Many researchers and commentators of populist politics tend to confuse populism with nationalism. This confusion makes the study of populism in the European context particularly difficult. Benjamin De Cleen, Assistant Professor at the VUB Communication Studies Department, argues that in order to understand the Populist Radical Right we have to start from a clear conceptual distinction between populism and nationalism. The articulation of populism and nationalism is contingent but not necessary. In this interview, Benjamin De Cleen and Antonis Galanopoulos discuss the rise of a Populist Radical Right in Europe, they try to draw useful conclusions from the Belgian case and, finally, they examine the possibility of a trans-national populism.

Antonis Galapoulos: How do you understand the notion of populism? Do you perceive populism as ideology, political style, or discourse?

Benjamin De Cleen: The term I like to use the most is “political logic”, a term that comes from the discourse theoretical tradition associated with Ernesto Laclau, Chantal Mouffe and the Essex school. More so than the notion of discourse, the term ‘political logic’ highlights the structure of populist politics.

Populism is a particular way of formulating demands in the name of ‘the people’ and a particular way of constructing “the people”. Populism revolves around the powerless-powerful dimension, a vertical dimension – the down versus the up – where the populists claim to represent ‘the people’ against the current elite that does not represent them.

This definition is not so far from the more minimalist ideological definitions formulated by Mudde, Rovira Kaltwasser, and others. But I think that ideology is not the most helpful term. The notion of logic stresses more that populism is a way of formulating demands, rather than a set of demands. The term ideology suggests beliefs, which underestimates the crucial strategic dimension of populism.

The notion of ideology also makes it difficult to account for the sometimes temporary dimension of populism that follows from this strategic character. Ideology seems to suggest that if a party is populist, it will be populist forever, which I don’t think is necessary.

Populism is about the creation of a chain of equivalence of identities and demands against the current elite. That means that this chain of equivalence can also partly fall apart, that it can change, and that a party or movement can stop being populist.

In your research you distinguish clearly between populism and nationalism. Many researchers of right-wing populism tend to confuse them. Why is it important to distinguish them?

This distinction is important for a number of reasons. First of all, if you look at populisms they are not all nationalist, and if you look at nationalists they are not all populists. But, secondly, even if all populisms would be nationalist and all nationalisms populist, we would still be able to better understand these populist nationalisms and nationalist populisms if we start from a clear conceptual distinction between populism and nationalism.

My theoretical work on this distinction was inspired by an empirical analysis of populist radical right discourse in Belgium. Looking at the Vlaams Belang it became clear that populism and nationalism were two different building blocks that function according to different logics and that play different roles in populist radical right rhetoric.

The VB is therefore definitely a party that you can’t understand with the term populism alone

I think we can understand the architecture of populist radical right rhetoric better by first trying to distinguish what are the main building blocks of that architecture, and then look at how these building blocks are combined. I tried to come up with discourse-theoretical definitions of populism and nationalism that are abstract enough to cover all potential forms of populism and nationalism, but also precise enough to grasp the specificity of both populism and nationalism.

I think it helps to stress populism’s vertical dimension: populist politics construct ‘the people’ by opposing it to ‘the elite’ and claim to represent ‘the people’. Nationalism is not built around this vertical dimension, but around a horizontal dimension: nationalist politics construct and claim to represent the nation, which is discursively constructed by distinguishing between those who are ‘in’ and those who are ‘out’ of the nation.

This distinction between populism and nationalism helps to understand how populism and nationalism are articulated in different kinds of politics. The question becomes how these down/up and in/out constructions of ‘the people’ and ‘the nation’ are related.

Populist radical right parties for example accuse ‘the elite’ of betraying ‘the people’ – which is a sub-category of the nation and does not include ‘ordinary’ people of foreign descent – by favouring the interests of migrants above those of the so-called ‘own people’.

Can you give us a brief historical background of the populist radical right in Belgium?

There is not really a Belgian radical right, so let me focus on the Flemish radical right, about which I know more, and which has been far more successful than its Francophone Belgian counterpart.

The radical right in Flanders is the heir of a radical right-wing Flemish nationalist tradition. This has its roots in the nineteenth century Flemish Movement, but the radical nationalist right-wing Flemish nationalism only really came into being in the early twentieth century and would go on to collaborate with Nazi Germany. After World War Two, the Flemish nationalist radical right lived on in civil society groups and also in the more moderate Flemish nationalist Volksunie (People’s Union).

The radicals in this party broke away from the Volksunie and together with civil society players founded two radical right Flemish nationalist parties that took part in the 1978 elections in a cartel called Vlaams Blok (Flemish Bloc). This became the name of a joint party, and that party became the Vlaams Belang in 2004, after a conviction for racism.

