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Populism and reaction

Refugees on the Hungarian M1 highway on their march towards the Austrian border, 4 September 2015. Photo Joachim Seidler (CC BY-SS 2.0).

Despite the supposed threat to democracy from populism, the anti-populist reaction is worse…

Populism and the European Culture wars: The Conflict of values between Hungary and the EU, by Frank Furedi, paperback, 144 pages, ISBN 978-1138097438, Routledge, 2017, £14.99, Kindle and eBook editions available.

Frank Furedi, the Budapest-born sociologist, argues that despite the media’s attention on the supposed threat to democracy from populist movements, the anti-populist reaction is far worse.

A free and open debate about whether to leave the EU led to our majority democratic decision to back independence. Furedi notes that for the dwindling minority who want to overturn the vote, “European federalism symbolized a sacred cause, while nationalism was assigned the role of anti-Christ.”

As Furedi points out, “Anti-populism has constructed a culturally warped view of populism that casts a movement questioning the elite cultural consensus in a negative light.” That intolerant and reactionary viewpoint characterises populist movements as xenophobic, anti-democratic, and totalitarian.

“The EU wants elite rule not democracy…”

EU commissioner Margot Wallström said that nationalists caused the Second World War and that eurosceptics risked a “return to the Holocaust”. Herman van Rompuy, a past president of the EU Council, agreed; he said “Euroscepticism leads to war.” Euroscepticism was not to blame for the war on Libya for instance; rather it was the pro-EU governments of Britain and France.

The European Union presents itself as the enlightened minority with a duty to impose its values on the benighted majority, just as the old empires did. It wants elite rule, not democracy. 

The EU now bullies Eastern Europe’s countries after “introducing an economic shock therapy that led to the privatisation of the economy, mass unemployment, and the dismantling of the old Hungarian welfare state.”

‘Cultural imperialists’

Furedi comments that many of Hungary’s critics “come across as latter-day cultural imperialists who feel that they have the right to impose their values on Hungarian society.... They do not seem to realize that the problems facing Hungarian society will only be resolved through the efforts of its people, not by foreign advocacy organizations meddling in the affairs of an independent sovereign nation.”

The EU damned the Hungarian government for building fences on its border with Serbia and Croatia in autumn 2015, which significantly cut uncontrolled migration. It said nothing about Norway and the three EU Baltic states building fences on their borders with Russia.

“Nationalism was assigned the role of anti-Christ…”

Who opposes democracy? Furedi argues that some who back our staying in the EU are now drawing on Europe’s more regrettable, anti-democratic traditions. They oppose Europe’s other values, the Enlightenment values of democracy and freedom. 

As he observes, “The rise of mass politics since the nineteenth century has continually provoked the fear and hostility of the political establishment.”

Nations are the necessary foundations of democracy. Furedi sums this up, “...borders, which are essential for the maintenance of national sovereignty, are so far the only foundation that humanity has discovered for the institutionalization of democratic accountability. It is within familiar borders that citizens felt confident to work out their ideas and enter into dialogue and debate with one another. Without borders a citizen becomes subject to a power that cannot be held to account and this is why – from a democratic perspective – it is so important to counter the anti-populist crusade against national sovereignty.”

Furedi concludes that popular sovereignty is the most robust foundation for a flourishing public life. Anti-populist opinion constantly challenges political legitimacy based on that sovereignty because it has no trust in people to make intelligent choices. “Illiberal anti-populism constitutes the principal threat to democracy in Europe today.”