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This article takes issue with the common practice of uncritically lumping together as “populist” the various and distinct challengers to democracy in contemporary Europe. It disaggregates and then classifies such challengers into three analytically distinct categories: antidemocrats, nativists, and populists. In so doing, the article reveals the geographical distribution of these categories across Europe, and highlights the value of treating each category based on its unique set of symptoms. It further shows that the gravest threat to contemporary liberalism comes from populist rather than from antidemocratic or nativist parties.

The recent surge of various challenges to democracy in Europe has presented scholars and policy makers with an empirical muddle. European democracy seems to be in jeopardy, and there is no shortage of culprits. In parts of the continent, far-left parties are wielding new influence; in other places, the far right has risen. Nativists thrive on growing xenophobia, and even racist and neo-Nazi forces are lurking.

Amid the worry, it is crucial to be clear about two things. First, not all of democracy’s challengers are the same, despite a promiscuous tendency to label them all “populists.” Second, their rise is not traceable to a single cause, and hence should not be expected to prompt a single response. Parties and movements that do not belong to the same species should not to be treated as if they do—it will only make the search for causes and solutions harder.1 We are dealing with a range of political phenomena that have their own distinct sets of causes, normative assumptions, and practical consequences.

To make better sense of today’s European political landscape, therefore, I propose taking the path of intelligent disaggregation—one not of lumping but of splitting our analytical categories. As the challenges to postwar democracy in Europe and elsewhere grow, we need clarity. The key is to assign cases to categories that are mutually exclusive, jointly exhaustive, and empirically useful.

What are these categories? There are three of them. Each is populated by a group of parties and movements that defines itself through its opposition to one of the three main pillars of post-1945 European politics: [End Page 22] democratic representation, gradual progress toward greater European integration, and political liberalism. The foes of democratic representation I call antidemocrats, those of European integration I call nativists, and those of liberalism I call populists.

Born in the aftermath of one of the bloodiest wars in history, the European project is about peace and prosperity—how to attain and preserve them. To these ends, the project’s goal has been gradually to integrate the continent’s disparate nations into a supranational entity—the European Union (EU)—that is committed to parliamentary democracy and constitutional liberalism. Anything but a simple enterprise, this undertaking has comprised three distinct yet interrelated tasks: 1) the spreading of pluralist parliamentary democracy to nation after nation across the continent; 2) the forging of a multiethnic, multicultural, and “ever closer” union of European peoples and states; and 3) the continual advancement of political liberalism. Despite difficulties and setbacks that have been excruciating at times, parliamentarism, integration, and liberalism now form the foundations of Europe’s house.2

How was that house built? The story begins with the Allied military victory over fascism in 1945, which made possible the rise of democratic regimes in the defeated Axis countries. A landmark in postwar democratization was the drafting and adoption of the 1949 Basic Law of the German Federal Republic, a document that stands as an exemplary charter in the development of European parliamentary democracy and indeed the history of constitutionalism as such. Another signal turn of events came in 1974–75, when the fall of authoritarian regimes in Portugal, Greece, and Spain paved the way for these countries to craft for themselves democratic regimes, and later to join the EU. And the tearing down of the Berlin Wall in 1989 signaled that an even larger democratic wave was about to sweep away the communist dictatorships of Central and Eastern Europe (CEE). The parliamentary democracies that arose to replace them were soon on their way to EU membership as well.

The cause of “ever closer union” rolled forward, flattening tariff barriers, setting a common agricultural policy, adopting a common currency, easing border controls under the so-called Schengen Rules, and admitting new member states (especially from the formerly communist CEE region) once they had met long lists of EU requirements. In parallel with political democracy, per capita wealth rose and income inequality fell, extending the reach of middle-class prosperity. Beginning in the 1960s, the arrival of sizeable immigrant populations began turning EU countries such as France, Germany, and the Netherlands into multiethnic and multicultural societies, adding the task of domestic social integration to the challenge of international political and economic confederation.

