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Mabel, I would like to begin with a broad question on your global approach, as your work has focused on the link between cultural and political sociology. Your first book analyzed the emergence of fascism in Italy under Mussolini and argued that the regime intentionally used spectacles and rituals to build support. Today’s rise of populism is mostly studied through political science concepts. Are we missing something by not looking at populism as a culture?

Thank you for asking me to take part in an Agora Interview hosted at your Illiberalism Studies Program and thank you for your careful engagement with my work.

When I began my research on fascism as a graduate student in the 1980s, I looked at it as a product of the past with historical interest. I never imagined that it would become a present-day possibility—not in Europe again, or in the United States. The post-World War II reconstruction of both continents did not yield perfect societies. The various political and social struggles that ensued in the United States and Europe in the 1960s and beyond suggest that “good” and fully inclusive democratic societies were aspirations rather than realities. I considered your questions in the three days prior to the first anniversary of the January 6 insurrection and storming of the United States Capitol. Writing during this period forced me to question whether the collective commitment to democracy has become so attenuated that it is no longer even a political aspiration. I am struck by my own increasing recognition that to borrow from Sinclair Lewis—it can happen here.

In my 2019 Annual Review article, I described populism as an analytic category that defies definition because it typically represents a shifting aggregate of popular preferences without a clear ideology that unites them. Populism has become almost a residual category in contemporary political discussion. It has left and right variants and often includes politicians as different from each other as Donald Trump and just about any European “populist” that you might mention. While populism is not itself a culture it does use cultural tropes to tap into collective meanings and to craft its messages—what historian Michael Kazin calls a “persistent but mutable style of political rhetoric.”

The central idea that I took away from my early research on fascism was that all politics—left and right—has to connect with deeply held cultural understandings—what I call thick culture—if there is to be any hope of viable political rhetoric and communication. Political messages, as well as issues, have to resonate with citizens. Resonance does not come from thin air. Scholars often point to the public display of political power in Fascist Italy—but at least in Italy the medium was not the message. The Italian regime successfully deployed Italian culture not when it marched in the streets but when it appropriated the folk culture of Roman Catholicism or the cult of the Mother. Ordinary Italians may not have benefitted from the 1929 Lateran Pact but it enabled the Catholic Church to keep its hold on Italy long after Mussolini was gone. As to the mothers, the regime had multiple maternal and child health programs and gave awards to the mothers of large families. In turn, women across Italy lined up to donate their gold wedding bands to be melted down to raise money for the fascist war against Ethiopia. In the long run, the messaging did not matter. The regime fell, but the cultural beliefs around religion and motherhood remained.

All politics—left and right—has to connect with deeply held cultural understandings—what I call thick culture—if there is to be any hope of viable political rhetoric and communication.

Fast forward to 2016. Trump’s xenophobic, racist, sexist, etc. comments, and there were many of them, attracted media attention, outrage and academic analysis. Trump’s rhetoric gave the opposition confidence that not enough people would vote for such a person to enable him to win an election. But, Trump’s speeches, no matter the subject, often relied on an overlooked retreat to a salient psychological and cultural trope—fairness. The trade deals with China were unfair; the immigrants jumping the border and wanting to become citizens were unfair and the biggest unfairness of them all—how the coast dwelling liberal elites treated him and everyone else who did not share their views as lacking basic intelligence.

Anyone who has tried to discipline a young child knows that a claim to unfairness is the first tool of persuasion that a child learns—even if they lose the argument! Fairness exerts a powerful emotional pull that makes an implicit claim to earned merit in multiple domains. Fairness also speaks to the American attraction to individualism as a way of life. In contrast to “justice” which implies an ideological or moral position of some sort which you can agree with or not, fairness speaks to multiple ends. The universality of fairness as an emotion coupled with its substantive ambiguity renders fairness a benign rhetorical strategy in contrast to Trump’s more hateful language. Fairness speaks to the political middle and encourages it to underemphasize Trump’s outrageous speech. In the end, only the ultra-rich received “fairness” from Trump in the form of the Tax Cuts and Jobs Bill and the “people” got COVID—among other things.

You previously wrote about the rise of right-wing populism in Europe, particularly in France, and the role that Europeanization and historical contexts played in shaping its emergence. Could you tell us more about the interplay of both a revival of the nation against Europe and the Europeanization of populist parties’ strategies?

First, the plea for fairness would have no resonance in Europe. In contrast to the United States, most European nation states have some form of a welfare state and some form of a commitment to a political community—although that community has until the post war period in many places been comprised of mostly the “native-born.” European nation-states have diverse political cultures and legacies. Until 2016, only certain nation states, such as France, had populist parties—now they all do. So most of what I write here is a generalization that requires more detail and nuance. As I wrote in 2009, the enlargement of the European Union roughly between 1995 and 2005 coupled with the attempt to develop a European political community coincided with the increasing salience of European populism. The one Europe idea with its collateral espousal of multiculturalism and globalization appealed to educated Europeans who had skills that crossed borders. Suddenly, a new world opened for them. Citizens who had national skills—think elementary school teacher rather than college professor—were more or less glued to their places or origin.

