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Rethinking Populism in Europe

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Europe underwent a profound transformation in the 16th century with the Protestant reformation. Martin Luther, John Calvin, and their co-religionists attacked the bureaucracy of the Catholic Church and its corrupt practices. They also advocated a different, more direct relationship between the individual and God. They were aided by the new technology of the printing press, which churned out pamphlets and bibles, as well as the new ideologies of nationalism, which challenged foreign interference in the affairs of the state.

In the rise of populism in Europe today, you can hear some of the echoes of this earlier convulsion, though the religious tones have been transposed to a political register. The Rome that so dismayed the Protestants of the past has become Brussels, and today's populists devote considerable energy to decrying the interferences of this immense bureaucracy. They invoke nationalist slogans and symbols not only against the European Union but against immigrants, foreign investors, international economic institutions, and transnational NGOs. The new populists also argue for a more direct relationship between citizens and political power, unmediated by traditional political institutions, including traditional political parties. And they take advantage of the latest technologies (YouTube, social media) to spread their messages.

The recent European Parliament elections may well be seen as the official starting point for the Populist Reformation. Populist parties didn't take control of the body, but their success in the United Kingdom and France (where the UK Independence Party and the National Front both came out on top) suggests a sea change in political attitudes. Still, the turnouts in these Europe-wide parliamentary elections are very low and may not reveal the true electoral preferences of the majority.

In East-Central Europe, however, the rejection of the conventional liberal-conservative consensus has been more profound. Populist parties have gained ground in Hungary (Jobbik), Bulgaria (Ataka), and Greece (Golden Dawn), and mainstream parties such as Fidesz in Hungary and Law and Justice in Poland have borrowed many tactics from the populists' playbook.

For Goran Buldioski, the head of the Open Society Think Tank Fund in Budapest, populists are concerned only with power and will construct their strategies solely in order to gain power through elections. "The ballot box is the only valid source of legitimation" for such populists, he told me in an interview in Budapest in May 2013.

"And they fight each other tooth and nail in order to control the ballot box. This battle over the ballot box happens long before the day of elections. The problem is what it does to people's heads. All of these are small countries. In order to succeed, you have to be linked to politics or have the tacit or open approval of politicians. I think that's very bad, and not only because I work for a liberal foundation. It undercuts one of the values of a liberal society: merit. The only skill or ability that's important at the moment is the social skill. This is deeply troubling. If you're able to navigate through society by expressing your loyalty upwards and your use of brute power downwards, then you will be successful. If you look at the classic Hirschman view -- exit, voice, loyalty -- the new status quo will basically be a critical mass of loyalists, a significant number of exits, and very few people who raise their voices."

Buldioski likes to use Paul Taggart's definition of populism:

"It's one thing to use popularity as a layer on top of a policy choice or a choice of policy instruments in order to make them appealing. It's another thing to create this heartland [what Taggart calls "a version of the past that celebrates a hypothetical, uncomplicated and non-political territory of the imagination"]. The Tea Party also has a heartland: the imagination of the U.S. constitution in the left hand and a gun in the right hand. You have that in Western Europe, with the UK Independence Party. In Italy, by contrast, Beppe Grillo is not that type of populist. In Europe, a lot of our small dictators, authoritarian leaders, and wannabes are achieving this within European structures, like the European People's Party. There's a flow of exchange between them is much better than what takes place between NGOs, or even the Radical Parties."

It is this tension between the aggressively political competition at the polls and the aggressively non-political rhetoric of the heartland that characterizes the Populist Reformation. What drops out is the middle: the back-and-forth politics of liberal democracy. The rapid rise of populists, as Buldioski points out, is directly connected not so much to the defects of the liberal model but to defects in explaining and building support for that model.

"This is the most profound failure of the last 20 years," he concluded. "Our societies didn't build an understanding of various sources of legitimacy to enter the policy process. A fourth element would be the issue of trade-offs. We didn't understand that we couldn't have everything. Then a populist comes and says, 'No, no, you can have everything.'"

The Interview

Let's begin with your particular generation, which was born in the early 1970s.

My generation is quite interesting. We were grown up enough to understand how the previous society worked. But also our own personal process of maturity coincided with the societal changes. In a way, it was a very interesting dual process. As a group, we were growing up in a fluid society looking for its model. And, as individuals, we were looking to see what we could make out of our own lives. There were fewer constants in that process.

But I believe that's over. The region has a new status quo. I'm not particularly happy with this status quo. It will take a new wave of energy to shake it up and movie it forward. My generation had a chance. Some have become complacent with what has happened in society, others not. But frankly speaking, our generation will not be able to move things forward. On the contrary, key members of my generation have been key proponents of this new system rather than revolutionaries who would like to change it.

How would you characterize the new status quo in the region?

