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Anna, you have been working for several years on political parties, political competition, and parties exiting from the communist system. What is the role of ideology in this transformation and how do you articulate ideology with systemic party transformation? What is the place for ideas and ideologies in that transformation?

Ideology is critical and specifically the lack of ideological differentiation is critical. What we see in both Western Europe and in Eastern Europe is the perception that the parties are all the same, that the mainstream political parties have the same offer on hand. There’s no real alternative to this kind of mainstream set of policies that they offer. As a result of this perceived lack of ideological differentiation, illiberal forces, such as populist parties, can gain quite a bit. There’s been some fantastic work done by Grigo Pop-Eleches and others on the ways in which voters in Central and Eastern Europe try one political option after another, and find that they don’t really differ. As a result, they wind up choosing illiberal, populist, and extremist parties, in an attempt to finally get something different.

Populist parties, I think, contrary to the popular opinion, actually have an ideology. I think Cas Mudde’s really nicely identifies it: elites are bad and the people need to be represented. This means that this is a profoundly anti-institutional movement because the liberal democratic institutions set up by these elites are also suspect. It also means that the nation has to be defined. This is why we see such appeals to xenophobia, to nationalism, and religious homogeneity all done in the name of defining the people. These are things that mainstream parties weren’t willing to do, but the illiberal populists are thriving on doing.

This is a profoundly anti-institutional movement because the liberal democratic institutions set up by these elites are also suspect.

Does that mean also that the social democracy model has failed in being able to be distinguished from more U.S.-style liberal party?

I think so. If you look at just at the voters, social democratic parties have been steadily losing votes. I think it’s partly because they face a very different context, and they don’t encapsulate voters the way they used to. They seem unable to articulate an alternative that would convince voters that their home is with the Social Democrats. It’s kind of ironic given that these were the parties that would encapsulate and certainly hold fast to voters from cradle to grave.

I find your work on the religious routes of the modern state fascinating. How would you position religious nationalism as an ideological way to frame some societal political issues? How do you evaluate what has been described as the growing de-privatization of religion and the capacity of a religiously-based civil society to replace some of the state’s functions?

I don’t think what we see –in Europe certainly– is any kind of a replacement of the state by the religion, the way that we saw earlier in the Philippines. I do think what is happening is that religious nationalism is being used entirely instrumentally, where it’s available to politicians. In places where there’s any kind of religious component to the national identity, populists and liberal politicians grasp that and use it instrumentally. It’s a fantastic way to redefine the people: e.g. you have to be Catholic to be Polish. This would automatically exclude immigrants, religious minorities, atheists, sexual minorities and so on. It is also a way to coalesce one’s electorate and to provide a justification for whatever that the party is fighting for. I think where it is available to political parties, religious nationalism can be a very powerful force in both convincing voters and coalescing around a set of policies.

So religious nationalism is a way to recreate boundaries in deciding who is in and out the group, in and out the nation?

That’s right, absolutely. It defines the electorate, but it also nicely justifies some policies. For instance, “we have to have a more strict abortion law.” Not because it keeps our electorate happy, but because that’s what’s necessary for the future of our country. We have to give special status to churches because they represent our national identity and so forth.

Your new research is on Global Populism. Can you talk about how context matters when we study populism? It is such a broad term; how do both time and space make a difference?

On the one hand, I want to preserve a core to the populist idea. Again, I think this is where Cas Mudde’s core definition works beautifully. Having said that, populism takes very different forms across both time and space and across political systems. Ken Roberts, for example, has done wonderful research on the ways in which different configurations of labor markets and welfare states lead to left wing populist parties in Latin America and the European South, but to rightwing populist parties in the rest of Europe. When we talked about religious nationalism, for instance, those kinds of ideological appeals and the definition of the nation will look very differently from country to country. So in Modi’s India, it’s making Muslims into second class citizens. In the case of the United States, it’s coded racial and anti-elitist claims, and so forth. I think retaining a conceptual core allows us to examine the different manifestations of populism across regions, across political systems, and across time.

Different configurations of labor markets and welfare states lead to left wing populist parties in Latin America and the European South, but to rightwing populist parties in the rest of Europe.

Do you think there is a distinction between the Global South populism and populism in “Western developed” countries?

I think Ken Roberts makes a really good argument that if you have sort of attenuated welfare states and a lot of informal labor markets, when populism arises, it wants to build a broader coalition. On the other hand, when you have relatively strong welfare states and relatively formal labor markets, what you see is basically welfare chauvinism and the idea that we want to defend our welfare system against the claims of immigrants, of people who don’t contribute or people who don’t look like us. I think that goes a way to explain why we see – certainly in Latin America, in Greece and in Spain– more left-wing manifestations of populism and that elsewhere it is much more right-wing. So I’m not sure that it just maps onto the Global South. If you look at places like the Philippines or India that are traditionally seen as part of the Global South, populism there is mostly right-wing, it is highly exclusionary, it is one that is more than happy to eliminate its “enemies,” and it’s not one that offers any kind of redistribution or inclusive coalitions to its supporters.

