May 23, 2018

Mudde: Populism Is Based on Morals

Rio Gandara/Helsingin Sanomat
Cas Mudde
Cas Mudde

Populism expert Cas Mudde sees no fundamental difference between Eastern and Western European populists

Do we accept democracy as the best form of government? Is there really a lack of belief in liberal democracy and traditional European integration? Why are populists emerging almost everywhere, regardless of the level of democratisation? Why is it mostly the populist radical right? What is its impact on international relations? To understand the phenomenon of the populist radical right better, Diplomaatia spoke to Cas Mudde, Associate Professor of International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA) and an internationally renowned writer and academic. His research interests are comparative European politics, extremism and democracy, political parties and social movements, Euroscepticism and Islamophobia. His most recent publications include The Far Right in America, The Populist Radical Right: A Reader and Populism: A Very Short Introduction (with C.R. Kaltwasser).1

The interview took place in Tallinn during the conference “Nation states or member states? Re-imagining the European Union”, at which Mudde was on the panel “Will the EU survive populism?”

Diplomaatia: We live in the populist zeitgeist,2 and populist discourse has become commonplace in the politics of Western democracies. But in talking about populist parties of the radical right (PRR), which seem to threaten liberal democracy, we need to have some common definitions. You have proposed widely accepted definitions yourself. What is populism?

CM: I define populism as a thin-centred ideology that divides society into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups: “the pure people” on the one side and “the corrupt elite” on the other. It wants politics to be the general will of “the people”. It is more than just a style of politics to get into power—it is also about what you do when you are in power.

Secondly, it is monist in the sense that society is seen in terms of homogeneous, monistic groups with the same interests and values.

Third, populism is not the only ideology that sets “the people” against “the elite”—the key distinction is morality. Populism is based on morals and that creates a whole different interaction, because if you are “pure” and the other person is “corrupt”, compromise leads to corruption of the pure. Corrupt people are not legitimate opponents, and that is an important difference.

We need to add further definitions, because populist elements can also be found in the rhetoric of mainstream parties. How do we define PRR parties? What makes a party “radical”?

This is very important because populism is a very broad term and, because it is thin-centred, it can be attached to all kinds of ideologies, which we call the host ideologies. Within the populist radical right it is combined with nativism and authoritarianism.

I call it “populist radical right” rather than “radical right populism”. This seems like semantic word play, but it has consequences: it is a populist form of radical right politics rather than a radical-right form of populist politics. The core of the populist radical right is nativism, a xenophobic form of nationalism.

So who are “the people” on behalf of whom they speak?

“The people” are a constructed entity, as is class, as is the nation. Socialists invent class, nationalists invent the nation, and so the populists invent “the people”. It is about identities, and all identities are created and they are all imperfect. Many people now argue that gender, particularly two genders, are created. People are a creation, but politics is very much about this type of creation.

Defining “the people” is itself a big part of the political struggle for populists, and vice versa. A large part of the response to populism is reclaiming the people, which often gets into anti-populism. That, in return, is based on the same moral distinction. And then you get into these types of trap, like Hillary Clinton when she spoke about the “deplorables” who would vote for Trump.

We have had this debate for decades about the electorate of the PRR, who we have stereotyped as misguided, who are the losers from globalisation, who cannot deal with the complexity of contemporary society, etc. Now that all sounds very academic, but there was always a normative aspect to it. I personally don’t see so much difference between mainstream and populist politics and to a certain extent I study populism to understand mainstream politics and particularly its many faults.

What about those societies in which the population is politically split, as we see in many countries now? For example, in Turkey support for the president is just over 50%, which has created a deeply polarised, black-and-white, uncompromising political atmosphere.

Well, this is a problem for the populists—how to explain the “other side”. There are various ways: “the people” are defined culturally or ethnically. Populism itself does not define ethnicity—that is nativism, in the case of the PRR. It is cultural—if you don’t share their culture, you are just not part of “the people”. You might be citizens, but you are not perceived as being part of them.

They often go to something that Marxists would call false consciousness—blaming the Church for keeping the people down.3 In the case of the PRR, it is the politically correct establishment that has made the people not see the “real issues”. In particular, the PRR in Europe says “the people actually really don’t like immigrants”, but they don’t dare to say this because of the establishment. Those who accept it are the result of decades of campaigns of tolerance. So it is a combination of the two—you just exclude the part that doesn’t share your values because they are not “real people”, and the others actually hold those values, but are not aware of them.

