Jose Javier, you have been working on Spain and Portugal and on their military culture. I would like to begin our discussion with a broad question on that legacy. Do you see any relationship between Spain’s and Portugal’s authoritarian regimes and their collapse in the 1970s, on the one hand, and the way in which the far right is re-emerging (or not) in the two countries today, on the other hand?
This is a very relevant question with a not-so-simple answer. Franco and Salazar were right-wing authoritarian leaders, and it is no secret that far-right sympathizers in both countries have idealized these regimes. Moreover, foreign media have historically been fascinated with the authoritarian past of these two countries and to this day often associate Franco or Salazar with current political or social processes, as though the legacies of these dictators still shaped Iberian politics. In addition, Spanish and Portuguese left-wing parties accuse Vox and Chega of being the heirs of Francoism and Salazarism, respectively. Empirically speaking, however, it is very difficult to prove a direct connection between these new far-right parties and the authoritarian regimes of the twentieth century. Similar populist radical-right parties have emerged in other European countries that did not experience dictatorships, such as the Nordic countries, France, and the Netherlands, or in countries with a socialist past, such as Hungary, Poland, and Slovakia.
In fact, Portugal and Spain were until recently considered exceptions to the rise of the far right, and several studies tried to understand how countries hit so hard by the Great Recession had managed to escape this phenomenon. Although Vox and Chega use nationalist and nativist discourses, oppose decentralization, and hold very conservative views about society, they are still far from the single parties that ruled Spain and Portugal from the 1930s to the mid-1970s. The exclusivist logic and some of the controversial policy proposals they champion are to a great extent incompatible with a liberal conception of democracy. Yet these parties do not oppose free elections or a multi-party system, nor do they seek to impose a militaristic organization of society. Vox and Chega are not fascist parties inspired by past dictators but radical-right ones mostly influenced by the latest wave of right-wing populism in Europe and the US.
Let’s move to the fascinating case of Vox in Spain. What is the winning combination of narratives and context that explains such rapid electoral success? Who are the grassroots actors that paved the way for this success? Is the current pandemic situation consolidating Vox’s presence on the Spanish political landscape?
Vox was founded in 2013, but it was not until December 2018 that it achieved its first major electoral success, which came in the Andalusian regional elections. Although anti-immigration discourses play an important role in Vox’s strategy, most of the party’s growth must be attributed to the discontent and fears triggered by the secessionist conflict in Catalonia, especially after the illegal 2017 referendum. Vox’s leaders continuously offer a fierce defense of the unity of Spain against separatist movements and propose the suppression of all regional parliaments and governments. Much of their support has come from citizens who feel that the conservative People’s Party is not doing enough to safeguard the unity of Spain.
Moreover, like other populist radical-right parties, Vox promotes a traditionalist Christian conception of Spain, opposing multiculturalism and feminism. It follows a significant proportion of the populist playbook. The party claims the high moral ground and demonizes its political adversaries, whom it accuses of being criminals, terrorists, or traitors to Spain. Vox has tried to utilize the COVID-19 pandemic to the party’s political advantage. Its leaders have adopted a coarse style and spectacularized the health crisis, turning it into a political crisis as well. This is a common strategy among populist parties, which seek to fuel negative sentiments—such as fear, indignation, and hatred—toward the government and its allies. Vox has blamed the government in hyperbolic fashion, even accusing it of “euthanizing” thousands of Spaniards.
The party’s exaggerated interpretation of the crisis can be considered a means of legitimizing its radical and illiberal agenda, as well as an opportunity to bring back into the public debate such issues as border control, immigration, and coordination failures at the regional and European levels. Although it is still not clear whether the pandemic has provided Vox with a significant boost, the results of the recent regional elections in Catalonia and Madrid seem to confirm that Vox is here to stay.
You have also studied the Indignados movement in Spain and Greece. How do you parallel the revival of a leftist populism with a right-wing one? Do they share common constituencies or traditions of social actions, or should we see their existence as a sign that the liberal centrist consensus is weakening?