The third and final portion of postwar Europe’s groundwork was the diffusion of political liberalism and its values. Institutions such as the European Court of Human Rights, founded in 1959, put a greater emphasis [End Page 23] on questions of human rights, the rule of law, justice, and equality. Ideas such as “the open society” (Karl Popper), “negative liberty” (Isaiah Berlin), “overlapping consensus” (John Rawls), and equality as the “sovereign virtue” (Ronald Dworkin) began to influence political discourse and even the making of policy. In mid-1989, months before the Wall came down, Francis Fukuyama asked if it might be time to declare the “unabashed victory of economic and political liberalism.” In the same essay, he raised the prospect of “the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.”3 When the Soviet Union fell apart a few years later, liberals seemed confident that their ideas had achieved predominance.

Today, those hopeful times are gone and insecurity has set in. Even before the passage of the United Kingdom’s “Brexit” referendum in June 2016, the underpinnings of the European order were looking none too secure. Optimism about the future of the European project is in short supply. Parliamentary democracy may still be, in Juan J. Linz’s phrase, “the only game in town,” but the town is changing radically and its neighborhoods are in upheaval. Europe’s commitment to multiculturalism and tolerance for newcomers is coming under extreme stress, due partly to Islamist terror attacks taking place on European soil and partly to the seemingly endless inflow of refugees and migrants from Syria and other places. Political liberalism is also in retreat, with countries such as Greece, Hungary, and Poland moving in an illiberal direction. In such an environment, European voters are angry, mistrustful, and fearful, and challengers to the European project are appealing for their support. We can sort these challengers into three groups, depending on which pillar of the European order they focus on opposing.

Challenger One: The Antidemocrats

More than seventy years since the close of the Second World War and almost three decades after the end of the Cold War, several countries in Europe still have political parties that wish to delegitimize representative democracy’s normative foundations and subvert its legal-institutional structures. These parties may take part in elections, but they do so as “antisystem” formations—they comply with some of the outward rules of parliamentarism, but they disdain its principles and spirit and would happily jettison them if given the chance.

This type of challenger is present on both the extreme right and left of European politics. Antidemocrats of the right typically advocate ultranationalist—even racist—ideologies, focus on security issues, are hostile to the EU, and take a strong stand against immigration. Antidemocrats of the left remain pledged to promote proletarian dictatorship, condemn European unification as the brainchild of a nefarious capitalism, and are ideologically committed to internationalism for all working people, including [End Page 24] immigrants and refugees. All these parties prefer state control of the economy to capitalism and open markets: Rightists emphasize national economic autarky while leftists stress collectivism. Finally, antidemocratic parties of both the left and right have a penchant for violence and the cult of the leader.

Perhaps the most notorious of the electorally competitive right-wing antidemocratic parties was France’s National Front (FN) during the early phases of its development. Founded in 1972 and belonging to the political lineage of the protofascist Action Française movement and the Ordre Nouveau, France’s chief postwar fascist organization, the FN spent decades in the political wilderness with meager electoral results. In 2002, however, its leader, Algerian War veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen (b. 1928), finished second in the first round of voting for the presidency, winning almost 17 percent and getting himself into a runoff (which he lost badly) against incumbent Jacques Chirac. Yet the FN gradually took sole ownership of the immigration issue in France. In 2011, when Jean-Marie Le Pen stepped down as FN chief and was replaced through internal election by his daughter Marine Le Pen (b. 1968), she tried to hold back the party’s antidemocratic instincts and to move it in a more respectable but still anti-immigrant direction.

Another openly antidemocratic party of the right that takes part in elections is Greece’s Golden Dawn (GD). Standing firmly against representative democracy, this neo-Nazi organization nonetheless won 21 seats in the 300-member unicameral Greek Parliament in the May 2012 election. As of this writing, it holds 18 seats. Denouncing the current system as a “pseudo-democracy” or “parliamentary dictatorship,” Golden Dawn calls instead for “direct democracy,” or, in other words, referenda to settle all major political issues.4 To achieve its political aims, GD often engages in organized and sometimes lethal street violence.

Similar to GD is the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), founded in 2003. It too exalts violence and is hostile to immigrants, Roma, the EU, and capitalism.5 It wants Hungary’s president to be directly elected and members of the National Assembly to be subject to recall by the voters. There is also a strong longing for old (Habsburg) values that are believed lost, such as those of “faith, strength and will.” Jobbik has undertaken to restore these, by force if necessary. Since 2007, it has fielded a uniformed paramilitary organization, the Hungarian Guard, which has been involved in frequent episodes of street violence.