Of course, the PRR would never say “false consciousness” because it is Marxist terminology, but the argumentation is very similar. I have always found it very interesting that they devote a lot of time to what traditional extremists did not need very much. Those would just say: “We know what is needed”. Think of Lenin or Hitler—they were avant-garde, they were special, and that was part of their ideology. The fact that 90% of the population had different values did not matter to them. However, it does matter to the populists, because they pretend to be the voice of the people. If a sizable proportion of “the people” do not think like them, there has to be an explanation, because it is potentially threatening to the populists’ future. This is one of the reasons US President [Donald] Trump is obsessed with crowds—another is narcissism—but it is important. For him, his argument is: “I am popular, they are there for me!”

Can you give a few clear examples of parties and leaders that would fit your criteria of a populist?

Silvio Berlusconi is a good example, Nigel Farage, and Hugo Chavez in Venezuela, who would regularly refer to himself as “the people”. That said, as in all politics, no one is “pure”. Populist leaders sometimes make statements that go against the core of populism, as free marketeers at times support limits on the free market, and say quite elitist things like “if the people don’t agree with me they can go somewhere else”. In a pure populist mindset that is impossible, because you are part of the people, and the people all think the same, so you can’t disagree. A key aspect of their campaign is this attachment, presenting yourself as one of the people, someone who shares “our” interests and values. These can be seen in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s campaigns, and later Marine le Pen’s. Jean-Marie le Pen came out with slogans like “The voice of the people” or “We say what you think!” These are beautiful examples of populism.

What about Geert Wilders, from your homeland, the Netherlands?

Starting out more like a conservative, Wilders has transformed into a populist partly following his base. Most of the time he argues that his beliefs are simply “common sense”, which is the term that populists like to use. We now have very bizarre examples of populists with elitist lifestyles—most of the time they try to act like one of the people, do folksy things, go to soccer games and so on.

Isn’t this the case with Donald Trump?

Yes, to a certain extent. Populism is not about being rich or poor. His connection to the people is actually cultural, not through money—it is through eating at McDonald’s and putting ketchup on your steak and not being interested in high culture. That is how he says, “I am one of you”. Sure, I am way richer than you, but that’s irrelevant, because populism is not about money, it is about values.

Do you see anyone in the Middle East that can be described as populist?

In Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has had these periods and there are certain aspects of leaders like Gamal Abdel Nasser in Egypt. Keep in mind that populism almost always works in societies where democracy is pretty much the only game in town. That was not the case in Egypt, so Nasser combined populism with the strong leader who knew what was best for his country. Leaders like Recep Tayyip Erdoğan in Turkey regularly draw on populist campaigns, although his Islamic fundamentalism is also always there, not necessarily in the policies but definitely in the justifications.

What is the connection between religious leadership and populism? The two don’t seem to go together.

Essentially there is a basic tension between any type of religious fundamentalism and populism because if you are a Christian, Jewish or Islamic fundamentalist you believe that virtue rests in God and you are bound to believe that the people are sinful. But populism believes that virtue lies in the people and that sin is within the elite.

We are seeing a rise of PRR, and one might think this is due to different, often perceived, divisions in societies. According to your research, what are the causes of the change in these perceptions, given that—at least in Europe—many countries have never been as peaceful and as economically successful as now?

First of all, we don’t live in the reality. We all live in our own perception of reality. We don’t compare lives on the basis of objective data. Also, many of the objective data that have been brought forward to show that everything is better are aggregate data. There is a famous interview with a pro-Brexit voter who, when journalists started saying that GDP had gone up in the EU, retorted “Whose GDP is that?” It sounds like a bizarre question, but it is a very good one. At the aggregate level everything goes up, but there is no denying that inequality has risen significantly in recent decades.

People are still objectively better off than 20 years ago but subjectively, in terms of how much more someone else makes, there has been a difference. In part, of course we also compare ourselves to what we had expected or to an idealised past. Older people say “it used to be better, we did not have crime, we used to know each other”; there are women who say “we were better off in the 1950s”, although gender equality was nowhere near what we have today; or gays, who complain about how Islam is threatening centuries of tolerance, although in most countries gays were a persecuted minority until a couple of decades ago. So it is an imagined past.

