Storytelling is an Icelandic virtue. For anyone needing to understand why we today witness the return of an aggressive exclusionary political ideology, professor Eirikur Bergmann’s book (Bifröst University, Iceland) is indispensable. Bergmann takes us through six thought-provoking chapters, arranged around his central line of argument: that three waves have shaped our contemporary political coastlines. The first is in response to the oil crisis of the 1970s; followed by the Fall of the Berlin wall and its consequences – exacerbated by 9/11; and finally, the financial crisis tipping over to a refugee crisis in the decade from 2008. These three waves are ‘identified by their own qualities’ (p. 47), from economic arguments such as anti-tax and neoliberal ideas to nationalistic sentiments and finally aggressively exclusionary anti-immigration and Islamophobic positions. For Bergmann, Brexit and the election of Trump in 2016 are regarded the crest of the third wave, erupting in a toxic cult(ure) of conspiracism and populism fuelled by the spread of online misinformation and echoing into our contemporary battle against a global pandemic.
Bergmann starts by taking us back to 1989 and the fall of the Berlin wall, which marked the abrupt end of the Cold War – and with it the many political arrangements accompanying the bipolar world order. Contra Fukuyama’s ‘end of history’, both history and religion returned almost immediately to conflict zones across the globe, a trend that spilled over into the neo-nationalist party landscape of the West. Compromises of the post-1945-order – such as pooling national sovereignty for the purpose of international policy alignment – were suddenly up in the air. Since then, dozens of populist political leaders have reached power in no less than 33 democracies (p. 9), eroding democratic norms such as checks and balances, term limits, academic and press freedoms.
Populism is, as Bergmann reminds us, neither based on paranoid or delusional imaginations of politics. Leaving theoretical discussions about the precise definition of populism aside (is it a ‘thin ideology’, rhetoric or ‘performative style’?), Bergmann rather charts the developmental history of nativist populism as a political praxis eroding democracy with arguments of popular representation. By paradoxically tying the claim to represent the ‘people’ unmediated and unchecked by expert opinion and with a reliance upon authoritarian leaders, democracies are at risk of dying ‘more with a whisper than a bang’ (p. 20). Once populist claims entered the mainstream, ‘the centre-left/centre-right duopoly that dominated Western liberal democracies in the post-war era’ (p. 21) gradually was dissolved, a trend that hit harder in two-party systems like the UK and the US and elsewhere has led to centre parties ‘largely losing to the periphery on both sides’ (p. 22).
While avoiding definitional blind alleys, Bergmann elaborates ten common qualities of nativist populism (pp.48-51):
• nationalism and nostalgia in well-defined borders (the importance of interpreting the past as a Golden Age of the nation and the contemporary situation as one of decline and decadence)
• exclusionary divisions between ‘us’ and ‘them’ within domestic society (minorities, domestic elites and political adversaries) but also on the international level, fuelling xenophobia and racism
• strong charismatic leaders as unchanneled and unchecked voices and direct representatives of the purported ‘will of the people’ (paradoxically leading to a higher acceptance of authoritarianism)
• anti-intellectualist and anti-elitist in their rejection of expert knowledge, rule of law or the formation of elite consensus
• simple solutions to perceived or real pressing problems are presented, frequently based on ideas of relative deprivation and
• moral statements rather than practical suggestions saturate the discourse of populists, placing blame on the alleged wrongdoers rather than drawing up realistic plans for improvements (thus, populists in power frequently collapse when faced with the triviality of day-to-day politics)
• protectionism as the basis of national economy (sometimes paradoxically paired with economic neoliberalism such as tax cuts for the rich)
• authoritarianism and social conservatism in imagining society strictly divided into different groups with strong ideas of corporativism – paired with an fetishized obsession for discipline, ‘law and order’ and a strong executive punitive state power
• illiberal democracy in that the ‘will of the people’ only is expressed in order to legitimize the political power of one single expression of that particular will and that instances of checks-and-balances (media and other gatekeepers) are eliminated to insignificance
• suspicion/rejection of multilateralism in international relations leads to withdrawal from international governmental organizations or a considerable degree of Euroscepticism
In subsequent chapters, the three phases of the rise of neo-nationalism are fleshed out in great detail. These chapters offer valuable guides through predominantly European and US postwar politics. Yet Bergmann’s main focus are populist nativist parties in different parts of Europe. The years following the end of the Cold War saw the emergence the most prolific figures came to symbolize the rise of nativist populism: Haider in Austria, Berlusconi in Italy, Marie Le Pen in France. 9/11 further unleashed the rise of Islamophobic conspiracies over the next two decades.
Most recently, dissatisfaction with some of the fundamental ingredients of the postwar order finally reached a new level in the third wave of nativist populism, triggered by economic crises starting in 2008. The economic demise of Europe now turned into a tangible life reality across the continent; for instance, during the Greek debt crisis. Especially during the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, migration was pitched against the welfare state and the economy, allegedly at risk in the wealthiest of nations. ‘Western values’ such as liberalism, feminism and even LGBTQI+ rights were described as incompatible with the worldviews and attitudes of domestic minorities and migrants. This, together with the massive rise of social media in its function of disseminating information and political mobilization, reshaped the political landscape. Political parties such as the Sweden Democrats developed a new variety of welfare chauvinism where membership in the national community and participation in redistributive justice were fused into a single outlook. Russia turned particularly vociferous in its conspiratorial critique of Western decadence and engaged in active disinformation campaigns to support political division and polarization in both Europe and the USA, with Brexit and the presidential elections of 2016 being the most significant cases. The rise of Trump and UKIP demonstrate the toxicity of this development in the name of the ‘silent majority’. For Bergmann, ‘one of the effects of nativist populism in the third wave was of undermining traditional politics and in vilifying the establishment’ (p. 197).
As comprehensive as the book already is, there are some blind spots. Given the Eastern European trend towards ‘illiberal democracy’, how did exclusionary nationalism play out in the Eastern bloc between 1945 and 1990? Did these societies confront their wartime heritage or was nationalism still an ideological option, albeit encased in Soviet communism? Was really nothing going in that spilled over the second wave? More might have been said about, for example, why aggressive nationalism could flourish immediately after the dissolution of Yugoslavia, or why Eastern Germany is particularly affected by nativist populism, or Poland and Hungary descend into outright authoritarianism. Additionally, more examples also outside the traditional ‘West’ could have clarified we indeed can talk about a global development: from Bolsanaro in Brazil to Modi’s Hindu nationalism in India, or indeed the political worldviews informing jihadi Islamist in Europe or in Daesh. As this suggests, we still know too little about the dualist dynamics that trigger reciprocal radicalization processes. Yet Bergmann’s book is highly recommended, and provides an informed narrative to understand the trends underlying the rise of the radical right in its nativist and populist variety. This is an important book for sound orientation and reference, useful for journalists, students and a general readership alike.
Dr Andreas Önnerfors is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a Professor in Intellectual History at the University of Erfurt, Germany. See full profile here.
© Andreas Önnerfors. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).