While the emergence of left-leaning movements such as Syriza and Podemos can be linked to the 2008 Global Financial Crisis, many right-wing populist parties took advantage of the 2015 refugee crisis in Europe and growing anti-migration sentiment. Despite the obvious ideological differences between left- and right-wing populists, we can also observe many common traits in the way they articulate their discourses. For instance, they all adopt an antagonistic approach to politics based on a moral distinction between different players. They pit “the people” or “the nation” against the “other,” whom they consider to pose a threat to society. This “other” may be the “corrupt elites,” including international and supranational organizations, but this is not exclusively the case.
Radical-right populism is often also antagonistic toward immigrants, minorities, and liberals, who are considered to be betraying the people. For its part, left-wing populism often demonizes conservative parties, which are associated with fascism. Moreover, both types of populists continuously claim that popular or national sovereignty has been lost and that the people should take back control. They romanticize society, minimizing the differences between those who belong to their ideal people while artificially emphasizing the former’s differences from the “other” whom they want to exclude.
There is no strong evidence to suggest that left- and right-wing populism share a common constituency. In my research, I did not find a clear socio-demographic profile of the populist voter. One of the characteristics of populism is its capacity to adapt to different contexts. Theirs is considered a “thin ideology,” which implies that their discourses can be adapted depending on the context. They try to opportunistically capitalize on different sources of discontent and therefore appeal to slightly different constituencies. Thus, we may find that in some cases support for populist parties is correlated with a higher level of income or education, while in others the reverse is true.
In general, populism emerges as a reaction against an economic crisis or a crisis of representation. Both left- and right-wing populisms usually try to redefine “the people” by adopting a counter-hegemonic discourse and challenging the status quo at institutional and ideational level. It is therefore not surprising that many analysts depict populism as a consequence or symptom of the weakening of the liberal capitalist consensus. In my view, however, the relationship is more complex: populism is not only a consequence, but also a cause of the process of erosion of consensus and trust.
You did impressive research on the Brexit narratives at local level in several British regions. Could you tell us more about the importance of this local perspective in capturing the political and social Zeitgeist and how this approach should be replicated in other countries?
Thank you, we are very pleased with this research project, as the results seem to fill quite well some of the gaps in the literature that tries to explain the success of Brexit, as well as the asymmetric strength of protest parties elsewhere. Moreover, our reports and academic papers have been very positively received by practitioners and colleagues alike. Our approach was innovative not only because we focused our analysis on five local level comparative cases, but also because we engaged with local stakeholders, adopting an iterative participative approach. We contacted many of our interviewees on multiple occasions and discussed the preliminary results with them in order to validate our findings. Based on the feedback received, these stakeholders—local politicians, business owners, civil society activists, journalists, etc.—felt empowered by the reflective nature of our research approach.
One of our main contributions is showing that macro-level variables such as income, age, gender, professional status, or education fail to accurately predict whether someone will vote for anti-status quo options. Geography matters. Citizens with similar socio-demographic profiles adopted very different attitudes toward Brexit depending on the local context in which they lived. We show that top-down discourses spread by the Leave campaign and tabloids succeeded particularly well in some areas that were suffering relative economic decline and a widespread sense of collective disempowerment. For instance, in areas far from the major economic and political hubs that were experiencing “brain drain,” the idea of being “left behind” became very prominent.
Local grievances were articulated and reinforced by discourses that selectively overemphasized and underplayed problems and policy solutions and directed blame toward global elites and the EU. These narratives—which played on feelings like mistrust, anger, and nostalgia—became very dominant in many local areas and, through a process of informational coercion, ended up shaping the preferences of many, including those who in theory, according to their socio-demographic profiles, would have been expected to vote differently.
Our research resonates with an emerging trend of research that focuses on the “geography of discontent” and characterizes the emergence of populism and protest voting as a sort of reaction or “revenge of the places that don’t matter,” as my colleague Professor Andres Rodríguez Pose suggests. I strongly believe that the geographic dimension cannot be ignored when studying these political phenomena and would invite other comparative scholars to combine their macro-level data with a more micro-level approach to data collection. I would also encourage them to pay attention not only to the material plane, but also to the ideational and discursive planes, which in the case of Brexit help explain the surprisingly asymmetric results of the referendum and the later partial political realignment in some areas, such as historically Labour bastions turning Conservative.
That brings me to a more conceptual question to conclude. You have been proposing a new multidimensional approach to understanding and comparing populism. What are your main arguments in favor of that multidimensionality? What have we missed so far in our study of populism? And do you see the term “illiberal” that we use in our Program as an interesting venue for research compared to populism?
