Left, Right, Left, Right – all you populists stay in step please!

Demonise the populists and the electorate become confused.

And when the electorate become confused, the elites stay in power.

In my first post about populism I used a very good article written by Cas Mudde, who is an associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA), to explain what populism is.

As we head into 2017, the political scene in Europe and the USA is set to be shaken up by the uncertainties and challenges that face our societies, compounded by the failure of our economic systems to benefit the majority of the people. Cas is concerned that radical political propaganda is blinding our judgement and the demise of traditional liberal ideology embodied in left-wing political parties is allowing radical conservatism to flourish. Thus the pressing need to defend “liberal democracy” is not being understood nor acted upon by “the people”.

by Cas Mudde [20 March 2017]

We have to talk about the P-word. It is truly everywhere these days. And everyone is using it: men, women, I even heard some children say it. I’m talking, of course, about populism. You can’t read an article about politics these days without it. Virtually any election or referendum is set up as a struggle between an emboldened populism and an embattled establishment. There is no room for anything else.

Don’t get me wrong, populism is a useful concept to understand contemporary politics in Europe, and far beyond, but only under two strict conditions. First, it must be clearly defined and, second, it should be applied as one of several concepts to understand politics. Unfortunately, this is not the case in most accounts of politics and populism today. The dominance of the populism lens makes it so we see both too much populism and too little non-populism.

Populism is used in many different ways, mostly devoid of any clear definition, instead broadly referring to irresponsible or untraditional politics, such as promising everything to everyone or speaking in a folksy way. Neither is specific to populism, and both are in fact rather widespread in political campaigning more generally. Instead, populism is best defined as the following:

An ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups ― “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite” ― and argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale or general will of the people.

Populism is both monist and moralist. Populists believe that all people share the same interests and values and that the key distinction between “the people” and “the elite” is moral, i.e. “pure” versus “corrupt.” They present politics as a struggle of all against one, one against all, which, ironically, is confirmed by the dominant media narrative of an emboldened populism versus an embattled establishment.

There is no doubt that populism is an important aspect of contemporary politics; populist parties are represented in most European parliaments and populist presidents and prime ministers rule in both European and American countries. But most of these parties and politicians are not just populists; they combine populism with other ideological features. Left populists combine populism with some form of socialism ― think Syriza in Greece or Chavismo in Venezuela ― while right populists primarily combine it with authoritarianism and nativism ― think U.S. President Donald Trump in America or Geert Wilders in the Netherlands.

Before the rise of left populism, right populists would be discussed as “radical right” rather than “populists,” while a combination of the two, populist radical right (or, if you wish, radical right populism), is most appropriate. This is not just an academic matter, however. Because Western media tend to perceive the contemporary challenge to liberal democracy exclusively in terms of populism, they focus predominantly on anti-establishment sentiments by political outsiders. Hence, media outlets were quick to celebrate conservative Prime Minister Mark Rutte’s victory of “good populism” over Geert Wilders’ “bad populism.”

What was missed, however, was that the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) with leader Rutte and Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA) with leader Sybrand Buma conducted an increasingly authoritarian and nativist campaign. Both CDA and VVD presented themselves as defenders of “Christian” and “Dutch” values, including the singing of the national anthem and the racist tradition of Black Pete. VVD parliamentary leader Halbe Zijlstra even suggested Easter eggs were under threat from Islam and Muslims, assisted by secular, left-wing fellow travelers. And Rutte took it a step further by explicitly targeting immigrants and refugees in his “act normal” campaign, implying that even descendants of immigrants are at best probationary Dutch citizens.

But whereas most media saw too little in the Dutch elections, they saw too much in the British European Union referendum and the U.S. presidential elections. Both are now routinely hailed as populist victories, which is an exaggeration at best and a falsehood at worst. While the United Kingdom Independence Party, or UKIP, played an important role in pushing the “Leave” camp over the 50 percent mark, the push for Brexit was always predominantly a Conservative endeavor. Hence, many Brits didn’t vote against some kind of “corrupt elite,” be it British or European, but rather for re-establishing national sovereignty, as they perceive it, in line with a significant part of the Tory elite.

Similarly, despite all the hype, the 2016 U.S. presidential elections were, first and foremost, just another presidential election, in which Republicans voted Republican and Democrats voted Democrat. It might be true that populism motivated some angry white working class men in the “American heartland” to turn out, which might have swung these states and thereby the whole election, but they constituted at best a tiny minority of the Republican electorate. The vast majority of people who voted for Trump did so for traditional Republican reasons like abortion, immigration, taxes, and, most notably, partisanship.