The VB was, and still is, mainly a radical Flemish nationalist party. An independent Flemish state remains the core demand of the party. From the beginning, however, a rejection of immigration was also part of its politics. This demand for an independent Flanders and the rejection of immigration are both part of the party’s radical and ethnic nationalism.

Throughout the VB’s history the “foreigner’ issue” became more and more prominent, and it was very important for their electoral success. Much more important than their separatist demands, which did not and does not attract large groups of the population.

The VB is therefore definitely a party that you can’t understand with the term populism alone. You would miss the nationalist essence of it. However, populism did become very important to the party. When it was founded it wasn’t a populist party but an elitist and authoritarian party with very little electoral appeal.

Slowly, the VB developed into a populist party, inspired by the Front National. The VB started to criticize its political opponents as elite, and that then evolved to its populist claim to speak for ‘the people’. This became a very important element of the party’s rhetoric. But the very ideological core of it is a radical and ethnic nationalism, which I think holds true for most populist radical right parties.

This becomes visible in the fact that the radical right’s populist appeal to the ordinary people mainly – but not only – revolves around how ordinary people are threatened by migrants (their jobs, their neighborhoods, etc.) and how ‘the politically correct elite’ does not do anything about it or only makes it worse.

The fact that nationalism is the ideological core and populism a way of formulating demands is also why, following Cas Mudde, I call these parties populist radical right. This term stresses that the populist radical right is a specific kind of radical right. There are radical right parties and movements that are not populists.

Some of them are really fringe groups that have nothing to do with an appeal to the ordinary people. Populist radical right also stresses that the radical right component and especially radical nationalism is more core to its politics than populism. But the term also explicitly includes the notion of populism to stress its importance.

The rise of the populist radical right is an almost European trend nowadays. Do you think that there is an important connection with the ongoing economic crisis?

There are of course links between economic conjuncture and the success of certain forms of politics, both left and right. But we should not reduce populist radical right electoral successes to a matter of economic crisis. In a way, we would perhaps like this to be the case because it would give us a more morally acceptable explanation for why people vote for the radical right. Of course, economic crises can increase the appeal of radical right parties.

But I don’t think that this is the core of the problem. This would mean that only people who are low on the economic ladder would vote for them. This is not true. It would mean that only people who are competing with migrants for jobs would vote for them. Absolutely not true. The Belgian case is actually a counter example. The VB’s electoral results went down during the economic crisis. They were on their peak, when things were still going very well economically. It continued to grow from the late 1980s until the mid-2000s, with a peak in 2004-2005, after which a downfall set in. Recently, the party has been going up in the polls, but it is still far removed from its earlier appeal.

The economically determinist explanation also severely underestimates the agency of political parties. If electoral results were simply a consequence of economic conjuncture, we might as well stop studying political discourse. It wouldn’t matter that populist radical right political parties interpellate people as members of ‘the nation’ who are threatened by foreigners, or as members of ‘the ordinary people’ who are not represented by ‘the elite’.

Populism is depicted in mainstream discourse as inherently negative. Is populism per se an enemy of democracy?

I don’t believe that populism is inherently a threat to democracy. One of the reasons why populism is considered problematic for democracy is because it is supposedly anti-pluralist. I am not sure that this is entirely true. If you treat populism as an ideology that revolves around a homogeneous ‘people’ (that is opposed to ‘the elite’), then you have to conclude this.

But these analysts tend to forget how the construction of ‘the people’ implies the construction of a chain of equivalence of identities and demands. The formation of a chain of equivalence does not mean that differences between the different elements of that chain disappear. So a populist politics does not have to eradicate the differences between the different groups and demands that are grouped under ‘the people’.

This idea that populism is inherently negative has a lot to do with the confusion between populism and nationalism. Usually, it is the ethnic nationalist dimension of especially right wing populist politics that leads to this homogenization of ‘the people’. The people, in this case, are one homogeneous group with one identity. That certainly is problematic, but ethnic nationalism is to blame, not populism.

So, I don’t think that populism is necessarily a threat to democratic pluralism. It can be, of course. The moment that the particularity of the different components of the chain of equivalence becomes invisible or starts to be ignored, or is no longer being respected, then you are entering into a problematic situation. So, populism is potentially problematic but not necessarily.

European media tend to put under the same label of the “populist leader”, politicians like Le Pen and Orban on the one hand and Tsipras and Iglesias on the other hand. Is this a correct and more importantly a politically useful practice?

