Fighting back: Liberal Democratic Responses to the Populist Challenge


CEU Center for European Neighborhood Studies, Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Policy Solutions and Political Capital cooperated to organise a public debate on populism, which took place at CEU on June 8, 2017. Mr. Cas Mudde, probably the best-known researcher of the topic and an associate professor at the School of Public and International Affairs at the University of Georgia, USA delivered the keynote speech, which was followed by a panel discussion with the Deputy Director of the Institute of Political Sciences at ELTE ÁJK Krisztina Arató, CEU professor András Bozóki and Mr. Mudde, which was moderated by the head of the Budapest office of Friedrich-Ebert-Stiftung, Jan Niklas Engels.

Mr. Mudde began his speech by defining populism, whose core characteristic is anti-elitism. Populists claim society consists of two different groups: the pure people and the corrupt elite, both of which are portrayed as homogenous groups. Both groups are defined and constructed by populists, they therefore hold the key to the meaning and the composition of these constructs. According to Mr. Mudde, populism is not only a political strategy, but an ideology. Populists believe in what they say and act correspondingly: they destroy pluralist democracy under the pretext of the alleged will of homogenous people. Mr. Mudde stated that populism is successful where people are unhappy.

Keynote speaker: Cas Mudde


Mr. Mudde claimed that politicians have used two strategies against populism, which proved to be successful only to a certain extent, but these are misguided nonetheless. They mainly achieve short-term success for the establishment, but weaken liberal democracy in the long-term. First, with anti-populism you adopt to populism, but you reverse the roles, exchange the good and bad sides. The problem with anti-populism is that it does not mobilise people enough. Second, the idea that “good populism” defeats “bad populism”. According to Mr. Mudde’s argument, you cannot beat populism with its own weapon. By adopting populism, one strengthens the illusion that people are homogenous and there is one simplistic solution, one policy that is good for all.

Reasons of populists’ success are systemic. Parties are not trusted anymore because populists claim that other political parties a) seem to be the same b) don’t talk about certain issues. Parties look similar because of the EU and globalisation, and they campaign as if they still had the same political space and as if there were no boundaries to their policies. But parties are not actually the same and it does matter who wins the elections. According to Mr. Mudde, politicians are challenged more nowadays because voters do not believe them anymore. Voters are much better educated, they have more self-confidence, hence they hold politicians accountable, critically assess their leaders and do not believe everything they hear.

Some time ago, the role of the media was to be the “gatekeeper”. However, in the current media environment, private media dominate almost every European country. These media live from advertisements and the fact that scandals profit the media the most prepares the ground for populists. Populist leaders are good at social media such as Twitter, Facebook or blogs. However, social media works only if it paves the way for the traditional media. The latter have to pick up news from social media. This new context of the media has helped populists because they exploit scandals and shy away from controversies.

Mr. Mudde claimed that you can only defeat populism by strengthening liberal democracy. You can do that by defending minority rights and by arguing that minorities can become majorities and vica versa. Secondly, he believes that we need ideologies and vision, especially when things are not going well. And populists do have vision. They say for example that if we do not like the boundaries which the EU sets then we can get out of it. However, Mr. Mudde believes that the vast majority of the people are looking for a liberal democratic option, but they need the ideology and they need confidence and leadership. Leadership is appreciated, as for example in the case of Angela Merkel. According to Mr. Mudde, what we are missing in the EU today is vision. We need to get back to a modern ideological vision. Mr. Mudde stated that democratic leaders have to lead the people and not just follow them.

Afterwards, in the roundtable discussion Ms. Arató and Mr. Bozóki shared their views on Mr. Mudde’s keynote speech. Ms. Arató questioned if populists will lose attention and fade, and he was wondering why the EU is the main target of populists. She believes that the answer could be that the EU has a highly complex institutional system and does not have real leaders. Instead, it is rather a highly cooperative institution which makes policies for its members. Populists go against this notion because according to them nation states are the most important actors in Europe, hence sovereignty is a key issue for populist politicians. Furthermore, elitists become elitist leaders easily, and elitist populism is a camouflage. In his reaction, Mr. Mudde stated that he does not agree elitist populism exists, only populism run by the elites. Populist leaders are insider outsiders who are in the elite but somehow outside of it, on the edge and not in the central. They claim they are outsiders based on their values. He agreed that there is no strong opposition force in Hungary and the division of the opposition helps Mr. Orbán create a system which will remain dominant for a long time.

To the question if there should be self-criticism from the liberal side he said yes, definitely.  We act as if liberal democracy was functioning perfectly. Certain groups did gain more freedom but, as he has mentioned before, certain issues were kept out of debate or were sanitized. We act as if liberal democracy never had any repression and in reality we have to be honest.

A question of the audience regarding the rural and urban cleavage has moved all participants of the discussion. They all agreed that this geographical distinction brings different levels of education and multiculturalism, different ways of life and different economic opportunities. Cities doubtlessly provide more options for people. In the so-called globalised economy people have different value structures, more faith in globalisation or in European integration and not necessarily because they are so much more enlightened, but because they have more opportunities. However Mr Mudde pointed out that this should be examined further.

We thank Petra Várhegyi for the summary.