Europe faced the most calamitous blow to its democratic values of freedom, liberty and inclusiveness after World War II when the far-right entered the European power corridors by exploiting a massive wave of populism.
But Populism needn’t be associated with the far right. Political philosophy typically sees populism as a strategy or rhetoric, a way of making an appeal to ordinary people who feel suppressed and discriminated by the elite.
Cas Mudde, author of Populism: A very short Introduction, has given us a new approach to seeing populism through a rational lens. Interestingly, Mudde claims, “Populism is an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogenous and antagonistic groups: 'the pure people' and 'the corrupt elite'," and argues politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.
The political will of people is an essential part of the democratic process in the West, and liberal leaders can mobilize it to solve many divisive issues such as racism, nationalism and fascism.
Paradoxically, the same phenomenon is rattling the front door of Western democracy, jeopardizing the very rational canons necessary for effective decision making in the political sphere.
Populism gained momentum in 19th centuries with the promotion of democracy and launching of so-called left-inspired revolutions in Russia, Cuba, China, South America and other regions while the same populism emerged in form of conservative governments in Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia, Iran and Pakistan.
It was considered a vital part of rapidly growing trend known as democratic process back then and the world was set to see both, its benefits and flaws in decades to come till date.
However, in current popular discourse, it has been used negatively which implies that the far right rhetoric against immigrants, European Union and their support for nationalism somehow gained support despite being poisonous for the liberal democracies.
Populism is a broader term and its fruitfulness can be determined through its use by thick ideologies such as nationalism, liberalism, socialism, fundamentalism or fascism.
Crucial for understanding this tension is the difference between the democratic and populist interpretation of ‘the will of the people’, particularly who is to be regarded as ‘the people’.
In what way do populists see ‘the people’?
While democratic theory sees ‘the people’ as an open and adaptable concept, populists see ‘the people’ as having a fixed identity, and those who do not fit this specific picture are not to be included as objects of concerns, rather the “real” people should be protected from them.
Why has this exclusive sentiment vastly increased in global politics over the last few years?
Through the course of the last century, populism has been mistaken for, and has in many ways become synonymous with, nationalism, racism and fascism by the liberal fringe. European right-wing parties are generally known for their extreme positions on issues including immigration. Their rise is surely connected to the slew of terrorist attacks in Europe, especially after Europe witnessed a massive wave of immigrants knocking on its doors during the Syrian crisis in 2015.
However, not all people subscribe to such radical factions and their policies to dehumanize people on the basis of the caste, color and creed. One shouldn’t forget that the fear of being assaulted and killed is real. The clash of different cultures is real. When people fear their lifestyle being affected by an alien culture or fear their families being killed by terrorists, their concerns shouldn’t be dismissed by way of the ever valorization of multiculturalism.
A number of people voted for these extremist parties fearing that their governments and other left-wing parties are failing in countering Islamist extremism in Europe. Capitalizing on the fears of Europeans, right-wing parties accordingly put the issue of Islamism and immigration as central to their agenda.
Depicting the rise of populism as a rise of Neo-Nazism or bigotry is a faulty way of seeing a very heterogeneous phenomena. Indeed, it is more to do with people harboring deep fear and insecurity finally seeing their concerns being recognized in the political area.
These feelings of discontent are exactly why liberal left parties should not shy away from discussing the problems caused by and associated with mass immigration. Would it not be an instance of negligence on the part of liberals to ignore important (albeit controversial) issues that worry the people, out of fear of being smeared “racist” by fellow liberals. The longer these issues are considered taboo in political left wing circles, the stronger and faster right-wing movements will grow as they tap into citizens’ feeling of fear and uncertainty.
Far-right parties, which are normally hell-bent on pulling their countries out of the EU through divisive politics, are now joining hands for the first time in a bid to push their political goals during the upcoming EU Elections in 2019.
Notable European far-right leaders, including Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, came together in the southern French city of Nice recently to flex their political muscles, presenting a staunch anti-immigration stance ahead of the elections.
Marine Le Pen of the Front National stated, “The European Union today has catastrophic consequence for our countries, and yet another Europe is possible, the Union of European Nations.”
