"Cordon sanitaire is lost for Spain..."

Agenda Pública

25 mins - 9 de Junio de 2023, 07:05

Professor and founder of Agenda Pública, Juan Rodríguez Teruel, has held a conversation with Professor Cas Mudde, which we transcribe below. We thank the Centre de Cultura Contemporània de Barcelona for making it possible.​

Almost 20 years ago, you published that we were living a populist Zeitgeist. Are we still living today a radical right zeitgeist?

I don't think so. I think the radical right was more powerful in 2015-2017, before the COVID and now Ukraine war really broke it.

The acceptance and mainstreaming of the far right remained the same, but the dominance of its issues and frames went down because we simply talk less about it.
But what you see is that once we talk about immigration, we talk about it in the frames of the far right. But in 2015-2017, the only thing we talked about were the issues of the far right in the frames of the far right and increasingly with the far right. Today I think mainstreaming is stronger than it ever was. On the other hand, I think that the Zeitgeist has moved a bit away from the radical right. It even moved a little bit away from populism, I would argue. Both COVID and Russia have made us look to the state again, and then has made us look to experts. And while we have a very loud minority that opposes everything of both, which is amplified by the media -- what studies show actually is that trust in experts, trust even in professors, trust in the media in many countries has increased.

At the moment, trust in the army is also going up, another traditional institution of the state. Perhaps this shows, though, that the far right is not dependent on immigration. The far right is now just part of our political system. For a growing number of people, these are normal parties. They relate to the radical right the same as they relate to the Social Democrats or the Greens. But it's no longer the party that sets the agenda.

This is interesting, and I will come later to this idea of normalisation for these parties. But first, particularly thinking in the terms of the public debate in Spain and the translation in Spanish, I would like you to clarify a bit the distinction between the concepts of far right, extreme right, and radical right

That's been a major problem actually with most of my translations, not only in Spanish. The term 'far right' doesn't have a real equivalence in many Latin languages, even in Dutch or German. For instance, the term ultra (employed for some of the translations), which in many ways would work best, has a specific connotation. In Italy in particular, with football violence and with neo-Nazis... ‘Far’ in many languages doesn't work in the same way. And so initially all my translators wanted to translate ‘far’ as ‘extreme’. But my point is that the far right is the extreme right plus the radical right, which then would sound like the extreme right is the extreme right plus the radical right, which makes no logical sense. So the extreme right is fundamentally antidemocratic, meaning that they're against populous sovereignty and majority rule. They don't believe that the people should elect their own leaders, at best, like if one thinks about fascism, or, here, Francoism. Most of the extreme right, they are antidemocratic because they're elitist. They don't only think that one nation is superior to the other, but they think that within the nation, some people are superior to other people. Hitler was a superior German, and if you believe in that, then democracy doesn't make sense. And as Hitler himself said, democracy is mediocracy. It means that the mediocre person governs. And if you have a superior person, why not let that person govern? 

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Now, elitism while still around is of course not very fashionable. And in today's world, where democracy is hegemonic, even groups that have a problematic relation with democracy will claim to be democratic.
Therefore, the radical right claims to be democratic, to believe in populist sovereignty and majority rule.
But it has problems with core elements of liberal democracy. The liberal democracy is the system we live in and often refer to as democracy, but is actually much more than that. It combines popular sovereignty and majority rule with minority rights, with rule of law, with separation of powers of independence of media and judiciary, et cetera, et cetera. The far right has issues with those things, particularly minority rights, independence of judiciary, media, etc.

Terminology is politically relevant because we may banalise the distinction between being anti-democratic and being anti-liberal. For instance, it is happening in Spain, where Vox is usually referred to as a ‘extreme right’, meaning anti-democratic, while many people do not believe this idea, and consider that, in the end, it is propaganda, downgrading the essential distinction between mainstream right and the radical right. What do you think?

I agree, terminology is very contextual. I think this has more to do with relations to fascism. And so when you call a party fascist, the only thing that party needs to do is to say that it doesn't fit that definition in one of the key ways. And so if it says, I don't want to murder 6 million Jews, right, and they don't, and so everyone sees that, then from that moment on, they're not fascist, therefore they're not problematic

I think using these terms that are very loaded but also are very high bars are strategically problematic because the far right may just say: “Look, they're just smearing us”. And if they have this one example, then they can use this all the time. Remember when they called us fascist? Well, now they call us anti-immigrant. Of course, they are anti-immigrant. But by now part of that electorate feels like they're smearing them. And I've always had a problem with fascism, which I consider narrower than others terms. But for me, fascism is the ultimate sin. I'm from the Netherlands. I'm from a generation that was formed by the Second World War and the history of it.