As always, a question about concepts. How would you articulate populism with illiberalism?

Illiberalism includes everything from deliberately ignoring the rule of law all the way to fascism and communism, to totalitarian systems.

Populism articulates illiberal ideas but there are clearly other ways of being illiberal. Illiberalism includes everything from deliberately ignoring the rule of law all the way to fascism and communism, to totalitarian systems. Populism is a particular way of being illiberal and the illiberalism of populism comes from the fact that there no commitment to respecting minority rights and the rule of law. These are two of the pillars of liberal democracies. To me, populism is a different way of doing illiberalism or a way of doing illiberalism that is characterized by a deep suspicion of formal institutions and the rule of law as being creatures of corrupt elites, and a deep suspicion of minority rights as violating the nations or the peoples’ claims to governance.

One of the interesting points of tension, I think, in the literature on populism is whether we ought to look at it as a bottom-up or top-down phenomenon. The literature often works more on the political offer than on the grassroots demand for populism. Do you share in this impression, or how you would articulate the tensions between supply and demand?

I tend to focus more on the supply than the demand. To me, a lot of the demand comes from voters who basically have felt ignored. I think it’s easy to dismiss this. It’s because we look at them and say, “Look, (in the case of Europe) you have a welfare state, you have all these benefits. What’s the problem?” Or (in the case of the United States) “you’re in a privileged economic and racial position. What’s the problem?” Yet that is not how these voters perceive themselves. They perceive an enormous threat of insecurity. They think that their children won’t have a life that’s nearly as good as theirs and they feel threatened by the fact that the languages that they hear spoken in the stores and everything else around them is rapidly changing.

There’s been a tendency to dismiss this a simply irrational, self-regarding, or xenophobic. However, we do that at our own peril because a lot of us feel a need for community, for roots and for status; for lack of a better word: dignity. I think this is what’s missing from a lot of the academic language describing the populist demand side (a notable exception is Frank Fukuyama.) These are people who are afraid that their dignity is basically threatened, no matter what we might think about their objective standing in society and their privileges. Populists are the people who make these voters feel empowered and above all listened to.

How do we move from populism as a movement to access power, to populism once it’s become a regime? How do populists manage the tension once they become the regime and are now the elites?

We don’t have that many cases of populists actually governing, but when they do, we need to take them both seriously and literally. They do politicize formal institutions in the name of making them an expression of the popular will. For an example of this, look at the near court system in Poland, citizenship laws in India, the entire constitution in Hungary, or the attempts to dismantle the rule of law in the United States. When populists get into power, they try to live up to their commitments. I think their success in governance varies widely. For better or worse, the Hungarian government is a team of experts that has been very good about implementing their policies. The populists in Poland, are half as competent.

We need to take seriously that, like any other government, populists will respond to economic and political crises. They will react to those, but they will be less likely to be bound by international agreements or the rule of law or any binding constraints. For the most part, however, they govern (where they can) by buying off voters with favorable redistributive policies that live up to their promises to be more responsive to popular grievances and to target benefits to constituencies. Whether it’s tax subsidies or family subsidies, they try to deliver monetary benefits to their constituents, in an attempt to convince them to keep supporting the party.

We need to take seriously that, like any other government, populists will respond to economic and political crises.

My last question is about authoritarianism diffusion theory. What is the relationship between a local national context and some forms of international ideological affinity? Should the literature by looking for an “original sinner,” or insist on the importance of local contexts?

I’m not a fan of mono-casual explanations. To me, the bulk of the explanation lies domestically. International ties to Putin or to Erdogan may provide a gloss of legitimation in some cases, and Putin has even provided material resources to Marine Le Pen and to others. But fundamentally it’s about the domestic situation, the ways in which political parties have failed to address domestic crises and domestic policy developments. To a large extent, some of these structural forces may have been caused by globalization. Some of it might be caused by party stagnation and institutional senescence. But fundamentally this is about domestic party responses, voters feeling that they’re not being listened to, and that there is not a to party that can articulate what they want to see happen. If we want to find the origins of populism, if we want to find the guilty party, we need to look in the mirror.

Anna Grzymala-Busse is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies in the Department of Political Science, the Director of the Europe Center, and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute. Her research focuses on the historical development of the state and its transformation, political parties, religion and politics, and post-communist politics. Other areas of interest include populism, informal institutions, and the role of temporality and causal mechanisms in social science explanations.

She is the author of three books: Redeeming the Communist Past: The Regeneration of Communist Successor Parties; Rebuilding Leviathan: Party Competition and State Development in Post-Communist Europe; and Nations Under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Politics. She is also a recipient of the Carnegie and Guggenheim Fellowships.

The Illiberalism Studies Program studies the different faces of illiberal politics and thought in today’s world, taking into account the diversity of their cultural context, their intellectual genealogy, the sociology of their popular support, and their implications on the international scene.