In short, it is time to put the populism frame back in its correct place. Yes, populism is an important feature of contemporary politics, but not all anti-establishment politics is populism and populist parties are not just about populism. In fact, to accurately understand politicians like Trump and Wilders, and the challenge they pose to liberal democracy, authoritarianism and nativism are at least as important as populism, if not more. Moreover, while established politicians mainly adopt populism in their campaign rhetoric, authoritarianism and nativism are actually implemented in their policies, as we can see in recent responses to the refugee crisis and terrorism, from the EU-Turkey deal to the state of emergency in France.

If we want to truly understand contemporary politics, and protect liberal democracy, it is time we focus on all aspects of the populist radical right challenge, including from inside the political establishment, not just on the populism of the outsiders. Because under the cover of fighting off the “populists,” the political establishment is slowly but steadily hollowing out the liberal democratic system.”

Over the past few years, the political situation in many European countries has become very unsettled. Indeed, in some of the countries, the rapid growth and popularity of previously unknown, small or new political parties has caught many people off-guard. Whether we are talking about Spain, Portugal, France, Italy, Greece, Austria or Poland, the list is getting a bit too long for comfort. And it is taking the citizens a while to understand and embrace what is going on.

However, there is one country in Europe that has been spearheading a new type of European politics for a while now. After assuming office in 2010, Viktor Orban, the Prime Minister of Hungary, set about doing things differently in his country. Initially, many people dismissed Orban’s efforts in Hungary as a short-term political experiment that they thought would soon fizzle out. Indeed, even the EU leadership treated him like a maverick and often made fun of him in public.

Who can forget that memorable moment in May 2015 at the start of the EU summit in Riga, Latvia when the real clown of Europe, Jean-Claude Junker, announced to the Prime Minister of Latvia standing next to him, “the dictator is coming”, and raised his right hand in a quasi-Nazi salute. Junker then greeted Orban by calling him “dictator” to his face, shook his hand and then playfully slapped him in the face.

Now Orban is returning the favour – Hungary is giving the EU a bit of a slap around these days.

Joseph Larsen is a research fellow at the Caucasus Research Resource Centers in Tbilisi and graduate of Central European University in Budapest. He writes about politics in Eastern Europe and the United States. The following article was published on the OpenDemocracy.net website over two years ago but it has relevance to our discussion about populism.

Viktor Orban and the rise of the populist right…right?

by Joseph Larsen [3 December 2014]

Viktor Orban is a man who refuses to be ignored, whether one thinks him contemptible, incomprehensible, inspiring or visionary. The Hungarian Prime Minister is arguably Europe’s most charismatic head of government, the leader of a small nation which has, for better or worse, earned a place on the world stage.

Orban’s greatest achievement is his attaining status as a figure emblematic of contemporary European populism. Defined by the political theorist Margaret Canovan as involving “exaltation and appeal to the ‘people’” and by definition “anti-elitist,” populist movements are usually put into neatly self-contained boxes labeled “right-wing” (xenophobic, anti-intellectual elite) and “left-wing” (anti-market, anti-economic elite). But like European populists in general, Orban is neither of the right nor the left. He is the child of both.

Journalists and pundits, especially those on the left, have a tendency to label Orban as “right-wing” due to his open disavowal of liberalism and embrace of a vaguely-defined program he calls “illiberal democracy.” But characterizing Orban as a creature of the right obscures the fact that his rejection of liberalism is as much anti-market as it is nationalistic and socially conservative.

Orban and his Fidesz party fly the flag of the Right in proud colors, but since winning a parliamentary majority by a landslide in 2010 they have implemented a slew of statist economic policies: instituting one-off “crisis” levies on energy, telecommunications and banks (the last containing a nationalist component: three of the four largest banks operating in Hungary are foreign-owned), a tax on financial transactions, strict price controls on electricity, partial nationalizations of private companies such as MOL and Rába Automotive Holding, and the creation of a cartel with the exclusive right to sell tobacco products.

In 2011 Orban rejected the conditions of an IMF standby agreement, opting instead to employ “unorthodox economic policy” to raise the revenue necessary for meeting the state’s debt obligations. Not that there’s any inherent problem with snubbing the IMF, but such behavior certainly seems unbecoming of a “right-wing” leader. In a strange paradox, Fidesz and its Prime Minister are in reality farther to the left than the Hungarian Socialist Party. One can’t help but think that if Orban were the head of a post-colonial rather than European country, much of the Left would admire him for standing up to powerful business interests.

While Orban practices leftism in both word and deed, he has earned a label as a rightist due to his bellicose nationalist rhetoric; alienating the mainstream Left with his cautious flirtation with the Jobbik Party (a group called everything from “neo-fascist” to “anti-Semitic” to “xenophobic”), framing of himself as the protector of the ethnic Hungarian minority in Romania, and manipulation of national narratives for political ends.

