Chat with Roger Eatwell: Is liberal democracy at danger?

Dawid Małecki @djmalecki

 

Today we chat with Professor Roger Eatwell (Universityof Bath), author along with Professor Matthew Goodwin (Universityof Kent) of the book National Populism: The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy (ed. Pelican Books, 2019)

 


-What social and electoral trends prompted you to group certain parties and voters into the term "national populism"?

 

We categorise parties largely on the basis of their ideology - their core views about politics and society  - just as we would for, say, liberals or socialists. As with liberals and socialists, there can be some notable differences. but at the core of the national populist world view is the belief that the will of the people is not being heard/acted upon, and this largely stems from distant and often corrupt elites which are cosmopolitan and do not prioritise the interests of the nation. So, for example, the 1990s' NAFTA agreement did much for american/multi-national business profits and also lowered prices, but harmed the good employment opportunities of many americans, such as those who worked in the car industry, as such jobs moved south.


 

-What issues mobilize part of the electorate around national populism? what are the 4 D's (DDDD)?

 

Many analyses of the rise of national populism focus on only one factor - usually either cultural ones linked to identity/immigration or on the other hand socio-economic ones linked to the great recession and growing inequality in many countries. We argue that there are 4 factors, which are partly inter-related (e.g. a criticism of political elites can be linked to the claim that they allowed immigrants in without consulting the people). The precise impact of these factors varies from country to country, depending on issues like the level of immigration (e.g. high in germany not a major issue in portugal), corruption cases,  impact of recession, etc.

Dhe first D is Distrust - a growing distrust of politicians and elites more generally (including experts) who are seen as politically correct and distant from the true people (the heartland). These elites are also often seen as looking down on the people (e.g. hillary clinton referring to trump’s supporters as ‘deplorables’). Some people seek strong leaders, especially in countries with weak democratic traditions like brazil and hungary. But in most established democracies the model is more like Margaret Thatcher - people want leaders wo get things done, but as not autocrats.

 

The second D is Destruction - the destruction not only of national identity, but local communities, etc. Immigration is often seen a crucial factor here, though other factors can include.

 

The third D is Deprivation, referring not to the very poorest who tend not to vote. The focus is more on relative deprivation - people whose position is falling vis a vis others, like traditional male jobs in the car industry cf new gig economy jobs and lower wages (in the us without health care benefits). More generally, the richest 1% are getting richer in many countries, whereas wages for the average worker are static. In 2016 in the us only 24% believed in the american dream that their children would grow up to be better off than them (among trump supporters the figure was 11%).

 

The 4th D is Dealignment - the way in far fewer voters now identify with mainstream parties. As well as their performance in government, this is also linked to the decline of civil society groups like the church and unions. The effect has been especially dramatic in the context of social democratic parties - look at the notable decline in the % of the vote for the german and swedish sds (though in 2019 the danish sds bucked the trend by borrowing much of the national populist agenda and combining this with green and strong welfare measures)


 

-One of the issues that turn many people away from national populism is the nature of their anti-immigration claims. to echo one of the sections of your book, "are national-populist voters racist”?

 

‘Racist’, like ‘fascist’, is a word that is rarely defined and mainly used as a term of abuse/to delegitimise opponents. When racism is defined, the concept typically suffers from major mission creep - it used to refer to views such as the belief that the world was divided into hierarchical racial groups identified largely on the basis of colour, but now it can include things like ‘implicit bias’ where people do not understand how whites have benefitted from racism (e.g. the spoils of colonialism) and the disadvantages suffered by, say, us blacks. Whilst his argument has some academic merit, calling out people as racist who do not believe they are racist adds to their anger against what they see as politically correct elites. The situation varies from country to country, but most national populist voters in countries like britain or the us do not hold traditional racist views. Their issue is more maintaining traditional identities and asking what they see as legitimate questions about immigration - e.g. do we need so many unskilled ones, how can muslims be integrated and in the us how to curb extensive illegal immigration? In 2018 the overtly anti-racist hope not hate organisation found that 85% of british people were ‘balancers’  - they supported immigration in general, but often asked the type of question i’ve just noted.

 

 

-Many on  the left would disagree to call these parties "national populists" and would rather call them "fascists". is there any truth to the claim that they are fascists?

 

A small number of these parties, like the french Nation Front/National Rally, grew partyl our of neo-fascist groupuscules. but most - like the italian Lega and Ukip/The Brexit Party here - have no such connection. fascism openly celebrated violence and totally rejected democracy in favour of a leader-dominated elitist system. The main links are through style rather than ideology (for example, the tendency to spawn charismatic leaders, and to demonise opponents).

 

 

-For what reason do you disagree with those who forsee national populism losing relevance as quickly as it gained it in the first place?

 

The 4Ds are deeply rooted and will not go away, though in any one country national populist parties can temporarily lose votes (e.g. austria after the 2019 scandals affecting the fpo) and the longer-run impact may be more to produce populism-lite centre right parties - like the british conservatives under Boris Johnston who now talk of a ‘people’s government’ etc. A crucial issue for both developments is whether they can attract younger voters, who tend to be more liberal. But in countries such as france young people have been strongly attracted to national populism.

 

 

-In last month's uk general election, boris johnson scored a historic victory for the conservative party, turning the midlands and northern england blue. Obviously, that election was, once again, dominated by the issue of brexit. Aside from brexit, though, is there anything in Johnson as a politician or in the campaign the tories led that resonated with national populist demands among many british voters?

