Thanks for joining us, Michael and Zsuzsanna. I wanted to start with your new book Depleting Democracies: Radical Right Impact on Parties, Policies, and Polities in Eastern Europe. Early on in the book, you unpack the terminological debate between populism, radical right, far right, even nationalism, etc. As these are so often used interchangeably (especially in non-scholarly settings), and because there is some scholarly debate over the dynamics, it may interest our readers to start there. Can you walk through some of these distinctions, or lack thereof, and then tell us why it is crucial, in the context of your study, to stake out the claim you make about the relationship between these concepts?
Our starting point is a modernization-theoretical approach to social change in modern societies, understood here in a Weberian and Parsonian sense as a growing autonomy at the individual level and an ongoing functional differentiation at the societal level, in combination with rationalization and an increasing autonomy of societal subsystems. In this light, we begin by defining right-wing radicalism as a radical effort to undo or resist such social change. This effort involves an overemphasis on or radicalization of images of social homogeneity as a characteristic of radical right-wing thinking.
Consequently, right-wing radicalism is defined primarily by the ideological criteria of a romantic ultranationalism, that is, a myth of a homogenous nation which puts the nation before the individual and their civil rights and which therefore is directed against liberal and pluralist democracy, its underlying values of freedom and equality and the related categories of individualism and universalism. The creation of the nationalistic myth consists of the construction of an idea of the nation and national belonging by radicalizing the criteria of exclusion. Whether the criteria are ethnic, cultural, or religious, this ideology involves a radical in-group/out-group distinction, to which can be added the propensity for a regime that strictly enforces these distinctions, i.e. an authoritarian order or strong state.
Right-wing radicalism is defined primarily by the ideological criteria of a romantic ultranationalism, that is, a myth of a homogenous nation which puts the nation before the individual and their civil rights and which therefore is directed against liberal and pluralist democracy.
Indeed, right-wing radical thinking, in its modernization-theoretical conception espoused here, is thoroughly intertwined with an authoritarian, that is, fiercely anti-egalitarian and anti-emancipatory, view of the world which includes a top-down approach to politics and the corresponding emphasis on strong leadership. When it comes to terminological distinctions, our definition is based on my (Minkenberg’s) early writings and follows others such as Herbert Kitschelt and Cas Mudde, in that it involves various subtypes of the radical right with the most fundamental distinction being the one between those radical-right actors who expressively oppose the liberal-democratic order and want to replace it by a non-democratic regime, such as fascism, and those who oppose liberal ideas in the name of the national community but espouse – at least nominally – democracy. Only for the first variant do we reserve the term “right-wing extremist.” That is, in contrast to much of the confusing and confused populism literature, the fundamental distinction here rests on whether fascist ideas, outright rejection of the liberal-democratic order, or the approval of violence as a means of politics constitute part of the ideology or program or not, irrespective of their degree of populism.
This distinction is especially relevant when democracy is not yet or not yet fully “the only game in town” (Juan J. Linz) and extreme-right actors can expect a certain resonance for their anti-democratic ideas. We find that at least until the 2010s, important segments of the radical right in Eastern Europe, in contrast to the West European radical right, tended to espouse a more explicitly anti-democratic agenda, such as the celebration of fascist leaders and symbols of the interwar period, paramilitary features, territorial revisionism at the expense of neighbor countries, etc.
In contrast to this distinction, populism in our understanding is not another type of radical-right thinking but rather a performative approach to or style of politics which runs across various types of the radical right and, in fact, entire other party families as it can be married to any thick or host ideology. These distinctions are important for any study of the radical or far right, as other comparative works show, in particular when considering these parties’ potential impact on the quality of democracy, which is intrinsically related to the weight of anti-democratic ideas in their agenda.
I have another terminological/conceptual question before we jump into the meat of the book. The book lays out a definition of democracy that includes an emphasis on “inclusiveness,” in addition to free elections, freedom of speech, etc. This becomes important as the book goes on and as you expound on the process that graces the book’s title, i.e., the “depletion of democracy,” because you note that this process does not, in fact, undermine democracy in toto. Rather, it entails the “weakening and undermining [of] certain values of the liberal-democratic order,” e.g., inclusiveness. Can you talk to us about the term “inclusiveness,” what you mean by it, and why you include it as a feature of democracy rather than say, liberalism or humanitarianism? In other words, why should we see the radical right as depleting democracy and not depleting liberalism or something else?