But most populist parties are not just populist parties, they are also nativist or socialist parties. [Greece’s radical left-wing] Syriza would not have had the same success without austerity, and the [French] Front National would not be where it is without immigration and multiculturalism—it translates its nativist agenda through the populist agenda.

And why is that successful? Because people have changed their perceptions about their leaders, they are more self-confident and they are more critical of their leaders. That is what provides a breeding-ground for populism. We were giving leaders too much leeway before, but now it has gone to the other extreme—as if the voter is never wrong. But voters can be wrong, because they know hardly anything about parties. They criticise everything about the leaders, even though leaders have to compromise—this is how politics works. This also explains why nativists today are populist rather than why nativists are successful in general.

In your 2007 book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe,4 you mention that, although PRR parties generally don’t get into power, they do have an “agenda-setting power”—they dictate what we talk about and how we talk about it.

Despite some success in countries like Hungary, where they don’t just set the agenda but also make policies, in the vast majority of cases the PRR are not a (political, economic or media) power. They don’t write the articles, others do. What they do, though, is determine what we talk about and, more importantly, how we talk about it. That sets the agenda but still leaves the responsibility of the policies to the ones who make them, which are the mainstream parties. Almost every anti-refugee policy that has been implemented has not been brought in by leaders like [Hungarian prime minister] Viktor Orbán but by parties on the centre-left and centre-right. They argue that this is the only way to deal with the “threat” to our borders, but the reason we speak about the refugees as a threat, rather than as a humanitarian crisis, is because the PRR have set the agenda. They decide that we will talk about the refugees as a threat to our borders and societies.

There is a lot of labelling and stereotyping from all sides. People often associate the PRR with Nazism and in return the PRR attack the liberal-democratic systems they are actually part of. What are the common mistakes in the debates about populism and the PRR?

One of the major differences between populism and extremism (of which Nazis are one form) is their relationship with democracy. The populists actually accept the essence of democracy, in terms of popular sovereignty and the majority rule. They want the people to elect their leaders; the extremists do not.

So Nazis are not populist—they don’t believe that politics should follow the general will. Nazis believe that the leader, the Führer, knows what is best for everyone. Hitler was considered special and was not just an average German. Actually, Nazis consider democracy a “mediocracy”, which creates mediocre policies, whereas Hitler’s policies were superior. I think it is important to not play the “Nazi card” and conflate that. I use the term “far right” to describe the extreme right like Golden Dawn, and the “radical right”, which is more populist. So there is an overlap with populism in the sense that PRR parties are both part of the far right and part of populism.

So labelling the PRR as Nazis, as often happens, is actually giving them a chance to appear more moderate?

Yes, this is almost always a counter-productive strategy. If you call me a Nazi, all I have to do is to say, “I don’t want to mass-murder millions of Jews” and I am not a Nazi anymore. I can still want the most horrible things, for example closing the borders to all immigrants or taking rights away from Muslims, which sounds like nothing compared to genocide. It just makes them look more moderate and it diminishes the evil of Nazism. And it makes you look ridiculous to people who potentially could support PRR parties.

In your books you also conclude that mainstream politics influences, and can still influence, the PRR. For example, there are cases where they have become more moderate once in power.

There are not too many examples, but when they are in coalition governments, they behave pretty well, such as in Finland or Austria in particular. One party that has moderated to a certain extent in the way its conducts politics is the deeply Islamophobic Danish People’s Party, which is totally accepted by all parties in Denmark, including the Social Democrats. It has softened its populism a lot and, I think, as a consequence of their acceptance, does not see this elitist conspiracy anymore.

To a certain extent, the major threat to the political system actually comes from uncompromising positions. The fact that they want to achieve their agenda through compromise with other parties is not so threatening to the system, as long as mainstream parties stick to their ideologies. The problem is that many mainstream parties don’t have an ideology anymore and shift wherever it helps them to stay in office or get them into power.

Sebastian Kurz of the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) is at the moment showing the power of the radical right. The reason they don’t moderate is that the mainstream has radicalised, so there is very little reason to do this. This is because of 9/11 and the interpretation of it, because of the ongoing refugee crisis and terrorism. There are certain interpretations of events that have led to the normalising of the radical right.

It has been claimed that the Central Eastern European PRR is different from the Western version. You have come to the conclusion that this is essentially not the case. Have you changed your mind in the course of your research?

