The populist hype, the people and the far right
Populism

An interview with Aurelien Mondon, by Giorgos Venizelos. This interview was first published in Populism, Issue 4, July 2021.

You keynoted the 5th annual Populism Specialist Group workshop which focused on the theme ‘Populism: New Perspectives’. What are your general impressions? Where is the field moving these days?

The various panels and papers confirmed to me that part of the field is moving in some very interesting and promising directions and it was a real honour to provide a keynote for the Populism Specialist Group as it is to me the most exciting forum to discuss populism. This is because scholars who present at the workshop tend to come from more critical approaches. Sadly, it would be mistaken to think that this necessarily reflects the wider environment and, unfortunately, there is much out there that continues to play into what some of us have termed populist hype or anti-populism. While critical approaches have progressed in recent years and occupy now a central place in discussions on populism, there is still plenty of work to be done and plenty of damage to be undone, something that is unavoidable when a term like populism becomes so central to mainstream politics.

In recent years, we observed the mainstreaming of radical right discourses which were once located on the fringes of party systems. With the rise of Donald Trump, Jair Bolsonaro, Marine Le Pen and others, the politics of ‘whiteness’ and ‘racial superiority’ became more and more normalised. Can you shed some light into the factors explaining the reconstruction of the radical right? How does the contemporary radical right differ from its predecessors?

The process of mainstreaming far-right politics has certainly accelerated in recent years, and in fact, some of its progress has surprised me, but it would be a mistake to think this is a new or recent development. In fact, the situation we are currently facing, and this applies to the US too, despite Trump’s recent defeat, has been a long time coming and has multiple roots. Of course, the reconstruction of the far right itself and its slow counter-hegemonic struggle to escape the margins has been key, but it would be simplistic, and in fact dangerous, to think of the rise of far right politics as simply the result of the far right’s actions. As Katy Brown, Aaron Winter and I argue in a forthcoming article, it is essential to understand that without the mainstream’s failures or even support at times, the far right would not have been able to regain the legitimacy it has acquired. Whether this is through platforming, disproportionate coverage, wilful misreading of electoral results and opinion polls or an attempt to divert attention away from the inability of the current liberal order to address the many crises we are facing, mainstream actors have a lot to answer for in the resurgence of reaction. The populist hype is obviously central to this.

Analysts, academics and journalists often argue that working class values are appropriated by the far right. At the same time, the far right frames itself as the true representative of the marginalised classes. In your latest book, Reactionary Democracy: how populism and the far right became mainstream, co-authored with Aaron Winter, you challenge this perception. Can you expand a bit?

That we have got to this situation points to an incredible failure from mainstream actors, whether politicians, the media or even academics. More than the far right appealing to the working class or so- called ‘left-behind’, what we have often witnessed is mainstream actors abandoning the idea of the working class to the far right. This has served to conceal the troubling fact that whether it is Brexit, Trump or Le Pen, the majority of those voting for the far right and supporting its ideas are actually generally well-off and that their argument is either based on selfish economic interest or racist ideology. While there is no denying that some working-class people have turned to the far right, this is nothing new, but it has also been massively exaggerated, particularly through the ignorance of abstention. To put it simply, if a third of the working class that vote for the far right, but two thirds abstain (which is common), then you could have a number of headlines: ‘A third of the working class vote for the far right’, ‘one out of ten working class voters vote for the far right’, ‘nine out of ten working class voters do not vote for the far right’ or even ‘the vast majority of the working class no longer trust any of the parties on offer’. All of these are correct and yet what matters is which end up on our front pages, in political speeches or academic articles. Analysing the choices that are made in terms of amplifying and obscuring certain narratives has been central to my work of late.

These discussions are often forcefully placed under the umbrella-label of ‘populism’ which is habitually associated with the far right and nationalism but also demagogy and authoritarianism. However, critical scholarship has long argued that the wide and uncritical use of the term is not inconsequential. What are the implications of this normalised aversion towards populism?

From my point of view, there are three sides to this issue. First, calling far right parties and politics simply ‘populist’ legitimises them by linking them to ‘the people’ and therefore lending them some unwarranted democratic legitimacy. Second, it delegitimises ‘the people’ through the same link, by exaggerating the support given to the far right and its ideas. This people is not all or any people, but usually sections of the population who have little access to public discourse or are constructed to serve particular interest (such as the so-called white working class). These first two aspects I have discussed at length in my research, but this was hardly original as Annie Collovald was already pointing this out straight after Jean-Marie Le Pen’s accession to the second round of the presidential election in 2002. What is frustrating is that these warnings have gone unheeded despite the risks being well documented. The third point is the one developed by colleagues working on anti-populism, which demonstrates how the anti-populist stance parades as apolitical. This in turn delegitimises other alternatives by painting them all with the same populist qua illiberal qua authoritarian brush. This is obviously inaccurate and yet incredibly prevalent as a narrative, even in academia.

As you and Winter argue in Reactionary Democracy, it is not only ‘populism’ to be blamed for the rise of racism and xenophobia. Liberalism also played a critical role. How would you define liberalism and what role does it play legitimising far right discourses?

This is to me one of the most fascinating aspects of our current predicament. Despite so much evidence to the contrary, the idea that liberalism in practice is a bulwark against the far right and reaction seems to prevail, which I think tells us much about how ‘hegemony works. This position is untenable whether you look at it from a historic or a contemporary perspective and yet it holds. Historically, what most will consider as progress has rarely been gained thanks to the liberal elite but rather against it and similarly reaction has often been defended or accepted by the liberal order. Today, whether it is our mainstream media, politicians or even academics, it is hard to see anyone actually standing against this rise of reaction. Instead, all seem to act as if they have no control on the world they live in and simply follow the people for politicians, report facts for the media and scientifically study events for academics. The rejection of any responsibility with regard to the situation we are in is absolutely fascinating and something Aaron and I try to map out and analyse in Reactionary Democracy.

Your native France cannot be absent from this discussion. Marine Le Pen has been defeated in the 2017 elections but President Macron seems not to satisfy or soothe popular discontent. We observed public discontent in many occasions over the past few years. What are the prospects for the populist radical right, but also left, in France now?

It is very hard to predict what the election will look like next year as the landscape remains unclear, particularly on the left, but to some extent on the far right as it is possible someone like the journalist Eric Zemmour could run and split the vote. What is clear is that the situation has deteriorated significantly in France during Macron’s presidency (although the trajectory towards reaction started much earlier). Today, many of the ideas defended by Le Pen are front and centre in the public discourse in France and mainstream politicians have embraced them, sometimes even outflanking Le Pen herself on her pet issues such as Islamophobia. This is the real danger in my mind. Even if Le Pen doesn’t do well in next year’s election, far right ideas have spread so far that it may not be a victory for democracy.

Image credit: Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash


 

Aurelien Mondon is a Senior Lecturer in politics at the University of Bath. His research focuses predominantly on the impact of racism and populism on liberal democracies and the mainstreaming of far right politics through elite discourse. His first book, The Mainstreaming of the Extreme Right in France and Australia: A Populist Hegemony?, was published in 2013 and he recently co-edited After Charlie Hebdo: Terror, racism and free speech published with Zed. His latest book, Reactionary democracy: How racism and the populist far right became mainstream, co-written with Aaron Winter, was published by Verso in 2020.

Giorgos Venizelos researches left populist movements, parties and leaderships, their transitions to power, the ways they construct collective identities, and the anti-populist forces that oppose them. He is also interested in the subversive function of post-truth narratives, especially with regards to the contemporary Alt-Right and the ways it rejects experts’ authority, political correctness, environmental justice. His non academic interventions appear in Jacobin.

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