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Home Opinion Dangerous harbours: Populism, extremism and young people
Populism • Extremism • Youth

Dangerous harbours: Populism, extremism and young people

Péter Krekó - 11 January 2013

Populist and extremist actors are becoming increasingly adept at targeting first-time and young-, largely undecided, voters. Mainstream parties need more personal contact with voters, more ideology and less professionalism

In this time of crisis, political doomsday and end of the world-scenarios are flourishing. In some corners it is widely believed that Europe’s tumultuous politics marks the return of the 1930’s. But this rhetoric envisioning the return of fascist and authoritarian regimes as a response to growing economic concerns is simplistic and misleading for at least two reasons.

First, today's far right is not identical to its forerunner in the 1930s. Right-wing radicals, especially in Western and Northern Europe have moved far from historical fascism. It is remarkable that Eastern and Southern Europe are ‘producing’ more robust versions of extremism, cultivating authoritarian traditions and playing with some pre-WW2 symbols and rhetoric (e.g. the blatantly anti-Semitic Jobbik in Hungary, the rise of Golden Dawn in Greece), but it is still a far cry from the road to fascism.

Second, we cannot say that the rise of some populist and radical forces in Europe is the sole consequence of the economic crisis. Wherever the far-right has managed to gain a foothold, the underlying causes have been more to do with politics and culture than economics. There have been some countries where the recession was modest but we have still seen the rise of populist right-wing movements (e.g. Sweden and Finland), and there have been some others where the crisis was really painful but where we have not experienced a spectacular populist/radical shift (e.g. Latvia and Lithuania).

The idea that Europe is experiencing a general fascist and authoritarian shift in response to the economic crisis is empty and baseless. The economy is not the problem. The implication, however, is that the growing problem of populism/extremism within European democracies will not be automatically solved if the crisis goes away.

So what is the cause?

What is pretty obvious from most of the latest research on Europe is that we are witnessing a growing general disillusionment with the traditional representative political system and its institutions. The underlying reason is that more and more voters feel that their elected politicians are unable to solve the most crucial problems, be they managerial or economic (e.g. the problems of the Eurozone), or social and cultural (e.g. conflicts over immigration and integration). Furthermore, sometimes European politicians go against the grain of public opinion with some obviously elitist actions – such as bailing out Eurozone countries and taking steps to strengthen integration in spite of growing euro-scepticism.

There are two groups of potential voters who are especially vulnerable to anti-political sentiments: first-time and young-, largely undecided, voters . The common feature of these two (overlapping) groups is that they are extremely mistrustful of politicians and politics in general, and want to keep a distance from political parties. These voters can find political harbour among the new populist and sometimes radical movements that articulate anti-establishment sentiments with easy-to-understand political phrases and catchwords (such as “gypsy crime” and ”political crime” in Hungary, used extensively by Jobbik, to express their animosity for minorities and the political elite).

What should mainstream parties do if they want to prevent and counter the growing instances of populist, and sometimes radical parties sucking away their voters?

Four general recommendations for “mainstream” parties can be identified:

1)    Closer engagement with the electorate
The growing aversion to representative democracies sweeping across Europe can only be checked if the electorate is made to feel that politics is about them. Personal contact plays a crucial role here. Radical populist forces set up their own political base in opposition to a corrupt political elite alienated from the electorate. Typically, they do this through strong grassroots movements and intense personal contact with their voters – especially in areas where voters feel that politicians don’t care about their fate at all. This lends populists/extremists a huge advantage over hide-bound political parties. For example, in Hungary and Slovakia, radical right-wing politicians put huge effort into building up good networks (with some guard-like paramilitary organisations) in areas where the Roma population is highest to present themselves as defenders of the people against “gypsy crime”.

2)    Be more populist (in a good way)
Far right parties are often blamed for their ‘populism’, although in many cases this simply masks an envy of their rhetorical and political resourcefulness. Thus an appeal to emotions and political discourse based on simple and direct language are features of a broadly interpreted populism that should be acquired by all democratic political forces. If centrist parties could play ‘populist’ politics in this sense (more plain, more easy to understand, more symbolic, and more campaign-like) it would limit the appeal of far-right populism among the general population and young people alike. In a number of countries, such as Great Britain, Hungary, and Greece, new far-right movements appear to be well positioned to address politically passive or undecided youngsters and first-time voters, who have not yet developed a political opinion. They use highly effective mobilisation techniques, clear and stunning symbols, loud campaigns drowning out all rivals, as well as easily understood and provocative messages simplified to the extreme. To make themselves attractive to young voters, traditional political parties must develop innovative organisational structures and communication platforms (with a strong emphasis on Social Media).

3)    Be more ideological
The technocratic political mentality of the European Union is a major source of political mobilisation for supporters of populist forces. Crisis-management in the complex international environment of course needs technocratic solutions. But technocracy completely lacks any political appeal, as it always refers to the constraints and boundaries and the need for expertise to manoeuvre between them. If mainstream political parties want to become more attractive, they should rather refer to the possibilities, values and the ultimate goals that a decision is based upon. If mainstream parties want to tackle the legitimacy crisis of representative democracy, they should be more ideological and value-based in their politics and rhetoric. Otherwise voters will lose the essence of politics: its vision on how to create a society that is better to live in based on clear principles.

