Interview Cas Mudde on the far-right

‘We are now in a fourth wave of postwar far-right politics’

Populism and far-right expert and lecturer Cas Mudde talks about The Far Right Today, his latest book. He explains how a narrative that focuses on authoritarianism and nativism has become commonplace, with the complicity of moderate parties and mainstream media.

Published on 22 October 2020 at 16:24

Voxeurop: How did you become so interested in radical movements and the far-right?

Cas Mudde: I grew up in the Netherlands in the 1970s/1980s and fascism and the Second World War were omnipresent in our history education and political discussions. This was amplified with the electoral breakthrough of the misnamed Centrumpartij (Center Party, CP )in 1982. Although the radical right party gained only 0.67 percent of the vote, they got one seat in parliament and it led to endless counterdemonstrations and debates on how to stop “fascism.” I was fascinated by this disproportionate response and the irrational fear of the far right at that time.

Why did you feel the need for a book like The Far Right Today, and what does it say that is actually new on this topic?

The main reason was growing frustration with the use of populism as a synonym for far right. While populism is a useful term, it is broader than the far right and the far right is broader than populism. The core of the far right is nativism, not populism, and the two shouldn’t be conflated. Nativism distinguishes on the basis of ethnicity, populism on the basis of moralism. Nativism is against ethnic minorities, populism against elites. 

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Although the main aim of the book is to provide an accessible overview of the contemporary far right, there are some new ideas in it, most notably that we are now in a fourth wave of postwar far-right politics, which is characterised by the mainstreaming and normalisation of far right actors and ideas.

Is there a difference between the far right and the radical right?

Yes. The far right encompasses both the extreme right and the radical right. While the extreme right rejects democracy as such, i.e. popular sovereignty and majority rule, the radical right accepts democracy, but challenges fundamental institutions and values of liberal democracy, such as minority rights, rule of law, and separation of powers.

One of your main points is that far right narrative, ideas and discourse has become mainstream in most of Western, and especially European, countries. How did that happen? 

The process played out different in different countries, and was earlier in, for example. France, than, say, Germany, but the terrorist attacks of 9/11 and the framing of that conflict, by mainstream media and politics, as a threat of “political Islam” to “western values” played a major role in connecting long-established far right positions to mainstream narratives. In many countries, the far right itself played little role in framing 9/11, but they did profit from it. And once the far right broke through electorally, mainstream media and politicians started to define their voters as “the people”, and their (alleged) concerns, as “common sense.”

Do the media and social media have a responsibility in this? If so, to what extent? Should far-right politicians not have access to the media for the sake of freedom of expression and a democratic debate?

The mainstream media have a major responsibility here. Much happened well before social media were relevant and even today, only a minority of people is active on social media like Twitter. It is mainstream right-wing media like Bild, Figaro, The Times, that have mainstreamed Islamophobia. It is mainstream left-wing media like the Guardian, New York Times, de Volkskrant that have provided op-Ed space to far right politicians or disproportional space to people like Steve Bannon.

Freedom of speech does not mean a right to an op-Ed in the New York Times? It doesn’t mean a soft-ball interview in The Spectator. It means that the state has no right to limit your speech. Media should critically report about all relevant political actors and ideas, including the far right, but they should be extra critical for those actors and ideas that are hostile to the foundations of liberal democracy – itself a necessity for a free and independent media. You shouldn’t ignore them, or “fight” them, but you should also not treat them like “the others”, i.e. liberal democratic parties, or provide them disproportionate “negative” attention, as the first mainstreams them and the second increases their visibility.

“Mainstream media have a major responsibility in the normalisation of far-right issues, framing and actors in Europe”

What are the consequences of this trend, politically and on European societies as a whole?

Politically, it has pushed European politics further and further to the “right”, i.e. to authoritarian and nativist politics. You saw that most strongly in the wake of the so-called “migrant crisis” of 2015 – incidentally, both terms, “migrant” (rather than asylum seeker or refugee) and “crisis” (rather than challenge or situation), are examples of far right framing – even if the developments go back at least 15 years before that. It has also made many far right parties Koalitionsfähig (acceptable for coalitions), which has further strengthened the right-wing and pulled them further right.

The effects on European societies are not so straightforward. It has helped make “far right” issues like corruption, crime, immigration, more salient to parts of the population, but it has not necessarily made societies more authoritarian and nativist – in part because they already were, in part because younger people are less authoritarian and nativist. There are some indications that minorities, particularly those targeted by the (far) right, feel less represented and safe, but we often lack solid data on this.

