Populism as a better far-right description?
In most academic literature on the far-right, scholars argue that current political parties that are seen as far-right are populist, or have populist characteristics. However, is this a fair assessment, and what does it even mean to have populist characteristics?
Populism in theory
The characteristics of populism can be found in and derived from their policies. These characteristics have been described extensively by scholars such as Akkerman, Mudde, Zaslova, Kriesi and Pappas, to name a few. These characteristics can be broken down into four distinct points. 1) There are two distinct groups in society; the people and the elite. 2) There is an opposing relationship between these two distinct groups. 3) The people are seen as good, and the elite are seen as lesser. 4) The will of the people is seen as the source of legitimacy. Mudde also argues that populism is based on three distinct elements. 1) anti-establishmentism, 2) authoritarianism, and 3) nativism.
Together, these points show the central ideas and workings of right-wing populist parties. Most parties will promise meaningful and positive change from the current situation. This change cannot be promised by other parties, because they are accused of being responsible for the current situation. This idea reflects the first and second characteristics. The party claims that change is necessary from the situation created by the elite, which should be positive for the people. Furthermore, since the will of the people is central in the workings of populist parties, it supplies a feeling of hope and the idea that the people are heard. This idea reflects the fourth characteristic.
If we also explore the theory behind the “losers of globalization”, we can partially explain the sudden rise in popularity of these populist parties. This theory states that globalization has brought forward winners and losers and that both sides have differing world views and political ideas as a consequence. Generally, the losers of globalization are seen as those who have been negatively impacted by globalization. Either menial, hard-working and rewarding labour has moved to different countries or their skill sets no longer pave the way to a stable life. They seem to be left behind in this changing society and therefore oppose what they believe to be the main causes of this problem, such as open borders or institutions such as the EU.
From the elements described by Mudde, some scholars created models to describe populism. One such model was made by Pippa Norris and Robert Inglehart to argue theories on the rise of populism. They argue that populism is either a reaction to economic insecurity since those left behind by economic change from a globalizing world harbour more resentment towards the established elite. The other theory states that populism is a counterreaction to the ‘silent revolution’ of the 1970s where liberal values became much more prominent and as a result, parts of the majority saw the erosion of their traditional values to such an extent, that they now vote against the established elite and for the conservation of their values.
These theories have also been used by other scholars to distinguish left-wing populism from right-wing populism. Personally, I agree most with the ideas from Samir Gandesha, who argues that the aforementioned theories should always be used in conjunction with each other and that both hold merits. However, the extent to which one theory accurately reflects the real-world situation is dependent on the position the party holds on the political spectrum. Left-wing parties more often work from a socio-economic perspective in their ideology, whereas right-wing parties more often focus on aspects such as migration and other cultural points in politics. I especially appreciate these ideas of his, since it also ties in with the ‘losers of globalization’ and expands on this theory.
However, it is important to mention that certain scholars disagree with the general literature on the theories behind the cultural backlash and economic insecurity arguments. A common criticism is that authors present biases towards either theory and thereby are unable to provide a proper analysis of these theories. Whilst I do agree that these biases can present problems for particular case studies, I do not believe that it would obstruct the general understanding behind the theories, considering a bias for one theory does not invalidate the other theory.
Far-Right Populism in Europe
Within Europe, far-right populism has been on the rise for some time, but especially in the last two decades. Each country has at least one party that is described as far-right populist, with varying degrees of success in their respective elections. There are the PVV and FvD in the Netherlands, the AfD in Germany, the FN in France, VOX in Spain, the Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden and the list goes on.
I hope that this blog post, along with the previous post on Fascism, has provided some understanding of two common far-right ideologies. In the next two blog posts, we will discuss whether these ideologies fit with contemporary political parties, namely VOX in Spain and the Sverigedemokraterna in Sweden.