In Belgium, the Vlaams Blok (VB) emerged in 1978 to demand autonomy for Flanders (the Dutch-speaking northern half of the country), but it also used openly racist slogans and street violence. It was widely deemed a threat to democracy and all other Belgian parties agreed never to let it join a governing coalition. In 2004, Belgium’s court of last resort ruled that the VB had breached a 1981 antiracism law and ordered the party disbanded. Its successor, the Vlaams Belang, adopted a platform [End Page 25] that conformed with the law. But the old consensus on keeping it out of government remained in force, and this new VB’s federal vote share drained away till in 2014 it drew less than 4 percent. Even worse has been the fate of the neofascist British National Party (BNP), which, since small electoral breakthroughs in 2008 and 2009, has vanished almost without a trace.

On the far left can be found several antidemocratic parties that are often carelessly called populist. One of them is the Communist Party of Bohemia and Moravia (KSČM). The direct successor of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, the KSČM has not revised its ideology since communism fell, and remains committed to the pursuit of revolutionary change by undemocratic means. Although its youth wing was banned between 2006 and 2010, and there are frequent calls to outlaw the entire party as well, it enjoys stable electoral support. Currently it is the third-largest party in the Czech Parliament, with 33 seats in the 200-member lower house.

There are other significant cases of leftist or outright communist parties in Europe that are falsely classified as populist. These include France’s Left Front, a cluster of radical-leftist factions grouped around the French Communist Party; Spain’s United Left (IU), which also gathers several leftist organizations around the country’s Communist Party; and the unreformed Communist Party of Greece (KKE), which has been a fixture of the Greek party system since democracy returned in 1974. Germany has Die Linke (The Left)—a strongly anticapitalist successor to the old Socialist Unity Party, as the communist party that ruled East Germany used to call itself. Die Linke straddles the border between democratic and antidemocratic parties. For the past decade, some Die Linke members have been under surveillance by the Federal Office for the Protection of the Constitution, whose published reports on possible threats to Germany’s “free and democratic basic order” list the party as “left-extremist.”

European antidemocratic parties draw their appeal not from rhetoric about the split between elites and ordinary people, but rather from opposition to capitalism and economic globalization. Both rightist and leftist antidemocratic parties tap the same socioeconomic and cultural constituencies.6 All these parties thrive on the votes of blue-collar workers and other middling classes who see themselves as “losers of globalization” and feel alienated from mainstream parties, the European project, and—crucially—from representative democracy itself.7

Challenger Two: The Nativists

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “nativism” as “the policy of protecting the interests of native-born or established inhabitants against those of immigrants.” Nativism in this sense is a distinct phenomenon [End Page 26] that develops in specific sociopolitical contexts due to the fear of imported change. It is complementary to, if not synonymous with, xenophobia. It flourishes where diversity sharply increases, and tails off in the presence of ethnic and racial homogeneity. It is no wonder, then, that nativism has historically been much stronger in the multiethnic United States than in Europe, whose nations until recently have been culturally and ethnically far more homogenous. It is also hardly a surprise that, in contemporary Europe, nativism has risen along with immigration and multiculturalism.

Today’s European nativism is concentrated in the most politically liberal, economically affluent, and, at least until recently, socioculturally homogenous states—Austria, Finland, France, the Netherlands, the Scandinavian countries, Switzerland, the United Kingdom and, of late, Germany. The most important nativist parties are the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ); the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV); the Danish People’s Party (DF); Norway’s Progress Party (FrP); the Sweden Democrats (SD); the Finns (PS, formerly known as the True Finns); the Swiss People’s Party (SVP); the U.K. Independence Party (UKIP); and the more recently emergent Alternative for Germany (AfD). As mentioned earlier, the French FN under Marine Le Pen is working to present a more responsible, but still clearly nativist, image to French voters.