Did the EU play any role in this?

Yes, very much so. National leaders and parties have used the EU to depoliticize controversial political issues and have often used the EU as a scapegoat for unpopular policies. At the same time, the EU has beome a qualitative and quantitatively different organisation in the past decades, particularly since the Maastricht Treaty of 1992, which has generated Euroscepticism, which has become increasingly mainstreamed, and has benefitted the far right. Finally, the EU is a European reflection of national processes, and thus we see mainstreaming and normalisation of far right issues, frames, and actors at the EU level, primarily because of the European People’s Party (EPP).

Do those movements collaborate across borders? If not, what makes collaboration difficult?

The far right does collaborate transnationally, but not particularly well. For instance, far right parties are divided over two more or less far right political groups in the European Parliament, the “conservative” European Conservatives and Reformists (ECR) and the radical right Identity & Democracy (I&D). But there are also far right members in the EPP (notably Fidesz) and in the Non-Inscrits. Globally, there are cklear affinities between some far right leaders, such as Modi and Trump or Bolsonaro and Trump, but they are shallow and mainly used to boost national support. There is no European, let alone global, “Nationalist International”. This is in part because the far right prioritize national politics and in part because they dislike the current “liberal world order” but don’t have, let alone share, and alternative global vision.

Which countries in Europe are not following the “far-rightisation” trend, and why in your opinion?

This is tricky to say, as by the time some people read this, it might already be dated. Key point is that no country is immune to far right politics. In the late 20th century we thought the Netherlands was immune and then Pim Fortuyn opened the flood gates. In the early 21st century we though Germany, Spain, and Sweden were immune and all have strong far right parties now. Although Chega has only one seat in the Portuguese parliament, they are already close to double digits in recent polls. Of course, there are still hold-outs, like Iceland and Ireland, but that could be temporary. Sure, they have low (non-European) immigration, but so has most of Eastern Europe, which has some of the strongest far right parties.

The far right is the symptom, not the cause, of the decline of liberal democracy. Both the institutions and values of liberal democracy have been undermined by de-ideologisation and (related) neoliberalism, by increasingly “pragmatic” (often: opportunistic) politicians.

What are the main characteristics of the far right in Greece, and what distinguishes it from the one in other European countries? Is there any form of nostalgia for the Colonels régime?

Funny, I asked that exact same question to Professor Daphne Halikiopoulou in my podcast RADIKAAL. She said that it was only just Greek nationalism. In many ways, Golden Dawn is not just an outlier in Europe, but also in Greece. Most Greek far right parties have been modern populist radical right, including the current Greek Solution, which do not look backward. They are more concerned with contemporary issues, i.e. corruption and immigration, than with previous regimes.

What are the main characteristics of the far right in Portugal, and what distinguishes it from the one in other European countries? Is there any form of nostalgia for the Salazar régime?

To be honest, I don’t know much about Chega. For a long time, the far right in Portugal was represented by the neo-fascist National Renewal Party (PNR), now Rise Up. Chega seems more a radical right party, focused on contemporary issues, and not tainted by ideological or personal connections to the Salazar regime. Moreover, it is led by someone from the mainstream, even establishment, André Ventura, a law professor and former sports commentator. In this sense, its rise is connected in part to change in demand, as a consequence of frustrations in the wake of the Great Recession, and in part to change in supply, a more acceptable party and leader. This is very similar to the situation in Spain, with Vox, largely a PP-split, although here the demand was partly changed by the Catalan issue.

What are the main characteristics of the far right in Germany, and what distinguishes it from the one in other European countries? How close it is to the nazi ideology or is there any nostalgia for that regime?

The far right in Germany shares the key features of all populist radical right parties – nativism, authoritarianism, populism – but is quite heterogeneous in terms of details. The Alternative for Germany (AfD) emerged out of a bourgeois conservative subculture, full of leaders from the mainstream establishment – they were even initially referred to as the “Professors Party”, because so many of its leaders were university professors (mainly in economics). But after a coup by the radical right, which led to short-term leadership of Frauke Petry, the radical right took over the party and most prominent conservatives left. Now, the party is divided between a radical right faction, led by party leader Alice Weidel, and an extreme right faction, previously organized in “The Wing” (Der Flügel), led by Thuringia leader Björn Höcke. No party expresses openly nostalgia for the Nazi regime, but that is mainly because of strict laws, which make this illegal. Within “The Wing” and the National Democratic Party of Germany (NPD), there are strong Nazi sympathies. 

