Talk examines the rise of European populism

By JAKE LEFKOVITZ | February 21, 2019

Cas Mudde, professor at the University of Georgia’s School of Public and International Affairs, gave the 12th annual Government and Opposition Leonard Schapiro Memorial Prize Lecture at the School of Advance International Studies (SAIS) on Thursday, Feb. 14. The talk was titled “Populism in Europe: An Illiberal Democratic Response to Undemocratic Liberalism,” and was introduced by Erik Jones, the co-editor of comparative politics journal Government and Opposition and the director of the European and Eurasian Studies program at SAIS. 

Mudde began by defining the ideology of populism, a political approach that seeks to empower common people as opposed to the elite, and his theory of how it operates in practice. He concludes that populism is both inherently pro-democratic and also profoundly anti-liberal. He maintained that the anti-liberalist aspect of populism is powerful. Mudde explained that this anti-liberalism becomes most notable when viewing the people of a nation as one entity.

“When you believe that ‘the people’ are homogenous, and that the only other group is ‘the elite,’ who are corrupt, then there are no legitimate minority rights because there is no legitimate minority. If politics should be the general will of ‘the people,’ then nothing should stand above that,” he explained.

Mudde then discussed two paradoxes at the center of a proposed resurgence of populism. The first of these paradoxes is concerned with the political power of the people.

“Populism is both anti-political and uber-political,” he said. 

According to Mudde, populism is anti-political insofar as it denies that there can be legitimate contention over who should wield power; and, at the same time, uber-political insofar as it insists that every facet of society should be subject to the desires of the people. 

The second paradox Mudde identified was that populism is having its apparent resurgence at the same time that political scientists are observing shifts toward greater democratization and liberalization.

“We focus a lot on Islamophobia. It is a massive problem. But, let’s face it, if we would have had a poll on Islamophobia in the 1950s you would find the same. But if you look in terms of gender rights ... [and] all kinds of tolerance provisions, people today are more liberal,” he said. “Populism in that sense is not really in line with the trend.”

To further explain this, Mudde noted that trends toward greater democratization among the common people — which are characterized by heightened intensity in political participation and feelings of political agency — have been matched by opposing trends among elites. The elite class, Mudde believes, supports a technocratic system — that is, a government run by elite technical experts. 

Mudde said these technocratic inclinations are a problem because they often favor liberal values over democratic ones. In a technocratic government, Mudde explained, issues are often regulated by legal or economic systems, which are much less accountable to the people. Populists, on the other hand, support governmental regulations. 

Mudde then spoke about the dangers of too much technocracy and too little populism. He added that people who support liberal democracies should not be concerned with defeating populism in the first place. 

“If you defeat populism, liberal democracy is still weak — it is just not challenged. If you strengthen liberal democracy, by definition, populism gets weaker,” he said. “You do not do it by anti-populism; by claiming that we, the liberals, are the pure ones and they, the populists, are the corrupt ones.”

Mudde closed his talk by emphasizing that compromise is essential in politics no matter what ideology or party you support. 

“There is nothing that is good for ‘the people,’ or at least it is not good for ‘the people’ in the same way for everyone,” he said. “We have to explain again not just what we want but why we want it. That is the only way I believe that we can fight populism.” 

Following the talk, audience members were allowed to ask Mudde questions. During this portion of the event, Mudde expressed a lack of optimism about the future of the U.S. because of the extreme partisanship of U.S. politics.

Mudde also believes that the current populist movement in vastly influential.

“I think, in terms of influence, they might have peaked because they have such disproportionate power at the moment, so they can not go much further. Almost everyone copies them, from the social democrats to the Christian democrats to the conservatives!”

Daniel Fray, a second-year graduate student at SAIS, appreciated the wide perspective that the talk included in its analysis of populism. 

“It was a really good event. His view on populism is balanced in the sense that it has a good theoretical foundation and also goes back to 2004 when these groups weren’t that prominent yet, so it has that hindsight and perspective,” he said. “Obviously it’s a phenomenon that’s been with us for a few years now and has attracted a big crowd.”

Mees van der Werf, a second-year graduate student at SAIS, noted the difficulty of finding effective solutions, even if these kinds of talks offer potential answers. According to van der Werf, one of the solutions mentioned in the talk was strengthening democracy. 

“Concrete policy solutions and referenda don’t work that well, as we have seen, so what should we do?” van der Werf said. “The question is really difficult.”

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