Skip to main content

Our program uses the term of illiberalism. It defines it as a strain of political culture that, over the past two decades, has emerged in response to liberalism as experienced by various countries and has accused liberalism of having gone “too far”. How do you assess the heuristic value of that term compared to the notions of (national) populism that are more often used? Do you think it captures some important elements for the study of the far right in 21st century?

The term “illiberalism” is less known than terms like “populism” or even “national populism”. It is also much broader, particularly when not combined with democracy, i.e., “illiberal democracy”, which is more specific.

Illiberalism does include populism, and the far right, but it also includes, possibly, Christian democracy, conservatism, and socialism, including social democracy, which are all, in one way or another, fundamentally illiberal.

Illiberalism is also more ideological, and perhaps even philosophical, than “illiberal democracy,” which is more practical and systematic. That being said, some colleagues (like Jan-Werner Mueller) don’t like the term “illiberal democracy”, as they argue that democracy is either liberal or not a democracy. That debate is prevented by the term illiberalism.

You have been complementing your research on Western Europe by looking at the US and at Israel. Could you tell us about what you see as the main shared features of the far right and the differences in context between Europe (itself very diverse), US, and Israel?

Israel has always been much more similar to (Western) Europe than the US, because of its highly fragmentized, multiparty system. At least since the early 1980s, far-right parties have been successful; even if they were electorally small- to medium-sized, they often worked with the mainstream (right and, sometimes, left) in broad coalition governments. Of course, there were important differences: anti-immigration was a marginal issue, religion, and irredentism played a bigger role than in Western Europe. Also, the Israeli far right has always been much more fragmented than in Europe. In the 21st century, one of the main things that US, Israel, and parts of Europe have in common is the mainstreaming and normalization of far-right ideas and parties. And, more specifically, Israel, the US, and some European countries have seen the transformation of conservative parties into full-fledged far-right parties, like Fidesz in Hungary, Law and Justice (PiS) in Poland, Likud in Israel, and the Republican Party in the US.

You are working on a kind of second version of your 2007 Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe that will look at new developments in the field. Can you summarize the differences you see between the far right in the 20th century and far right in the 21st century?

To be perfectly honest, I am not really working that much on it, and the reason is not just the many side projects I have had in the past years. One of the key issues I have had with starting work on a follow-up, rather than second edition, of my 2007 book is, unsurprisingly, definitional. It took me a long time to come up with the definition, and terminology, of the “populist radical right.” I never thought it would catch on. I thought it was too long, and would, at best, be one of those fringe terms. But it is a foundational part of the book, as definitions almost always are to my work. 

A part of the book that is a bit less noticed is the second chapter, which addresses the often ignored, or minimized, issue of classification. It is striking how much consensus there is in the academic and public debate on which parties are far right (or whatever the term, not choice, is), and how few studies we have that empirically prove that these parties actually meet the definitions. This is, to a large extent, because it was almost only applied to outsider parties, which focused on immigrants or integration issue, and were openly negative towards immigrants and minorities. Today, many mainstream parties meet the rather simplistic test that we applied in the 1990s, and yet we don’t include them. The Republican Party, not just under Donald Trump, is much more nativist, authoritarian, and populist than, say, the Dutch List Pim Fortuyn (LPF) used to be or the Norwegian Progress Party (FrP) is, and yet few people (still) consider the party “populist radical right.” 

In Eastern Europe, the distinctions are extremely hard, particularly in the wake of the so-called “refugee crisis” of 2015–16, when most mainstream parties in the region took, at least, as nativist and Islamophobic positions as the core populist radical right parties in Western Europe, like the Italian League and the French National Rally (previous National Front). At the same time, some extreme right parties have entered parliaments. First, the Golden Dawn in Greece and later, Kotleba-People’s Party Our Slovakia (L’SNS) in Slovakia, while some parties flirt with extreme right features like open racism (e.g., the Conservative People’s Party of Estonia, EKRE). 

