Who are the most dynamic European leaders right now? Certainly not David Cameron or Francois Hollande. Angela Merkel has her moments, but for the real change-makers you have to look further east.
In Russia, Vladimir Putin is more dominant than ever and enjoys record approval ratings. In Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan – already Prime Minister for eleven years – has won a resounding victory in the country’s first direct Presidential elections. In Hungary, Victor Orban emerged from this year’s Parliamentary elections with another crushing majority, cementing what many people regard as the increasingly overbearing rule of his Fidesz party.
It must be stressed that there are some big differences between the Orban, Erdogan and Putin governments. In terms of free and fair elections, human rights and foreign policy actions, the situation in Hungary is much better than in Turkey which, in turn, is much better than in Russia.
Nevertheless, as Jan-Werner Mueller argues in an insightful piece for Project Syndicate, there are some common threads, for instance:
“…the…assumption that the people have one common will that genuinely aims at the common good, and that the people’s authentic leader – such as Erdogan, who campaigned under the slogan ‘National Will, National Power’ – can identify and implement it. Populists, then, are not only anti-elitist; they are necessarily anti-pluralist and hence anti-liberal. Their politics is always polarizing, splitting the actual citizenry into a pure, moral people and the immoral others – whom Erdogan has often simply called ‘traitors.’”
Mueller describes this approach to politics as ‘populism’, but he points out that the term can be misunderstood:
“It is often said that populists cannot govern, or will be exposed as incompetent, when elected to office. According to this view, populist parties are essentially protest parties, and protest cannot govern, because it is impossible to protest against oneself.”
In fact, as the Russian, Turkish and Hungarian examples show, populists are capable not only of winning power, but of holding on to it – tightly.
And there’s another key respect in which liberals get populism wrong:
“Contrary to much conventional wisdom, populism is not defined by a particular electoral constituency – such as the lower middle class – or by simplistic policies pandering to the masses, as liberal observers often argue. Rather, populism is a thoroughly moralized conception of politics, and a populist is a politician who claims that he or she – and only he or she – truly represents the people, thus relegating all political opponents to the role of iniquitous pretenders.”
It’s not just that they think they have better ideas and policies than their opponents, but that they believe themselves to be uniquely deserving of power. This is a dangerous mindset to bring with you into office:
“If only one party truly represents the people, why should the state not become the instrument of the people? And when populists have an opportunity to write a new constitution, why should they not ride roughshod over any opposition, which, by definition, must comprise the enemies of the people (who often are accused of being foreign agents)?”
Mueller brackets the leftwing populists of Venezuela with the other examples, which is perhaps why he doesn’t mention the fact that, in Europe, the new populism is often dressed up in conservative clothes.
But if this is conservatism, then it is conservatism gone bad – reacting to the failures of liberalism (and EU federalism) not by decentralising power, but by concentrating it in the hands of a new elite.
Genuine conservatives, who understand the true nature of power and its effect on those who have too much of it, should be deeply concerned.