At the moment, there's a set of values that are very much embedded in power, and only power. It's very much of a populist approach, in which politicians claim that the ballot box is the only valid source of legitimation. And they fight each other tooth and nail in order to control the ballot box. This battle over the ballot box happens long before the day of elections. The problem is what it does to people's heads. All of these are small countries. In order to succeed, you have to be linked to politics or have the tacit or open approval of politicians. I think that's very bad, and not only because I work for a liberal foundation. It undercuts one of the values of a liberal society: merit. The only skill or ability that's important at the moment is the social skill. This is deeply troubling. If you're able to navigate through society by expressing your loyalty upwards and your use of brute power downwards, then you will be successful. If you look at the classic Hirschman view -- exit, voice, loyalty -- the new status quo will basically be a critical mass of loyalists, a significant number of exits, and very few people who raise their voices.

How would you distinguish the status quo here from what would seem, at first glance, to be a similar status quo in the United States and other so-called mature democracies?

Mature democracies have their own problems. Let me start with the similarities. Basically in both places you have political wars between competing elites or interests. And there's a burgeoning industry on how to win those wars. Traditional policy analysis is really lagging behind neuroscience. This is an art not only of reading the polls but orchestrating what people should think. In this respect, the neuroscientists are ahead because scientifically they are more developed.

Another similarity would be with populism. I use often Paul Taggart's definition. It's one thing to use popularity as a layer on top of a policy choice or a choice of policy instruments in order to make them appealing. It's another thing to create this heartland [what Taggart calls "a version of the past that celebrates a hypothetical, uncomplicated and non-political territory of the imagination"]. The Tea Party also has a heartland: the imagination of the U.S. constitution in the left hand and a gun in the right hand. You have that in Western Europe, with the UK Independence Party. In Italy, by contrast, Beppe Grillo is not that type of populist. In Europe, a lot of our small dictators, authoritarian leaders, and wannabes are achieving this within European structures, like the European People's Party. There's a flow of exchange between them is much better than what takes place between NGOs, or even the Radical Parties.

But there are also some profound differences. First of all, there are ideologies in the United States and Western Europe. People in the Tea Party really believe. I was recently at a conference organized by Atlas, a small think tank that's part of the libertarian network. When they heard that I came from Open Society and George Soros, they were shocked. "Is there a spy among us?" they asked. "No," I explained. "I came to hear what you're thinking and doing. I work in Europe, so I can understand the divisions you have here, but I don't necessarily have to comply with them."

People here don't have an embedded sense of ideology. Here, people will say, "The Church is good, let's throw in the Church. Nationalism is great? Let's have that too." I come from a country where 40 new statues were erected overnight in the downtown. Skopje is becoming not just a Disneyland but a Jurassic Park. My home city has been urbanistically, aesthetically, politically, and historically raped. These people are not believers. They are non-visionaries. They want to be powerful.

In former times or in other places, authoritarian leaders at a certain moment outgrow their particular geography and want to be recognized in the world. Even the Azeri president has this idea from time to time. In the Balkans, with the exception of the Serbian elite, they don't care. They want to be first in the village. So, there's no ideology. They just want to rule, to be first. Frankly if you look at how much they steal, they don't even steal that much. For proper stealing, go to Ukraine or Armenia or Azerbaijan. There are very few billionaires in the Balkans. The richest oligarch in Serbia allegedly has $4 billion, official $1.5 billion. That's the only one. He's now in prison. He never thought about having a think tank in his name. The richest Ukrainian oligarch Rinat Akhmetov, on the other hand, has a think tank. It costs $500,00-$700,000 -- that the price of a football player sitting on the bench. So it's cheap. He has this sense that it's good to fund people to look ahead and prepare him to be ahead of the curve.

The lack of ideology, that's one difference. Another is this appeal to "analysis." In the world of policy, in which I work, my favorite example is from the Bush administration. Even when George W. Bush decided to invade Iraq, he needed a report. He would fabricate the report -- which we know very well now since it's well documented -- but he couldn't go in without the support of a whole armada of organizations as well as a key report and some smaller reports creating a discourse, all providing a fake scientific approach. That's a sign of the maturity of the society. Of course, he had to grease a hand or two in the process. He had to get some hired guns among intellectuals (and there are too many of these even in Western European societies for my taste).

In the Balkans and Eastern Europe, you can convince people by virtue of symbols. If you have a media machine behind you as well -- even better. With that you can discredit anything that is analytic. You can say that these analysts are just intermediaries and are not needed. Populist parties say they won the people's confidence through the ballot box, and so they talk directly to the people.

I had the sense in 1990 that there were strongly held ideologies here. But then how to explain a phenomenon like Fidesz moving across the political spectrum or Vaclav Klaus changing his political philosophy or the confusion in Bulgaria about what GERB represents. Also, at that time, there used to be a strong division between the Visegrad Four and the rest of Eastern Europe. It was thought that these four countries would develop more quickly up to European standards. If you look at the Catch-Up Index, there is still a gap. But it seems as if all the countries are operating in the same confused ideological space regardless of their economic status. Here in Hungary, people will talk about corruption in the same way as they do in Bulgaria. Was this a failure of European integration, of particular elites in the countries, or of the liberal reform model more generally?

To read the rest of the interview, click here.