Like the electorally competitive antidemocrats, nativists are often muddled up with populists. This flows from laxity in the use of terms but also from the conceptual ambiguity that has long surrounded the idea of populism. One thing to keep in mind is that, unlike populism, nativism does not work against political liberalism for the natives. Nativism’s main arguments have to do with immigration and EU multiculturalism. Nativists see both as grave threats to well-ordered, ethnoculturally coherent societies, to their established liberal-democratic values, and, perhaps most crucially, to the sustainability of the welfare states that these societies have inherited from the days before mass immigration. On that account, nativist parties are seen by many middle-class Europeans as the most vocal champions of traditional conservative understandings of liberal democracy in their respective societies.

As closer empirical analysis of the available cases reveals, nativist parties represent right-wing conservative ideas—the defense of law and order, as well as what has been termed “welfare chauvinism”8—while being fully committed to parliamentary democracy and constitutional legality. The conviction that ethnic and national communities have a right to self-determination and exclusive statehood—typical among such parties—may be seen in some quarters as hopelessly antiquated, but it is a belief that cannot be said to be out of step with liberalism in its classical form.

Moreover, as David Marquand notes, among the people who are mobilized by this belief are “highly educated, highly civilized scientists, [End Page 27] doctors, lawyers,” in addition to many ordinary citizens.9 The emphasis that leading nativists place on law, order, and authority, adds Dutch political scientist Paul Lucardie, “need not be inconsistent with liberal democracy, the rule of law and parliamentarism.” Such leaders “are really liberals [whose] ideas about democracy are not necessarily at odds with liberal democracy as we know it.”10

As the attraction of the foregoing parties to broad masses in their respective societies grows larger, so does their political sway and ideological allure. Although Britain’s UKIP holds only a single seat in the 650-member House of Commons, the group must be counted as one of the most consequential “protest parties” in history: Absent his worry that the UKIP was drawing away much of the Conservative Party’s voter base by pressing the case for Euroskepticism, then–Prime Minister David Cameron would never have called the fateful Brexit referendum. In Switzerland, the SVP is the largest single party in the Federal Assembly, controlling 65 seats in its 200-member lower house. The Finns and Denmark’s DF are the second-largest parties in their respective national legislatures. And in Austria, the Netherlands, Norway, and Sweden, the main nativist party is parliament’s third-largest, in each case enjoying reliable support from a double-digit percentage of the national electorate. The UKIP’s single parliamentary seat may not sound like much, but its sizeable 12.6 percent vote share in the May 2015 general election made it the United Kingdom’s third most popular party.

Germany’s AfD did not even exist until 2013, but still almost met the 5 percent threshold needed to enter the Bundestag in the federal elections of that year. Recent opinion polls indicate significantly rising support for the AfD as Germany moves toward its next federal election, which will be held between 27 August and 22 October 2017. This trend is corroborated by a recent development: On 4 September 2016, as this issue was going to press, the AfD outpolled Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union, the senior party in the current federal governing coalition, in voting for the Mecklenburg–West Pomerania state parliament. Even more telling is the strong potential that nativist parties have to form coalitions with larger parties of the center-right or center. Typically, such coalitions have come to be on the tacit understanding that nativists will drop their most radical political stances and agree on realistic policy agendas based on mostly conservative and even traditionalist ideological platforms.

Challenger Three: The Populists

I define populism in minimal fashion as “democratic illiberalism,” and use the term to describe a class of political parties whose members have the specific characteristics of being at once democratic and illiberal.11 [End Page 28] Thinking of populism as democratic illiberalism offers several advantages. It places the object of study where it belongs—within the context of modern democracy and its discontents—and thereby closes off the possibility of confusing it with premodern and predemocratic forms of populism. It keeps the object clearly in view: Populism is always democratic but never liberal. Finally, this way of thinking about populism ascribes clear boundaries to the phenomenon: To be classified as populist, a party must display two antithetical characteristics. It must harbor an allegiance to democracy, and it also must endorse illiberal tactics. Parties that do not do both those things, whatever else they are, cannot be populist.

For decades after 1945, there were no significant populist parties in Europe. The French Fourth Republic (1946–58) had experienced poujadisme, a small-town shopkeepers’ movement protesting taxation, urbanization, and Americanization that made the cover of Time magazine by winning 12 percent of the vote and 52 seats in the 1956 National Assembly election (one of its deputies was the young Jean-Marie Le Pen). But that movement and its founder, Pierre Poujade, faded from the political scene before the 1960s began.

