The New Language of European Populism

Why "Civilization" Is Replacing the Nation

The Sacre Coeur Basilica in Paris, February 2015. Christian Hartmann / Reuters

Anti-immigrant populist parties have been a familiar feature of European politics since at least the 1980s, but they have gained new prominence in recent years. In May, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen was a serious contender in France’s presidential election; in the run-up to the Dutch parliamentary elections in March, Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom was long in the lead; and last year, Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party came very close to winning Austria’s presidency. Anti-immigrant populists have also achieved breakthroughs in countries where they had previously failed to gain traction, notably Germany and Sweden, where the Alternative for Germany and the Sweden Democrats, respectively, have made big electoral gains.

Observers ordinarily characterize these parties as nativist, nationalist, and far right. But although these parties do champion nativist and nationalist themes, and although their rhetoric is indeed sometimes extreme, it would be a mistake to see them as simply the heirs of Europe’s long tradition of far-right nationalism. Unlike the Nazi Party or the fascist parties of interwar Europe or the small neo-Nazi or neofascist parties of postwar Europe, these are not anti-system actors; they do not reject the democratic constitutional order. Nor are they even consistently right-wing. Unlike her conservative opponent François Fillon, for example, Le Pen presented her party as “neither right nor left” and promised to defend workers against “savage globalization.”

Rather than force them into ill-fitting old categories, we should recognize that many anti-immigrant parties today have developed a new political discourse, one that I term “civilizationism.” Civilizationism has been adopted by the Netherlands’ Party for Freedom, Denmark’s People’s Party, Norway’s Progress Party, Finland’s True Finns, Sweden’s Sweden Democrats, France’s National Front, and, to a certain extent, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, Austria’s Freedom Party, and Italy’s Northern League (although not by the Alternative for Germany, which remains closer to the traditional nationalist far right). The new civilizationism is a paradoxical combination

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