To certain people and groups it is obviously politically useful. It is politically useful if you want to delegitimize the Left, by putting it into one bag with the radical right. Is it analytically correct? I don’t think so. Are they all populists? Yes, they are. But it is misleading to put all of them under the simple category ‘populist’. The question is “if we have only one term to label these politicians, should that one term be populist?”. Then the answer is no.

The label for Orban would perhaps better be authoritarian; the main label for Le Pen should be radical right. Populism is not enough to characterize Tsipras and Iglesias either. You can’t understand any political project solely with the notion of populism. And to do so is misleading because it suggests deep similarities between very different political projects whilst (more or less deliberately) ignoring the profound differences between them.

The main question should always be what kind of society political projects are trying to build. And populism does not say anything about that. You can use populism to send migrants back to their supposed home country, or you can use it to create a socio-economically more just society. Delegitimizing such very different projects by using the same label of ‘populism’ is unfair at least.

You have written a series of papers regarding the relation of populism and art, focusing mainly on the 0110 concerts in Belgium. Do you think that popular culture, popular music and other kinds of arts have a role to play in the battle against populist radical right?

My doctoral research focused on the discursive struggle between the radical right and its opponents, and I looked at three cases in which art and popular culture played a central role: concerts against the VB, the conflictual relation between the Flemish theatre and the VB, and the struggle between the VB and more moderate Flemish nationalists for the Flemish National Songfest.

I selected these cases mainly because they were relevant cases to understand VB rhetoric and the resistance to the VB, rather than because I believe that art or popular culture is what will stop the radical right.

I do believe artists of all kinds have a role to play in the struggle against the radical right because they are an important part of civil society and because artists are people that have the channels, the imagination, the creativity and the cultural capital to say things in an attractive way. But it would be very naïve to believe that artists will stop the radical right.

Populism is a very strong weapon in the hands of the radical right

In my research I noticed that in terms of ideology, the struggle between the VB and artists revolved mainly around nationalism and racism. But populism played a central role as well because one of the VB’s main strategies for countering artists’ criticism of the VB is to label them as part of ‘the elite’.

What was remarkable about the 2006 0110 (1 October) concerts against the VB is that the artists who performed in those concerts included a number of artists and singers who were not the typical alternative left-leaning artists, but that they were popular artists; ‘popular’ in the sense of representing the culture of the ordinary people. That was quite a remarkable moment because it made it difficult for the radical right to criticize those concerts.

It’s easy for the VB to criticize theatre makers who make an anti radical right theatre piece. In fact, the criticism of the ‘cultural elite’ only reinforces their populist identification as the voice of the ordinary people. The 0110 concerts were a bit different. It was a moment in which the VB’s claim on the ordinary was contested.

And the party had some trouble in how to deal with this. It strongly criticized the concerts, but the popular character of the artists performing at the concerts and the mainstream media attention that came with it, made it difficult for them to discredit the concerts in their typically populist manner.

Populist radical right politicians tend to be very effective in countering criticism. How we can deal with them in a communicative level?

The populism of the radical right is very clever. Populism allows them to counter any kind of criticism as a matter of ‘the elite’ going against ‘the party of the people’. Whoever says something against the radical right is part of the elite.

This is very tricky, because this means that when a politician, but also a civil society organization, a theatre director, an actor, a singer or an intellectual says something it is just the elite talking badly about the ordinary people and the party that represents them.

This is very difficult to deal with. Populism is a very strong weapon in the hands of the radical right. This is also why those 0110 concerts were so interesting, because they were less easily dismissed in a populist manner.

The problem, in Flanders and also elsewhere I believe, has been the degree of acceptance of the radical right’s claim that it represents ordinary people. This is a point made by others as well, such as Aurélien Mondon. If you start from the belief that the radical right represents the ordinary people, then the only way to beat the radical right is to move your politics in a radical right direction.

One of the reasons why it has been so difficult to counter the radical right is that the responses to the radical right have been exactly that: responses to the radical right. That is, they accept the questions raised by the radical right. If you accept the terms of the debate set by the radical right, if you accept their problem definition, you are going to have a very hard time beating them. And even if you would beat the party, you would have still lost in ideological terms.

For a progressive politics this is a disaster. Unfortunately, social democratic and centrist parties in Europe have responded to the radical right to quite some extent by taking over the problem definitions of the radical right, rather than by formulating a true alternative.

What is the role of mass media in the rise of populist radical right? 

It is a question that often returns. And it’s an important question. But there is no clear answer to it. Do media support the radical right political parties directly? Usually the answer is: not really – but there have been cases. In fact, many media have often also strongly criticized the radical right. Beyond direct support, some research looks at issue ownership and suggests that media’s focus on the issues associated with the radical right – crime, migration, etc – has benefited the radical right.