Populism’s first sustained success in modern European politics came in the postauthoritarian Greece of 1974, with the founding of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement (PASOK) by Andreas Papandreou (1919–96). By a quirk of history, therefore, populism came to Europe via a figure with elite credentials and U.S. training: Papandreou was the son of a former Greek prime minister, held a Harvard doctorate in economics, and had served honorably in the U.S. Navy during the Second World War. In 1981, his party became the first populist formation in Europe to win and wield power on its own. For decades thereafter, it piled up electoral victories and dominated Greek politics.

Populism’s next manifestation came in Italy during the 1990s. The post–Cold War election of March 1994 marked the collapse of the old Italian party system and a major turnover in the political class, as 452 of 630 deputies and 213 of 315 senators were elected for the first time that year. The most important among the newcomers was media magnate and football-club owner Silvio Berlusconi. He would go on to become Italy’s longest-serving post-1945 premier, holding office for most of the decade between 2001 and 2011. His party, Forza Italia (Forward Italy), which later merged into a coalition known as People of Freedom, was the country’s most powerful.

In the 2000s, populism sprang up in Central and Eastern Europe. The most important surge came in Hungary, with the rise of Fidesz. Born as a liberal party, it moved right and underwent a radical, populist transformation. Its longtime leader Viktor Orbán led it to a landslide win in the 2010 election and proceeded to recast Hungary’s constitution.12 In neighboring Slovakia, Robert Fico founded the populist Direction party (Smer) in 1999. The party merged with several others in 2005, becoming [End Page 29] Smer–Social Democracy (Smer-SD). After winning the 2006 election, he formed a coalition government with two other parties, one populist and the other ultranationalist. In 2012, Smer-SD won 44 percent of the vote and an absolute majority of the seats, allowing it to form the first single-party government that Slovakia had seen since 1993.

The 2010s saw the rise of both left- and right-wing populisms in Europe. In Greece, the fiscal and economic crisis that began in 2010 led to the collapse of the country’s old party system in the 2012 elections and then to the January 2015 electoral victory of the populist Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza), which promptly formed a coalition government with a populist party from the nationalist right known as the Independent Greeks (ANEL). In Spain, the left-populists of Podemos (We Can) emerged in early 2014. In the June 2016 general election, Podemos ran in alliance with the IU. Podemos and the IU together came out of the balloting as the country’s third-largest party in terms of both vote and seat shares.

In Eastern Europe, meanwhile, Poland’s Law and Justice party (PiS), founded in 2001 by the brothers Jarosław and Lech Kaczyński and briefly in power in the mid-2000s, won a majority in 2015 and began steering the country in an illiberal direction. The new government has weakened the Constitutional Tribunal, tightened media controls, proposed new presidential decree powers, and been unfriendly to immigrants and other social minorities.

Regarding populist forces in today’s Europe, at least three conclusions are to be drawn. First, populist parties have emerged most prominently in the continent’s south and east. The countries there have relatively short histories of parliamentarism, levels of political institutionalization that lag those of Northwestern Europe, and party systems that are prone to major realignment (as in Hungary, Poland, and Spain) or even collapse (as in Greece and Italy).

Second, most of these populist parties do well in elections. They score impressive wins, and then stay in power for long terms. In Greece and Hungary, populism has found effective advocates in other opposition parties as well, thereby transforming those polities into what I have elsewhere termed “populist democracies.”13

Third, populism may grow strong on the right (as in Hungary, Italy, and Poland) or the left (as in Slovakia and Spain). In Greece, remarkably, it has become powerful on both sides of the spectrum at once. The Greek government is a left-right condominium: Syriza and ANEL rule in tandem without obvious bickering.

What to Do?

The challenge for democratic politics in today’s Europe cannot be summarized as coming from the “populist radical right,” the “extreme right,” or “populist extremism.” These terms are too conceptually vague [End Page 30] and empirically amorphous to be useful. Instead, we have the three distinct challengers outlined above: Antidemocratic, nativist, and populist forces. The distinction is important from the practical political point of view as well as for analytical and theoretical purposes.

