‘On Extremism and Democracy in Europe’ by Cas Mudde

‘On Extremism and Democracy in Europe’ by Cas Mudde

William Armstrong - william.armstrong@hdn.com.tr
‘On Extremism and Democracy in Europe’ by Cas Mudde

France’s National Front leader Marine Le Pen speaks at a public rally.

‘On Extremism and Democracy in Europe’ by Cas Mudde (Routledge, 163 pages, £45)

According to a recent YouGov poll, almost half of adults in 12 European countries surveyed hold anti-immigrant, nationalist, “authoritarian populist” views. Voters increasingly hold traditional parties, institutions, and media in contempt. Trust in governments is at rock bottom. Critics hope that 2016 marks the grim climax of this populist eruption in the West, but things are unlikely to just “go back to normal.” Political norms have been shattered and they won’t just repair themselves. The grotesque spectacle of Donald Trump, Brexit, and the rise of Marie le Pen’s National Front in France have already done plenty of damage. 

‘On Extremism and Democracy in Europe’ by Cas Mudde University of Georgia associate professor Cas Mudde is among the most thoughtful commentators on the far right in Europe. “On Extremism and Democracy in Europe” brings together articles Mudde wrote for various outlets on extremism and the rising tide of populism. It is fragmented but it has some key recurring themes. Some of the chapters already feel out of date, but on the whole the book is a nourishing smorgasbord. Right-wing populism in the West is a well-worn subject, but Mudde makes original and provocative points throughout.

Trump’s presidential campaign has captured the global imagination(!) but in Europe a perfect storm of circumstances has for years fanned the populist flames. In the words of Mudde, economic crises “led to an outpouring of new anti-EU sentiment among the moderate left, while the refugee crisis has had a similar effect among the moderate right.” Frustration and disillusionment is compounded by a decades-old trend to “depoliticize controversial issues by placing them outside of the national democratic (ie. electoral) realm, by transferring them to supranational institutions like the European Union or to (neo-)liberal institutions like courts and central banks.” Populists strike a chord by calling for the “re-politicization of issues like European integration, gay rights, or immigration.” 

Mudde writes that populism in the European context “is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism.” The tension between being “responsive” to the electorate and “responsible” to the domestic and international business community is “feeding political dissatisfaction around the world.” To adapt Dani Rodrik’s “political trilemma,” it seems increasingly clear that democracy, national sovereignty and global economic integration are mutually incompatible: We can combine any two of the three, but never have all three simultaneously and in full.

What threat does right-wing populism pose to liberal democracy? Mudde says the response of traditional mainstream parties is critical. Paradoxically, the political mainstream has in recent decades constituted a greater threat than the political extreme. Growing elite support for the far right politics of “mainstream” politicians like the authoritarian Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban “is much more threatening for European liberal democracy than the growing mass support for far right politicians like Le Pen.” Attempting to co-opt populist radical right parties or their voters, mainstream politicians claim that right-wing measures are “necessary to strengthen liberal democracy in Europe and to ensure its survival.” A race to the bottom is fueled by the “far right light.” 

All this has shifted the “Overton window” - the range of acceptable political discourse on any given topic. That can be seen in today’s France, where President Francois Hollande and presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy vie to adopt the hardest anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim policies to stave off Marine Le Pen. In the U.K., the Brexit vote exposed the weakness of centrist liberalism against populist insurgency, while the new Conservative government has taken a sharp turn to the right by adopting many positions of the populist right-wing UKIP. Germany now faces a litmus test: Will Chancellor Angela Merkel, facing re-election next year, hold the center together without caving in to anger over her liberal refugee policy?

Turkey is sometimes used as the “other” against which right-wing parties in Europe define themselves. But those parties share more than they might expect with President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan and the ruling Justice and Development Party (AKP). In recent years the Turkish government has been fueled – like populists everywhere – by a crude, nationalistic divide between the “real people” and an illegitimate “elite.” Whether that divide is real or imagined is less important than the fact that it is believed by enough voters.

Turkey also shows us what can happen when populism enters office. Many people find comfort in the idea that populism and power seem to be incompatible. How can populists continue to rail against the status quo when they themselves are in office? How can a “protest party” protest against itself? But after 14 years in power the Turkish government manages to find ever more dark international forces to rail against. It consolidates support at the expense of a steady, irreversible escalation of tension. The populist impulse is not always extinguished by reality once in power.

Mudde makes another point that has salience for Turkey: The erosion of liberal democratic norms caused by heavy-handed responses to terrorism. Jihadi attacks in Europe weaken liberal democracy, but the real, long-term damage is done by the counter terrorists rather than the terrorists themselves. “It is from within the political and state elites that authoritarian measures are pushed through, under the cloak of fear and outrage, even if many of the measures are unrelated to the attacks,” Mudde writes.

Turkey is besieged by an alphabet soup of outlawed terrorist groups. Barely a day goes by without a terror attack taking place somewhere on Turkish soil. It is hardly surprising that paranoia and illiberalism is rising at such a time.

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