What is happening is the rise of what can be described as a naturally conforming political MEME that addresses local cultural insecurity first and foremost. This is clearly blow back against an increasingly apparent effort to draw together a global authoritarian political regime that can suppress at will any such local construct.
The Far Right Today
by Cas Mudde review – an alarming new mainstream
India, the US, Brazil ... a study of the journey of far-right populists from the fringes to the heart of the world’s democracies
Thu 12 Dec 2019 07.30 GMT
‘Rightwing populists have forced opportunistic conservatives to mimic their ideas.’ Boris Johnson and Viktor Orbán at the Nato 70th anniversary summit.
Back in 2012, the political scientist Cas Mudde wrote a lecture he planned to deliver in Antwerp entitled: “Three decades of populist radical right parties in western Europe: so what?”.
Unexpectedly struck down by a short-term illness, Mudde, a professor at the University of Georgia, was unable to board his transatlantic flight and never gave the speech. Had he done so, he might have been asked whether the decades he dedicated to studying the extreme rightwing fringes of democratic politics had been worth it. The lecture, later published in a journal, stressed that populist radical right parties had only had a limited impact in elections, and warned they were receiving “disproportionate” attention from scholars like himself. He described them as only a “relatively minor nuisance in west European democracies”.
Seven years later, few commentators call the populist radical right a mere nuisance. Mudde has since become one of the world’s most in-demand political scientists, as well as a Guardian columnist, widely regarded as the leading expert on the rise of nationalist, reactionary and far-right populism.
He considers the mix of developments since 2000, a period he identifies as the 'fourth wave' of far-right politics His 2012 assessment of the far right’s influence at the time was not wrong. It is testament to how rapidly the global political landscape has shifted in just seven years that it has gone from nuisance to what some regard as a threat to the world order. Three of the four largest democracies – India, the United States and Brazil – now have far-right populists at the helm. So too do two European Union members – Poland and Hungary – and they could soon be joined by Italy, given the popularity of Matteo Salvini, the former deputy prime minister and leader of the far-right League.
Some of this is not new. The success of a brash rightwing populist like Salvini should come as no surprise in a country that elected Silvio Berlusconi prime minister three times and still harbours a sizeable minority that venerates the country’s fascist past. But Italy has been one of the exceptions on a continent where, for much of the postwar period, the seeds of far-right politics have failed to germinate. What makes the recent wave so alarming is both its success in parts of the west from which many assumed it had been banished, and the speed at which far-right leaders have been normalised.
In the two western European countries that, along with Italy, have the darkest histories with fascist leaders, Germany and Spain, the third largest parties in their respective parliaments – the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Vox – are now far right. Across Europe, such parties have been inciting nationalist, anti-immigrant anger in elections and securing more votes, more seats in parliament and more ministerial posts as part of coalition governments than at any time since the second world war.
Even where they fail to secure power, rightwing populists have been setting the political agenda, forcing opportunistic “mainstream” conservatives to mimic the ideas and language of the radical fringe. Consider the impact Nigel Farage has had on consecutive Tory leaders, first with Ukip and latterly the Brexit party. The Conservative party, despite its rightward lurch, is still not a far-right party. But it is remarkable how, elsewhere in the world, mainstream parties have been changed by strongman leaders.
‘Deep roots in the extreme Hindu nationalist movement.’ Preparations for a BJP rally featuring Narendra Modi in Bhopal, India. Photograph: Sanjeev Gupta/EPA Donald Trump, Viktor Orbán and Jair Bolsonaro transformed political parties in the US, Hungary and Brazil that were considered (relatively) middle-of-the-road conservative, and dragged them into the gutter. Conversely, once-fringe parties, such as the Sweden Democrats, which has neo-Nazi roots, and Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, an offshoot of a racist, nationalist party, have rebranded themselves under fresh-faced leaders who, with remarkable ease, have come to be treated as ordinary politicians. It has been a dual process. The far right, in places, has become the mainstream. And some of the conservative mainstream has become far-right.
In The Far Right Today, Mudde concedes that his 2012 line about radical right populists being a “relatively minor nuisance” no longer applies. “I foresaw neither the extent of the political mainstreaming of the populist radical right nor the transformation of some of this ‘political mainstream’ into fully fledged populist radical right parties,” he writes. To his credit, Mudde’s lecture seven years ago (delivered, in his absence, by another academic) did call for vigilance. of the far right, which Mudde correctly predicted could be on the cusp of being significantly more influential. Even so, Mudde insisted then – and he still maintains now – that even if radical right populists become “major players” in western European politics, “it is unlikely that this will lead to a fundamental transformation of the political system”. More pessimistic readers of his book may question that assurance, not least given events in Hungary, which Orbán is swiftly transforming into an authoritarian state.
This is a concise and informative study, ambitious in scope, which stretches from Narendra Modi’s Bharatiya Janata party (BJP) ruling India, the largest political party in the world and an organisation that has deep roots in the extreme Hindu nationalist movement, to America’s Ku Klux Klan and countless far-right parties that have emerged in central and eastern Europe in recent years. Mudde, the architect of the most widely used definition of populism (a notoriously slippery word), is particularly good at providing clear explanations of political terms that are often conflated and confused. He divides the far right into two subgroups, the extreme right and the radical right, and explains how their fundamentally different views of democracy mean the extreme right can never be “populist”, whereas the radical right – today at least – very often is.
He also considers the complex mix of developments in the period since the year 2000, which he identifies as the “fourth wave” of postwar far-right politics. Mudde sees the radical right as profiting from the 9/11 attacks (and the reaction they sparked), the great recession of 2008 and the so-called “migrant crisis” of 2015, although the impacts are often indirect, country-specific and aided by sensational media coverage.
Missing from his analysis is an appreciation of the other great shift of the modern era – the rise and dominance of digital platforms that have thoroughly rewired the information system, reshaping people’s understanding of the world. It is hard to imagine Trump without Twitter, Bolsonaro without YouTube, or voters losing trust in established facts on such an alarming scale without a platform like Facebook, a news portal for more than 2 billion people that also functions as an engine for disinformation on an industrial scale.
As an empirically grounded academic, Mudde may be reluctant to explore the role of digital technologies on politics until there is more reliable evidence about its impact. The need for such research is urgent.
As he explains, far-right politics has returned, slowly but surely, since a low point in the immediate aftermath of nazism. It was the German political scientist Klaus Von Beyme who, in 1988, first identified the three waves of far-right politics in postwar Europe, each wave slightly bigger and more threatening than its predecessor. Mudde has now added the fourth wave, which constitutes a high water mark for the far right in terms of votes and power. If history continues along the same path, the fifth wave should worry us all.