Using just two criteria gives us a typology that distinguishes among the challenger parties as well as between them and the established parties (see Table 1). The first criterion I call democraticness. It has two uncomplicated indicators. Does the party take part in competitive elections, and does it offer allegiance to representative pluralist democracy? If the answer is yes to both, it is democratic. The second criterion is liberalism, as determined by commitment to all the following propositions: It is normal for society to be divided by many, often cross-cutting, cleavages; the best way to manage these cleavages is through free and open debate within a larger political culture that values moderation and seeks consensus; and the rule of law and the rights of minorities must be respected. Illiberal parties stand in sharp contrast to all this. They see society as riven by a single cleavage between the vast majority and some “establishment”; they encourage polarization and reject compromise; and their belief that they represent the greater and best part of “the people” makes them prone to intolerance of minorities, impatient with institutional legalities, and inclined toward raw majoritarianism.

Table 1. P-P T R L D *Includes both non-nativist and nativist parties.
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Table 1.

Political-Party Types in Representative Liberal Democracy

*Includes both non-nativist and nativist parties.

When we apply the criteria of “democraticness” and liberalism to the political parties found in modern democracies, we get three mutually exclusive, jointly exhaustive, and empirically useful classes: liberal, populist, and antidemocratic, all of which include both right- and left-wing forces. As depicted in Table 1, liberal parties (top-left quadrant) combine full allegiance to parliamentary democracy and respect for the fundamentals of political liberalism. This liberal quadrant includes both parties that are not nativist (whether they are centrist, leftist, or rightist) as well as parties that are nativist (all of which stand on the political right).14 By contrast, antidemocratic forces (bottom-right quadrant) oppose both parliamentarism and liberalism. Populist parties embrace democracy but not liberalism (bottom-left quadrant). Liberalism without democracy is not a combination found in real-life polities today and hence appears as a null set (upper-right quadrant). Let it finally be noted in this context that, standing in the arena of political competition equidistant between liberal and antidemocratic forces, populists compete with the former for democratic voters and with the latter [End Page 31] for illiberal ones. When populist parties come to power, however, they display a strong illiberal impulse which may eventually take precedence over their belief in representative democracy.

Table 2. T T C M C E ( D P F)
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Table 2.

The Three Classes of Major Challengers in Europe (by Date of Party’s Founding)

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This analysis opens large areas for robust comparative research. What is the physical and social “geography” of the challenger parties? In what areas and among what sorts of people do they exert their strongest appeal, and why? What is their political potential? How much of the electorate might they attract? What are the nature and severity of the various challenges that each might pose for European democracy?

As Table 2 shows, the antidemocratic category includes some of democracy’s oldest challengers, such as the French FN and the Belgian VB, both of which date from the 1970s. The category is home to extremists of both the left and the right. There is no clear geographical pattern: Europe’s antidemocratic parties come from the continent’s western reaches as well as its east and south. Although in some cases an antidemocratic party is its country’s third-strongest, in no instance has such a party ever polled much more than a fifth of the total vote.

In fact, all these parties are isolated opposition formations. With the possible exception of Jobbik, none of the current parties has what Giovanni Sartori would call “coalition” or “intimidation” potential.15 In terms of the system of party competition, in other words, they are largely insignificant. Nor do they show clear signs of a potential to grow stronger. The BNP is practically extinct, while the VB is slowly dying out.

As for the FN, it has disowned its old antidemocratic credentials in an effort to gain broader legitimacy. The effort seems to be bearing fruit: In November 2015 and again in June 2016, President François Hollande was photographed receiving Marine Le Pen at the Elysée Palace, his official residence, for small meetings that he held with high state officials and party leaders in order to discuss the Paris terror attacks and, on the latter occasion, the United Kingdom’s Brexit vote. Prior to these sit-downs, no French president had ever met with a leader of the FN. In 2002, during the interval between the first and second rounds of the presidential election, President Jacques Chirac had even rejected the usual debate between runoff contenders on the grounds that he would not appear on the same stage with Jean-Marie Le Pen.

Quite different is the situation among the nativist parties, which significantly outnumber the antidemocratic and even the populist parties. This group is a mix of older parties such as Austria’s FPÖ and younger ones such as Germany’s AfD, which is still so small a force that it is missing from the Table. All these parties stand firmly on the right side of the spectrum in the richest and most politically advanced countries of Europe’s north and west. Although none of these parties has done better than a 30 percent vote share, several are second or third in their respective parliaments. One of them, Switzerland’s SVP, is the largest single party in the lower house of its national parliament.

