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The Power of Populism

Featuring interviews with Pankaj Mishra, Cas Mudde, and Nadia Urbinati

On this episode of the Foreign Affairs podcast, we take a deep dive into the power of populism.  Pankaj Mishra, author of “The Globalization of Rage,” takes a historical view of today’s unrest; Cas Mudde discusses the spread of populism in Europe; and Nadia Urbinati speaks on the best response to populism at home.

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This podcast has been edited and condensed. A rush transcript is available below.

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ALLAWALA:  This is Foreign Affairs Unedited, and I’m Katie Allawala.

On November 8, millions of voters will cast their ballots for the most remarkable presidential candidate in the history of American politics—a charismatic real estate developer turned reality TV star whose strident populism and checkered past have been denounced even by many in his own party. 

Last June, meanwhile, defying most of the country’s establishment, a majority of voters in the United Kingdom opted to abruptly exit the European Union, throwing the region’s future into chaos. And elsewhere in Europe, surging populist parties now control parliamentary majorities or pluralities in six countries and share in government in three others.

In the latest issue of Foreign Affairs, we take a look at the tectonic shifts that are generating these earthquakes. On the podcast today, we’ll delve even deeper into the spread of populism in Europe with Cas Mudde and we’ll hear some ideas about the best response to populism at home from Nadia Urbinati. But first, we sit down with Pankaj Mishra, author of the article “The Globalization of Rage,” which takes a more historical view of today’s unrest.

“Pundits and scholars alike have struggled to explain the chaos, disorder, and anxiety that have come to define the contemporary political moment,” Mishra writes. “Many blame evidently pathological antimodernisms that have emerged from places outside the West—especially the Muslim world.” “In reality,” he explains, “today’s malignancies are rooted in distinctly modern reactions to the profound social and economic shifts of recent decades, which have been obscured by the optimistic visions of globalization that took hold in the aftermath of the Cold War.” Mishra sat down with Foreign Affairs to explain more.

MISHRA: I think these are characteristically modern responses to modernity, and that's how we should see them. That's how we have been seeing them, for at least until the end of the Cold War, when we entered altogether a new epistemology and started to think of democracy, and the whole very difficult task of constructing and maintaining democracy in... Let's put it this way, in feel good terms.

ALLAWALA:   In other words, observers thought of democracy as something that has already been realized, without considering that democracy is actually still very much in contention.

MISHRA: Democracy is a very problematic, it's a very fraught, historically, very problematic ideal, and that there has been much bloodshed over attempts to realize it, starting with the French Revolution, not to mention any number of failed revolutions all through the 19th century. So that entire history, in a strange way, very bizarre actually, went missing, when we thought of democracy, when we thought of democracy in the post 1989 period.

ALLAWALA:  As Mishra explains in his piece, one reason why we are so bewildered by recent turmoil is that our historical framework did not accommodate it.

MISHRA: We started to think of democracy as something very simple, something that could actually be imposed as the Iraq adventure proved with military force. That was the most absurdly innocent faith in universalizing democracy that led to that Iraq disaster.

ALLAWALA:  Mishra also connects the rise of rage to economic and cultural globalization that has undermined traditional authority.

MISHRA: The modern project is essentially about individualism. Let's not forget that. It's about the liberation of the individual from older forms of hierarchy, social hierarchies, liberation from religious authority. And I think what happened all through the 19th century and early 20th century, we saw very gradual progress in individual rights in the spread of democracy,

ALLAWALA:  And that was instrumental, he said, in widely sewing the seeds of individualism.

MISHRA: But I think one has to remember that individualism or individual rights, the expansion of all that, all that took place in this very large context of nation states, of nation states with very clearly defined sovereign power, every nation state exercising particular power within its territory, having full control over its economic policies, over its foreign policies. So I think the modern projects, even though they were, as I've repeatedly said, there were many problems, many disasters, many tragedies, but the growth of the modern project, or the spread of the modern project still happened within a relatively constraining context.

ALLAWALA:  But globalization changed things.

MISHRA: With globalization, we enter a new era altogether, where the sovereign nation state and politics within the sovereign nation state starts to lose a lot of its power very, very rapidly, and power becomes something more diffused. It's then invested in all kinds of opaque forces, or it seems invested in all kinds of opaque, impersonal forces. And one reason why there's so much political frustration around is that we cannot clearly identify just who is exactly running our lives. People blame, in this country, in Britain, where I speak, people have blamed the European Union, sometimes very rationally, but it's an attempt to identify the enemy and they reach for the simple answers, that it must be people in Brussels, so let's take back control. And behind all this phenomena is basically the fact that the sovereign nation state, political life within that nation state, has been heavily undermined, political life has been compromised.

