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To launch the discussion, I was hoping you would talk us through the debate over the causes of right-wing populism, i.e., the supply-side and demand-side explanations. Because academically, I think the scholarship has been much more maybe on the supply side, but you have worked a lot on the demand side, or the grassroots level.

I would say that the literature on populism, as I see it now, has two main divides, and within those divides, one of the categories is also divided. The first and most obvious divide is what social scientists refer to as the supply and demand-side explanations. Supply-side explanations locate the main cause of populism in political institutions and political actors. The focus here is on how they have changed, how they behave, what they do, etc. So, from this perspective, a cause of populism could be that political institutions are less responsive, that political parties are losing touch with their voters, or that voters are dissatisfied because there are scandals and corruption, because governments are either unwilling or unable to deal with the challenges that citizens believe they and their societies face, and so on. As a result of this dissatisfaction with political institutions and political actors voters embrace anti-establishment populist parties.

I would actually say that in comparison with supply-side explanations, demand-side explanations are more popular with the non-scholarly crowd. These explanations focus on citizens’ changing grievances. Within this demand-side category, there is also a division. One group emphasizes economic grievances, e.g., growing inequality among citizens and among regions within countries, increasing economic insecurity or precarity, and communities that have begun to fall apart. These economic grievances are what make people attracted to populist parties that offer seemingly simple solutions to their economic problems.

Within the demand-side group, there are also those who emphasize social and cultural grievances. I would say within the United States, this is the dominant perspective. Here, it is all about racism, xenophobia, white supremacy, etc. The argument here is that populism is driven by white folks, and even more particularly, by working-class or non-college-educated white people, who have grown resentful of minorities, whether they be sexual minorities, immigrant groups, or African-Americans. Populism, in this view, is driven by those social and cultural grievances.

We have now a literature on populism that is a couple of decades old, and as these literatures do, they tend to expand, and probably all parts of this literature have something to offer. Most people like the idea of a magic bullet explanation – that is, having a single independent variable that explains their dependent variable of populism, but, the reality is that all of these things are intertwined and causally interrelated. The best explanations, accordingly, are probably the messiest ones that consider both supply and demand side variables and how they interact with each other.

I wanted to follow up on the economic explanation. How do you think neoliberalism should be connected as one of the clear causes? My impression is that very often we talk about, for example, the “losers of globalization,” but not neoliberalism per se. So, we see this ambiguity in populism being both a backlash against neoliberalism, but also itself very often having its own neoliberal policy.

As you well know, and as I am sure most of the people who read your publications and your interviews know, there are different levels of causality. There are deep causes and there are more recent or triggering causes. I would put neoliberalism in the deep category, simply because there are several things generated by neoliberalism that are causally related to populism.

The most obvious, of course, are the economic consequences of neoliberalism. As I have already mentioned, there is growing inequality, not only among citizens but among different regions in almost all Western countries. Economists like David Autor, for example, have put forward arguments about how trade shocks and regions particularly subject to them have a predilection to vote for populists. Here it is not merely the trade shocks that matter, but rather the downstream consequences of the trade shocks, e.g., how they change communities, enable political actors to scapegoat, and those kinds of things that end up causing rising support for populism.

I would say neoliberalism has had many consequences – economic, social, and political – that should be viewed as part of the explanation for why populist, anti-establishment parties have been increasingly well accepted and embraced even, by many Western voters.

There is also the general sense, after 30 years of neoliberalism, that governments are either unwilling or unable to deal with the negative consequences of economic change. So, the resentment against elites, against the establishment, against governments, against mainstream political parties that have been associated with neoliberalism, that is also something that we now view as at least part of the explanation for the rise of populist parties. In short, I would say neoliberalism has had many consequences – economic, social, and political – that should be viewed as part of the explanation for why populist, anti-establishment parties have been increasingly well accepted and embraced even, by many Western voters.

That is a great point. I wanted to follow up on the political aspect and note that we seem to have more and more mainstream parties embracing centrism. Center-right, center-left, but very centrist. And so what is on political offer is often centrist parties on the one hand, which voters increasingly cannot disassociate between Right and Left, and then rising populist parties on the other hand. France would be emblematic here, with the Macron versus Le Pen personification. But how do we explain this kind of inertia of political offer?

