Cas Mudde: The era of big catch-all parties is over


He truly believes there is no other option to defeat Fidesz than for all other parties to work together, through strategic electoral behavior rather than through an electoral coalition. He also claims that as long as the EU leave criticism to words, Orbán is fine, but he wouldn’t survive sustained EU sanctions, as they would wreak havoc on the Hungarian economy and on the Fidesz graft system. Our interview with Professor Cas Mudde from the University of Georgia, Dutch political scientist, expert on populism.

Mr. Mudde, you gave a keynote speech in June, where you said that in order to fight populism, TINA (there is no alternative) style politics should be dropped and democratic forces should lead rather than follow people. What we have seen in Hungary is that the populist government replaced TINA-style politics with an unorthodox economic policy. How would you evaluate the success of Fidesz’s strategy?

The Fidesz strategy is very successful, given its electoral results, but is based to a large extent on almost full control of the state and the media. As long as there is no real independent oversight on the macroeconomic data, the government can claim that all is going well. Moreover, this is also emphasized by the integrated chorus of pro-government media, wheras independent media reaches only a minority of, mostly already anti-government, people.

Viktor Orbán has been benefitting from the high level of xenophobia by exploiting existing fears about immigration, including that it might undermine domestic culture. Do you believe that this trend is reversible? What exactly would you suggest for the weak liberal leftist Hungarian opposition in order to take the wind out of the sails of far-right forces? Should they cooperate with far-right Jobbik in order to defeat Fidesz?

 It’s important to note that Fidesz didn’t make Hungarians nationalistic or xenphobic, they already were. Hungarian political culture has always been nationalistic, obsessed with history (Trianon) and the so-called „Hungarian abroad.” Fidesz in part profits from that political culture, in part strengthened it. Given that the major opposition party is also nationalist and xenophobic, there is little chance this will be changed fundmentally soon.

Regarding the strategy for the next elections, I truly believe there is no other option to defeat Fidesz than for all other parties to work together, through strategic electoral behavior (i.e. not running candidates against each other if that would help Fidesz) rather than through an electoral coalition. If Fidesz wins again, the opposition might no longer have a fair chance to win the elections in 2022. At this rate, the oppsoitional space in Hungary will have become so small, and powerless, that Orbán cannot lose anymore in 2020.

Do you believe that after a certain point anti-EU war could be counterproductive for Fidesz, meaning tensions between Hungary and the EU will be so high that will make it impossible for the government to gain domestic political capital on this issue?

Hungary is fully dependent upon EU subsidies, and Orbán realizes that very well – as, undoubtedly, do various „stakeholders” in and around Fidesz. While he can easily afford to be criticized, and even ridiculed, in Brussels, he cannot survive sustained EU sanctions, as they would wreak havoc on the Hungarian economy and on the Fidesz graft system. So, it really is up to the EU. As long as they mainly leave it to words, Orbán is fine.

You also suggested to liberal democratic forces that instead of simply reacting to the analyses and solutions offered by the right-wing populists, they should regain the initiative in public debates. Could you give a successful example from the European stage?

Of course the best example is Emmanuel Macron, who had a hugely successful political campaign for both the presidential and parliamentary election by unashamedly standing for a pro-market, pro-EU program. While he was helped by all kind of specifically French (corruption Fillon) and more broader European factors, he didn’t waver and got massively rewarded. On the other side, Angela Merkel will be re-elected with a massive lead on the basis of an uncompromisingly anti-populist agenda.

„Instead of political realignment France has rather gone through shock dealignment, which was long time coming. It's up to Macron to create realignment. I doubt he will.” – this is what you tweeted after the first round of the French general election. Could you explain your pessimism in more detail?

As said, Macron stands for a clear pro-market, pro-EU agenda. That is attractive, but only to part of the French population. Now let’s be clear, the time of big catch-all parties is over. This means that, even if Macron creates a „realignment” of the center-left and center-right, the majority of the French electorate will have to find a home in other parties. It is up to them to reinvent themselves with modernized ideological agendas, or be largely replaced by new parties that provide those.

Despite the recent positive developments, Europe has obviously reached a critical moment, where populist forces could gain even more strength in the mid to long term due to the lack of progress on problems like youth unemployment, economic anxiety and cultural fears. How should the EU be reformed in order to stop this trend? When it comes to institutional reforms, would you prefer deeper integration in order to create a „multi-directional” EU?

I must admit that I am struggling with this. As it stands today, the EU is caught in an uncomfortable, and unworkable, power-sharing arrangement of the national and supranational level. Something has to give. If the EU is to continue to exist, which I think it will – assuming Italy doesn’t blow up the eurozone – I believe it needs deeper integration. To be absolutely clear, I am not sure a world without the EU is worst than a world with a more integrated EU, but that seems to be not an option. However, I also believe deeper integration should be done gradually, starting with a „Core Europe” (e.g. Benelux, France, Germany) and the gradual expansion should be strict and transparant, i.e. on the basis of real, not doctored, data and after open political debates and elections at the national level at  each step.

You've also stressed that NATO, and not the EU, is the embodiment of peace. Why do you think the EU has failed in this regard?

I don’t think the EU has failed. I just dispute the received wisdom that the EU has brought peace to Europe. I think it helped, by integrating economies (particularly of France and Germany), but the military alliance against the common communist enemy seems to me much more relevant in this respect. The EU performed a support role – not unimportant but not the most important either.

Rumour has it that you are just about to establish a think tank focusing on the far right and populism. How would it differ from the currently existing think tanks that are focusing on the same subject?

That rumour is only partly correct. It is true that I am trying to fundraise for a Center for Analysis of Extremism and Democracy at the University of Georgia. Unfortunately, that fundraising is not going so well yet, but I am still only starting. Most importantly, it is not a think tank. It is more envisioned as a combination of a research center and a meeting place, where scholars meet journalists and practitioners to discuss and study issues related to extremism and democracy. The key goal is to advance the quality of the public debate on issues related to liberal democracy.

You are leading a fascinating initiative, called Cinema Politique, which aims to explain and discuss international and national political developments through documentaries and movies. Which sort of movie would you recommend in order to be able to understand authoritarian populist trends?

That is a very good question. Cinema Politique comes out of a course I taught, „Film, Politics and Literature”, where I use film and literature to teach about non-democratic regimes. For example, I use the movie „The Great Dictator” (with Charlie Chaplin) and Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel „Maus” to teach about fascism – both perfectly show the gradual process of democratic decline and authoritarian, and even totalitarian, ascendence. Or the amazing German movie „The Life of Others” on communist regimes, which shows the „subtlety” of repression and the „normality” of authoritarian rule. But on contemporary authoritarian populist trends, I don’t directly know. Perhaps those movies are still to be made?