Populism and liberal democracy: is Greece the exception or the future of Europe?


Photograph by Dimitris Alexakis

by Cas Mudde and Antonis Galanopoulos

Antonis Galanopoulos

What is populism? What exactly is your approach to populism?

Cas Mudde

My approach is that I see populism as an ideology. By saying that populism is an ideology rather than a discourse, I assume that they mean what they say. Strictly speaking, populism is an ideology that sees society as divided into two groups; the pure people on the one hand and the corrupt elite on the other. These two groups are both homogenous and they are in an antagonistic relationship with each other.

Populists want politics to be in line with what they consider as the general will of the people. It goes back to the homogenous interpretation of the people. In my interpretation, populist actors almost always combine populism with what I call a “host” ideology. On the right this is often an interpretation of nationalism.  The host ideology, to a large extent, determines who is part of the elite and who is a part of the people. Populism, as an aspect, adds that the distinction is moral.


You wrote in the Guardian that SYRIZA and Podemos are characterised by an illiberalism, which is the dark side of these two parties? What elements of these parties have led you to this conclusion?


What I said is that populism, in the European context, is an illiberal democratic response to undemocratic liberalism. I think that it is more in the rhetoric, the discourse, in the way the other camp is interpreted in moralistic terms and in the approach to consensus. They haven’t done much yet. To me it is the interpretation of the people and believing that there is something that all people want. The implicit consequence of that is that if you don’t want that, you are not really part of the people. Empirically, have they excluded someone? No. But give them four years and I think we will see it.

Again, it won’t be the same as with the far right. Because I believe also in the European context, left-wing populism will emphasise inclusionary measures more than exclusionary, but the exclusionary aspects will be there. I think the struggle will be if the government wants to do something and the courts will not allow it. They will not accept the authority of the court.


You mention the exclusionary aspects of left-wing populism. Who does the left-wing populism exclude and from what?


There are different types of exclusion and inclusion. One of the most important is symbolic because most populist parties are discursive phenomena and because they never govern. This has to do with who is ‘in’ and who is ‘out’, who is part of ‘the people’ and who is not. Obviously, the assumption is that when populism comes to power, this inclusion and exclusion has a relevance to policies.

You see this more in Syriza than in Podemos. In Syriza you see the exclusion more internationally; in the way people in Syriza speak about the EU and Germany. It’s not about opponents, people that have different views with whom you compromise. It is about enemies, it is about people who are bad and you can’t compromise with them. You compromise with opponents, who have different views and you start to find middle ground. But you can’t find middle ground if the division is moral. I think that it is problematic to see your fundamental struggle as one that doesn’t allow compromise.


Your focus on liberal democracy is not restrictive? What do you say about the position that the liberal and democratic traditions are confrontational and the articulation between them is merely contingent? Don’t you idealise liberal democracy, risking the stigmatising of its critics, even some possibly productive critics?


I don’t have an explicitly normative position. I study the relationship of populism and liberal democracy. And if you are a liberal democrat, you can take things from that. If you have a different view on liberal democracy, you can take things from that too. I don’t prescribe anything.

I do believe, however, that there is an inherent conflict within liberal democracy. Democracy is about popular sovereignty and majority will. Liberalism is about pluralism and the protection of minority rights. Majority will and minority rights can, and do, sometimes oppose each other.  There is no overarching consensus on what is the right combination of them. It will always be contentious. We will always contest how much you can protect minorities and how much you can limit majority rule. It’s good to make everything contentious: everything should be debated.

This is one thing that populism from both sides is doing. We have been taking away more and more things from the democratic arena. Populists re-politicise or politicise these things and that’s good,  because everything should be political.

Minority rights should not just be protected by an elite, because in this way they will not be fully protected. They will be fully protected only with the support of the majority. For that we should actually and explicitly talk. Not, for example, just say that gay rights are protected by the constitution. We must explain why this is so because if we don’t, it can fall apart at any time. If we don’t internalise the support for minority rights, they will never be safe.


