The Populist Déjà-vu

How Populism Is Conquering The Continent

A missed lesson of history? A century after Mussolini, liberal elite inclusion of the far right is again strengthening its appeal.

Sophie Kirchner/laif/

Every five years, Europeans are treated to a horror story: Populism will conquer the continent. More specifically, a coalition of anti-establishment parties carried forward by the “populist wave,” so pundits regularly warn, will gain a majority in elections to the European Parliament or at least do so well that they will disable the proper functioning of EU institutions. Yet this story is misleading. Believing it also has pernicious political effects. To point this out is not to say that all is well with democracy in Europe or the EU. Far from it. But the dynamics of the continent’s politics are not well explained through an obsessive focus on the supposedly unstoppable “populist wave” phenomenon. The problems go deeper and have much more to do with what is regularly called “The Mainstream.”

„The populist far right has done much better than the populist far left. But why?“

Jan-Werner Müller

It is true that populist parties have been doing well at the polls in recent years and that some have firmly entrenched themselves in government. The prime example is Hungary, where Viktor Orbán succeeded in creating a kleptocratic autocracy all under the eyes of European Union institutions. What these parties have in common is not that, as conventional wisdom has it, they “criticise elites” or channel “anger at the establishment.” Rather, their leaders claim that they, and only they, represent what they often call “The Silent Majority,” or, even more tellingly, “The Real People.” That stance has two consequences that are ultimately detrimental to democracy. For one thing, populist politicians denounce all rivals as fundamentally bad, corrupt characters who, of course, do not represent the people. These claims are never just a matter of differences in policy or values. Such conflicts are inevitable and ideally even productive in a democracy. Rather, other politicians are systematically delegitimatised as what leaders of the German Alternative für Deutschland call “Volksverräter,” betrayers of the people.

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