Indeed, I have developed a new multidimensional framework, which I present and justify theoretically in my recent article “From Chasing Populists to Deconstructing Populism.” This framework dissects populism into five dimensions: antagonism, morality, idealization of society, popular sovereignty, and reliance on personalistic leadership. There are several reasons for this choice. Today, most comparative studies of populism, inspired by the work of Giovanni Sartori, adopt a minimal definition and a classical categorization approach—that is, they focus on a small set of attributes that they consider necessary to classify a party as populist.
However, I find this approach quite limiting. First of all, there are still many disagreements concerning not only the definition and specific attributes of populism, but also its genus: whether populism is a thin ideology, a strategy, a discourse, or a performative style. Existing minimal definitions of populism seem to be better fitted for some contexts than for others. For example, as Carlos de la Torre and Oscar Mazzoleni suggest, Cas Mudde’s definition captures very well European radical-right populism, but not so much Latin American populisms. If these minimal definitions guide our data collection processes, we may actually miss some other attributes that are normally associated with populism and that may help us to better understand this latent construct.
Minimal definitions are used largely because they facilitate the task of classifying parties as “populist” or “non-populist” by setting somewhat clear thresholds for who is and who is not populist. However, empirical evidence shows that populism is better approached as a matter of degree, rather than as a matter of nature. The discourses and strategies of political leaders change over time, for instance when they gain power. Thus, if we base our research efforts on a binary classification, we may end up considering some parties or leaders to be intermittently populist and may fail to understand the rise of populism in countries where populist attitudes are generally displayed by parties that do not completely fit the conditions established by minimal definitions. This is the case of the UK, where the Conservative Party—which, according to most definitions, should not be considered populist—has since the Brexit referendum frequently adopted the populist rhetoric that now permeates large segments of British society. Conversely, a more flexible, multidimensional approach makes it possible to identify varieties within populism that would otherwise remain hidden or understudied.
I consider that different research approaches are complementary and that if we want to bridge the existing gap between them, we should adopt a multidimensional approach. This is particularly important at the level of data collection to ensure that we generate datasets that can be used in a wide range of studies. As the title of my paper indicates, I propose devoting less attention to classifying parties and leaders, and instead focusing our efforts on better understanding the attributes associated with populism and how they are combined by different movements and in different contexts. My framework is quite flexible: I have used it, for example, to compare the manifestos of populist radical-right and secessionist parties, parliamentary debates during the COVID-19 crisis, and even the UN speeches of Mahmoud Abbas and Benjamin Netanyahu.
Finally, I do consider the term illiberalism to be very important when analyzing populism. Several prominent experts in this field, such as Hanspeter Kriesi and Takis Pappas, associate the concept of populism with an illiberal conception of democracy. Populists should not be equated with autocrats or fascists, as they normally do not seek to establish a dictatorship. Most of them do not propose to eliminate elections or party competition. Instead, their goal is to radically reform democracies to fit their Manichean and exclusionary conception of society. The usual way to recreate the idealized and somewhat homogeneous populist “heartland” is by extracting some people from within “the people.” They achieve this goal by suppressing or limiting the rights and liberties of those whom they consider the undeserving or corrupt “other.” Therefore, populism usually clashes with a pluralist or liberal understanding of democracy, and I believe that it should, as it is in your program, be compared with and studied alongside other forms of illiberalism.
Jose Javier Olivas Osuna is the Principal Investigator of the Interdisciplinary Comparative Project on Populism and Secessionism (ICPPS) at the National Distance Education University (UNED) in Madrid, and Research Associate at LSE IDEAS. He has also done public policy consulting work for the EU and other international organisation. He holds PhD in Government (LSE), an MSc in Public Policy and Administration (LSE). He previously completed University degrees in Economics and Business (ETEA, University of Córdoba), Market Research (ETEA) and European Studies (EDHEC, Lille). José Javier coordinated the research project “Debating Brexit impact at local level: a mixed methods comparative study” and has recently published articles about Brexit and populism on European Journal of Political Research, Governance and Politics and Society. His research interests also include public policy, borders, responses to COVID19 and civil-military relations.