ALLAWALA:  In many ways, he says, what we see now is a rise of individualism outside of any constraining context.

MISHRA: That's why we see all kinds of anarchic expressions of that individualism now. One can go into all kinds of areas with this explanation, but what I'm trying to describe is that the modern project works within certain restrictions, within certain boundaries, within very well-defined boundaries, primarily that of the nation state. But with globalization, we enter a new era, and suddenly everything is transformed and we are in a new landscape altogether.

ALLAWALA:  Technology has transformed and broadened that landscape still further.

MISHRA: When I talked about the nation state, the nation state is a very well defined territory, but this arena of the global that we've entered with digital technology, digital communications and a sense, again, as I said, that our lives being determined by these vast impersonal forces out there. I think that leaves people feeling quite helpless, quite exposed, and at the same time they are obliged to compete, or at least see themselves as in competition with other people.

In our very close knit world where whatever happens on one side, one part of the world, is immediately communicated, is immediately has an impact in different parts of the world, where people are more acutely aware of events, of the presence of other people that I think this sense of competition, of being in competition, especially universal competition has become very oppressive for many people. And I think digital technology having enhanced this capacity for people to compare their lives with the lives of other people, the lives of the fortunate in particular, and finding themselves inadequate, finding themselves unable to achieve, to attain the kind of lives that they envy. That has also led to an exponential increase in resentment and hatred, which are the pathologies we see now manifest on a large scale in social media and indeed among our politicians today.

ALLAWALA:  As to how to address the globalization of rage, Mishra suggests going back to the diagnosis of the problem.

MISHRA: I think one of the problems we face now, and I point to it in the piece, that we are still only emerging out of a whole lot of fantasies and illusions that we have built about our societies, about its ideas. And the last couple of years in particular have delivered a lot of shocks to us. So we're still in the process of absorbing those shocks and in a way trying to catch up with events, and trying to absorb their lessons.

ALLAWALA:  As the world does so, it is worth remembering how difficult the transition to democracy was in the first place.

MISHRA: I think at this point it would be best to look into history, acknowledge the very complicated, very fraught history of modernity and to see how difficult it has been to realize the ideals of democracy right in the heart of the West. In a country like France, if you look at how relatively rare a flower democracy has been in the very home of the French Revolution, one can then start to acknowledge what a complicated and tormented process it would be for societies without the advantages France has had to realize that, for instance a country like India.

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ALLAWALA:  Of course, some of those challenges are arising in the West itself. For more on the rise of populism in Europe, Foreign Affairs’ Simon Engler sat down with the University of Georgia’s Cas Mudde.

ENGLER: You've written a fascinating essay for our November-December issue on populism in Europe, and you argue that the origins of the current populous wave are deeper than the factors that are commonly cited. So when and how did Europe's populous surge begin and what are its origins?

MUDDE: Well, the origins are a couple of decades before the surge of populism, and they really have to do with the transformation of European society, secularization, as well as a decreasing working class, and then the rise of multi-cultural society as well as European integration. And so while issues of immigration, economy and Europe are related to the current rise, it's not so that it's just the last crises of the last decade, are the ones that explain it.

ENGLER: I think that one of the most striking lines in your essay, and I'm gonna quote you on this, is that quote, "The populous surge is an illiberal democratic responses to decades of undemocratic liberal policies." Can you unpack that, specifically with respect to Europe's situation?

MUDDE: Yeah. So the core of populism is really an illiberal democracy. They do believe that people should vote for their leaders, but they believe kind of in an extreme majoritarianism and don't believe in pluralism and minority rights. Now, what they respond to is decades of what I call undemocratic liberalism, and this is in particular an economic component where, increasingly because of neo-liberalism, important parts of policies have been taken out of the electoral arena, I'm thinking in particular about monetary policies. But also various things have been legislated. For instance, just think about the death penalty or think about abortion, which are now also no longer electoral issues, but they actually have become legal issues.

ENGLER: How has that laid the ground for populists specifically? How have they taken advantage of that change?