For example, there is general astonishment over the rise of the UKIP party in the UK, but this is pretty easy to explain. Nigel Farage is one of the best orators in the European Parliament. He can be very persuasive because he uses strongly ideological arguments against the European Union, always referring to some key values: democracy, freedom and sovereignty. Similarly, the success of the Ukrainian radical right party Svoboda (Freedom) also points to a general tendency in European politics: the return of ideology. “Svoboda was the only major party with a genuine political programme guided by an ideology to which the party’s leaders and activists have a long-standing adherence”, as “voters seem to be fed up with the indistinct philosophies of big, catch-all parties such as the PoR and Fatherland.”

4)    Be less professional
It can seem vague and unprofessional to argue against political professionalism, but to some extent, it is crucial to maintain a right balance between professionalism and a lay approach to politics. Voters in several European countries are turning away from politics because they perceive it as too professional – in the sense that they feel that political parties are becoming efficient vote-catching machines where “power brokers” and “power entrepreneurs” are working only to serve their own interests, and only using the voters as tools in their drive to practice power. At the same time, the political classes (even on the left) seem to be drawn more and more from well-established elite career routes, and there are some signs that the club of politicians is getting more and more exclusive. If mainstream parties (especially on the left) want to be successful, they should try to ally or re-incorporate political “amateurs” with non-party backgrounds (from the NGO sector, youth movements, or even trade unions). Talented public speakers who have not become institutionalised by political parties can bring fresh air into party offices, decrease the rigid and bureaucratic image of parties and help re-establish some trust in politics.

Thus, in order to fight the growing threat of populism (both left and right), we should drop a widespread fallacy: money and economics alone do not explain the rise of populism and radicalism. The materialistic approach which claims that populism and radicalism can be pushed back by offering welfare benefits and direct transfers is misleading, as most of the people who are receptive to anti-establishment rhetoric are not the “losers of the globalisation/crisis/transition”. Most voters do not vote for populist movement in the hope of more material benefits. They do so because they find these politicians symbolically more persuasive and more credible. Mainstream political parties should understand why new populist forces can be so successful and even adopt some of their tools (but not their ideologies!) in order to win back or maintain credence.

Péter Krekó is Director of the Political Capital Institute, Assistant Professor at Eötvös Loránd University of Sciences and co-chair of the EU Radicalisation Awareness Network PREVENT working group

This article forms parts of the Policy Network/Barrow Cadbury Trust project on “Populism, Extremism and the Mainstream”. It was presented by the author at an Amsterdam workshop co-hosted by the Wiardi Beckman Stichting on 22 November, 2012.

This is a contribution to Policy Network's work on Understanding Populism .

Tags: Péter Krekó , Opinion , Populism , Extremism , Youth , Crisis , Economic , Financial , Economic Crisis , Financial Crisis , Far-Right , Radical Right , Extreme Right , Far-Left , Radical Left , Extreme Left , Jobbik , Jobbik The Movement for a Better Hungary , Jobbik Magyarországért Mozgalom , Hungary , Golden Dawn , People's Association – Golden Dawn , Greece , Nationalism , Sweden , Finland , Latvia , Lithuania , Europe , Euro-scepticism , Euroscepticism , EU.European Union , Eurozone , EZ , Immigration , Integration , Slovakia , Roma , Gypsy , Anti-Semitism , Xenophobia , UKIP , United Kingdom Independence Party , UK , Nigel , European Parliament , Ukraine , All-Ukrainian Union "Fatherland" , Fatherland , Svoboda , Freedom , PoR , Trust ,


26 January 2013 08:53

The author promotes stronger use of symbols by mainstream politicians as one way of capturing the interest of younger voters, and prevent them from becoming extremists. But symbols are nothing but an extreme oversimplification of complex ideas and thus a tool for capturing the minds of the uneducated classes. It seems to me that education, rather than symbolism and oversimplification, should be the avenue that ought to be pursued.

12 January 2013 17:49

I know an even better way: 1) Stop countries like the UK wasting £53m on EU membership fees in return for scrounging immigrants, pointless regulation, jobs for foreigners and redistribution to poorer countries. 2) Stop wasting money on PC quangos and civil service non-jobs to try and force companies to hire people because they're part of a minority, even if there is a better person for the job. 3) Give criminals real justice instead of soft sentences and Sky TV, without them doing any work for it. 4) Bring back Grammar schools and value academic achievement rather than the "everyone's a winner" mentality. 5) Value wealth creation by introducing a flat tax which is fairer and not based on envy of the successful. 6) Cut pointless business regulations which hold back job creation. This is what people want, and this is why "populist" parties are on the rise; because traditional parties do not deal with these issues, and when they press on with their own agendas, and people complain, they call listening to the people "populism" rather than democracy.

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The Policy Network Observatory promotes critical debate and reflection on progressive politics. It is centre-left orientated but determinedly challenges social democracy. It is pro-European but restlessly questions EU institutions and practices.

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