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A little bit of populism isn’t such a bad thing

31 March 2021
Léonie de Jonge

Growing up in Luxembourg, Léonie de Jonge was amazed by the rise of populism in the Netherlands. In her doctoral thesis, she investigated explanations for this development, as well as why right-wing populist parties are not gaining a foothold in her native country.

Text: Bert Platzer / Photo: Reyer Boxem

In the run-up to the American elections, the political scientist Léonie de Jonge had a bad feeling in the pit of her stomach for days and, the night before the election, she had a nightmare. In her dream, she faced the worst-case scenario – in more ways than one. In front of a full lecture hall, she had to explain how it was possible that Trump had won the election again. ‘I’m a political scientist. I’ve spent years researching political parties, especially right-wing populist ones, and I had to tell my students that I just couldn’t explain it’, recalls De Jonge, laughing. Fortunately, most dreams are not literal. Trump did not win, and De Jonge can indeed explain why a historic number of people still voted for him – but more about this later.

Thin ideology

When asked to define populism, De Jonge explains that, when talking about right-wing populism, we must first make several distinctions. ‘Populists draw a division in society, between the ordinary people and the evil, corrupt elite. For them, the will of the ordinary people is everything’.

That sounds quite democratic, and it may be true, notes De Jonge: ‘In principle, populism is just a part of democracy, and it doesn’t exist only at the extremes of the political spectrum. For example, in Italy, there’s a discussion as to whether the Five Star Movement is actually left-wing or right-wing. Populism is a thin ideology, which doesn’t offer complete answers to social problems. Nationalism and socialism do, however, and this is why populism usually attaches itself to these larger ideologies’. It also poses a threat to democracy, as right-wing populists are not known for their pluralistic views: their definition of ordinary people is usually limited to a single population group, and this can lead to the exclusion of minorities.

Tolerant, liberal, populist

De Jonge was born and raised in Luxembourg and, after a stint in the US and in England, she has been living in the Netherlands for only one year – since her appointment as assistant professor at the UG. She knew the Netherlands only through the media and from visits to her family. ‘My parents are from the Netherlands and, at home, we watched Dutch television. I always had the impression that the Netherlands was a tolerant country. Luxembourg seemed more conservative. For a long time, the Netherlands seemed immune to right-wing populism, but that changed completely in the early 2000s. This really fascinated me; how could that happen in a country that seems so open, tolerant and liberal?’

In her doctoral thesis, therefore, she investigated factors in the success and failure of right-wing populist parties in the Benelux. This is because, nestled in between Luxembourg and the Netherlands, there is another country, Belgium, which is curious in this respect. In the poorer Wallonia region, right-wing populists are unable to gain a foothold – even though there would seem to be every reason for them to do so, given the current economic conditions. In contrast, the richer Flanders region has a tradition of right-wing populists.

Before starting her PhD research in Cambridge in 2015, she did have to convince her supervisors. ‘They thought that the era of right-wing populism was over and that I should actually be focusing on left-wing populism, which was on the rise after the economic crisis in Spain and Greece. Then Brexit and Trump happened, and my research topic became incredibly relevant again’.

Paving the way

The emergence of right-wing populism in the Netherlands from 2000 onwards is synonymous with the rise of Pim Fortuyn. ‘Fortuyn was much more charismatic than Janmaat, who failed to make much of an impact in the 1980s and 1990s’, says De Jonge. ‘That was one of the main reasons for Fortuyn’s success. For right-wing populism to thrive, there has to be a breeding ground, a source of discontent in society. That potential is actually always there, in every society. But then there must also be a political supply – a charismatic leader who can do something with it’.

As De Jonge concludes in her thesis, however, supply and demand alone are not enough: ‘The established parties and the media also play a key role. We see established political parties as victims of populism, but they actually play a significant role in its rise. In the 1990s, the VVD politician Frits Bolkestein paved the way for Fortuyn. Other established parties were also increasingly focused on migration and similar themes. As a result, this theme became increasingly politicized, which in turn opened up an opportunity for right-wing populism. These kinds of themes and movements also suddenly started to gain a lot of media coverage. Like the media, established parties are a bit like gatekeepers, who determine who can enter the electoral arena’.

The non-cases presented in De Jonge’s research are equally interesting: why have Luxembourg and Wallonia not yet seen the emergence of a right-wing populist party? ‘In Wallonia, the established parties don’t address right-wing populist themes, like migration’, explains De Jonge. ‘The centre-left continues to focus on economic issues, and it hasn’t shifted towards the centre. And the centre-right tries not to copy right-wing populist positions. For this reason, themes like migration are simply less politicized. As long as established political parties and the media continue to sideline populist parties, it will be hard for those types of parties to gain a foothold. But no country is immune to right-wing populism’.

What about De Jonge’s conservative Luxembourg? ‘The situation in Luxembourg is very similar to the Netherlands two decades ago. Luxembourg has a somewhat purple cabinet, which addresses issues like same-sex marriage. It may thus be that Luxembourg is just 20 years behind, and right-wing populism is yet to come.’

Normalization

Back to America. When De Jonge moved to Iowa and North Dakota on a basketball scholarship – she even played for the Luxembourg national team – to study, she experienced the complexity of voting behaviour. ‘Before I went, I couldn’t understand why the Republicans have so much power. In North Dakota, however, I have friends who were raised in very Christian families and for whom pro-life issues are a deciding factor in their voting behaviour. They simply cannot vote for a candidate who would legalize abortion. And because there are only two parties to choose from, many people actually vote against the other party or candidate’.

De Jonge is cautious when commenting on the impact that four years of Trump have had on the rest of the world. ‘The storming of the Capitol was not a signal to start rioting in the Netherlands. It’s not that simple. Since the election of Donald Trump, however, right-wing populism has no longer been a fringe phenomenon. Trump has brought radical right-wing thinking into the mainstream and helped to popularize a number of conspiracy theories, including in Europe’.

The noisy minority

With the elections for the House of Representatives just around the corner (this interview took place in February), you might have more nightmares about Baudet or Wilders becoming prime minister, especially in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, which is bound to have created a good breeding ground for right-wing populists. ‘We’re still in the middle of the pandemic, and it’s too early to say anything about that yet’, observes De Jonge. ‘We’re not yet seeing any real fundamental changes in Europe. In the Netherlands, Wilders is benefiting from the crisis, while Baudet is having less success. So, we can’t say for sure at this time’.

To end on a positive note, De Jonge is eager to stress that right-wing populism is still a fringe phenomenon in the Netherlands. ‘Populists often pretend to represent the voices of a silent majority, but if you take a closer look, it’s actually a very noisy minority. Moreover, populism can get more citizens engaged in the political process, and it’s never a bad thing for the established parties to be scrutinized. In small doses, therefore, populism isn’t so bad’.

CV

Léonie de Jonge (Luxembourg, 1990) studied political science at the Universities of Iowa and North Dakota, and received her PhD from the University of Cambridge in 2019. Since 2020, she has been an assistant professor in Politics and Society at the UG. Her doctoral thesis has been adapted into a book and will be published in June: The Success and Failure of Right-wing Populist Parties in the Benelux Countries.

Source: Broerstraat 5

Last modified:30 March 2021 1.16 p.m.
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