What are the main characteristics of the far right in Italy, and what distinguishes it from the one in other European countries? How close it is to the fascist ideology or is there any nostalgia for that regime?

The far right in Italy has always had a strong link to fascism and the fascist regime. The Italian Social Movement (MSI) was open about being the successor to Mussolini’s party, even though that was illegal according to the postwar Italian Constitution, and although its successors, first the National Alliance (AN) and now the Brothers of Italy (FdI) are less open, and less fascist, they have a clear institutional link and regularly flirt with fascist symbols or engage in historical revisionism. There has also always been a plethora of smaller neo-fascist parties, like the Forza Nuova or Fronte Nazionale, as well as subcultural groups like Casa Pound Italia. However, the most successful far right party in Italian postwar history, the Lega (formerly Lega Nord), does not have a fascist past and was in many ways an anti-fascist party, given that they rejected the Italian state. Under Matteo Salvini this has changed, and although the party is still not neo-fascist, Salvini more openly flirts with fascist history and symbols (like his balcony speech).

You live in the US. Do you think that far-right ideas are on the rise there, and what is your feeling about that? Are you personally afraid of the rise of the far right in Europe? How can we fight and overturn the trend?

I doubt that far right ideas are on the rise in the US. They were probably much more widespread several decades ago. But they have found a champion in Donald Trump, who is openly racist, amplifies and justifies far right ideas and groups, and thereby emboldens far right activists as well as everyday racism. Since his election, we have seen an explosion of open racism, including at elementary schools. 

I am afraid of the rise of the far right in Europe, because it has exposed the opportunism and political weakness of the political mainstream as well as the shallow support for liberal democratic institutions and values of many Europeans (not just voters of far right parties). The fact that the European Union, which was founded to prevent another far right state at the heart of Europe, has allowed Orbán to transform Hungary from a (admittedly imperfect) liberal democracy into a far right authoritarian regime, while still generously subsidizing the country and thereby Fidesz and Orbán’s cronies, is one of the biggest political failures of the postwar era. 

What worries me the most is the normalisation of the far right. Some of the key ideas of the far right – i.e. that diversity and immigration are a threat to national identity and security – are being defended as “common sense” by mainstream media and parties. Prominent members of society, from columnists to professors, do not only express far right ideas, some even run for far right parties. And every time the “center” shifts further right, because “if Professor X says immigration threatens national security, it cannot be racist.”

You joined lately the vast cohort of podcasts hosts with your own show, RADIKAAL. What is it about, and what new does it carry? What kind of guests are you looking for?

I started a new podcast, RADIKAAL (Dutch for “radical), this summer, which focuses on the radical aspects of music, politics and sports. In addition to combining my own academic and personal interests, it goes beyond the usual narrow focus of politics, i.e. parties and parliaments, and discusses the radical politics of music and sports, as well as the use of music and sports by radical politics. I mainly talk to academics and journalists, but try to also interview artists (like Billy Bragg), athletes, and politicians (like Lisa Nandy). In addition to speaking to some better known people, I also want to amplify less heard voices, i.e. go beyond the white men from the prestigious institutes in Britain and the US.

Do you still have no answer to the question "What can we do to defeat the far right?"

It’s not that I don’t have an answer, it’s that it either is not convincing or not effective. I have been giving a relatively similar answer for over two decades – although, to be fair, before 2016 far fewer people asked me that question. We should not prioritise the fight against the far right. Instead, we should strengthen liberal democracy. In essence, the far right is the symptom, not the cause, of the decline of liberal democracy. Both the institutions and values of liberal democracy have been undermined by de-ideologisation and (related) neoliberalism, by increasingly “pragmatic” (often: opportunistic) politicians, who are proud to have no vision and see themselves as pragmatic problems solvers (from Tony Blair to Mark Rutte). But pragmatism only works when things go well. When people have to pay a price, be that an economic one (less income or welfare) or a cultural one (i.e. discomfort), they want to know why, how that contributes to a better society. For that, you need ideology!

A book and a podcast

In his latest book, The Far Right Today (Polity Press, 2019), Dutch political scientist and right-wing expert Cas Mudde explains the rise of nationalist, reactionary and far-right in Europe and the US, and “gives an accessible account of the history and ideology of the far right as we know it today, as well as the causes and consequences of its mobilisation”, as Katherine Williams puts it.

Mudde recently launched his own podcast show, Radikaal, which focuses on “the radical aspects of music, politics & sports”.

In collaborazione con la Heinrich Böll Foundation – Paris

Read Cas Mudde's articles here.

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