Nativist parties also stand out from antidemocratic parties in terms of coalition-bargaining potential. Established parties of the center and center-right are their typical partners in these deals. Austria, Finland, [End Page 33] and Norway have already seen bargains of this kind, and in Denmark and the Netherlands nativist parties have lent support to conservative minority governments. The revamped FN and the UKIP both enjoy strong “intimidation” and perhaps even coalition potential. The only nativist party in Europe that has so far been unable to achieve integration into the mainstream of political bargaining and competition is the Sweden Democrats. Having entered the 349-seat Riksdag in 2010, they more than doubled their vote share to 12.9 percent in the 2014 election and went from 20 to 48 seats, making them the third-largest party in parliament. Yet they remain isolated because their image is still tarnished by their erstwhile racist ideology.

If we turn to the class of populist parties, the outlook once again changes dramatically. Except for PASOK, all these parties are fairly new and postdate the “third wave” of democratization. As a group, they split almost evenly between right-populist formations (ANEL, Fidesz, Forza Italia, PiS) and left-populist ones (PASOK, Podemos, Smer-SD, Syriza). They also are found exclusively in Europe’s south and east, both in countries that were never communist and in postcommunist lands. To understand the growth of populism in these countries, one must look to the feebleness and rawness of their liberal-democratic institutions—a circumstance that also favors the rise of personalistic, charismatic leaders.16

This group of parties has shown remarkable political strength. All except the fledgling Podemos have won impressive electoral victories and, one time or another, have governed their respective countries, often singlehandedly and for relatively long periods. In at least two cases, those of Greece and Hungary, the influence of such democratically illiberal parties when in office has been so pervasive that they have caused most opposition parties to veer toward populism as well, moving entire national polities in an illiberal direction.

In seeking ways to meet the multiplicity of emerging threats to liberal democracy, the beginning of wisdom is to recognize that the multiplicity is just that—the threats are varied, and each calls for specific treatment. Antidemocratic parties should be countered with what Karl Loewenstein once termed “militant democracy”—in other words, a resolute state that uses its available legal and constitutional means to restrict the action of extremists.17 Germany’s Basic Law provides a clear framework of legality that all parties, including Die Linke, must respect. In Belgium, the Ghent Court of Appeals outlawed the Vlaams Blok for inciting discrimination. [End Page 34] More recently, the Greek Constitutional Court upheld the arrest, detention, and trial of top Golden Dawn figures, including the party’s head, for orchestrating a campaign of violence.

In order to contain nativist parties that thrive on societies’ fears regarding immigration, globalization, and continuing European integration, their rivals must learn to rely not on court orders, but on better policies. The nativist challenge can only be met in the electoral arena. Winning elections takes successful policies. There can be no doubt that solutions to the migration crisis, Greece’s debt problem, and terrorism would take the wind out of contemporary nativism’s sails. If Europe’s political class cannot rise to meet these tasks, nativism will continue to be a growing force.

Populism, which is the flipside and negation of political liberalism, is by far the most menacing challenger. As empirical research shows, it thrives where political institutions—especially the rule of law and safeguards for minority rights—are weak and where polarization and majoritarian tendencies are strong. In such environments, populist parties can be expected to win power via the ballot box and even to win reelection. Populism is so threatening because it has a contagious quality—the appearance and rise of a populist party will predictably push a country’s other parties in a populist direction—and because populism can lead to the decay of liberal institutions and the consolidation of illiberal polities. The ongoing success of populism in places such as Greece, Hungary, and, more recently, Poland provides a warning for all Europe.

Takis S. Pappas

Takis S. Pappas is associate professor of comparative politics at the University of Macedonia in Thessaloniki, Greece, and recurring visiting professor at the Central European University in Budapest. He is the author of Populism and Crisis Politics in Greece (2014) and coeditor (with Hanspeter Kriesi) of European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession (2015).