You set liberal democracy as a criterion. How valid is this criterion when it blurs substantial political differences, like that of the Left and Right or Socialism and Nationalism. Let me read you an extract from one of your own articles: Supported by impressive popular majorities in elections, populist leaders like Viktor Orbán and Hugo Chávez have introduced new constitutions that significantly undermine the checks and balances of liberal democracy». How can we equate Orban to Chavez?


As with most comparisons, its value has limits. This is the fundamental criticism that people have against the totalitarianism theory that put Nazism and Communism together.

I believe that we can learn more about right-wing populism by looking also at left-wing populism and I also think that we can understand more about right-wing populism by looking at other right-wing parties. You must have multiple frames.

Orban and Chavez are both examples of very powerful leaders, probably Orban is even more powerful than Chavez ever was, and both are populists. My interest is mostly in how they affect liberal democratic institutions, how did they reform the state and in what way?


You recently edited a volume entitled “Youth and the Extreme Right “. This a very important topic with great interest for the Greek political context also, as we have seen that Golden Dawn has significant electoral appeal to younger people. So, what attracts them to the extreme right? Can you shed some light on this?


Sadly enough, I can’t really, because it is amazing how little research there is on youth and the extreme right. My key interest for this project was in how young people get socialised into far right ideologies and organisations. There is almost nothing on this. There are thousands of articles and books about far right parties: there are only a couple of articles about the socialisation process. This is amazing, because we all develop most of our long-lasting attitudes pretty much in our teens. So we have mainly stereotypical views.

Some of the studies show that the choice of whether or not you join a far right or a far left group is almost random. It depends on where your friends are. The other thing is that, on some occasions, it is a matter of what is available. In many communities there is only one youth club and it is run by the far right.

In Scandinavia, you see that some of the far right groups are like ethnic gangs. There are small groups of young white kids who protect themselves from other ethnic gangs. Pretty much like American History X. Ideology is less important than race, identity or survival. To me, most of the small far right groups are like gangs. They have nothing to do with far right parties. They have to do with the same things that drive people into gangs; the longing for protection, community, financial gain.

What’s more interesting is how young people develop far right attitudes. And I think family plays a role, school plays a role, but we really don’t know much about that.


Do you think it is right to characterise clearly neo-Nazi parties like Golden Dawn as populist? You also choose the term ‘populist radical right’ instead of the term far right. The populist parties have as a nodal point the people, while the nationalist parties have the nation. Can we characterise both groups within the parties as populist?


No, we can’t. Actually, in the last couple of years, since 2012, most of my writings are on the far right. I use the term “far right” because it includes both extreme right and radical right. The distinction is whether or not they support democracy. Golden Dawn is clearly anti-democratic. I don’t consider Golden Dawn a populist party. I think Golden Dawn is the only relevant extreme right party in Europe.


Some analysts stress the need for a strong social democracy, while others consider social democracy responsible for many negative political developments, such as the lack of political dialogue between real alternatives and the rise of right-wing populist parties. With which of the two opinions do you most agree? What are the reasons for the retreat of social democracy?


Success. Hegemony makes people lazy and powerful enough to repress critics. Social democracy has gone down because of two things. First, society changed fundamentally, in a way that the old structure of the welfare state was no longer possible. I still believe that a welfare state is possible, but it has to be fundamentally reformed. Secondly, in most countries it became the party of the elite, the party of managers. It became a non-ideological, self-centered party.

I don’t think that the current social democratic parties can rejuvenate themselves, because the vast majority of the current leadership has been socialised under the Third Way. They are not fundamentally social democrats, they are, fundamentally, liberals. I believe that in many countries, existing social democratic parties are dying; the Netherlands is the best example. The reform will not come from them.