The triple crises of 2015—the explosion of debt in Greece, the Charlie Hebdo and ensuing terrorist attacks in France, and the refugee crisis—gave populism the push that it needed to move from curious extreme to political mainstream.

The EU as envisioned was always a threat to somewhere people versus the nowhere people. The threat seemed inconsequential as long as EU could deliver tangible material benefits to multiple groups. But as the 2008 sovereign debt crisis and the austerity that it seemed to demand showed good results could not be taken for granted. Many scholars point to 2016—the year of Brexit and Trump—as the take off point for European populism. But I argue that the triple crises of 2015—the explosion of debt in Greece, the Charlie Hebdo and ensuing terrorist attacks in France, and the refugee crisis—gave populism the push that it needed to move from curious extreme to political mainstream. The EU did not effectively manage any of the crises of 2015 that still linger in various forms. The perceived and real lack of effective EU crisis management made appeals to national sovereignty and national solutions to problems persuasive to those beyond the populist right.

By the French presidential election of 2017, Marine Le Pen performed better than her father did in 2002 even though she lost in the second round. In her concession speech, she argued that the political struggle of the ensuing years will be between “globalists” and “patriots.” She did not envision, that the first truly global entity to hit Europe would be a virus—and yes, Covid crossed borders with more ease than any refugee or member of the global elite. Ironically, the first European response to Covid was to close national borders! The public health approaches to Covid have been national—reinforcing the populist and popular trans-European position that “all politics is national.” Today, virtually all European politicians no matter their party are touting some form of national approach to social and political problems.

Not all populist movements are right-wing nor is the term “populist” necessarily synonymous with “illiberal.” How do you define these terms and how would you characterize their relationship with each other? Our Program is called Illiberalism Studies Program, and we are therefore interested in knowing how other scholars position themselves toward that new concept and its relevance. Additionally, what about the term “fascism,” which has been gaining new fashion recently? In a 2019 article you discussed the usefulness (or lack of) of the term for comparative analysis. As an historian of fascism, how do you interpret the new use of “fascism” to describe far-right/rightwing populism? Does it bring awareness, or does it create new semantic confusions that obscure our readings of today’s challenges?

Earlier I discussed my conceptualization of populism as a political style as it has no consistent ideology that distinguishes it from other forms of politics. This is not the case for either illiberalism or fascism. I used the term “anti-liberalism” in my book on fascism. My early articulation of anti-liberalism argued that in contrast to liberalism, which holds a firm boundary between the public and private self, anti-liberalism was a political ideology that denied that boundary. Giovanni Gentile who held numerous positions in the Italian fascist regime argued in a 1928 article in Foreign Affairs on “The Philosophic Basis of Fascism” that fascism required that individuals submerge themselves in the life of the State. Gentile criticized the liberal state for its individualism and its commitment to freedom.

Contemporary illiberalism such as Viktor Orban’s concept of “illiberal democracy” does not articulate such sweeping claims about submerging the individual in the state. Yet, illiberal democracy as a concept makes the important point that democratic procedures can be in place without a commitment to the democratic values of freedom, social equity and toleration. It is no accident that Orban’s strikes against democracy aim at the Hungarian constitution, the courts, and institutionalized forms of free expression such as the media and education. The attack on institutions while keeping the structure of democracy such for example voting is what makes the present forms of illiberalism so pernicious. There is ample evidence that many US Republicans and Trump himself aspire to enact Orban’s playbook.

In contrast to illiberalism, I maintain my 2019 claim that fascism is more a historical reference than an analytic category. I respect many of the scholars who draw parallels between past fascisms and present-day U.S. politics. My own 2021 take on the present is more aligned with that of legal scholar and historian Samuel Moyn, who has questioned the value of comparison in this regard. Writing in the days before, the first anniversary of the January 6 coup attempt (and I can find no other word for the storming of the Capitol) it is imperative to acknowledge that we are in a dangerous moment and the threat to democracy as practice and political aspiration is real. Trump is and always has been an authoritarian with contempt for the restraints that democratic institutions impose. Yet, Trump and his cadre of enablers is not the most dangerous threat. The widespread belief among ordinary Republicans that the 2020 Presidential was stolen (aka the “Big Lie”) coupled with organized paramilitary groups that are ready to strike again and the willingness of some of the military to turn a blind eye is nothing short of a trigger for insurrection. If January 6, 2021 was a Molotov cocktail, then January 6, 2025 could be a nuclear explosion.

In contrast to illiberalism, I maintain my 2019 claim that fascism is more a historical reference than an analytic category.

Given our current moment, simply warning of fascism will not help. Labelling something as fascist will not in my view force us to do the hard work required to save our democracy. We have to get on it—now.

Mabel M. Berezin is a comparative sociologist whose work explores the intersection of political institutions and cultural meanings with an emphasis on challenges to democratic cohesion and solidarity in Europe and the United States. She is the author of Making the Fascist Self: The Political Culture of Interwar Italy which was awarded the J. David Greenstone Prize by the American Political Science Association and which Choice named an “Outstanding Academic Book of 1997;” lliberal Politics in Neoliberal Times: Culture, Society and Populism in the New Europe; and co-editor with Martin Schain of Europe without Borders: Remapping Territory, Citizenship, and Identity in a Transnational Age.

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.