Dalibor Rohac on Populism and Democracy in Europe and America

Dalibor Rohac on Populism and Democracy in Europe and America

In December 2018, Dialogues sat down with American Enterprise Institute research fellow Dr. Dalibor Rohac to discuss Brexit, right-wing populism, and the struggle to maintain democratic ideals in Europe and the United States today.

GJIA: What do you think are the most common motivating factors shared by right-wing groups forming in Europe? 

DR: It’s quite difficult to define common motivating factors, because the different groups have ideas that could be considered both “left” and “right.” It is notable, however, that anti-immigrant and nationalistic rhetoric have come to define the right-wing groups forming over the last five to ten years. There is also backlash against what is considered the elitist class of the group’s particular state, with the ordinary people viewing the upper economic and political class as self-serving and out of touch with the beliefs of the people whom they should be representing. Part of this comes from the belief that the elites are tied to an overarching globalist agenda, placing that objective ahead of the needs of their fellow citizens. This deep resentment could lead to authoritarianism, in which there are no normal procedures of democratic norms.


Could you explain the role that populist backlash played in Brexit? 

The Brexit referendum was a clear manifestation of populist ideals. It was essentially a middle finger to the global elite. While this was, and still remains, a decisive moment in world history, it did not lead to the creation of a global populist party as some had predicted. The biggest remaining question is how British Prime Minister Theresa May will continue to respond to the decision, especially regarding whether she can accommodate the people’s ideals in a way that isn’t destructive and allows for compromise. The difficulty in reaching a compromise in Brexit is that there are a number of complex issues at play, including the UK’s relationship with the EU and migration concerns; any one of these issues would be daunting on its own, but now they are all coming into play at the same time with Brexit. 


How would you briefly explain the popular backlash to the current Brexit deal?

Brexit was voted through via referendum in 2016, and although the vote called for the United Kingdom to leave the EU, at the time there was no mandate that specifically stated what the terms of departure would look like. If you look at the kinds of relationships that the EU has with countries within its territory, it becomes clear that relationships between countries both within and outside of the EU can take on many different forms. After the referendum, there was this idea in the UK that they could maintain the benefits of being part of the EU without having to be abide by its common governing rules. As negotiations continue, it’s becoming more obvious that these promises unrealistic. If you want to have deep economic ties to the EU, be part of the single market, and have frictionless trade with other members, then you have to follow the same rules and regulations agreed upon in Brussels. If you want to be a part of the single market, for example, then you have to live with the free movement of labor and wealth as well, much as non-EU countries like Norway and Switzerland do. I think it is very reasonable to aim for compromise with Theresa May, because the goal is to find a middle ground which prevents the true economic disruption associated with a hard Brexit while satisfying those the “Leave” campaigners who promised more autonomy for the UK. Unfortunately, this is a compromise that satisfies nobody. There will have to be concessions made to all sides, and everybody seems to hate the deal, but it’s difficult to come up with a solution that satisfies everyone


What outcomes do you predict for Brexit negotiations?

The negotiations will be tough, because the various red lines that the British government established at the outset have now been reached. There really is no appetite in Europe to try to redo any of the negotiations, so essentially the UK must ratify the deal as it stands. It’s also worth noting that this deal is just a withdrawal agreement, so it says nothing yet about future ties between the UK and the EU. There’s a transitory period built into the withdrawal agreement, but there most of the substantive changes, like a potential free trade agreement, will be negotiated after the exit. If the withdrawal isn’t ratified, the EU is not going to change its position, so it’s really up to the British whether they want to leave without any agreement or reconsider the 2016 vote.


There are ongoing public protests against Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban for what is widely viewed as authoritarian behavior. Do you believe these protests are opposed to Orban himself, or are they more of a reaction to the ideas he’s promoting?

The protests are backlash to the Fidesz party, which is the party of Prime Minister Orban. The immediate trigger for the protests was the recent revision of labor laws, which now call for more overtime hours without pay. Right now, I think the current legal limit is about 250-300 hours; the revised law raises it to 400 hours. The actual change is not that significant, but other things happening in Hungary lately have added to growing discontent. Most importantly, Parliament created an entirely new court system which is politically controlled; the new system consists of administrative courts that answer directly to the Minister of Justice and could have significant leeway over all issues of public and administrative law, including regulations for taxation, opposition parties, antitrust laws, elections, protests, and media, among others. Placing these issues under political control directly defies checks and balances and judicial review, so that is one element of the discontent. People are also well aware of the massive corruption within Hungary’s government, most recently regarding the sale of publicly owned land, as it inevitably ends up in the hands of Fidesz supporters and oligarchs close to the Prime Minister. I think the confluence of all of these things happening at the same time led to these protests. It’s important to note, too, that these protests were not covered in the Hungarian media, which is either run by or close to the government. A number of opposition members in Parliament went to the state-owned broadcasting station and got rejected by security guards, adding fuel to the fire. It’s unclear if these protests will go on indefinitely, but it is clear that something has changed in Hungary. People are realizing the magnitude and power of the state. Orban ran as pro-Western reformer in the 1990s, and it’s only in the past decade that he has become this anti-immigration, nationalistic figure, especially after the refugee crisis of 2015. The biggest issue in Hungarian politics today is not the ideological direction of the government, but rather the question of whether the country will remain a democracy or continue to slide down the path of authoritarianism. 


Do you think Hungary will remain a democracy?