To some extent media can be blamed for this, but it is also a matter of what other political parties are talking about. And this of course brings us to the question of how we discuss societal issues, or rather, perhaps, how we politicize certain phenomena and events, and turn them into societal and political issues.

Here we come back to the question of problem definitions. For example, if we discuss the refugee crisis mainly in terms of threats to Europe – as a crisis caused by refugees – then of course that is going to create opportunities for radical right parties.

Obviously the media play a role in the rise of populist radical right parties, but certainly they are not the only reason for that. It’s much more complicated than that, and we should be careful to avoid this kind of media determinism. The VB, for example, started to attain high election scores long before the party was normalized in the media.

In a way, it is their continued presence in the center of the political debate that slowly (and only partly) normalized them. It is not as if they were normalized by the media and then they started to gain votes. It was more of a reciprocal process. It is too simple to blame media for the success of the radical right.

Again, it would be a convenient and reassuring explanation for the rise of the radical right. It would be reassuring – in a way – if people were just indoctrinated by the media. It is less reassuring to think that a part of the electorate has very problematic sentiments and beliefs, or that progressive political projects in most European countries do not manage to attract large groups of voters, even in times of economic crisis.

What is your opinion about the cordon sanitaire? Is this a really effective strategy against populist radical right? Is there a risk to strengthen their image as anti-establishment parties?

The answer to both questions is yes. Sometimes people said “let’s put them into the government so everyone can see that they are like the other parties and then their appeal as outsider will disappear”.

But the damage you can do while you are in government is huge. It is important to keep this kind of parties out of governments, I believe. But almost unavoidably, this also risks strengthening their underdog appeal.

Social democratic and centrist parties in Europe have responded to the radical right to quite some extent by taking over the problem definitions of the radical right

More importantly, keeping out people or parties is not the same as keeping out ideas. To some extent the fact that the VB was kept out of government, the fact that the party was behind the cordon sanitaire, actually helped their ideas to become mainstream. If you put one party, some people behind the cordon sanitaire, you risk implying that everyone who is not behind that cordon is acceptable, whatever they say.

So, it is important to keep radical right parties out, but it is more important to keep their ideas out of the mainstream, and this hasn’t happened in Belgium and many other European countries.

In the post-democratic context of our era, in which many issues and decisions have been removed from the public arena, how can the people be heard? Is trans-national populism a possible solution?

Nowadays, decisions are to a significant extent made partly by European institutions, partly by non-elected political bodies, and partly by actors that have nothing to do with democratic politics, big companies etc. The Greek referendum was quite an important moment, because it showed that a people expressing a clear “No” has very little impact on what happens afterwards. Clearly there is a problem there. The question is what can we do about this?

There is a lot of debate about whether the left should focus on the nation because the nation is the only place where the people still have something to say. The DiEM25 movement of Varoufakis, for example, has raised this kind of questions. Giving up national sovereignty wouldn’t be so smart for the left at this moment.

In terms of public debate and democratic representation things are still very much based around the nation state. But decision making has been partly taken out of that level. We have to think how we deal with that evolution, what it means for progressive politics.

In thinking of whether there is a potential for a transnational progressive movement one of the obvious questions is: “is there a potential for a transnational populist movement?” If you look at populist politics, they are often explicitly nationalist – the populist radical right for example. But even those that are not, almost always operate in a nation-state context.

So, is a transnational populism possible? Theoretically the answer is clearly yes. The only thing you need is a transnational people versus transnational elite, and the claim to represent that transnational people. But in reality such a transnational populist politics is not so easy.

It is not so easy because of how important nations are in our world, especially in terms of democratic representation and public arenas. Where do you represent this trans-national people, and where do you exercise the power of that people? And also, which transnational media and communication channels allow you to construct that transnational people?

For this reason, a network of nationally organised populisms seems more obvious than a truly transnational populism. We could make an analytical distinction here between inter-national populism and trans-national populism. Inter-national populism is a sort of linkage between nationally organised populist movements. A truly transnational populism would construct an actually transnational people against a trans-national elite, where ‘the people’ extends across national borders.

The DiEM25 movement is interesting from this perspective. On the one hand it clearly has transnational ambitions and opposes a transnational elite. But on the other hand it speaks about the “peoples” of Europe, in plural, and not of one “people”. The question is whether you can go beyond such an inter-national populism, and whether that would be politically wise.

Theoretically it’s certainly possible to have a truly transnational populism, but the question is how such a transnational populism would relate to the still strongly nationalist organization of our societies in terms of democratic representation as well as, for many people, identity.

This article was originally published on Open Democracy.

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