Joining Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders of the Dutch party For Freedom were Harald vilimsky of Austria’s Freedom Party and Czech Nationalist Tomio Okamura.
Italian Interior minister Matteo Salvini couldn’t join the meeting but sent a video message showing solidarity with the meeting’s principal aim - uniting far-right parties in order to divide Europe.
Salvini’s recent call for a pan-European network “league of the leagues of Europe” prior to the European parliamentary election in 2019 echoes the same agenda that aims to introduce a groundswell of new nationalism in the continent.
Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party is also keen on forming an alliance ahead of the EU elections, with Austrian chancellor Sebastian Kurz of Austrian People’s Party, Italian Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini of The League party, and Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban.AfD, and perceives said parties as potential allies for building a 'Fortress Europe'.
It is crystal clear that any EU citizens joining hands with these parties would constitute a pact signing with Beelzebub. We should not forget that the ultimate mission of European nationalists is to devour the European Union. And this is where democratic governments need to take heed instead of shrugging off its responsibility to address the crucial issues.
Regrettably, Europe’s migration policies, which should be tackling the refugee crisis, are proving ineffective in addressing the grievances that led Europeans to opt for right-wing parties. The slogan of closed borders appeals to them, especially when some of them consider themselves carrying the disproportionate burden from the influx of refugees.
External threats including President Donald Trump’s policy of looking down upon smaller or poorer nations, internal politics, the rise of the far-right and neo Nazis, and Putin’s growing ambitions to revive the Soviet Union remain other threats to the existence of minnows packed in the global pool of sharks.
In such a luring scenario, French and German leaders seem to be swaying Europeans to stay committed to the founding principle of the EU despite the fact that this alliance will soon be tested during the upcoming EU Polls.
Nevertheless, European citizens need to understand the greater challenges that are lurking around beyond the few thousand Islamists who could be tamed to respect democracy through progressive law making.
AfD’s inclination towards a Neo-Nazi Patriotische Europäer gegen die islamisierung des Abendlandes (PEGIDA) group is an open secret. This alliance has made its own character suspicious in the eyes of the general public, which is why the local population is still reluctant to embrace them for they show all signs of Nazism with extreme levels of Anti-Semitism, racism and false pride.
The statement by Co-leader of AfD, Alexander Gauland, that Germany should take pride in what its soldiers achieved in the Second World War and what a senior member Björn Höcke stated, “Germans are the only people in the world who plant a monument of shame in the heart of the capital” speaks volumes about the deep-rooted anti-Semitism among party members.
The nationalist Law and Justice Party in Poland recently enacted a law making it illegal to speak of Polish complicity in Nazi war crimes including the Holocaust.
Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki faced a backlash after suggesting that Jews were partly responsible for the Holocaust, while Jewish organizations in Poland report unprecedented levels of threat.
As xenophobic parties gain support in countries like Austria, Czech Republic, Hungary and Italy, they bring a proportional rise in anti-Semitic demagoguery too.
Europe has enjoyed 70 years of peace and prosperity. Recent terror sprees and rising feelings of fear and discontent, however, is putting that very stability under threat.
The rise of the far-right may not seem an imminent danger now, but it has certainly succeeded in earning considerable sympathies among the masses while making its way to the power corridors.
These developments could possibly lead to a powerful fascist party akin to the Nazis in Germany, who likewise snatched power through promises of restoring respect and boosting economy ending up enslaving and exterminating their own people and pushing the whole world to war.
It is up to the liberal left to provide a counter story of their own, to propose a different perspective on how we can address the contemporary problems that threaten our piece and wellbeing without resorting to xenophobic and discriminatory sentiments.
Ignoring the issues brought forward by populist parties will only further strengthen the far right narrative. It would be the height of naivety on the part of liberals to downplay the genuine concerns of the masses while trying to confront the far-right.
The legitimate worries about Europe’s future should be taken seriously and be channelized by shared European values. Rather than focusing on political correctness, liberals should invoke liberal democratic values today by adopting a moderate approach towards issues and addressing citizens concerns as central to their political mission before the menace becomes terminal.