Framing far-right populist parties as just an unpopular minority downplays the actual impact the rise of far-right populism has already had on European societies.
Images of violent far-right groups marching the streets in Germany and the strong performance of the populist far-right Sweden Democrats (SD) in the recent elections have sparked fears of a further rise of populism in Europe. Yet, after years of focusing on the rise of the populist far right, many political observers are now pointing out that the actual issue is not far-right populism, but political fragmentation.
In a recent column for The Guardian, Cas Mudde draws on a Pew study to argue that populist parties are not representing a silent majority but, in fact, just an unpopular minority in an increasingly fragmented political landscape. One cannot agree more with Mudde that the reporting on elections has to be more cautious not to repeat populist narratives. The Pew study raises many important questions and debunks all too simplistic explanations put forward in the general debate. Yet calling populists an unpopular minority risks underestimating the real impact far-right populism has on societies.
The first issue with Mudde’s argument is its actual onset. His core claim is that the media generally pitch an “emboldened populism” against an “embattled status quo.” He also argues that this narrative would present populists as the voice of the people, while traditional parties are represented as out-of-touch elites.
It may be true that the there is a widespread and overly anxious view reflected in many media outlets that the status quo is under attack by populists. Yet, the claim that “the media” in Western Europe portray populists as the “real champions of the people” while depicting the establishment as an out-of-touch elite is largely unsubstantiated. Obviously, there is no such uniform and homogenous actor as “the media,” and the way populism has been treated has arguably been very different in respective national contexts.
More important, however, is the claim that media in Western Europe generally portray populists as the “real champions of the people.” Isn’t that rather the core claim of the populists themselves? If “the media” were portraying populist parties as the true voice of the people, wouldn’t populists love “the media,” not despise it, as most of them actually do?
One also has to take issue with the key message Mudde derives from the study itself. To be clear, the study shows important and surprising results that should cool down many sometimes overly dramatic views equaling the rise of populism with a return of fascism. However, the question arises as to how useful a study is for the understanding of the undeniable shifts in Western European politics that shows how popular parties are, without taking into account their actual electoral performance.
The mismatch of popularity and performance seems to be the real puzzle here, and it provokes a whole range of questions. How were parties that are apparently so unpopular able to become so successful? How can a party like Alternative for Germany (AfD) that, according to the study, is seen as unfavorable by 83% of Germans, be on the way of becoming Germany’s second strongest party, as many polls indicate? Mudde seems to suggest that “the media” are to blame for this. But what if maybe the party and its personnel is seen with skepticism, but not so much the positions it puts forward, specifically on Muslims?
Probably the most important point to reiterate is that framing far-right populist parties as just an unpopular minority downplays the actual impact the rise of far-right populism has already had on European societies. One only has to think of the actual policies put forward by populist parties in Poland, Hungary and, more recently, Italy. Equally, in Germany, the AfD has dramatically changed the political climate increasingly characterized by a widespread disagreement even on what is real, and what not.
In both Sweden and Germany, the increasing political weight of AfD and SD has opened channels for radical-right influence into the heart of both democracies and allowed for a new quality of collaboration between different far-right actors. To those who have to live with the real consequences of this shift, the somewhat soothing perspective that far-right positions are limited to a loud minority must seem as if coming from a different planet.
What is important here is not only the mere numbers, but also how populist rhetoric and policies are appropriated by other parties — new and established parties included — and how they legitimize racism not only on the streets, but also among social, cultural and political elites.
We have seen too many recent examples of how populist views, specifically when linked to racism and ethnopolitics, seep into the mainstream and become part of neither silent, nor loud, but rather a normal majority perspective. For this to happen, far-right populist parties do not have to be extremely popular or even electorally successful. Therefore, the spread of far-right ideas has to be seen as alarming and at least as important as political fragmentation or the rise of non-populist alternatives. The (re)legitimization and normalization of racist views has to be taken seriously — no matter if coming from populists, traditional or new political actors.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.