In our book, we ultimately seek to study the impact of the radical right on the democratic quality of political systems in which they are active and where they aim to influence politics. To explore this polity-level impact, we must define what we mean by democracy and what components of it we find elementary for our analysis. In doing so, we consider two key dimensions: institutional guarantees and inclusiveness. By the institutional guarantees of democracy, we refer to such commonly listed key components as free and fair elections, checks and balances, the rule of law as well as political and civil rights providing the structural framework of the polity, and ultimately setting the “rules of the game”.
However, building on Robert Dahl’s polyarchy concept, we move beyond this and highlight the centrality of the principle of inclusiveness for democracy, that is the need to include the largest possible part of the demos in the life of the polity to guarantee its democratic functioning, having in mind also the principle of affected interest as an important foundation of political participation. In this sense, this second dimension, which in our understanding lies at the very core of democracy, deals with the definition of the demos, that is, “who is allowed to play” the democratic game. Inclusiveness acknowledges the often multicultural and multiethnic realities of Europe and the needs resulting from such diversity and goes beyond the mere protection of minorities – national, ethnic, religious, cultural, or otherwise. As a democratic principle, it refers to the empowerment of all segments of the demos to participate in the political process and ensures the realization of minority rights as a counterbalance to majority rule, which is commonly understood as a key feature of liberal democracy.
The model you use throughout the book looks at the radical right’s impact at three levels –the positions, policy, and polity levels. First, can you walk us through those distinctions, tell us how they interact with one another, and then talk to us about the cumulative logic there? In other words, how does the radical right’s impact (on the mainstream) at one of these levels lead to impact in the others?
Although we set out to study the radical right’s impact on democracy, we need to flesh out the process through which it may affect that level of politics. This is the reason why we look at impact in three steps, through three levels: the party level, the policy level, and the polity level. We take into account that the radical right does not operate in a vacuum, and we conceptualize impact as “interaction effect,” that is, the consequence of interactions between the radical right and its political environment, most importantly its political competitors, the mainstream parties of the given party system.
The radical right does not operate in a vacuum, and we conceptualize impact as “interaction effect,” that is, the consequence of interactions between the radical right and its political environment, most importantly its political competitors, the mainstream parties of the given party system.
A core part of this interaction is the mainstream parties’ strategic reaction to the radical right, which is of course influenced by the electoral threat the radical right poses to them due its own electoral strength. The interaction is also to be understood in the given cultural and politico-institutional context, which may, in turn, moderate or exacerbate the radical right’s potential to exert an influence. When it comes to the party level, electoral threat posed by the radical right may prompt mainstream parties to co-opt the radical right’s positions or even cooperate with it in an attempt to catch the wind out of its sails, which however is likely to result – we posit – in a shift in those mainstream parties’ positions on issues that are salient for the radical right. By measuring shifts in party positions against the backdrop of party interactions, we can assess the radical right’s impact on other parties.
In fact, we find in our East European cases that the abovementioned positive engagement does have a lasting impact on mainstream parties that chose this reaction. The radical right’s effect, however, does not necessarily stop here: it may spill over to the level of policies when mainstream parties adopt legislation inspired by the radical right’s positions or even informed by its proposals. In such cases, we speak of indirect effect on the policy level. Of course, the radical right may in certain cases be in the position where it can propose and enact its own exclusionary policy agenda in a straightforward fashion as a junior or even senior government member – though the latter has so far only happened in Poland and Hungary in the region after 2015 and 2010 respectively.
We classify these instances as direct effects on the policy level and have traced them in our book in the minority and asylum fields through extensive archival research. Again, we found that once cooperation and/or co-optation had taken place between the radical right and the mainstream parties, impact on policies, that is restrictive legislation, central to the radical right was likely to unfold and remain in place even after the radical right was out of the picture (government or even parliament). If these aforementioned effects occur other things being equal, their combined impact results in an overall decline of democratic quality on the polity level, which we refer to as the depletion of democracy.
