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Populism: lowering of standards let evil in – now we must raise them again

A few hundred members of the Magyar Garda, or Hungarian Guard and sympathizers of the far-right 'Jobbik Party' march in the center of Tatarszentgyory village, 60 km south-west from Budapest 09 December 2007 during their demonstration against alleged criminal activities conducted by gypsies. - Credit: AFP/Getty Images

We shouldn’t be surprised about the sudden emergence of populism. Illiberalism has deep roots. And we’ve allowed it to grow

Over the course of last year, several commentators claimed that we were witnessing a ‘new xenophobia’, the product of an all-too-visible populism.

Oxford University Professor and Dean of the Blavatnik School of Government, Ngaire Woods described the electoral successes of Trump and the Brexit vote as evidence of a new mood of contagious illiberalism. Gianni Pittella, MEP and Chair of the group of Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats went further declaring: ‘We have been infected. The virus of populism, racism, xenophobia has affected Europe. This virus in Europe is named Le Pen in France, Farage in Great Britain, Orban in Hungary, Five Star Movement in Italy, Kaczynski in Poland.’

These assessments appear irrevocably true. The ideas and political agendas developed and promulgated by those leaders have rebounded across Europe. But how much of this is new?

Over the past 20 years scholars and politicians have been lamenting the ‘new xenophobia’. In 1995, Adrian Favell and Bernd Baumgartl wrote: ‘The economic recession, uncertainty about the future of granted values and institutions (like the EU, NATO and Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe) has brought xenophobia back to the forefront of the European agenda.’

The former Labour MEP, Glyn Ford noted a step change in 2007 when he described how traditionally fascist right wing parties presented themselves as ‘fascist light’. This is the point.

For decades, populist leaders have worked to expand their membership by sanitising their political programmes. In the case of Marine Le Pen, the sacking of her father helped to distance her party from the anti-Semitic and Nazi roots which characterised Le Pen senior’s leadership. Farage himself admitted to the European Parliament that his ambition started twenty years earlier and Trump has been building and reinforcing his brand through continuous media engagements and reality television shows.

The problem with the claims made by Woods and Pittela is that multi-systemic infections are normally preceded by long incubation periods. As Hannah Arendt details in her study on the Origins of Totalitarianism, it was the confluence of many factors throughout the late 19th and early 20th Century that gave rise to the ‘witches brew’ which fuelled Nazism.

In the case of Europe, we can detect certain markers beyond the financial crisis of 2008 or the electoral trends of 2016, including growing unease with an expansionist and radical Islam that was encroaching on European territory. The rise in chauvinism, anti-migrant sentiment and distrust of organised political parties that we note today did not happen quickly.

So how did we miss the story?

We became enchanted with reform and took liberalism for granted. Even before the Arab Spring, when leaders like Barack Obama rushed to proclaim democracy in Cairo, many in Europe were blinded by their belief that democracy was synonymous with liberalism, which it is not.

Further, democracy was measured by a short yardstick. Procedural approaches to democracy were privileged over more substantive models. Rather than scrutinise the character of political authority or the meaning of an independent media in an age where media moguls and oligarchs determine the content of our news, often in cosy alliance with government figures, few successfully pressed our political arbiters to up their game and demand more evidence of reform.

Rather, they sought assurances to key questions. Are elections free and fair? Is there active contest? Do people enjoy various rights to association, freedom of expression and to religious freedom in law? The notable exceptions were monitors such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty and a handful of journalists who actively challenged the contradictions between celebrating the machinations of democratic governance and the prevention of human rights abuses.

Indeed, the focus on procedural democracy was the standard diplomatic test and not limited to Europe. Burma was the perfect case in point. As hundreds of thousands of Rohingya people were forcibly displaced and subject to racist violence, Western governments and national development agencies bit their tongues as Aung San Suu Kyi was celebrated and Burma was elected to chair the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

But even in Europe, there was a long standing tradition of lowering expectations in the interest of EU Member States and the European Commission.

During the EU enlargement process, the Commission assessed applicants and candidate countries according to the Copenhagen criteria, which include not only the above measures of democracy, but also adherence to a canon of civil and human rights norms. Countries in eastern and central Europe were watched closely, understandably, since democratic rights had been suspended in countries like the Czech Republic for decades, and others had enjoyed little experience of democracy.

Yet this model of reporting, which seeks guarantees that laws and institutions are in place, and that procedures may be held in check, overlooked substantive criticisms which are at the heart of our current struggles.

For example, shortly after achieving independence Slovenia revoked the residency rights of more than 25,000 people. Although the state was heralded as a democratic success story, for many years political parties frustrated a resolution to the situation of the ‘erased’ who, upon the cancellation of their residency rights lost other acquired rights, including the right to family life, with some even detained and deported.

The Czech Republic has been repeatedly condemned by the European Court of Human Rights for instituting segregated educational policies that disadvantage Roma children. Its neighbour, Slovakia has been the site of much xenophobic abuse against Roma minorities and has similarly been charged with defying European norms and human rights laws regarding access to justice, and the appalling state of its prisons.

Hungary has distinguished itself as one of the most repressive regimes in Europe, unequivocally anti-migrant and Islamophobic. Political elites, academics, and journalists have been aligned with base populist sentiment which is overtly hateful and hostile towards foreigners. Long-standing minorities, including Roma and Jews, which had survived the deportations by the Nazis and their Hungarian allies, have again been the target of hate crimes by far-right elements.

More can be said of Bulgaria and Romania where corruption, violence against Roma and policy brutality have been equally recorded.

In 2007, Ford argued that the ‘new xenophobia’ was characterised by the mainstreaming of previously marginal views such as Holocaust denial and pernicious anti-Semitic conspiracy theories. In 2017, we can also add to the list of new xenophobia, the normalisation of anti-migrant rhetoric and the use of repression, including detention, which have sustained the attack on the principle of asylum.

Today we speak of a ‘post-truth’ reality where facts and evidence hold no currency. Yet we know who is actively trying to alter our realities and use xenophobia to divide our societies through media disinformation, denial and revisionism. The architects are extremists on the far right, far left, or within radical Islam but they are working constantly to subvert our political structures, undermine our values, and strip out the middle.

The current danger should no longer be simply described as illiberalism or the virus populism but rather the incremental march of authoritarianism. Yet, there are steps we can take to mitigate against this trend.

More than 25 years ago Columbia University political scientist Alfred Stepan argued in a seminal article, On the Tasks of A Democratic Opposition, that it is essential to guard zones of autonomy against such authoritarianism, for example in the press and in our universities; and to continue to dispute its legitimacy while raising the costs of authoritarian rule.

Rather than appease populist leaders by lurching to the right, as we gave seen from Theresa May, it is time now for liberal minded governments and the European Commission to hold all to a higher standard. We have seen the costs that come with giving states a pass on fundamental issues such as racism and xenophobia.

Brad K. Blitz is a professor of international politics at Middlesex University and senior fellow at the Global Migration Centre at the Graduate Institute in Geneva

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