It was an exceptionally evil system. You don't stretch that concept because it diminishes the crimes. And I think it is an affront to the victims of the regime. But it's also an incredibly high bar to jump. And for a long time, these parties have been very easy to do it. The only thing they needed to do is show that they weren't ideologically anti-democratic, that they weren't anti-semitic or that they didn't want to kill opponents. And once you have set that the bar and then afterwards you say: “Well, they don't want that, but they do want to kick people out of the country”. What is that compared to wanting to genocide, right? That doesn't sound like much anymore, because you have to put the bar too high. And it's not to say that there aren't similarities with fascism, with people like Bolsonaro or even Trump, with the mass rallies, with the encouragement of violence and whatever, but for many parties like Vox, this is much more problematic at the best. What you can argue is they have a remarkable tolerance of the former authoritarian regime. And might that be an indication that their support for democracy is not that high?

Still, strategically I don't think it's the best way to go about it. Leaving aside what they think about Franco, it is what they think about pluralism. It's what they think about marginalised groups that make them problematic for liberal democracy.

Another clarification I would like to ask you is about populism, because you are one of the main references, and most of your initial research helped to clarify the concept of populism. To what extent should we distinguish between populism and this new radical right? I mean, are there non populist, radical right wing parties? How populism helps us to understand this evolution on the right?

First, a pet peeve. I initially studied the radical right before I studied populism. I don't consider myself a populism scholar. In my book “Populist radical right parties in Europe” (Cambridge University Press, 2007), I used the term populist radical right rather than the term that was then more common, which was radical right-wing populism. Radical right-wing populism puts populism first and foremost and says that we're looking at a radical right-wing version of populism. Whereas my point is that the radical right is central and we're looking at a populist version of the radical right. As I argue in that book, nativism is the foundational concept, and we're looking at a populist version of nativism. I think populism was very crucial to the radical right since the 1980s. I think it is becoming less important today. And it's a logical consequence of mainstreaming. When you're outside of the system, you can put everything together and make them into one elite. But if a significant part of the elite is happy to collaborate with you, if not the whole elite, as happened in Denmark, then why would you be populist? And you see that populism is not, I think, so important in the Democrats of Sweden, it's not so important in Meloni, I would assume. It's not going to be that important in Vox, but nativism and authoritarianism remain the core.

I agree with you that Vox does not suit the label of populist party well, as it is usually made in comparative studies. Moving to the causes of the rise of radical right-wing parties, you have mentioned very often the historical impact of what happened after 9/11 in 2001 in the United States and how this opened a new time for nativism and Islamophobic tendencies. But you have also remarked the problems of liberal democracy as a central driver of the evolution of the right wing.

I think it's important to acknowledge, even if most people know it, but most of the discourses don't do justice to it, that the far right is a complex phenomenon which has very complex and multiple different causes and they're slightly different in the way they play out in individual countries.
I think it was crucial that in the 1990s you saw a convergence on socioeconomic policy of the left and the right, which made it very hard for these parties to compete on that. At the same time, you saw discomfort with multiculturalism and immigration already then, but there was still a kind of a normative taboo on it.
9/11 broke and created a different discourse that allowed for the prejudice of Islamophobia, which was no longer based on ethnic nationalism: “They are not like us, but was in the alleged defence of liberal democracy, sometimes gender equality even, and of course, security”. 

Now I think liberal democracy as a system plays a little bit of a role because it's a very complex system. There's an inherent tension between majority rule and minority rights. There is no objective balance. You can say, well, you should have 80% majority rule and 20% minority rights. No, these principles will clash at a certain point in time and you will choose one over the other. What the populist Zeitgeist was all about in a sort of a majoritarianism in this idea that the people can do whatever they want and they can't. That's not liberal democracy. The people cannot. Even if 90% of the people want to take away the rights of the other 10%, you can’t do that in liberal democracy. I think that's totally lost in the discourse about democracy. These kinds of protections have become more and more seen as privileges. The idea that some minorities have more protection than others. But I think the failure is not so much systemic as it is from the pillars of liberal democracy. For most of mainstream parties, I think also for the media, ideology have been lost. We live pretty much in an ideological vacuum where the ideological foundations of our system have all been declared failures. 