The book shows that the radical right’s impact is intimately tied to how the mainstream reacts to its presence. You lay out three mainstream reactions: positive engagement (cooperation or co-optation); negative engagement (cordon sanitaire, stigmatization, etc.); and disengagement (ignorance and non-cooperation). We have recently talked to Sheri Berman – who describes dismissive, accommodative, and adversarial strategies – and, while her work does not measure democratic depletion per se, she suggests that each of these strategies has a time and a place depending on the particular context, issue area, etc. This is so because, in her view, certain strategies that seek to marginalize the radical right can, paradoxically, strengthen it. You seem to be making a more strident case that a cordon sanitaire is always the correct action and that its employment does not backfire (at least in the Eastern European context) in the way that Berman suggests is possible. Am I reading the book correctly in this sense? Can you talk in more detail about how you see this issue and provide some examples of when one or another strategy was employed and the effects?
We agree that any reaction to a new challenger in the party system will have unintended consequences, and we certainly would not debate that timing – as well as consideration for the specific political and sociocultural context – is very important in how to react. For example, you cannot ignore or dismiss a new party that collects a third of the votes in elections. But our argument is not about the proper reaction in order to roll back the radical right. Our emphasis on the central role of the cordon sanitaire follows a number of studies which show the crucial relevance of such a strategy in containing radical right effects, and this might be the elementary difference to what Sheri Berman says.
Our findings which are the result of a systematic comparative analysis in seven countries underline the importance of the cordon: whenever it was employed, effects such as mainstream parties’ position shifts towards radical right positions or policy effects were contained. This does not mean the radical right’s electoral relevance, which we assess through the parties’ blackmail and coalition potential following Giovanni Sartori, was diminished. But it shows that the impact of radical right parties on the various levels can be halted or at least slowed down if such a cordon is upheld, in particular in the context of such volatile party systems and vulnerable democracies as those in Eastern Europe.
Mainstream parties’ cooperation with and/or co-optation of the radical right resulted in rightward shifts of mainstream parties’ sociocultural positions in general and those concerning ethnic minorities in particular; these shifts remained in place and altered the party system even beyond the period of cooperation.
As our analyses reveal, mainstream parties’ cooperation with and/or co-optation of the radical right in Slovakia, Bulgaria, Hungary, Poland and also Romania resulted in rightward shifts of mainstream parties’ sociocultural positions in general and those concerning ethnic minorities in particular; these shifts remained in place and altered the party system even beyond the period of cooperation. What’s more, the cases of Slovakia and Bulgaria revealed that the radicalization of party positions may affect also the mainstream left, Smer-SD in Slovakia and the Bulgarian Socialist Party, if it cooperates – formally or informally – with the radical right.
Assessing policy shifts through legislative changes showed that where the mainstream opted for collaboration or co-optation, restrictive policies affecting vulnerable groups – ethnic and national minorities, and refugees and asylum-seekers – were often adopted in the wake of such positive engagement. Remaining with the abovementioned cases, such restrictions concerned especially the rights and status of the Hungarian minority in Slovakia, while in Bulgaria refugee and asylum policy was affected.
To get at the heart of the book, I wanted you to talk to us about democratic depletion. We’ve talked a bit about how democratic depletion works in your model at the “polity” level, but I wanted to dig a little deeper. First of all, you take pains to differentiate the concept from democratic backsliding, so I wanted you to tell us about that. But I wanted you to tell us in a little more detail how the radical right causes democratic depletion and provide some examples from the book. I also would like to hear about how the radical right relates to democratic depletion ideologically. Is democratic depletion a mere consequence of the radical right’s priorities on other fronts, or is depletion an end in-and-of itself?
As we mentioned, we identify democratic institutions and inclusiveness as the two fundamentally important aspects of democracy that we take into account when we assess the impact of the radical right on the polity overall. We relate democratic backsliding on the one hand and democratic depletion on the other to these two dimensions respectively. We talk about democratic backsliding when we observe the (gradual) erosion of the institutional dimension of democracy which in its manifestation in Eastern Europe, has been executed largely by democratically elected politicians. In sum, we mean by, backsliding of democracy the deterioration of the rules of the game. On the other hand, depletion of democracy refers to the undermining or weakening of the inclusionary dimension of democracy. Through its nativism or romantic ultranationalism, inclusiveness is precisely the principle that the radical right fundamentally contests, as it seeks to exclude all elements from the polity that it considers to be part of the out-group, and in doing so, it aims to transform the demos into an ethnos. Through the process of depletion, it is the concept of the demos that is under attack.
Through its nativism or romantic ultranationalism, inclusiveness is precisely the principle that the radical right fundamentally contests…by pursuing its ideological agenda, the radical right inevitably poses a threat to what we understand as democracy.