To be perfectly honest, I don’t know. In other similar cases, like Poland, the grounds for optimism are much stronger. The opposition did very well in Poland’s recent local elections in Poland, and it seems unlikely that the governing Law and Justice Party will retain its current grip on power in the elections later this year. In Hungary, on the other hand, Fidesz has a stronger popular mandate, since it won around 50% of the popular vote in the most recent elections. The political playing field is so skewed that it will be difficult for anyone to compete electorally with those already in power, unless the opposition parties learn to cooperate with each other in a way we haven’t yet seen. I predict these protests will facilitate better politics among the opposition, but that is by no means a foregone conclusion.


There is increasing concern that Europe in general is becoming more authoritarian as well, especially given the rise in right-wing populism in places such as Hungary, Poland, France, and Italy. Is this a valid concern?

The risk isn’t necessarily just right-wing movements, but also authoritarian populist movements at large. In Greece, for example, the left-wing political party Syriza displayed authoritarian tendencies during its time in power, like cracking down on opposition media and appointing political loyalists to courts, and has made open overtures to Russia as well. Jeremy Corbyn, who is now the leader of the UK’s Labour party, could also reasonably be expected to hold a tighter grip on government if in power, though obviously he would be constrained by much more effective legal systems and democratic traditions than the ones in former communist central Europe. This shift towards populism has occurred on both sides of the political spectrum, but the right is more prominent, especially in its vocal reaction to immigration. The right’s message resonates with audiences’ ideas regarding national identity and nationhood in a globalized world. We have to accept that, whether we like it or not, certain political parties and messages are becoming less relevant to the electorate. In September, the city of Chemnitz in Germany was the site of anti-immigrant protests in response to the alleged murder of a German citizen by Syrian and Iraqi refugees. This took place in a context of recent victories by the far right in local elections, as well as an increase in neo-Nazism and anti-Semitism.


Can you explain the right-wing movement in Germany, and how the government has responded to it?

Far right politics has long been taboo in Germany because of its wartime history, and only recently is it making a comeback. Initially driven by opposition to the bailout given to the Mediterranean periphery countries of the European Union, a group of economics and law professors formed the Alternative for Germany party several years ago calling for fiscal rules in the Eurozone to be strengthened. After the refugee crisis, that somehow morphed into an anti-immigration platform, and the party has since continued to grow in the polls and command wider support. At the same time, as with many center-left parties which once ruled elsewhere in Europe, the Social Democratic Party of Germany has started to implode. These changes signal a realignment in the relationship between the forces of globalization and national identity. We see more and more countries resolving these debates throughout Europe, and it has become a new dividing line in European politics, but it’s still quite new. Even in the UK, both parties have pro-Brexit and anti-Brexit members, a trend which is obvious in other countries’ parties. In Germany, the Green Party, which was traditionally small and didn’t always hold seats in Parliament, is rising as one of the dominant political platforms for educated urban voters, contributing to the formation of a new political reality in the country.


Is there an ideological connection between the different brands of right-wing populism in the US and Europe?

The basic structure of the Trump phenomenon and the right-wing movements that have formed in Europe are quite similar. They both revolve around economic and cultural factors, as both places have an economic environment that some perceive as zero-sum, and tensions have been introduced by increasing diversity. For some people, that triggers a reactionary response where they start longing for a much simpler and nostalgic idea of the past, with a more ethnically homogenous and possibly wealthier country. This is not a complete fantasy; nostalgia is a very powerful driving force, and I think that animated the appeal of Donald Trump who promised to make America great again. That same appeal resonated with voters who supported Marine le Pen or Alternative for Germany. There are some important political differences as well, both in terms of how political parties are organized in the United States compared to Europe, and the two-party system in America, which operates with flawed coalitions on both sides of the debate. I don’t think we have reached an equilibrium here. The current Republican administration is an uneasy and potentially unstable group, combining of traditional Republicans of the Reagan Revolution with the new, very vocal, almost ethno-nationalist group that has coalesced behind the president. Because of this, many people who considered themselves part of the Republican Party are quite uneasy about the party’s direction. 


What direction will this struggle between democratic ideals and right-wing populism take in the next five to ten years?

The challenge is that democratic systems are based on a competition of ideas and a continual contestation of policies, so to have voices calling for less openness, more immigration restrictions, or even protectionism is not unnatural, much as I disagree with them. I think the struggle between the two forces is a fight to be fought philosophically, intellectually, and politically over what the right policy approach should be in a globalized world. People are challenging questions like whether we should remain open to imports from China, or whether we should remain open to immigration flows, and we should never take the status quo of existing policies on these issues as written in stone forever. I am not terribly worried about the substantive content of the messages that are coming from the populist right or the populist left. I tend to disagree with them, but there is nothing wrong having these opinions voiced in the public arena. What worries me is the extent to which populism and populist governments tend to be authoritarian, eroding democratic norms, rule of law, and political accountability, as we’re seeing in Hungary and Poland. That is something we have to be wary of, and we have to be ready to push back. In the United States, we should be worried about how ill-conceived, populist policies can undermine the international system which America helped build after experiences the Second World War. These kinds of policy decisions made in Washington can affect the rest of the world for generations to come, so I would advise caution and thoughtfulness in how our leaders move forward with international institutions, norms, and alliances.


Disclaimer: this transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 


Dr. Dalibor Rohac is a research fellow at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI) specializing in European political and security trends. He has previously been involved with the Cato Institute's Center for Global Liberty and Prosperity, the Legatum Institute, and the Center for the New Europe. Dr. Rohac has studied at a number of universities across the world, such as Charles University in Prague, George Mason University, and the St. Anthony's College of the University of Oxford. He received his PhD in political economy from King's College London.