In columns or commentary, one sometimes needs to simplify in order to save space. But here’s my New Year’s resolution: In the coming 12 months, I will try to avoid the expressions “far right” and “populist” whenever possible. They are catch-all adjectives, useful in describing a general phenomenon. But they are also euphemisms, and they disguise what’s at stake.
The terms “right” and “left,” not to mention “far right” and “far left,” have long been due for a rethink. They date from the French Revolution of 1789, when the nobility sat on the right side of the National Assembly, and the revolutionaries sat on the left. Since most Western “right-wing” parties aren’t seeking to conserve aristocracy anymore, and many of the “left-wing” parties stopped being revolutionary a long time ago, the metaphor has grown stale.
As for “far right,” it doesn’t really belong on that scale, because the modern European “far right” isn’t conservative in any sense at all. Nor does it have much in common with parties of the so-called center right, many of which favor free markets and global trade and are happy to participate in international institutions and treaties. The “far right,” by contrast, is anti-trade and anti-market, favoring instead a greater role for the national state or, in Hungary for example, for oligarchs close to the ruling party. More important, many favor a greater role for those ruling parties, treating with suspicion journalists, courts, civil servants, universities and even police forces that question their compliance with existing law.
The same is true of the incoherent movement in the United States that is widely known as “populist.” Misleadingly, populist sounds like “popular,” but in fact we are talking about a movement that represents a minority. Although the “populists” are meant to be a faction of the conservative Republican Party, they aren’t conservative either. Instead, they share the European “far right” antipathy to the conservation of anything — along with the European “far right” suspicion of the media, the courts, the universities and pretty much all of the other institutions of the democratic political order. Solemn attempts to give this movement “Jacksonian” or other historical roots usually overlook the fact that the modern movement’s main proponent, President Trump, doesn’t actually know any history at all.
But what words to use instead? As long ago as 2010, the Dutch writer Rob Riemen argued that we should call movements that feed on fear, promote xenophobia and denigrate democratic institutions by an older name: “fascist.” In his newest book, “To Fight Against This Age,” he argues that anything else is false: “The term populist is only one more way to cultivate the denial that the ghost of fascism is haunting our societies again.”
Yet “fascist,” whatever it meant to the Italians who invented the term in the early 20th century, now has different connotations: mass violence, mass murder, world war. None of the modern “far-right” or “populist” parties is responsible for even remotely similar crimes, so the connection seems unfair. I’ve run into similar objections to the term “national socialist,” which still seems to me worth reviving: After all, it’s a straightforward factual description of political movements that are simultaneously “nationalist,” in that they promote an ethnic-based definition of national identity, and “socialist,” in that they advocate a much larger economic role for the state.
But because the term reminds people of the Nazis, it still offends. So does the term “neo-Bolshevik” — I have used it to evoke the conspiratorial rhetoric that these parties always rely on, something the original Bolsheviks also relished, as well as their disdain for the institutions and laws of what they used to call “bourgeois democracy” — but of course they have not used Bolshevik terror either.
What’s left? The political philosopher Jan-Werner Müller suggests “anti-pluralist,” and although that’s a bit antiseptic, it’s probably closest to the truth. What we are really talking about, after all, are political parties that do not acknowledge the right of anyone else to hold or share power. They seek to establish themselves as the only legitimate spokesman for “the people” or “the nation,” as opposed to the voters, and they seek to weaken any civic or political institutions that might restrict them. It’s not an accident that Hungary’s Fidesz party or Poland’s Law and Justice party have packed their courts; nor is it a coincidence that Trump’s Republican Party seeks to undermine the FBI. France’s National Front and Germany’s Alternative for Germany aren’t in power, but even so, they treat the media with the same disdain as the American president does.
So in the New Year, let’s be clear about what’s at stake: not just politics as usual but also democracy itself, in Europe as well as North America. And I’ll try to find better language to express that struggle.