Letter from Europe: Populism there, and here

Syrian refugees protest at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, September 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov.
Syrian refugees protest at the platform of Budapest Keleti railway station, September 2015. Photo by Mstyslav Chernov.

Editor’s note: The opinions below are the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect those of this publication.

By Barbara Franz

A new study by Tony Blair’s Institute for Global Change describes rising populism as the “biggest transformation” of European politics since the end of the Cold War.

Populism is not an expansive political ideology, but rather a “logic of political organization,” a political language which, at its core, centers upon a sharp distinction between friend and enemy. Populists’ supporters are portrayed as legitimate, and all opposition is painted as illegitimate.

While it may be true that this has been the most substantial political transformation in many Eastern European states, such as Poland and Hungary, I do not believe this to be the case for Western Europe.

Barbara Franz
Barbara Franz

Similarly to Trump’s base in the United States, Poles, Hungarians, Slovaks and other Eastern Europeans often see populist politicians as heroic saviors who will rescue them from corrupt elites. They see these elites as kept in power by parasitic minorities — liberals, immigrants and other outcasts, such as members of LGBT communities and academics.

The aim of the populist hero is to re-create a Christian golden past where white working men, once again, will be the empowered overlords controlling the country’s foreigners, women and minorities.

In this narrative, the “home” needs to be purified and protected from internal and external enemies alike in order to make one’s country great again.

But this is not why Western Europeans in advanced democracies such as France, Belgium, the Netherlands and Germany have voted for populist parties.

Western Europeans long ago lost their innocence and have stopped believing the populist narrative of a hero cleansing the nation and leading it back into an imagined golden age.

Western Europeans who voted for populist parties did so for strategic reasons, mostly in opposition to waves of immigrants and refugees.

Like traditional single-issue protest voters, many Western Europeans oppose the current immigration and feel their welfare systems are being exploited. They voted for populist parties because of their rigid anti-immigrant and anti-refugee stances.

Unlike Trump supporters, Western European voters are showing signs they only will vote for populist parties that deliver on their campaign promises. These Western European voters will not support plutocratic policies that exclusively favor the rich while clearly exploiting the rest. They are voting for what they see as their own economic self-interests.

The effects of rising populism in Eastern Europe already can be seen. The strongest populist presence in the East is Poland’s Law and Justice party and Hungary’s Fidesz.

Both parties hold positions of power in the government and strongly emphasize an ethnic nationalism based on soil, blood, and culture, often in opposition to European Union policies.

They take a hard line against immigration and have started dismantling key democratic institutions, such as the free media and independent judiciary. 

Hungary, in particular, has descended into quasi-authoritarianism, with state institutions, such as courts and electoral commissions, firmly in the hands of government populists. Independent media are under constant attack. Critical institutions, including universities, are threatened with closure.

In Western Europe, populist parties are less prominent, less numerous, and less powerful than in the East.

On average, approximately 13 percent of Western Europe’s voting population backed populist parties. Such parties hold governmental responsibility in only two countries: As a junior coalition partner in Austria, and as part of the Swiss Federal Council.

Yet even in Western Europe, rising competition on the far-right has pushed many center-right parties to adopt more extreme positions on issues including immigration.

In recent months, for example, center-right parties in both Austria and France have embraced younger, more radical leaders. It is possible that Germany’s Christian Democrats will make a similar move when Angela Merkel steps down from the party’s leadership in coming years. 

Also, because of the strong presence of populist parties, it has become more and more difficult for coalitions to gain a governing majority on either the center-left or the center-right.

As a result, moderate parties are forced to govern with their traditional rivals on the other end of the moderate spectrum or to enter a coalition with the populists. This dilemma has, for example, complicated the formation of the new German government after elections last fall.

To be sure, some pessimistic prognoses have not become true. For example, Slovenian pop-star philosopher Slavo Zizek predicted in a Die Zeit commentary that Trump’s 2016 electoral success would spark a populist revolt in Western Europe. The rise of fascism there in the 1920s certainly exceeded populism’s current popularity in Europe.

What can we conclude?

First, it is a grave oversight when the study of “European Populism” draws no differences between the Polish, Hungarian and American populism on the one hand, and the Austrian, German, and French populism on the other.

Second, the behavior of the Trump administration—stoking its base with attacks on “fake news” media, shrinking National Monuments lands, dismissing science (climate change), and lobbing proto-fascist threats against Iran, Pakistan, China and North Korea—leads this observer to believe that American populism is more akin to the Eastern European version than one might initially expect.

Barbara Franz, Ph.D., is a political science professor at Rider University, and a Morristown resident.


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  1. AF is incorrect. Franz was born and educated in Austria and has traveled, studied and done political research extensively the World over. She is a published author. What have you guys written recently?
    Besides cheap-shot, one or two Twitter lines? Populism today is marked by a charismatic leader but is neither necessarily left or right, which as Franz points out makes it hard to for progressives or conservatives to form a coalition to govern. Huey Long and Hugo Chavez were socialists, after all. Hitler called himself a socialist. The primary tool of the populist leader, besides being a wannabe rock star, is the inculcation of fear. “The immigrants are going to take your jobs” “The afro americans will marry your daughters” “The media is lying to you ” “America isn’t great anymore” Sad little people who need to find a an excuse or scapegoat for their personal failures buy into this line. Populism is dangerous. It is undemocratic and authoritarian. Trump will unsparingly screw over America, if it will gratify his ego needs and wallet. All Franz is saying is that it is contagious.

  2. Clearly, the author hasn’t spent any significant time doing research by 1) traveling to these countries, 2) meeting with people from all walks of life on BOTH sides and 3) giving an objective assessment, which would result in good criticism of both/all sides. However, this article seems to be a collection and paraphrasing (regurgitation) of popular leftist opinions. I will have to agree with JT in that it is easier to discredit something with certain words to try to make/win your case. However, have you really won your case, or just feel “intellectually” superior?

  3. After reading your opinions, you appear to espouse your own definition of populism, except from a far left point of view. You don’t agree with their politics, therefore you characterize them or their politics using adjectives such as “white working men”, “overlords” and “parasitic minorities”.