populist opinions, because their discourse gets legitimized.” This might be successful over a short period of time, but populists are becoming an acknowledged part of society. It might be that UKIP is disappearing, but it doesn’t matter if the Tories are becoming the populists instead.
It is time for mainstream parties to forget about election strategies while democracy is in danger. Populists won’t disappear on their own. Doctor Pytlas is convinced that: “If populists are part of the parliament, or even the government, they will always weave new enemies, which help them to reach their goals.” Hungary and Austria are proving this, so we shouldn’t wait for other countries to experience the same. The only way to deal with populist parties is to argue them.
They pretend to have easy solutions for everything, so they should reveal them, Donald Trump being a prime example. Can anyone tell me how he plans to build this great wall? Why not battle them as a political opponent? Dr. Pytlas calls this “the deconstruction of populists.” Instead of adopting the arguments of radical actors, journalists and politicians, we should invalidate them. This is the necessary attention that should be paid to populists – no more, no less!
Populism could be a substantial threat to Europe. Who would have imagined a European Union without Great Britain at the beginning of this year? There are some strong arguments for leaving the European Union, but most have been just of a populist nature. Arguing about topics is necessary for a healthy democracy, but with a powerful populist movement political debates will no longer be possible and this means the farewell of our pluralistic democracy.