Actually, thank you for reminding me. That is another way in which I think the neoliberal causal chain is related to populism, and it is one that I have written something about. I think the other thing that neoliberalism did, both economically and politically, is in the 1990s – the heyday of neoliberalism – it generated convergence between mainstream parties of the Left and Right on some kind of neoliberalism.

This is something that occurred in Western Europe and the United States. This convergence was driven at first primarily by the Left shifting towards the center economically – watering down its distinctive economic profile and putting forth one that was much closer to that of its center-right counterparts, called Third Way-ism in Western Europe or “progressive neoliberalism” in the United States.

What we now know, from survey data and public opinion polls, is that this changed how voters saw the Left. It was no longer, again distinguished by a distinctive economic profile, it was not seen as championing the interests of working-class, low-educated, underprivileged voters.
This economic convergence alienated some voters who were dissatisfied with the consequences of neoliberalism or global capitalism and created opportunities for the increased political salience of social and cultural grievances.

As parties became more similar economically, there was an incentive for them to stress other things that differentiated them. The Left accordingly devoted more time to talking about its positions on social and cultural issues as opposed to economic ones. We saw this with particular clarity in the 2016 election. Hillary Clinton was very highly implicated in the neoliberal policies that even by 2016 had become the subject of a serious backlash after the financial crisis. So, she doubled down on social and cultural issues. And of course, Trump did that even more than she did, although from the opposite direction.

Voters also had more incentive to pay attention to social and cultural issues because there was not all that much to distinguish between left and right economically. For example, in Europe there was not much difference between Gerhard Schröder’s SPD and Angela Merkel’s CDU. This is another downstream consequence of neoliberalism – the growing salience of social and cultural issues – that we are reckoning with the full consequences of.

So we are looking now at this articulation of radical right populism that works with and also contests liberalism or neoliberalism. But what about populism and democracy? Can we see populism as a symptom of democratic trouble, but also an accelerator, a cause and an accelerator at the same time? Could you disentangle that and tell us how you see it? Because there is obviously the sort of Chantal Mouff-ian discussion about populism as enabling a democratic renewal or push from the grassroots level.

As social scientists we are trained to think causally and to have our independent and dependent variables. But the world is messier than our models and sometimes our brains want to accept, and your question is a perfect example of this. It is perfectly legitimate to examine how populist parties influence democracy. We tend to think of them as weakening, undermining, or in places like Eastern Europe destroying democracy. From this perspective, populists are independent variables, and our dependent variable is democracy.

But it is also legitimate to look at populists as dependent variables, i.e., as symptoms of weaknesses in democracy itself. There is a huge debate about how to define populism, but almost everyone would agree that there is a strong anti-establishment core to it. Every political party criticizes other political parties. That is part of what they do. But there is something more to populism’s critique. Populists are critical of almost all other existing parties as well as of the political system itself. So, it is one thing, if you are a Democrat, to criticize Republicans, or if you are a member of the SPD in Germany to criticize the CDU, or whatever. That is part of the democratic game. It is another thing to simply say, “All mainstream parties are corrupt or elitist. The political system is completely unresponsive and corrupt.”

But insofar as there is some truth to criticisms of establishment parties and institutions, and a significant part of the population seems to view them as unrepresentative and/or unresponsive, then we should view populism as a reflection of this. Democracy, after all, is supposed to be a way for citizens to voice their demands and grievances and get responses to them. And when voters feel that that is not happening, we should not be entirely surprised that they are willing to vote for parties that, say, “Every other party and the entire system is completely corrupt.”

These sorts of beliefs are likely to be particularly consequential where democratic norms and institutions are weak, for example in the newer democracies like Eastern Europe. This is why, for example, Viktor Orbán was able to take his initial electoral victories as a platform for eviscerating Hungarian democracy – democratic norms and institutions were relatively weak and accordingly more vulnerable to attacks by an authoritarian like Orbán. Someone with similar intentions or a similar profile would not have had the same success in Sweden as in Hungary.