Neoliberalism is one of them. It's still like the foundation of our economic system. The Great Recession has shown that it wasn't actually this perfect system. Sarkozy, Cameron, Ruth, everyone. We've all acknowledged that, but we haven't come up with an alternative. Multiculturalism has been declared that as well. But we still have it. And European integration. Same thing.
Almost every political leader says that it has gone too far, yet we still have it. And so now we have a whole group of citizens who live in a system that is shaped by ideologies or ideas that no one openly defends. It's a fundamental problem.
Now then there is one group that says I have an alternative, it's the far right. You have another group that says I don't really have an alternative because there isn't one. TINA, there is no alternative. Globalisation, EU, whatever is the excuse, but vote for me, because those guys are really dangerous. Now you can do that once, you can do that twice, right? But it's not empowering. And what it leads to is generally fewer people voting. And at a certain point in time people say look, I voted for you now twice, nothing happens. I'm going to give the other ones a chance.

France is the worst example of that. Macron has gotten elected twice on an anti-Le Pen vote. The successor to Macron will probably not get away with it. But even if they get away with it, it is going to end at a certain point in time, if no one comes up with an alternative story within the liberal democracy framework.

This reminds us about the strategy of ‘cordon sanitaire’. Is it still in place? In Spain political leaders from the left insist very much on it.

There have been very few ‘cordon sanitaires’ in history. The Belgians still have it, but it's crumbling heavily. The Germans still have it, but it has been debated within Christian Democratic circus for a long time. The Swedes and the Dutch had it, and it's gone. Cordon sanitaires generally work only at the beginning. If you don't do it at the beginning, you can't reintroduce it. And in that sense this is a past station for Spain. Vox was mainstream at an insane rate. Pretty much a month after their first regional election, the PP was willing to talk to them. So what should PP say now? I'm not going to talk to them anymore because I was wrong last time. Which party is going to say I was wrong, right? Particularly if it's roughly the same leader or Vox turns out not to be the party we thought it was. Vox is the same party as it was then. There are no major scandals that haven't been radicalised. So cordon sanitaire is lost for Spain. Of course, the left claims for this ‘cordon sanitaire’, because if PP can't govern with Vox, then the left is certain of power.

But if I were the right -and I'm not remarkably smart- the right is going to say that too. You governed with the communist. So I can't work with the radical right, but you can work with the radical left? If you have a corridor, you can claim for a cordon based on liberal democracy. Not that I support it, but it should be on liberal democracy. Which means you don't work with communists, right? If your argument is: "Well, they're communists, but they are willing to work within liberal democracy"… so is Vox within limits, right? Therefore, I think the cordon sanitaire debate here is going nowhere. To be honest, I think calling elections and making the elections about Vox has killed this option too, because it has put PP on the spot. Sánchez called elections arguing "I'm the only one that can prevent Vox from being empowered." Thereby he has already said PP is going to work with them. So PP now has two choices. One, they're going to say either we're going to work with Vox. But they won't say that. Alternatively, they're going to say, vote for us so that we don't need Vox.

Now to pull that off, they have to move into Vox territory because otherwise, people who are thinking between PP and Vox are not going to move to PP. And so the cordon sanitaire is gone in terms of both ideas and coalitions. 

Another question is how easy is it for a Vox voter to vote for PP? I think for a set of voters it is virtually impossible, because they left the PP probably mostly because of the corruption scandal. Those probably will never return. This is not about the ideology, it's about the institution. They see it as a corrupt institution that betrayed their ideals. But I would imagine with younger voters that they're not so open to the PP. I would be surprised if these people are a majority of Vox voters, but it is a core vote for Vox. 

There's another set of voters that was just unhappy and that believes that PP can reform. They feel probably more comfortable with Vox because they're just unhappy in general and they think Vox plays an important role by keeping PP on the straight and narrow, but if the choice is -and I'm not sure if Sanchez can pull that off- between either a left¡-wing government or a PP government, and they suspect that Vox vote would weaken the chance at a right-wing government, they will vote for PP. 

It seems this mechanism was a very important part of the story in the 2019 election, where Vox benefited from a group of voters that thought that at that time the PP has no chances for governing. So they supported Vox just to express their protest and disaffection (as I have shown in this research article in South European Society and Politics). This set of voters could easily swing again to the PP. In more general terms, it might show the nature behind this rise of the radical right wing, understood as a sort of corrective or counterbalance to the pitfalls of liberal democracy, related to technocratic elitism or to the govern of populist radical left wing parties, where they didn't deliver as their voters expected.