Despite the massive literature on far-right parties—more articles and books are published on this one group of parties than on all other groups of parties, from conservatives to social democrats, together. Systematic empirical analyses of individual parties remain rare and basic information on quite a lot of parties is still hard to come by—particularly in the few languages that I read.

This is one of the reasons that I wrote The Far Right Today instead. As a popular scientific book, the expectations are different, and I can suggest certain things, without having to prove systematic empirical analysis. It is here that I developed my idea of a fourth wave of postwar far-right politics, which started roughly in the new century, and is characterized by extreme heterogeneity as well as mainstreaming and normalization. It came, fairly organically, from looking at developments, reflecting on them, testing them in newspaper columns (mostly in The Guardian), and discussing them with colleagues and other experts. 

It made me realize that, while we have a massive amount of solid academic research on radical right parties in Europe, this is primarily situated in the third wave, between 1980 and 2000, in which the radical right were reasonably successful, but still relatively new and outsiders. We still theorize primarily about the radical right as opposition and protest parties, while parties like Fidesz in Hungary and the BJP in India have been in power for two to three terms. At the same time, we assume certain taboos, like antisemitism and racism, which seem to be disappearing rapidly. One of the few certainties in the literature, for example, was that the extreme right parties could not be electorally successful. And yet, Golden Dawn and L’SNS were, open racism is expressed by EKRE’s leader and its youth branch, and presidents like Trump and Jair Bolsonaro openly flirt with anti-democratic measures.

The COVID-19 pandemic seems to have weakened some populist parties in Europe, such as the AfD, but at the same time saw the broad circulation of conspiracy theories and popular movements of defiance toward science (medicine in that case) and state decisions. How do you assess the long-term transformations of European politics and how mass political dissatisfaction will express itself?

I just published an article on COVID-19 and European far-right parties in Nationalities Papers with my graduate student, Jakub Wondreys, that looks at the responses of European far-right parties to the COVID-19 pandemic, their policy proposals, the electoral support during the first wave of the pandemic, i.e. between March and July, and how governments with and without far-right participation handled the pandemic. Turns out, most far-right parties took the pandemic very seriously, often earlier and more seriously than mainstream parties, asking for swift and stringent policies (closing of borders, distribution of PPE and tests, face masks and social distancing, and in most cases a quick but short lockdown). Once mainstream governments introduced a lockdown, many far-right opposition parties started to change their position, criticizing the lockdown for being too long, too harsh, too bad for the economy, etc. In power, far-right parties responded pretty similarly to mainstream parties and even seemed to have handled the first wave of the pandemic slightly better. 

Now, to come to your point, the electoral consequences between March and July were minimal, overall. Some parties lost a bit, some won a bit, but only a few lost more than 1–2 percent, incidentally, well within the margins of error of most polls. And the parties that did lose big, like the Forum for Democracy (FvD) in The Netherlands, the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the League in Italy, often had primarily unrelated causes. For instance, the FvD had gave through various plots and scandals, the AfD is caught in an internal fight between the radical right and extreme right factions (as well as various splits within regional parliamentary factions), and the League has lost the spotlight of being in government. Moreover, both FvD and the League have mainly lost to other far-right parties in their country, the Party for Freedom (PVV) and Brothers of Italy (FdI), respectively.

In short, the pandemic is not a transformative event, at least not yet. In fact, neither was the Great Recession, outside of a few of the hardest-hit countries (e.g., Greece and Spain). Now, the second wave, which Europe is undergoing at the moment, seems to be worse, but is met with more COVID fatigue, which is leading to more protests, including violent ones, and more dissatisfaction with government measures. Moreover, the economic price of the pandemic is yet to be paid in many European countries, and could lead to populist success, although probably temporarily, and mainly within the current political divisions. So far, there are no big new movements, let alone parties, that are founded and organized around the COVID-19 issue. Hence, the issue is being largely integrated into existing political divisions, leading to a further move away from austerity and neoliberalism, as well as toward a broadening of the “culture war.”