This brings us back to the United States. That the Republican Party has radicalized so much reflects what we must now recognize to have been very significant weaknesses in American democracy and in American society – deep-seated divisions and grievances that had not been fully addressed as well as weaknesses in our political institutions. We are finally talking about the baneful effects of our primary system, the consequences of districts that are almost completely and continually controlled by a particular political party, how our political institutions have become more minoritarian over time, and so on. That is a long-winded way of saying it is legitimate to view populism as a symptom of democratic problems and dysfunction, and not simply a cause of them.

That is a great way of framing the bad effects of it. You have also written on the strategies for combating populism, and I wanted you to tell us a little bit more about that, about what you call dismissive, adversarial, and accommodative strategies. How do you think about these distinctions, and can you provide some examples of how that works or does not work?

There are many political scientists who have written about the different ways mainstream parties, or perhaps existing parties is a better way of putting it, can approach new parties, extremist or otherwise. As you mentioned, some common ways are: dismissing them, accommodating them, or treating them as adversaries. Dismissing them means you essentially ignore them, assuming that this will make them go away. Accommodating them entails stealing whatever issues they are pushing from them, in order to steal their thunder. The adversarial strategy entails taking them on directly and trying to defeat them that way.

Which strategy a party adopts should depend on the situation the party faces. To dismiss a new party is only a good strategy if you are confident that the issues that that party is pushing are not issues that are going to stick around. because if they do, and you dismiss them, those issues will become more and more associated with that party giving it more oxygen.

An adversarial strategy means placing a party right at the forefront of your political campaigns. This will raise the profile of the other party, so this only makes sense if you think that you can convince voters that the party has little to offer and you can steal voters away from it.

An accommodative strategy makes sense if you think that you can steal an issue from the party and go on to win elections. For example, when Green parties emerged in the ’70s and ’80s, some parties of the Left chose to ignore them and not try to adopt some of the issues that they were pushing, either because they thought those issues would fade away (incorrectly) or because they thought these issues were somehow not compatible with their profile.

That is more or less what the SPD did in Germany. And partially as a consequence of that, we now have a very large Green Party in Germany because Green issues didn’t go away and voters prioritized them and thus over time, these voters no longer saw the SPD as their most attractive voting option. But in Scandinavia where people are every bit as green-minded as their counterparts in Germany, parties of the Left incorporated more green issues and positions into our profile and as a result, Green parties are relatively small, despite the fact that preferences for climate-adapting technologies and policies are every bit as widespread as in Germany.

Now, if we turn to populism another thing to think about also is, at what point parties engage with populism. Once a populist party owns an issue like immigration, once they are associated with it – because again, you have just decided to let them have it, either out of miscalculation or distaste or whatever – anything that raises the salience of that issue is likely to help them.

Once a populist party owns an issue like immigration, once they are associated with it…anything that raises the salience of that issue is likely to help them.

At this point, parties in Western Europe who want to fight right-wing populists who are thriving on concerns about immigration, national identity, law and order, and so on, the best thing they can do is try to diminish the salience of these issues, through policies that diminish these problems in a progressive way. At this point, ignoring these parties or trying to adopt their responses to them is not an electorally successful strategy.

On the adversarial strategy then, it brings us to one of my last questions which concerns the so-called “fascism debate.” I really enjoyed the work you did on that because you bring a historical perspective based on the interwar period. My question is about when is it legitimate, academically speaking, to use the term “fascist” and when is it just an insult? Additionally, is it a strategic or non-strategic label to use when we want to describe some kind of far-right politician, or populist politician in the US, European, or other cases?

That is a great question because terms or language have consequences. The most obvious is clarity. If we are having a conversation among scholars, amongst citizens, we want to make sure that when we use a term, we all understand what we are saying. Historically, fascism was a type of authoritarian regime. There are authoritarian regimes that are not fascist. Fascism has some distinctive qualities – it is radically nationalist, it is totalitarian, wanting to control not merely the political sphere, but also reshape society and the economy in profound ways. This last part is not an aspect of fascism that is often recognized.  With the exception for example of communist countries, the German Nazi regime and the Italian fascist regime exerted more control over the economy than any other modern regime. Unlike traditional authoritarian regimes, fascist regimes were also ideological. They had not merely a negative vision – getting rid of liberal democracy – they also had a “positive” one, they wanted to create a new world, a new type of person. These regimes, in other words, went beyond traditional authoritarian regimes in wanting to eliminate opposition and have as much political power as possible, they wanted to reshape society, the economy, and people as well.

