Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Does "Populism" in Europe's New Democracies Really Matter?

Academic journal article Demokratizatsiya

Does "Populism" in Europe's New Democracies Really Matter?

Article excerpt

There are authors who claim that a populist revolution has already started in the new democracies of Europe--countries that, after the fall of the Berlin Wall, aspired to join or joined NATO or the European Union). (1) If that is the case, the implications are serious.

Studying the situation in the new democracies of Europe is especially tempting for at least three reasons: They exhibit in a more direct form some political, mostly populist tendencies that seem to be bulging all around Europe; they seem politically closer to Western countries and can help us better understand what is going on in Western Europe; and new democracies are still considered the weakest point of the West--most of them remain the main object of interest to both an increasingly powerful and aggressive Russia and the forces of fundamentalist Islam.

The term populism is easily confused because of its wide and indiscriminate usage. Apart from its mostly historical use for concepts and activities connected with the Populist Party in the United States, it usually has a negative connotation and is used to define political trends that claim to express the needs and desires of common people, usually by challenging the governing elites and by promising things that cannot be delivered. However, the term is also used by politicians who have missed addressing some important issues to castigate their adversaries for managing to address these issues and gaining politically as a result.

In Europe, the term has gradually come to mean something that exhibits characteristics of what used to be called in a very broad sense "fascisoid"--an amalgam of antidemocratic, statist, xenophobic, ethnocentrist trends, which oppose representative institutions, free initiative, competition, and a number of "Western values" like diversity, tolerance, and freedom of expression. Such a definition seems to be pigeonholing populism into a convenient, well-known ideology that can be conceived of as an atavistic--and highly unpleasant-occurrence. The unfolding of strong tendencies in this direction in Eastern Europe, (2) however, seems to provide new insights for the critical assessment of this phenomenon.

Four Conspicuous Characteristics of Populism in Eastern Europe

The populist movements in Eastern Europe exhibit some common features that can be easily identified.

The first of these characteristics is an emphasis on restoring "statehood." The term statehood is hardly translatable, and the dictionary definition fails to explain its implications. In the late-Communist era, the term was widely used to distinguish between the traditional state (e.g., "capitalist" or "feudalist"), which was officially denounced, and the importance of having some form of a state. Gradually the meaning shifted from the expectation of having rules, security, and a level of solidarity to the idea that the state is supposed to "give" work, culture, a future, and individual fulfillment. Emotionally, this seemed to resonate with the sentiment of many citizens during the transitional period of the early 1990s that they had been abandoned, and that nobody was "taking care" of them as the party and the state used to do. Populism took advantage of the fact that for many people, after two generations of Communism, the transition was confusing. Twenty years is a short period historically, many adults felt that their lives had split in two. Furthermore, when they faced any of the abundant problems, these people felt compelled to ask: Am I to blame? Or is someone else? The missing statehood gave a satisfactory explanation for their failures. Once this was established, all statist concepts became more acceptable. The new element here was not the substance of the statist concepts, but the ardency with which restoration of something allegedly lost during the transition was sought. This naturally robbed the transition of much of its moral value, and it revived the tendency to involve the state in as many civic activities as possible. …

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