MUDDE: Well, what they say is, whenever politicians say, "Well, this development isn't very good, but we can't really do anything about it because we're part of the EU or because we're not allowed to do this because it's in the law," populists will say, "If the people want it, then they should get it, and they should have the right to change it, because that's what democracy is all about." And so what they actually do is re-politicize issues.

ENGLER: I want to turn to the question of the political fringe and the political mainstream. You've argued in the past that the boundary between those two categories has been getting blurrier, and in the United States and in Europe, populists are beginning to guide public discourse on a bunch of issues, immigration and trade policy are among these. Can you map out how that happened, how populist positions leapt into the mainstream?

MUDDE: Well, they started to move into the mainstream in the 1990s, when the first electoral victories of particularly the radical right populist parties emerged, which threatened the dominance of, particularly center-right parties but also to a certain extent center-left parties, who then adopted parts of the solutions of the radical. Since, particularly, the refugee crisis in 2015, it's no longer just that the mainstream parties are picking up the issues of populist parties of left or right.

Now they increasingly take on the assumptions underlying the radical right program in particular, things like refugees are threatening, European Union is a problem, terrorism can only be fought with very strong, strict law and order policies. And that is something new.

ENGLER: Are there alternative options that European leaders should be considering right now, and what are they?

MUDDE: The adoption of radical right discourse, let alone policies, is detrimental to liberal democracy for two reasons. First of all, if the mainstream is by and large going to implement radical right policies, we just have radical right policies. The policies in themselves are radical right, not just because it's a radical right party that implements them. Second, if you adopt their discourse, you by and large strengthen their whole claim. The only alternative to this is to formulate comprehensive policies that are informed by your own liberal democratic ideology, be that libertarian, be that Christian democratic, be that social democratic, and to consistently put them forward and implement them.

ENGLER: As you noted in your article, right-wing populists have, in general, been far more successful on the continent than left-wing populists have. What accounts for that difference?

MUDDE: In most countries the agenda, the political agenda, is dominated by social cultural themes, and so by and large there is still very little debate about social economic policies. Most of the mainstream parties have agreed that austerity in one form or another is the only way to go, which means that we increasingly speak about social cultural issues, how many immigrants should we take? What kind of values should they adopt? How much Europe should there be? And these are issues that benefit, generally, the radical right rather than the radical left.

ENGLER: How can mainstream parties open up economic policy and issues that aren't the territory of populists at the moment to greater contention.

MUDDE: At the moment, most European countries still follow with the EU, a pro-austerity agenda, without actually truly believing in it. The argument is purely pragmatic; we have invested so much in it that we can't go back now. That is not really going to bring people to support you, particularly on the left. Parties will have to come up with a more social democratic agenda that addresses inequality, that redistributes, but that redistributes on the basis of class, rather with ethnicity.

ENGLER: Are there any mainstream European parties that you think are handling the populist issue well?

MUDDE: I think Angela Merkel, the German Chancellor, is dealing reasonably well with it by at least standing up for her own values and not giving in fundamentally. I also think that Alain Juppé, who is running for President in France next year against Marine Le Pen, is doing a really good job by, in a sense, emulating Hillary Clinton by providing an alternative agenda to right-wing populism, and not just saying right-wing populism is bad or it's too extreme and we should do only a little bit of it, no, by actually saying we're a different type of country; we're open, we're inclusive. I think that what is now needed is, oddly enough, a left-wing alternative, because both Merkel and Juppé are center-right. We don't really have a clear center-left liberal democratic response to left-wing populism or right-wing populism.

ALLAWALA:  For more on the proper political response to populsim, we sat down with Nadia Urbinati, political theorist and author of the book Democracy Disfigured. She describes democracy and populism as step-siblings, forces that exist together. 

URBINATI: Let's say immediately that populism is, somehow, information inside of democracy. It is a possibility that always exists inside of democratic society or in society that democratize, populism may be seen though as an extreme pushing of democracy toward borders, after which, we don't know anymore whether the system is still democratic or not. So, it is more than everything carries a challenge somehow to the liberal democratic structure of contemporary constitutional democracies as they've been developed, particularly in the Western model after World War II.

ALLAWALA:  In particular, she says, populism is a reaction to pluralism.