This is important not only for clarity but because understanding this affects how you deal with such a movement or party. There is no ability to compromise or moderate with those who are true ideologues. You have studied the Soviet Union. You could not compromise with Lenin. Mensheviks ended up getting destroyed because Lenin was not going to compromise. He believed in a particular vision, and he was committed to that. Now, Marine Le Pen in France, for example, is a different creature. She has moderated in some ways because she recognized that she could not win if she did not do so. Now, maybe if she had been the leader of Hungary today as opposed to being a party leader in France, she would be autocratic, but she is not. So, in a situation where moderation is possible, it is important that parties do so. You want to incentivize those elements within the party willing to play by the rules of the game to do so. But if you call a person who plays by the rules of the game fascist, you are not only being empirically incorrect, you are doing something politically counterproductive because it blocks the possibilities of pushing a party in a more moderate direction – turning them from a potential democratic threat into, say, a more typically conservative party. You cannot compromise with a fascist but you can compromise or moderate a party or leader that is motivated by anti-establishment sentiment, or that believes that other parties have simply moved too far in a particular policy direction. And other parties should do whatever it takes to undermine or de-incentive those within such a party or movement that might be willing to undermine the rules of the game to get what they want.

If you are dealing with a true fascist party, then the only correct strategy is for all democratic forces to band together and fight that party. If on the other hand, you are dealing with a populist…you have other strategies that you can and should employ.

If you are dealing with a true fascist party, then the only correct strategy is for all democratic forces to band together and fight that party. If on the other hand, you are dealing with a populist who has unpleasant views and policies that you think are very, very bad but not a danger to the rules of the game, you have other strategies that you can and should employ. Using the term “fascist” is very unhelpful politically because it really blinds us to the different options that we have.

The last question relates to our institute, where our program is called the Illiberalism Studies Program. The notion of illiberalism is rising now and finding itself parallel to populism in many respects. I wanted to have your opinion on the usefulness, or lack thereof, of the new concept. What does it bring or not bring to the discussion? There are people with starkly different views on the usefulness of the term.

I think that is a great question, and you have done a nice job of trying to clarify that term. I think throwing around terms without some common agreement on what they mean, as we just discussed in the last question, is problematic conceptually and hinders our ability to come up with strategies for dealing with it. So, I think Illiberalism is a very useful term. and analytically distinct from democracy. We often talk, for instance, about liberal democracy and illiberal democracy, and that is totally fine. But what we must recognize is that those two terms can go together, but historically, conceptually, they need not. We have had lots of democracies that were not liberal. We perhaps have some regimes that have been liberal but not fully democratic. Here some would point to Britain before the transition to universal suffrage. There might be a few others that fall into that category.

Illiberalism is a very useful term and analytically distinct from democracy. We often talk, for instance, about liberal democracy and illiberal democracy, and that is totally fine. But what we must recognize is that those two terms can go together, but historically, conceptually, they need not. We have had lots of democracies that were not liberal.

Liberalism is not primarily about whether a regime is democratic or not; it is possible, as I said, to have illiberal democratic regimes. Liberalism refers to things like the protection of individual rights, the rule of law, constraints on majoritarianism and governments and so on.  Liberals are also agnostic about what the good life is. Illiberalism does not believe in these things. As a result, you can have regimes that are majoritarian and democratic but illiberal. Liberal democratic regimes only became the norm in the West during the second half of the twentieth century, and they are under threat in the West and other parts of the world today. Sometimes they are threatened by those who at least call themselves “democrats.”  Understanding what illiberalism is, and what the distinction between liberalism and democracy is, helps us understand why some people say this, and what the real threats to our societies from them are.

Sheri Berman is a professor of Political Science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her research interests include European history and politics; the development of democracy; populism and fascism; and the history of the left. She currently serves on the boards of the Journal of Democracy, Dissent, and Political Science Quarterly. Her most recent book, Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Regime to the Present Day, was published by Oxford University Press in 2019.

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.