A Populist Wave in Europe? Similarities and Differences Across the Continent

A growing number of nations in Europe have witnessed the rise of influential populist movements. Examples of populist expressions revolving around the construction of a divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’ abound. The Brexit movement in the U.K., for example, clearly highlighted the opposition between the innocent British people and the corrupt elites in the European Union. Outside of the political realm, journalists also communicate populist ideas, as illustrated by the following quote from the tabloid newspaper The Sun: “THIS is our last chance to remove ourselves from the undemocratic Brussels machine and it's time to take it”.

Despite the spread of populist ideas among society, there has been little comparative research on the contents and effects of populist communication. Recently, however, a comprehensive overview of populist political communication in Europe is synthesized in one single book. Integrating the knowledge on populist uprisings and populist communication in 24 European countries, it gives us much needed insights into why and how populist ideas may have been so influential across the continent. But what does it tell us about the common core of populism in Europe? And what are the most important differences?

Reviewing the state of the art of populism research in the 24 countries investigated in this book, the common core of populist communication can be identified as the expression of a central divide between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Populist communication emphasizes that the ordinary people should be central in political-decision making. However, some ‘evil’ other is blocking the ordinary people’s goals. Hence, a common characteristic of populism in Europe is the attribution of blame to out-groups. To make these populist ideas stick, the construction of a crisis situation is crucial. In all European countries, some form of crisis – be it economically, culturally, or politically – forms the crucial foundation on which the brickwork of the divide between ‘us and them’ is laid.

Across Europe, it is the specific out-group threat and the construction of a crisis that differs. This is in line with the argument that populism is chameleonic in nature, adapting its core message to the context it attaches itself to. In some European countries, for example, the refugee crisis is less salient. Instead, the national elites in government or ethnic minorities are the most salient target of blame shifting. In Greece, populist ideas construct the ordinary people as the suppressed ‘underdogs’ exploited by the ‘power block’ of the corrupt elites. A salient example is SYRIZA, which formed a coalition government with the right-wing populist party ANEL in 2015. In Western European populism, the 'other' manifests itself as a combination of two enemies: the corrupt elites and societal out-groups excluded on an economic, cultural, and moral basis. The elites are accused of not representing the needs of the ordinary native people by prioritizing the needs of the fortune-seeking migrants.

The comparison of populist expressions in 24 European countries helps us to explain why populism has been, and continues to be, so successful. Most importantly, the key message of populist blame attribution responds to the specific crisis that is considered important by the electorate in the specific countries. It appeals to sentiments of belonging to a nation that used to be safe from harm. In its adaptive chameleonic style, populism mobilizes the silenced majority of the ordinary discontented people. It capitalizes on their hopes, anger, and fear by promising to regenerate their lost home by punishing the evil others responsible for causing the crisis of the once glorious nation. If no other actors and movements voice their grievances, populist ideas may continue to persuade the electorate throughout Europe.

To end on a more nuanced note, the unanswered sentiments of the populist electorate may provide an opportunity for other movements to introduce alternative solutions, which may have a positive influence on democracy by decreasing discontent and rebuilding trust.

This post draws on an edited book on populist communication in 24 European countries: Aalberg, T., Esser, F., Reinemann, C., Strömbäck, J., & de Vreese, C. H. (2017). Populist Political Communication in Europe. New York and London: Routledge.

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