URBINATI: So it is an attempt of the people to affirm itself in a unitary, sometimes even homogeneous, sense of affirmation, against a too polemical kind of pluralism. When pluralism implies of ideas, of ideologies, of parties, sometimes inimical to each other, sometimes polemical, sometimes in the attempt to make compromises in order to rule a country. And thus, the impression that a populist may have is that in this game of pluralism, the unity of the interest of the large population is not well-served.

ALLAWALA:  Of course, there are differences between rhetoric and policy.

URBINATI: We have to distinguish between populism as a rhetoric, or a way of making a rhetorical move, or ideologizing the people within a kind of logic of movements formation. So we have to make this distinction. Practically all parties, when they are close to election in particular, they tend to use populistic rhetoric in order to increase their own consent, electoral consent. Fine, this is a common condition, in all plural party democracies. So we have to pay attention in this particular moment of our European history, but not only European history, a particular moment when a political party, which has many issues that are thought or presented or theorized as populistic, when this kind of party gets a majority, and enters into the state system and thus, increases its potential for changing the way you reach a constituency democracy is and works.

ALLAWALA:  Of course, there are those who argue that populist politics is democratic insofar as it attempts to redirect political power away from the few and toward the many.

URBINATI: Democratic societies, particularly when they are representative democracies or constitutional representative democracy, they are based on plurality of parties and thus on necessarily on compromise, necessarily on alliances, necessarily on possibilities for changing. Now, this is the real issue, in my view, at least, is the limit of compromise that needs to be analyzed, when we talk about populism.

ALLAWALA:  But populist parties, she says, tend to close off potential for compromise.

URBINATI: Take a political party that is populist in the sense that it claims that it represents the entire people much better than other parties do and does, perhaps, he wants to simplify the situation. Simplifying the number of parties and to see and to present the issue as dual, as a radical dualism, between one group and the other one. So simplification, in order to make the possibility for compromise less visible, because if you have the few and the many, if you have two great groups, so compromise itself becomes less feasible and possible.

ALLAWALA:  Some might argue that the best way for mainstream parties to the current populist wave is through better governance. In other words, mainstream parties can preempt populist anger by doing a better job at serving their citizens. And technocratic pragmatism, rule by experts, is a route that’s often offered to achieve this end. But URBINATI has argued that that approach, too, can have a disfiguring effect on democracy.

URBINATI: Mainstream-ism, all these establishment existing parties, in their myth of cultivating the middle and also smoothing partisanship, and conflicts among ideas and visions of society, they are somehow responsible for the populist reaction, because party democracies, wants to have different options and wants to have partisan politics. It's not disturbed by partisanship, on the contrary.

ALLAWALA:  Indeed, rather than on technocratic governance, URBINATI explains, political parties should focus on their own unique agendas.

URBINATI: I will propose instead to have parties that make and do their own job. Their own job is to be party, is to be partisans and never to claim to be the all and to cover the all prospect. Partisanship and thus, pluralism in this sense is a good aspect of democracy, which was pluralism, doesn't want a medium without any kind of salt and pepper, that is without any kind of specificity, or diversity or oppositional politics.

The other issue is the issue of bureaucracy. Again, the techno-bureaucratic presumption, of being capable of solving problems, as if politics simply means solving problems and not in fact also of creating, singling out problems, and trying to create a condition for developing strategies out of that.

ALLAWALA:  Populists are just as guilty of this mentality as other parties, URBINATI says.

URBINATI: Because many populists, they really believe that they want to overcome partisanship or pluralism, that they want to have a politics of truth, a politics of sincerity, a politics of transparency, as if politics were capable of producing one view, one vision of the truth or one vision of the good for the entire people.

ALLAWALA:  In the end, she says, the answer to populism is not politics as usual.

URBINATI: It's not technocratic politics, the answer to populism, but the sincere pluralism, of positions that have a view concerning what to do with in our country. Do we want to have a country in which the welfare state is going to be disappeared in order to make room for privatization, or not? Do we want a country in which many people have to sacrifice their own well-being in order to allow for a few big corporations to have less taxation instead? So these are real questions, they are not questions of popularism. They are questions of what kind of democracy our society is going to have.

ALLAWALA:  Such questions, URBINATI concludes, cannot be left to a group of people or a small number of bureaucrats. They are, after all, not bureaucratic issues. They are political issues that require political parties with real differences.

Well that’s all for this week. We’ll be back in our next episode with part two of our series on populism. Until then, check out the November/ December issue of Foreign Affairs and tell us what you think of the show on iTunes. 

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