In this sense, we do argue that by pursuing its ideological agenda, the radical right inevitably poses a threat to what we understand as democracy. When successful in exerting its influence either on mainstream parties’ positions, political agendas, or especially on policies – typically concerning the various out-groups defined by the radical right – the radical right engages in the business of depletion, since these effects concern the inclusiveness dimension of democracy, i.e. the definition of the demos.
While in our book, we tracked changes in the quality of democracy concerning its institutional dimension through V-Dem’s “liberal democracy index,” which provides a complex coverage of all the important aspects of this dimension, no such comprehensive measurement tool was at our disposal to assess the quality of inclusiveness on the polity level. For this reason, we relied primarily on the party and policy level data and took the shifts we identified before as signs of depletion. Plus, we complemented these assessments with data from V-Dem’s “egalitarian democracy index,” which includes aspects of social group rights corresponding, in the East European context, to those minorities whose rights we were concerned with.
Moving on from the book slightly, but building on the question about the differences between Western Europe/the Anglosphere and Eastern Europe, I’m curious what you make of the transnational radical right networks that are being developed. Are the differences we discussed above breaking down? We have, for instance, a growing affinity among American radical rightists for Hungary and Poland, but that affinity can also be felt in many Western European radical-right circles. Do you worry about the learning processes that these affinities and connections may spur, or do you think that the historical and institutional contexts are just too different for East-to-West mimicry to be of concern?
The transnational networking of the radical right is certainly a worrying development for the future of Western democracies for several reasons. While the sociocultural context is not rewritten overnight and national differences between East and West – as well as between the countries of Europe and the United States – remain, such networks do contribute to the spreading of narrative frames targeting certain outgroups or enemies the radical right “shares” despite its various geographies, such as the “illegal migrant” or a certain “global (liberal) elite”. These narratives breed intolerance and fuel conspiracy theories locally and nationally, while through these networks finding resonance and thus validation internationally.
In fact, validation or rather legitimization on the international scene is also an important function of such networking, especially for those in – or in the vicinity of – executive office, as it supports such radical right actors in developing their image as internationally reputable leaders that may, in turn, strengthen their domestic appeal. Especially in such cases, international learning is of key concern: despite the different national contexts, these actors do take inspiration from each other in their attempts of “redefining the demos,” as similar restrictions adopted, e.g., in the field of asylum policy in Hungary and later Poland that we also discuss in our book, may suggest. When in power, they also seek out existing blueprints to curtail the institutional guarantees of democracy. Enough to think of Jarosław Kaczynski’s famous intention to have Budapest on the Vistula, or how Hungary’s NGO law of 2017 echoed elements of the Russian foreign agent law and equally served to intimidate and silence critical civil society voices. Autocratizing leaders do learn from each other as they try to keep a democratic façade while undermining the fundaments of democracy.
Validation or rather legitimization on the international scene is also an important function of such networking, especially for those in – or in the vicinity of – executive office, as it supports such radical right actors in developing their image as internationally reputable leaders that may, in turn, strengthen their domestic appeal.
I also wanted to ask you a question about the role of religion in this discussion, and how it relates to questions of the radical right in Eastern Europe and its impact. It comes up at various points throughout the book, particularly in the Polish and Romanian case studies, but Michael you have written about it repeatedly over the years, for example here or in your contribution to this volume. First, could you talk about the connection between religious politics and the issues that you emphasize in the book, such as minority rights, asylum policies, etc.? You have argued in the past that such a connection exists, and I think our readers will be interested to hear that case. Then, I’d like to hear your thoughts on how religion factors into your impact model more generally. In your view, have radical right parties been able to influence the mainstream in de-secularizing politics, in the same way they have been able to influence immigration policies and the like? What does that dynamic look like in your view?
In Western Europe, the relationship between the current radical right and religion is signified by the return of religious ultranationalism. It is not a religious revival in a secularized or secularizing region but a particular framing to identify outgroups religiously and as not belonging, for example targeting them mostly as Muslims. This relationship is different in Eastern Europe. Here, with the exception of the communist era, a fusion of sometimes fundamentalist religion and ultranationalist platforms has prevailed since the nation-building era, and today’s radical right actors compete with the mainstream in accentuating the religious dimension of their country’s national identity.
