Populism is boosted by economic crises, but its roots are cultural.
Populism is a method. It works by mobilising an imaginary homogenous entity called ‘the people’ against an equally ill-defined and generally despised ‘elite’, thus radically simplifying the political and social field. Such simplifications have served to orchestrate conflicts since the 19th century and in particular during economic and cultural crises—on the left, in terms of a class struggle against the powers that be; on the right, in terms of a confrontation with an ‘other’, be it foreigners or minorities.
Sometimes these two tendencies have gone hand in hand—for instance, when migrant workers have been portrayed as wage-squeezing competitors. In fact, though, a populism that purports to be about solidarity with the ‘common people’ always promotes social disunity.
As a catchphrase in political debates, populism may be useful; a productive analytical concept it however certainly is not. The ‘people’ our modern-day, nationalist populists champion are no longer defined socio-economically (as in the ‘proletariat’). Rather, the populists employ ethnic constructs (such as Biodeutsche or français de souche), which suggest a homogenous community with a shared ancestry, a long history and a solid identity.
It is to these ‘people’—not the actual, pluralist demos—that populists ascribe an authority which exceeds that of institutions: ‘The people stand above the law,’ as a slogan of the Austrian ‘Freedom Party’ goes.
In this view, there is no legitimate ‘representation’ through democratic processes. Instead, ‘the people’ form movements which back charismatic leaders and legitimise them retroactively by means of plebiscites. Right-wing movements may be diverse, but what they all have in common is a worldview that is utterly authoritarian (and usually patriarchal and homophobic too).
One’s own nation, ethnically defined, takes centre-stage—think ‘America first!’ or La France d’abord! Aggression is however (thus far) mainly being directed inwards, towards supposed ‘enemies of the people’—as the US president, Donald Trump, has designated members of the Democratic opposition and the ‘mainstream media’—or towards (im)migrants who demand equal rights and treatment.
Populism is frequently regarded (and sometimes excused) as an expression of economic woes. Yet ethno-nationalist authoritarianism is motivated less by feelings of inferiority—in terms of status, income or opportunities in life—than by a harsh rejection of the global south’s demands for participation in the wealth still generated within neocolonial structures.
In Germany, such ressentiments were first utilised during the 1980s, when the ‘REPublicans’ pursued a strategy of ‘prosperity chauvinism’. With refugee movements on the rise, these recently intensified and are now increasingly expressed through violent acts. Hostility towards refugees, Islamophobia, rejection of minority rights—the favorite obsessions of the right may be triggered by economic developments but they are essentially of a cultural nature, including downright racism.
While the majority of supporters and voters of right-wing parties are middle-class or well-off (and male, for that matter), we do also find among them low-skilled, low-income workers in precarious employments who are afraid of declining even further and are categorically opposed to a global economy that is merciless but has generally been described as without alternative—not least by social-democratic governments.
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And no doubt one factor in the rise of the new authoritarianism is the increase in social inequality since 2008; even more important are the feelings of being marginalised on the part of those who live in deindustrialised rural areas devoid of infrastructure—‘somewheres’ who feel attached to their native regions and whose anger at the cosmopolitan ‘anywheres’ (supposedly rootless) won’t be placated by welfare benefits.
Unlike during the 19th and early 20th centuries, such deprivation no longer results in leftist reactions, such as mass support for socialist reform or revolutionary movements. A nationalist narrative dominates discourses nowadays.
Indeed, it is largely the same one already championed by 20th-century fascism, featuring anti-Semitic conspiracy theories (directed, for instance, against the philanthropist George Soros) and dystopian visions of a ‘great replacement’ of populations (as advanced by the French writer Renaud Camus). Right-wingers are convinced that the European Union plans systematically to replace white, Christian populations with Muslims, Africans and Asians—what the Alternative fur Deutschland regional leader Björn Höcke has described as Umvolkung. In effect, their own agenda boils down to ‘ethnic cleansing’.
These political strategies of the new populists are clearly inspired by Hitler’s ‘national socialism’. Which is precisely why they downplay the importance of the Nazi terror regime—Alexander Gauland of the AfD called it ‘just a flyspeck’ within Germany’s glorious century-long history—and attack the postwar culture of commemoration.
In the Trump-era US, extremist white-supremacist tendencies have begun to infiltrate the mainstream as well: there it is mostly Latinos and Hispanics who bear the brunt because a growing number of whites fear the loss of their—demographic, religious and cultural—hegemony. The first concrete results of these fears are Trump’s ‘great wall’ on the Mexican border and more inhuman immigration-detention practices than ever before.
With respect to economic and social policy, the Rassemblement National, the Austrian and Dutch ‘Freedom’ parties, and the Scandinavian far-right have traditionally favoured the ‘neoliberal’ course of shrinking the welfare state. Of late, however, European right-wing parties have increasingly focused on bestowing exclusive financial gifts on their ethnic in-group—the prime example being the nativist birth promotion recently adopted in Hungary and Poland.
Such policies contribute to the fading of the conflict line that once firmly separated left and right, which mirrored structural contrasts between the classes and resulted in a preference for either economic liberalism or interventionist politics. In our post-industrial societies, tectonic shifts are taking place, but the gap that is newly forming is primarily a cultural one.
It is the gap, already hinted at, between cosmopolitans and communitarians, who radically differ in their assessment of globalisation and of transnational institutions like the EU. The old dichotomy of progressives versus conservatives is being superseded by an antagonism between a populist right and a new (sub)urban and environmentalist left.
To put it in colour terminology, familiar to German and Austrian readers: red and black are being ousted by green and blue (the color of both the AfD and the FPÖ, though one feels tempted to call them brown). And it is no coincidence that most authoritarian nationalists cling to fossil-fuel industrialism, deny the reality of climate change and delay or thwart measures for climate and species protection.
Claus Leggewie teaches political science and holds the Ludwig Boerne chair at the University of Giessen in Germany. He is author of Jetzt! Opposition, Protest, Widerstand (Cologne 2019) and co-editor of Blätter für deutsche und internationale Politik.