My argument is that essentially PRR parties are the same everywhere, because they share the same core ideology, but I don’t argue that the reasons for their success are not different. They are always national, not regional. For example, Orbán’s success was partly because his political opponent was caught on tape saying they were lying in their campaign and the major party on the left imploded. That has nothing to do with globalisation or an authoritarian personality—it is just an implosion of the system. In Western Europe the populist parties are first and foremost a criticism of, or an opposition to, an established party system with centre-left and centre-right, liberals, etc.

Talking of East and West, there are at least as many differences within those regions as there are between them. I am uncomfortable with the transition narrative and paradigm—almost a majority of people who vote in Central and Eastern Europe were not socialised under communism. They have been socialised under more or less open democratic systems. Some legacies of socialist times are being reinvented, but that is different from being socialised under communism. It is historicism to say something happened 50 years ago, therefore something [else] happens today. Politics are much more complex than that and there are many more reasons why the Kaczyńskis went that way or Orbán went that way. This is Orbán’s third identity, from libertarian anti-communist to bourgeois conservative to radical-right rebel.

While I am a comparative political scientist and think there is a lot of merit to comparisons, I think we talk way too much about “European trends” and “global trends”. At best, they explain a breeding-ground, but how that translates in the electoral arena is very much a national issue and depends a lot on what the other parties do, what the specific populist party does, or what the events are that set the agenda in a specific case.

In Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe you mentioned that Western European PRR saw the threat coming from Eastern Europe, of migrants coming also from Estonia or our neighbouring states. Now we have our own Eastern European PRR who are Islamophobic and point to the southern shores of the Mediterranean for the “danger”. How do the “other” groups form and how come they are always fluid?

Social psychological research shows that very few people have strong prejudices towards only one group. Generally, if you believe in in-groups and out-groups, it can be applied to various groups. People who are anti-Semitic are often also anti-Roma or anti-black. Islamophobia is a little bit different because it has a different narrative. For example, you can be defending liberal-democratic values and be Islamophobic at the same time.

The PRR did not invent the phobias but new groups were brought to life. Think of Viktor Orbán, who has become one of the loudest Islamophobic voices in Europe and in the world. It is not that he was never Islamophobic [before], but because there were no Muslims. So it was inevitable that, as soon as a sizeable number of Muslims came to Hungary, he would be against them because he believes in an ethnic state. It does not matter if they were Muslims or blacks, or even whites. At the mass level it is more instinctive, but for the ideological leaders it is a major issue.

When I studied the Vlaams Blok5 in the early 1980s, their main threat was the French-speakers from Belgium. Half of their propaganda was against them. There was a period when many people thought “guest workers” like the Turks and Moroccans would eventually go home. They were not perceived as a permanent feature of Belgian life. As soon as they became that, they suddenly became more of a threat than the French-speaking Belgians.

It seems the enemy can be found in any group—feminists, gays, anyone who can be seen as different or an “out-group”.

Absolutely, and I think particularly in Central and Eastern Europe a massive Roma-phobia existed in the countries where they lived, but homophobia is still rampant in almost every single country in this region. Given that most countries have relatively secular populations, this does not derive just from the Bible, as in the US. It is a wider bigotry against people who are different. Society here was not that tolerant. On the other hand, we overlooked all the indicators for what we see now. I was not surprised to see Orbán, but also the wider response—almost every party in Central and Eastern Europe is against Muslim refugees, including the Social Democrats.

It is often claimed that PRR parties are misogynist and sexist, and it is curious that women involved in the PRR are often family members or relatives of male party members. However, when it comes to the participation of women in PRR parties, your research has shown that they are not that different from the mainstream parties. Why do they have this image?

Yes, this is again the externalisation of “evil”. One of the problems in our debates about the PRR is that we already had communism, whose evil we would use to whitewash our own regimes. We would look at the Soviets and say, “that’s awful, but we are great, we don’t have their problems!” One of the things about the PRR is to say “Look! They are so sexist, out of all their leaders there is just one woman!” But there is a woman, and if you look at many of the other parties there are no women. We compare them to the ideal model of gender equality, which does not exist anywhere. Yes, their views are old-fashioned, but not in a 1920s way, rather in a 1970s way. They accept that women work, they prefer that they start to work after their children are about four of five years old, which is really not very different from the conservative parties or Christian Democrats. In Eastern Europe, the difference between the mainstream right-wing and the PRR on gender issues is almost completely non-existent

One area where we see the difference is some new phenomena in the PRR parties’ youth wings, which is pure misogyny, where women are seen as a threat. In the classic sexist view, women are not threatening but are considered weaker—they should be protected and they should be pure. For the misogynists, they should not be pure—they should be available for sex at all times and they should be submissive. They are responding to a different world in which, although nowhere near equal, women are more assertive and decide for themselves who they choose as partners. That seems to have unleashed a frustration and anger that is very new and potentially very dangerous, particularly among higher-educated young males. In the US there have been a couple of shootings that got very little coverage but were totally led by misogyny. So, sure, there is sexism in the PRR, but it is generally comparable to today’s conservatives, not like the Nazis in the past.