This reaction is very specific to Spain and Greece. The radical left is virtually irrelevant in the vast majority of European countries. For a long time, it wasn't uncommon to say that the far right asks the right questions but provides the wrong answers. And it's true the far right put issues on the agenda that were important to a minority of the population but were not addressed: Immigration, European integration... But that doesn't apply today anymore. These issues are on the agenda, they are being addressed. And so in that sense the radical right as a corrective is not necessarily, I think, a particularly good point. That being said, what we see in certain countries is that the radical right brings certain people back into the political arena, helping them to feel represented again, which is good. I think one of the underrated elements of the mainstreaming argument is that people see the mainstreaming of the radical right as the growth of the radical right. It may not be the case.

I always point to the last two French presidential elections. Marine Pen actually didn't do so well in the first round. But she did it much better in the second round, even better than her father did in 2002. So what does that tell us? In the first round, it was the far-right supporter that voted for him, while in the second round it was the people for whom the far right is a normal party. It's not their preference. But if the choice is green, centre right and far right, they will do the far right. We saw the same in Austria in 2016, the presidential elections, where there was just a huge part of the conservative voter who had a choice between the most moderate green politician in European history and a radical right leader. When so many voters feel more comfortable with the radical right leader that is mainstream, that means normalisation. Where you see that politician, it isn't you, but it's an okay, second choice. And I think there's a sizeable portion here in Spain who will have the same. They're not necessarily hardcore Vox supporters, but they think that sometimes it is a better strategic vote than PPs and that's a different challenge. They are easier to convince that what they're doing is not that smart than people who truly believe in what Vox stands for, because the later operate outside of liberal democracy. These are people who position themselves within liberal democracy and who just don't see Vox as a threat to them.

That might be a threat to liberal democracy or, on the contrary, it may provide the proof of resiliency, that liberal democracy has finally forced them to adapt. In this sense, Peter Mair, your PhD supervisor and one of the smartest European political scientists, argued that European party systems had become cartelised by the 1990s. Do you think that these challenger parties have helped to break this cartelisation? 

I don’t think so. It might be rather the opposite: in most cases they have become part of the cartel, and so they won't fundamentally change the system. The FPÖ was the first open anti-cartel party and by and large they were always against the two pillars and they just created the third one. In the end, they were actually happy enough to just be a third one rather than blow up the system. This is the same with the Danish People's Party, or with Meloni in Italy. They don't fundamentally change the system in terms of Orwell. It's even worse, since it is all about the corruption of the old system and it creates a kleptocracy of incredible levels. Therefore, the normalisation and mainstreaming of the far right is not good for liberal democracy. As long as these parties do not accept liberal democracy, even if they play nice while they don't have the power yet to change the system fundamentally, they may try to change it in the future: to take away minority rights of marginalised groups, to weaken the independence of the judiciary and of the of the media, etc.

That's in essence the way that they see the world.
A monist view in which the people are all the same and the only group outside are the elite and they're illegitimate. There's only one nation that deserves to live there. The other one is a guest that can only live here as a kind of second-rate citizen that accepts the dominance of that one nation.
And so even if I may be fine that they can operate in that sense. It is still important that we understand that they're essentially a different animal than a Conservative party because they're outside of the fundamentals of our system, not just normative legal, too.

What is your opinion of balance about the six first months of Giorgia Meloni in Italy?

Meloni is smart, and a typical far-right leader, someone who works from within the system.
She follows PiS on foreign policy. We currently live in a world that's dominated by geopolitical considerations. The US made it clear: if you're anti-Putin, you can do a lot. And that's the lesson that Meloni has learned. Therefore, she supports the EU strongly in its efforts on Ukraine. She is overall not too critical about the EU because she needs massive amounts of money from the EU for it. But at the same time, she's appointing true fascists at all kinds of positions, and she's passing laws and making statements that intimidate and worry journalists about independence, marginalised minorities. I don't think she has gone beyond liberal democracy yet, but she's pushing it. And more importantly, a lot of these changes are symbolic, even the weird law that now the state will only communicate in the male form, which is a non-thing on the one hand, but is massively important on the other. Because if you know today's world, this is about so-called gender ideology, and this is the first step of a much longer process in which you go against all kinds of gender equality and LGBTQI rights. You can say, on the one hand: Not much happened. On the other hand, this is just the first half year in which there are a lot of other big things that you should be worried about. Ukraine war, your country being virtually bankrupt, and at the same time, you still have already pushed through some classic symbolic acts for your government.

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