1. Ill-defined concepts lead to misgathered data and the drawing of false comparisons between dissimilar things. See, for example, the concept of the “populist radical right” (PRR) as developed in Cas Mudde, Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2007). The PRR category seeks to accommodate all parties displaying at the same time three distinct ideological features: populism, nativism, and authoritarianism. For another example of the creation of pseudoclasses (such as “populist extremism”) comprising incomparable items, see Matthew Goodwin’s 2011 Chatham House report “Right Response: Understanding and Countering Populist Extremism in Europe,”

2. Counting the United Kingdom, the EU’s 28 member states—all of them parliamentary democracies—are home to more than half a billion people speaking two-dozen officially recognized languages. The EU maintains a single market and produces about a fifth of the world’s Purchasing Power Parity GDP.

3. Francis Fukuyama, “The End of History?” National Interest, Summer 1989, 3–18.

4. Antonis A. Ellinas, “Neo-Nazism in an Established Democracy: The Persistence of Golden Dawn in Greece,” South European Society and Politics 20, no. 1 (2015): 4. See also Sophia Vasilopoulou and Daphne Halikiopoulou, The Golden Dawn’s “Nationalist Solution”: Explaining the Rise of the Far Right in Greece (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015).

5. Andrea L.P. Pirro, The Populist Radical Right in Central and Eastern Europe: Ideology, Impact, and Electoral Performance (Abingdon, U.K.: Routledge, 2015). [End Page 35]

6. Nonna Mayer, Ces Français qui votent Le Pen (Paris: Flammarion, 2002); Daniel Oesch, “Explaining Workers’ Support for Right-Wing Populist Parties in Western Europe: Evidence from Austria, Belgium, France, Norway, and Switzerland,” International Political Science Review 29 (June 2008): 349–73; Hans-Georg Betz and Susi Meret, “Right-Wing Populist Parties and the Working-Class Vote: What Have You Done for Us Lately?” in Jens Rydgren, ed., Class Politics and the Radical Right (New York: Routledge, 2013), 107–21.

7. Hanspeter Kriesi et al., West European Politics in the Age of Globalization (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008).

8. “Welfare chauvinism” is the idea that state welfare spending should not go to immigrants and foreigners. This attitude should be distinguished from “racism” and even “prejudice.” See Jørgen Goul Andersen and Tor Bjørklund, “Structural Change and New Cleavages: The Progress Parties in Denmark and Norway,” Acta Sociologica 33, no. 3 (1990): 212.

9. David Marquand, The End of the West: The Once and Future Europe (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2011), 38.

10. Paul Lucardie, “Populism: Some Conceptual Problems,” Political Studies Review 7 (September 2009): 321.

11. For a detailed analysis, see Takis S. Pappas, “Modern Populism: Research Advances, Conceptual and Methodological Pitfalls, and the Minimal Definition,” in William R. Thompson, ed., Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Politics (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016). Available at

12. In a 30 July 2014 speech at the Bálványos Summer Free University and Student Camp, Orbán said: “The Hungarian nation is not simply a group of individuals but a community that must be organised, reinforced and in fact constructed. And so in this sense the new state that we are constructing in Hungary is an illiberal state, a non-liberal state. It does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom, and I could list a few more, but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organisation, but instead includes a different, special, national approach.” See

13. Takis S. Pappas, “Populist Democracies: Post-Authoritarian Greece and Post-Communist Hungary,” Government and Opposition 49 (January 2014): 1–23.

14. This class includes, for instance, Germany’s immigrant-friendly Christian Democratic Union and Austria’s nativist FPÖ. It also encompasses the wholly nativist UKIP as well as the British Conservative Party, which is for the most part not nativist. The difference is that, while all these parties believe in liberalism, some of them also believe in political nativism and welfare chauvinism.

15. A party’s “coalition” potential refers to its likelihood of being included in government. “Intimidation” or “blackmail” potential refers to a party’s ability to shape the tactics and direction of the party or parties that govern or that have a serious chance to govern. The terms are from Giovanni Sartori, Parties and Party Systems: A Framework for Analysis (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1976), 121–25.

16. Takis S. Pappas, “Are Populist Leaders ‘Charismatic’? The Evidence from Europe,” Constellations, published online in August 2016.

17. See Alexander S. Kirshner, A Theory of Militant Democracy: The Ethics of Combatting Political Extremism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014). [End Page 36]

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