The most notable case is Poland, where the radical right seeks to over-Catholicize the Catholic establishment and the political mainstream. Here, the ideas of the interwar anti-democratic Roman Dmowski found new resonance among Radio Maryja listeners, at street marches organized by the All-Polish Youth, and in parties such as the now-defunct League of Polish Families or currents in the Law and Justice (PiS) party. This party, in collaboration with parts of the Catholic clergy, has also embarked on an anti-liberal moral crusade against all real or perceived threats to the Polish nation and the Catholic way of life and is joined in this by the new radical right party Konfederacja.
In Hungary, the Hungarian Justice and Life Party and Fidesz gained Catholic voters in the late 1990s, when the Christian Democratic People’s Party weakened in the wake of internal rivalries and Fidesz has given increasing importance to incorporating religious frames and cultivating relations with the church and religious organizations, especially from the 2010s on. The Slovak National Party represented a particularly strong fusion of national identity and Catholicism that bordered on clerical fascism during the first phase of national independence in World War II; these traditions were carried forward by the SNS in the 2000s, which, under the leadership of Jan Slota, sought to rehabilitate the fascist priest Jozef Tišo.
We do not see any de-secularizing effects of the radical right, but there is an enduring and comparatively strong alliance between “throne and altar” in this region, which is often intensified by the radical right.
In Romania, by contrast, radical right-wing parties such as the Party for a Greater Romania have declined since 2000 until the recent rise of the Alliance for the Union of Romanians (AUR), and the Romanian Orthodox Church has increasingly taken on the role of an anti-liberal guardian of the country’s Orthodox identity. However, these examples do not point at de-secularizing effects of the radical right, as you suggest, but at an enduring and comparatively strong alliance between “throne and altar” in this region, which is often intensified by the radical right.
As a way of closing out, we usually ask our guests about the term illiberalism, which we are obviously very interested in here at the Illiberalism Studies Program. What do you think about this term, and do you think that it has utility or descriptive value? And how do you think about in relation to other concepts, like populism, radical right, etc.?
There is certainly a descriptive value in the term. It directs our attention to the grey zones where clearly anti-liberal, anti-pluralistic views are not (yet) involved but may emerge as a result of radicalization or polarization processes. But we have not encountered yet a plausible definition of how to analytically distinguish illiberal from anti-liberal actors or agendas that lets us understand and explain how and under what circumstances illiberal views become anti-liberal (or vice versa).
The concept of illiberalism directs our attention to the grey zones where clearly anti-liberal, anti-pluralistic views are not (yet) involved but may emerge as a result of radicalization or polarization processes.
Also, there is a tendency to use the term interchangeably with populism or authoritarianism and to attach it to other sociopolitical phenomena such as regimes or practices, as, for example, in the Routledge Handbook of Illiberalism. Often, the definitional attempts end – or begin – with Victor Orbán’s statement about illiberal democracy as a desired regime type and underline that illiberalism – unlike liberalism – is not a coherent ideology or theory.
Also, the current use of the term illiberalism is so far confined to a particular range of actors and agendas which are typically found on the right of the spectrum. A case in point is the article on “Illiberalism and Islam” in said Handbook, which does not discuss, as might be expected, illiberalism among Muslim communities in Western societies but illiberalism in anti-Muslim movements in the West. However, the term’s usefulness stretches across the entire political spectrum in any liberal context and may also be applicable to the study of groups such as religious minorities, immigrant communities, feminists, etc. wherever group identities clash with liberal values. This is nothing new. Already in the 1990s, Will Kymlicka in his writings on “liberal multiculturalism” pointed out the anti- or illiberal potential among national minorities which had to be countered by establishing a liberal minimum for every member of society.
Michael Minkenberg is professor of comparative politics at European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. From 2007-10 he held the Max Weber Chair for German and European Studies at NYU. He has received his Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of Heidelberg in 1989 and taught comparative politics at the universities of Göttingen and Heidelberg, at Cornell University and Columbia University. Professor Minkenberg’s research interests include the radical right in liberal democracies; the relationship between religion and politics in Western societies; and, more recently, the role of state architecture in capital cities.
Zsuzsanna Végh is a PhD candidate and lecturer at the Chair of Comparative Politics at the European University Viadrina, an associate researcher at the European Council on Foreign Relations, and a visiting fellow at the German Marshall Fund of the United States. Her research deals with radical right parties in Central Europe, their international cooperation and impact on foreign policy, and Central European countries’ foreign and EU policies.