You have been working on democracies’ response to far-right threats. How do you assess the current discussion in the US about limiting the right to express racist opinions and the role of social media in spreading them, but also in deciding what to block on those democracies’ platforms? Are we really defending democracy with such methods?

This is actually one of the few issues on which I am more American than European. I am a staunch believer in freedom of speech, almost absolute, unlike the vast majority of Europeans, including most of my colleagues. I grew up in a country with some of the toughest anti-discrimination laws, which were quite strictly enforced in the 1980s and 1990s, particularly towards the far right of that time. And look where The Netherlands is right now: for two decades politics was characterized by chasing Pim Fortuyn’s voters, orphaned by his assassination in 2002. The Netherlands now has one of the most Islamophobic political and public debates, together with Denmark, despite all those laws. They are simply no longer enforced, or only selectively and inconsistently, because now the mainstream breaks them too. And how can you ban nativist speech when you have a Minister of Foreign Affairs who literally says that he does not know one example of a successful multicultural society?

The situation is a bit more difficult with regard to social media, as these are private companies. They have a right to uphold certain norms, many companies do. At the same time, companies like Facebook have a near-monopoly on certain social media, so being excluded by them is to be excluded from a significant part of the political and public debate, which is an infringement upon your rights as a citizen.

In the end, I am highly skeptical towards measures that are primarily, and often even exclusively, directed at weakening the far right. They tend to fight the symptom, not the cause. The far right emerges because of fundamental dissatisfaction with the state of liberal democracy in Europe, and I prefer to prioritize the strengthening of liberal democracy over the defeating of its enemies. Because I believe that a liberal democracy can only thrive, and be worth saving, when its people support it. And to understand what people think is wrong, I need them to be free to speak their mind. 

Don’t get me wrong, there are exceptions—incitement to violence, for instance—and I am not so naive to believe that you can convince true far-right believers that liberal democracy is a better system. But I do believe that the majority of the citizens in European countries believe that liberal democracy is the best system, but many are disappointed and dissatisfied with the way real existing democracies function. In many cases, this is not without reason. 

As Peter Mair has argued, many parties are more “responsible” than “responsive”, i.e., trying to please “the market” rather than their voters. Corruption is a massive problem in many European countries. Many issues are depoliticized to keep them away from “the people”. But the way to win them over is to improve democracy, to explain why certain decisions have been made, and to stand firm on certain core values — as Jan-Werner Mueller has summarized so perfectly, you can talk with populists but not like populists. It doesn’t work anyway. As Jean-Marie Le Pen already said decades ago, and as has been proven again and again, the people prefer the original over the copy.

So, rather than focusing primarily on how Russia exploits social divisions, or how Facebook and YouTube feed disinformation, try to overcome that social division, which is real and not created by Russia; find out why people are susceptible to disinformation and try to change that. But to do this, the broader elites in democratic countries, from politicians to professors, have to first understand and truly believe in liberal democracy. They had to understand that it will always remain a contested and temporary compromise between liberalism and democracy, simply stated between minority rights and majority rule, and that is built on pluralism, the belief that society consists of different groups with different interests and values, which are legitimate (i.e., they have a right to try and achieve them, but only within the confines of the liberal democratic system), even if you disagree with them. 

Cas Mudde was born in the Netherlands, where he gained his M.A. and Ph.D. in Political Science at Leiden University, under the supervision of the late Peter Mair. Before moving to the US in 2008, to join his wife, he held tenure-track positions at Central European University (Hungary), the University of Edinburgh (UK), and the University of Antwerp (Belgium). Before coming to the University of Georgia in 2012, he held temporary positions at the University of Oregon, University of Notre Dame, and DePauw University. He has also held visiting positions at Berlin Social Science Center (Germany), Charles University (Czech Republic), University of Amsterdam/Free University Amsterdam (The Netherlands), Academia Istropolitana (Slovakia), James I University (Spain), Malmo University (Sweden), Cornell University, and Rutgers University (US).

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.