As populism continues to receive global recognition and establishes its place at the core of the liberal democratic states, there has been an enduring interest in understanding such phenomenon and its current state of affairs. The renowned political scientist Dr Cas Mudde was interviewed at the University of Amsterdam and shared extensive insights on one of his areas of expertise: populism. The event was held this past November 28th, 2019, by Room for Discussion.

This article aims to give readers a quick overview of the development of the main topics in the interview. 

What is Populism? 

We daily read and hear about populism in the news, we discuss the movements and political strategies with our peers, and we even bring the topic to the dinner table. But, what is populism? According to Dr Mudde, it is the ideology that considers society to be separated into two antagonistic groups. However, this broad definition is too inclusive, for it leaves populism and democracy very close to each other, and entails around 85-95% of the population. What is crucial to populism, then, is monism, the view that the elite is all the same- and they are all corrupt-, and that the people are all the same as well- and they are all good. Under this definition, many people escape the label of populism, as they do not believe in such homogeneity.  

Also, populism is not about money- it is about value. This is why Donald Trump or Silvio Berlusconi can become populist leaders. The key is to defend that one is part of the people. How? Donald Trump does so by eating at McDonald’s and putting ketchup on his steak. The more Trump’s behaviour is ridiculed, the more he can distinguish himself from the elite and place himself among one more of the people. 

The Role of Populism in Modern Politics

The populism from the left is not considered populism. It is the reflection of the grievances of the citizens and the defence of their rights. Populism is something from the right, Dr Mudde defends.

Populism emerged in the mid-nineteenth century in the US and Russia but remained irrelevant to European politics until its rise in the 1990s. Now we live in a “populist Zeitgeist”, in which populist parties and rhetoric dominate the public debate. 

In Europe, the EU is struggling with the movements in Hungary and Poland. The Netherlands is not free from populism either. Contrary to what president Rutte asserts, Dutch right-wing populism is stronger than ever. 

Liberal democracies are not doing enough to prevent populism from rising. Why? Dr Mudde believes that it is because liberal democracies have become less democratic and more liberal, especially because of the current neoliberalist stand.

The Rise of Right-Wing Populism

In Europe, immigration is a cause of concern, although not the cause of concern, as there are many, such as education. The immigration problem has transformed from what up to 2015 was integration. Strikingly, none of the major parties has a comprehensive view of a multicultural society, which is negligence considering that this has been the case since the 1980s. Governments must play a role in creating a society and implementing relevant immigration policy. Dr Mudde does not have clear what kind of immigration policy should be in place: Is to consider immigration a threat the only viable way? Or can Europe consider immigration a source of economic advantage, as Canada does? 

In the US, Trump was initially not a populist. He won the primaries predominantly as an anti-establisher messenger. He was then not sold as one of the people but as the Donald. The best deal maker, and the only one that could fix America. When Steve Bannon came on board, however, he made adjustments to the campaign by making the party adopt a more populist approach. Especially, he made Trump the voice of a movement. This was observed in the inaugural speech: “By having elected me, I am bringing the government back to you”, Trump said. 

The rise of the far-right in the US is not a problem itself, but the symptom of the problem. To get rid of the extreme right, one would just have to ban them. This, however, does not solve anything, for the real problem is the dissatisfaction with liberal democracy. This is caused by a strong ideological vacuum. Dr Mudde believes that the solution is thus to strengthen liberal democracy. At the moment, there is a weak green story and a strong far-right story. Economic inequality should be talked about in the U.S. from different points of view, such as the Christian, the liberal, and the social point of view. 

Finally, commenting on the rise of the men’s rights movement on social media, Dr Mudde believes that it originated from the frustration of divorced fathers who could not get access to their children. Moreover, young men that have grown perceiving men as more powerful feel threatened when they go to university, for example, and have to deal with female classmates outperforming them.

How can we deal with the problem? The best approach is not ideological but psychological, Dr Mudde defends. Most of the men that are part of these movements are struggling with life; they are on the border between suicide and shooting women. Information about therapies and helplines should thus become available. There should also be a much more open discussion about gender and femininity, but also masculinity. Most men that form the movement believe that they do not live up to the expectations of being a man. A more open view on gender should be present in high schools. 

Take-Home Message? 

Liberal democracies need a bit more of the democratic part, and a bit less of the liberal one. 

Thank you Dr Mudde.