Would you submit to radical populists?

Interesting and troubling things are happening.

In Austria, the two classical people’s parties have been pulverized, from a solid absolute majority to 22% in the recent presidential elections. In Germany, a similar trend is materializing, though more slowly, and not (yet) as dramatically. But chances are that here, the (formerly) two big parties, the social democrats and conservatives, will also lose their majority. In France, the Front National may make it next year into the second round of the presidential elections, and even may win (an outcome narrowly avoided last weekend in Austria where the FPÖ almost made it). In the USA, two out of the remaining three presidential candidates are outspoken and successful populists. A Trump or Sanders presidency would change the country. In Hungary and Poland, this is already a reality, to the puzzlement and horror of the EU. Also in Denmark, Sweden and the Netherlands, populists are gaining in influence. The recent referendum on accepting an association agreement with Ukraine was instructive.

The question this week is not an easy one. Let’s assume for a moment that in one of the major EU countries, and/or in the US, an outspoken simplifier would make it into the presidency, and start changing the independence of the legal institutions, the media, or the educational sector – how would we react? Let’s take as one extreme Houellebecq’s ‘Submission’, where a clear majority of professors are bribed into converting to Islam. And, as another option on the opposite side, a mass defection from political pressure. What would be the likely outcome in the case that radical populists take over the executive power in a major Western country as the result of a relatively normal election? What would we do?

– Prof. Dr. Klaus Segbers

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  1. Robert Legvold 3 years ago

    Sander’s and Trump’s support represents a strong strain of populism, but Sander’s populism is not Trump’s. One is anti-Wall Street, the frustration of the economically disempowered, and pacifist. Trump’s is angry social conservativism, racist, pro-gun, and anti-immigrant. True, both are anti-establishment, anti-trade pact, and persuaded that allies are not carrying their fair share of the burden, and those strains will likely have an impact on whichever party wins the election. But Sanders will not win the election and, if Trump does, it will only be because the remainder of the Republican party that is not part of the populist uprising has swallowed hard and rallied to a candidate they neither trust nor like. Hence, Trump and his base, will not have the wherewithal to alter basic U.S. institutions even if they want to. The problem, however, is already in what red state governors and legislatures are doing in laying siege to voting rights legislation, Roe v. Wade, and the civil rights of the LGBT community. In Europe, I am not certain how much the rise of the right, despite the common anti-immigrant core, is genuinely populist and how much traditionally neo-fascist. To see its strength in Poland, Hungary, Austria, and Switzerland, its rise in Germany, Sweden, and France, and its presence elsewhere is obviously disturbing and to be watched. But Germany, France, and Sweden are not Austria, and the EU, the actor best placed to counter trends in Poland, has decided that it is either not wise or not necessary to intervene—yet.

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  2. Dimitrios Triantaphyllou 3 years ago

    Depending on one’s perspective, the scenario of radical populists taking over executive power is already a reality in Greece where SYRIZA has been in power since January 2015. An interesting feature of SYRIZA rule is its increasing willingness to shed some of its ideological baggage in order to stay in power. The diffusion of the political system has allowed it to survive with a threadbare majority while it shows staying power as the pro-European forces of the center left and center right do not seem to offer the electorate credible alternatives themselves. Though it faces growing unpopularity over the austerity measures it has voted for in parliament, it using all the tools of the trade – delaying public sector reform, proposing electoral law changes, new media laws, etc. – that the previous elites used stay in power for as long as they could.

    Although Greece is not the hypothetical major European power that could tilt the balance in the European Union, the SYRIZA experiment is telling as however populist a party may be in winning the election, it will have to moderate both its rhetoric and ambitions because it would assume power amidst a fractured and bitterly divided electorate. In other words, the reality of power and the difficulty of maintaining it coupled with the checks and balances our political systems have in place would severely constrain the ability of a populist party to implement its agenda. The onus in this case is on the democratic parties that have been in charge of the post-war European consensus to this day – how they can change or evolve in order to rebalance the political spectrum towards the moderate center.

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  3. Sergei Medvedev 3 years ago

    What we are faced with, is not just some political oscillation, but a combination of trends, a tectonic shift in Western societies, signaling the crisis of key Modern institutions of class, ideologies, traditional party politics, mass media, the University, etc. In their stead, a new brand of media politics is emerging, based on information overload, entertainment, and simplification.

    This new politics is captured by populists promoting nationalism, racism, chauvinism and parochialism, destroying yet another key Western institution of the past half-century – political etiquette and conventions of political correctness around which a broad consensus was formed in politics, education, and the media.

    In a way, this is a belated arrival of postmodernism into mainstream Western politics, with its moral relativism, mediatization, infotainment and the pseudo-democratic cult of the common man – which indeed means negative selection, and the collapse of rooted social hierarchies. Having colonized the media, literature and art, the common man has arrived at the heart of politics.

    Russia’s Vladimir Putin, with his cult of force, trademark cynicism and a firm belief that anything could be bought for money, is yet another part of this shift, therefore his obvious appeal to the common man in the West, and his alliance with other destroyers of traditional politics like Victor Orban, Marine Le Pen and, quite possibly, Donald Trump. In a way, this all resembles the rise of European Fascism in the interwar period, from Great Britain to South Europe and the Balkans.

    Not much can be done about this trend, other than reinforcing the traditional Western institutions inherited from the Age of Enlightenment, of which two stand out, the cult of reason and the ability for moral judgment. In the end, Hegel and Kant may be the best safeguards against Putin and Trump.

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  4. Justas Paleckis 3 years ago

    What is permissible for Jove is not permissible for the oxen against which the EU is trying to impose some sanctions. Oxen are small European countries which were flooded by the wave of populism and nationalism. Who is next? And what if not one but several great powers will fall under that wave? It is true, that radical parties and politicians once they come to power generally tend to calm down a little bit. However, there is no doubt that something is rotten in the kingdom on both sides of the Atlantic. The liberal, free market and democratic system requires major repair. A society of exaggerative consumption, of destroying our planet where inequality is increasing leads to a havoc. This wave could be stopped by an example of a fairer and more just society. The Nordic countries come closest to this example. However, even they surrender to populism and nationalism. I just want to remind a short and important François Mitterrand’s saying: “Nationalism is war”.

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  1. Sonne 3 years ago

    Very interesting question, although to answer. My gut feeling tells me to expect a similar development to what Dimitrious Triantaphyllou described: Once in office the populists move to the center. This is especially easy if the avoid a to close alignment to any ideology and position themselves more as "anti-establishment". It would also be interesting to see, whether some of the European populists would actually dare to leave the Union or just change it from within. The upcoming referendum in the UK might be decisive for that.
    What I think as a possible solution, a possible way out for the EU, would be the integration of social policy, for example a general minimum wage for everyone in the Union or centralized help for pensions in crisis-ridden members states. Of course those measures would need lots of effords from the member states, but it could help to change the negative perception of Brussels. Any thought on that?

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  2. worldklaus 3 years ago

    Since 2000 Erdogan tries to make substantial changes to the Turkish legal system, but this is still a functional democracy, and the Turkish electorate makes the final decision. The federal structure of the EU and the USA can not be changed overnight. Especially US citizens have a long record of switching frequently between the parties, so no one party rules for longer than 8 years. There are national forces on the rise worldwide, but I am convinced that the belief system in the EU and the USA is established enough and that there will be no ad-hoc changes. But if we do not address the inequality issue during the next decade or so, the nationalistic movements may become stronger. We have to be concerned and cautious, but no need for panic.

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