Sadly, in my opinion, the reform is pushed by what we now call radical left parties. Their agenda is roughly similar to the social democratic agenda of the 1960s and 1970s. The problem is that most of these parties do come from Marxist backgrounds and I don’t believe they fundamentally want social democracy. Moreover, many voters will still be hesitant to trust them.

So, what we need are truly new, social democratic parties. Social democracy has to be reinvented, but solidarity should be a key value in it. Solidarity is a key term for social democracy. You can’t have social democracy without it. State control of parts of the economy is fundamental, as is redistribution. If you don’t have these things, you don’t have social democracy.

What social democracy has to do most notably is to deal with multiculturalism, and they haven’t. They had an opportunistic approach to it, trying to incorporate the migrant vote, but not really integrate the migrants. Nowadays, multiculturalism is a reality, not an ideology.


Can we explain the rise of new left-wing parties in our times with the adoption of a populist strategy or a populist rhetoric?


Yes, where we see the rise, we can. It is clear when you listen to Pablo Iglesias. He almost literally says: “Look, I am a Marxist, but Marxism doesn’t sell. So I have to address people in a different way”. It’s meaning is: “I have to use populism to become relevant”.

I think SYRIZA did the same. I don’t know if they did it with the same level of consciousness and machiavellianism, but they did it. The Socialist Party in the Netherlands, Die Linke in Germany have been populist at various previous times. Melenchon in France tried it, but they all had marginal success.

Given how big the crisis is, the weakness of the radical left is remarkable. Many of these parties are old parties. They are perceived as old parties, they function as old parties. They can’t really modernise much. There is a big institutional problem on the Left.


I will insist a little more on the new left-wing parties. Another explanation given for the rise of these parties is the role of the leadership. Pablo Iglesias and Alexis Tsipras play a key role in the success of their parties. Do you agree?


I think that in modern politics you can’t have a sustained political effect if you are leaderless. First of all, the media work exclusively through leaders. It’s even hard to have a collective leadership these days, because the media want to have one face for every party. You see that even in some left-wing parties that have co-leaders. Most of the time, one of them will become the face of the party.

A leaderless movement has two problems. First of all, it doesn’t have one face and second it has too many faces, and that means that everyone can interpret it. Occupy Wall Street is a very good example and Indignados was a good example, but Pablo Iglesias is now hegemonic in his interpretation of Indignados, because he is the face and he knows how to play the system.

I strongly believe that it wasn’t SYRIZA, a coalition of radical left groups, which won the elections. It was what Tsipras stood for. He stands for a new generation of principled but pragmatic leaders, not that of old school small Marxist-Leninist ideological groups. He has a popular support for that agenda, they are not supporting him as the Messiah, they are supporting him as the voice of that agenda. That’s not necessarily the same agenda as the organisations under him have.

The question is: who has the power? In that sense, Iglesias is in a much better position in Podemos. He has no old structures to fight. He has redefined the Indignados, giving it probably a narrower and a more social democratic, old socialist interpretation. He is the party. But I think that the success of Syriza is not going to be copied by Podemos. I think that Greece is the exception. Greece is not the future of Europe.

Piece originally published at Open Democracy |Creative Commons License

Cover image by Adolfo Lujan / DISO PressBy: Adolfo Lujan / DISO Press  

About the Authors:

Cas Mudde is associate professor in the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia (USA). He is the author of Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (2007) and editor of Youth and the Extreme Right (2014), Political Extremism (2014), and Populism in Europe and Latin America: Corrective or Threat for Democracy? (2012). He is a member of the Scholars Strategy Network and can be followed on Twitter at @casmudde.

Antonis Galanopoulos is a graduate student in Political Theory and Philosophy at Aristotle University of Thessaloniki. His research interests are post-Marxism, post-structuralism, critical theory and ideology. He is a blogger and editor of Greek magazine Unfollow. He has translated in Greek several articles of theorists such as Slavoj Žižek and Immanuel Wallerstein from the international press. He tweets @antonisgal.