The most visible example of the last is his vocal defense of a recently erected monument to commemorate victims of the German occupation of 1944-45. Orban called the monument “morally exact and immaculate,” but opposition leader Gordon Bajnai struck a more somber tone when he said that “the planned statue’s aim is not to face up to ourselves but to cover up the Hungarian state’s role in the Shoah.” Eager to construct a victim’s narrative of noble national sacrifice, Orban has never admitted that the Hungarian government forged an alliance with Nazi Germany in 1933. In short, Orban and Fidesz push the boundaries of both right and left, as do many populist politicians and parties in Europe.

Viewed through a simple left-right prism, Orban’s messy hodgepodge of contradictory positions and policies makes him an enigma. But when analyzed in the distinctly European context in which his politics are embedded, he makes a lot of sense. By definition ideal types don’t exist in reality, and political systems, parties and persons characterized as right- or left-wing are always in fact located somewhere on a continuum.

European nationalist parties are generally labeled as “right-wing,” but in many cases that designation should be qualified by admitting the presence of a strong but unacknowledged leftist bent in both rhetoric and policy. The majority of European populist parties are simultaneously right- and left-wing, rejecting both social and economic liberalism. The social and cultural stances of such parties as Marine Le Pen’s National Front, Gábor Vona’s Jobbik, and Geert Van Wilder’s Party of Freedom are right-wing, but each of these groups promotes an unequivocal, albeit unacknowledged, leftist economic program. It can be caricatured this way: socialism, but only for real Frenchmen, real Hungarians, and real Dutchmen. While the ostensible Left has performed poorly at the polls in both national and EU-level elections, leftism permeates the populism of parties even on the Right.

To speak bluntly but not hyperbolically, Europe’s right-wing populism smacks of a softened form of mid-century Fascism: intense nationalism wedded with a populist economic program. The moniker National Socialism thus remains a useful analytical tool for viewing European populism, not to equate contemporary populist parties with the German Nazi party, but to illuminate the significance of this very European melding of left and right.

Most populist parties view both social liberalism and free markets as grave threats to the security, unity and sanctity of the nation-state. Such a left-right ideological alliance had near-apocalyptic consequences during the first half of the 20th Century, but today its greatest threat lies in its capacity to undermine the process of European integration. Again, to highlight the fading relevance of the left-right spectrum, many of the “left-wing” parties which once posed the staunchest opposition to integration are now fighting the hardest to sustain it.

Analyzing populism in Europe can tell us much about respective social cleavages on either continent. Europeans are deeply divided on social issues, with the current political discourse dominated by tension between the modernistic vision of the European Union and the traditionalism of the nation-state. But Europeans of all political leanings and social strata tend to be distrustful of the free market. In America social cleavages are deeper, because they more neatly divide society into two camps; socially conservative nativists hostile to any real or perceived encroachment on the sanctity of the market, and social liberals clamoring for an American welfare state.

While European populism is pugnacious and occasionally violent, the political discourse somewhat ironically apportions a surprising amount of space for common ground. Only such an environment could have produced Viktor Orban, a man defined by right-wing tendencies but whose policies are irreconcilable with the theory and practice of the free market.

In a 21 August article in Foreign Policy, Amy Brouillette described Orban as having a “unique ability to read and respond to the public’s mood and political culture.” This statement could be expanded to characterize European populists in general. Whichever label they are given by journalists and intellectuals, populist parties prove that a bird flies best when able to flap with both wings.”

And it did not end there.

A few years later, Orban is still unwavering in his uncompromising stance to always place Hungary first in all matters. Furthermore, as explained previously, Orban has successfully harnessed support from both the left-wing and right-wing political spectra in his country.

In recent months, as we head into 2017, there has already been a fundamental shift in global politics. Positions and policies are moving in a different direction, changing in response to public outcry and voter dissatisfaction. The old guard are being taken to task.

And Viktor Orban is leading the charge here in Europe.

by Zoltán Kovács [16 January 2017]

In Europe, Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has been at the forefront of this revolution. Though initially he had to go it alone, the prime minister’s unwavering determination to protect the European Union through border reinforcements and strict border controls eventually has “changed the terms of the debate” in Europe about how to respond to the migration crisis. Once denounced as a rebellious populist, his approaches have proven successful, not just for Hungary but for the continent.

Having blazed a trail, the prime minister has opened the way for other leaders and voices to follow. One area in particular where he has been consistently outspoken is the need for a strong European Union of nation states that limit the power of unelected Eurocrats to dictate policy from Brussels. The year 2017 will be, according to PM Orbán, the year when the nation states of the EU rebel against Brussels, “sometimes openly, sometimes by stealth”.

Last Friday morning, during his regular, public radio interview, the prime minister predicted that we will see two major battles play out in this year of rebellion: one on the issue of migration, and the other on economic strategy. “We shall have to defend our sovereignty” on both fronts, he said.