How should we deal with this phenomenon, or even make use of it? You said at the conference, very wisely, that often the PRR asks the right questions and it is just that they give wrong answers. How do we deal with the polarisation?

Purely symbolic resistance to anything they propose does not really help us. Our main effort should not be just beating the populists but strengthening liberal democracy. If we do this, the populists will be weakened; but if we weaken populism, liberal democracy is not necessarily any stronger.

The issue for me has never been black and white. I am against radical-right politics, and I don’t care if it comes from PRR parties or not. I fight for anyone’s right to free speech. I have not been polarised in that sense. Polarisation is about black and white, but I live in a grey world in which there are shades of grey.

In the grey world, not everyone is equal—the fact that North Korea has a large number of people in illegal prisons and the US has Guantanamo does not mean that they are the same. It just means that no one is pure. In that sense, polarisation is the externalisation of what is wrong in your own camp. You focus on the negative aspects of the other one. I have never felt threatened by those ideas or believed that people can be “seduced” by them and that therefore the PRR should not be allowed to speak. If there is one thing my personal background has taught me, it is that people of another political view are more complex than the stereotypes.

One thing we must do is update our knowledge about the data on the PRR. The narrative in the Anglo-Saxon media seems to be that this is all new, whereas we actually talk of parties that have been around for decades and don’t act the same way they used to. For example, social media was not around when I wrote my book on PRRPs in Europe. It was finished by the end of 2005 and published in 2007, based on research done mostly in the 1990s. In my new book these are parties in the 21st century and they are twice as old as all kinds of new ones.

Do you have any advice for policymakers and opinion leaders?

I believe the EU is a community based on values and was created to prevent war and create the most effective market ever, which is still the driving force and the strength. Countries that wanted to get in wanted to get richer but also to become more democratic. Now if you don’t enforce these values, they are losing that power. It is very self-defeating for the EU to accept a regime like Orbán’s. When the EU by and large accepts a leader like him, and keeps subsidising his regime, then you can’t send a message out to Russia or to Turkey saying, “you can’t do that”, because Turkey will think “so it’s not about that issue, it is about us being Muslims”. Double standards are always disastrous—you either believe in the “community of values” and enforce them, or you change them.


1 The Far Right in America (London: Routledge, 2018, 140 pp.); The Populist Radical Right: A Reader (London: Routledge, 2017, 642 pp.); Populism: A Very Short Introduction (with C. R. Kaltwasser) (Oxford University Press, 2017, 144 pp.). Mudde’s other recent works are Syriza: The Failure of the Populist Promise (Palgrave Macmillan, 2017, 98 pp.); On Extremism and Democracy in Europe (London: Routledge, 2016, 164 pp.); Youth and the Extreme Right (New York: IDEBATE, 2014, 224 pp.); and Political Extremism (four volumes) (London: SAGE, 2014, 1,576 pp.).

2 “The Populist Zeitgeist” is also the title of an article by Cas Mudde, first published in 2004 (in Government and Opposition 39(4) (Autumn 2004): 541–63).

3 Encyclopaedia Britannica defines false consciousness as: “in philosophy, particularly within critical theory and other Marxist schools and movements, the notion that members of the proletariat unwittingly misperceive their real position in society and systematically misunderstand their genuine interests within the social relations of production under capitalism. False consciousness denotes people’s inability to recognize inequality, oppression, and exploitation in a capitalist society because of the prevalence within it of views that naturalize and legitimize the existence of social classes.”

4 Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (Cambridge University Press, 404 pp.).

5 The Vlaams Blok was a right-wing populist and Flemish nationalist political party in the Flanders and Brussels regions of Belgium. It became the Vlaams Belang in 2004.


This article was published in ICDS Diplomaatia magazine.