 

There was a very strong rhetoric of obeying the will of the people over brexit and breaking with the elitist and anti-democratic bureaucracy of the EU. More generally, the conservatives exploited the populist theme that ordinary people were not being heard, especially in the midlands and the north (sometimes linking this with the claim that labour had become a metropolitan-southern party of the middle class and university educated). But because the tories are populism-lite, this is not accompanied by a widespread celebration of the wisdom of the people, full attack on elites, etc.

 

 

-The other side of the coin of that election was a historic labour defeat, especially in the so-called "red wall". after the defeat, some voices started criticizing labour's strategy as being too centered around minorities, too london-centered and too "woke". as a result, this group called "blue labour" has emerged. one of the candidates to labour leadership is lisa nandy, who recently vowed to put "uk manufacturing and steel first". could this be the beginning of a national populist movement in the left?

 

I’ve already noted the danish SD move this way, and some on the left in the old east Germany have taken this line (the area where the afd is strongest). But in general parties on the left strongly reject the national populist line - these parties are typically led by middle class, university educated, urban elites who are strongly committed to issues like allowing relatively high levels of immigration, promoting a multi-cultural society, defending  lgbt+ rights, etc (on the last of these, not all national populists, e.g. in the netherlands, atack such rights).


 

-A recent article by Paul Embery, a prominent trade unionist and member of blue labour, proposed that "for the next five years, labour must dedicate itself to talking incessantly about issues that hit working-class voters in the solar plexus: certainly the economy, but also work, family, community, law and order, immigration, the nation and suchlike [...] it must begin to view the family unit as the bedrock of a civilised society". Is national populism compatible with leftist values, or is this just a proposal to turn labour to the right?

 

Many of these were issues that once were central to much of the british and us left, especially within unions. Many of the recent policies in these areas are driven by liberal more than socialist values - the emphasis on individualism, autonomy, and lack of concern for wider social institutions in which values are framed and solidarity built. The last term is revealing as solidarity has been central both to many forms of socialist thought and to social catholicism.
 

 

-One of the main political news in spain is the electoral emergence of vox, a party some call far-right. VOX is in the ECR group in the european parliament together with pPland's PIS and UK's conservative party. Their electoral success happened simultaneously with all national populist movements you mention in the book, but they're a new phenomenon whose popular support couldn't be explained without uniquely spanish issues such as the catalan independence movement. Is this a case of national populism just the same?

 

 You are right that the catalan independence movement was important to VOX - many spaniards who have not voted for vox thought that governments had been weak on this issue. but nb that the december 2018 breakthrough in andalusia came in an area where two other issues were important - immigration and psoe corruption. In the last election, VOX also ran strongly in areas where immigration was a major issue (which it is not generally on spain). VOX is more right wing than some national populist parties (e.g. the French National Rally is quite left wing on the economy and gert wilders' PVV is liberal on lgbt+ and women’s issues, though these are often linked to attacks on islam). It will be interesting to see if this changes/whether it seeks to gain more working class votes which has been a feature of many other NP parties. In spain this may prove tricky given the civil war and ongoing debates about the pact of forgetting etc. But it is worth adding that in Portugal Chega recently has shown signs of a breakthrough (one seat now in parliament), including in the former communist stronghold of the Alentejo.

 

 

-Some have argued that catalan pro-independence parties are nationalist and populist, even though their narrative substantially differs from the 4 ds: they are some of catalonia's traditional parties, they aren't explicitly anti-immigration and they don't have a strong "anti-elitist" or "anti-political" discourse. could they be described as national populists?

 

Not all nationalists are populists (the nazis were nationalists but did not celebrate the wisdom of the people - they believed that germany had fallen into decadence and there was a need to create a ’new man’). As already noted, the term ‘populist’ is often used pejoratively. it is also often synonymous with politicians/parties who promise people what they want/offer simple solutions to complex problems (this is basically the definition in the cambridge dictionary, which made ‘populism’ its word of the year in 2017). In the latter sense, all major parties have some populist stylistic/rhetorical tendencies. But if we focus on core ideology, then populism is not a major feature of catalan politics.
 

 

-The notions of "nationalism" and "europe" seem to be at odds, but many national populists claim to defend "western/european values" against hyper ethnic change. could there eventually be a pan-europeanist national populism, or is national populism intrinsically eurosceptic?

 

For a long time there have been right-wing versions of europeanism. For example, the nazi SS recruited from around europe (e.g. there was a french charlemagne division which took part in the final defence of berlin). Later neo-nazi propaganda portrayed this as a european crusade against bolshevism and more generally saw the war in the west as a european civil war. There were also nazi planning personnel who worked on an integrated post-war european economy, though the reality during the war was the brutal exploitation of labour (including slave labour) and resources in the interests of germany. There was also an element of european within italian fascism. this tended to be cultural and portrayed the origins of europe as stemming from ancient greece and especially Rome. There was also a vision of Europe as a christian realm (though both the nazis and italian fascists had a strong anti-clerical side which meant some did not take this line). So even among hyper-nationalist fascists, there could be support for europe as a cultural idea. This remains true today - national populists tend to distinguish between the EU as bureaucratic and undemocratic (though after the brexit problems few want to leave outright) and a rather flexible idea of european culture which is in danger. The idea has to be flexible as some parties, like VOX and the polish PIS are genuinely religious, whereas the PVV uses religion more to damn islam and parties like UKIP/The Brexit Party are essentially secular. The european union is also far more popular in some member states than others.

 

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