“There will be a tough fight between the politics defending the self-interests of the European states and the centrist will of the European Union trying to take away more and more competencies. This will be the defining dramatic tension of the year 2017,” he said.

We can already see the signs. French presidential candidate François Fillon, who PM Orbán described as having “a program of rebellion”, has a fundamental dislike of European asylum policies and is pushing for change. The presidential election in the United States of America is another indicator.

President-elect Trump won in no small part because of his stance on immigration and his promise to bring industry back to the United States. The Trump Administration will have many differences from the outgoing one, the prime minister said. “The Obama administration was globalist; the incoming is not.”

PM Orbán said that the new administration will be bolder. They do not equivocate, do not over-complicate things, “and this, by the way, used to be a competitive advantage of the US.” In comparison, the new administration consists of self-made people, who, unlike the outgoing one, never talk about who they know, instead they talk of what they have achieved.

Although the changing global political agenda is important, PM Orbán is focused on how it impacts events here in Hungary.

The Orbán Government’s efforts to help business in the current economic climate have seen investment in Hungary increase. “Orbanomics” is paying off as businesses grow and Hungarians have started to spend again. Property prices are up, pension packages are better, healthcare and education are improving, and compared to six years ago, an average family with two children has an extra 360,000 HUF (approximately 1,170 EUR) to spend annually.

“Nothing succeeds like success,” PM Orbán said, borrowing from the English proverb.

For Hungary, rebellion is a fundamental part of the nation’s hard wiring, putting the interests of the Hungarian people before anything else. But interests in Brussels will not give up easily, according to the prime minister, meaning that “all of a sudden” we’ll see sentences appear in proposals that limit the government’s competencies. For example, in a proposal regarding the “Energy Union”, a sentence popped up that asserted that a national government will no longer be able to decide on the price of energy and, if put into effect, that would mean that Brussels would undermine Hungary’s government policy of cutting utility prices.

In the case of migration, Hungary has reintroduced alien detention for an indefinite period, which “goes against the principles of Brussels.” However, “every law that makes it easier to commit acts of terror should be changed” and the principle of allowing aliens to wander freely until their asylum case is decided upon creates a clear vulnerability.

On the issue of civil society and recent reports that the government is considering a new policy, PM Orbán said that NGOs based in Hungary must operate with transparency. “Hungarian citizens must be given the right to know about all public actors, who they are and who pays them. We have the right to know,” he said. “So, we want transparency.”

It’s clear where the prime minister stands amid these shifts in political trends. Where globalists continue to try to impose decisions that run counter to the interests of the Hungarian people, the prime minister remains a formidable opponent.”

And just to prove he means business, Orban has thrown down the gauntlet regarding Hungary’s position in the EU.

‘Self righteous’ EU BLASTED by Hungarian PM as he prepares for 2017 WAR with Brussels

by Zoie O’Brien [16 Febuary 2017]

Viktor Orbán, who stood against the EU in 2016 and allowed his country to vote on mandatory migrant quotas set in Brussels, has again fired a warning shot at Brussels.

The Hungarian leader addressed the nation on Friday, when he said history “took a sharp turn” in 2016.

Citizens of EU member states, according to Orbán, have been “silenced by political correctness”.

Brexit, the Hungarian referendum and the “ousting” of the Italian government all came about after voters “whose voices had not been heard” got the chance to stick it to Brussels, he said.

Slamming the union, he said people are tired of “being force-fed” utopian ideals.

What Orbán labelled as “revolts” took place when nations rebelled against globalists and the middle class rebelled against its political leaders.

Voters are at war with “Brussels bureaucrats” according to Orban who said “battle lines” have been drawn between sovereign countries and “unionists”.

The leader conceded the European Union appears to be prosperous – yet he insisted the future “casts a shadow on the present”.

Moves made in Hungry to defy the European Union have been frequent.

Most recently the country became the first to erect a razor wire fence and cut off the journey of migrants into Europe – beginning a domino effect which saw the suspension of the Schengen zone.

The Hungarian referendum result in April 2016 was overwhelming with 98 per cent voting to say “no” to migrant quotas.

…..But the history goes deeper.

Orbán said his country was “perhaps the first to revolt, in 2010”, with its decision to “send home” the International Monetary Fund, taxing multinational corporations and cutting household utility fees.

He said Hungary’s main task in 2017 would be defending itself against five major “attacks” including Brussels’ plan to force Hungary to roll back its public utility fee cuts scheme, and migration.

Orbán wants to be able to stop migrants from moving around the country freely until their asylum applications have been ruled on.

The prime minister, who has huge support in his country, also said Hungary had “finally managed” to overcome its “culture of self-pity” and adopt a “culture of action”.


About Peter Smith

A "foot-soldier" in the wider Post Capitalism Movement. First task - keep spreading the words of change, hope & inspiration.
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