What is „right-wing populism“? – a handout by MBR
Just like the notion of right-wing extremism, the term right-wing populism is subject to academic debate. Thus, there are multiple and divergent definitions. It is the aim of this brief article to define the term in such a way that it serves engaged democrats as meaningful and informative.
The term “right-wing populism” is commonly used as an umbrella term for groups and parties who occupy the political space in between right-wing liberalism and right-wing conservatism on the one side, as well as right-wing extremism on the other side. Major right-wing populist parties typically describe themselves as a melting pot of different forces, ranging from right-wing liberal and right-wing conservative to right-wing extremist.
All trends on the right of the political spectrum are united by an ideology of human inequality and difference; people are subjected to rigid categorization according to stereotypical properties such as descent, origin, physical characteristics, religious belief, language, culture, gender, sexual identity, but just as well economic exploitability. These groups are hierarchized, and their members are attested unequal access to social resources and are granted unequal political and social rights.
Right-wing populists generally distance themselves from an ideology, or elements thereof, which are perceived as typical for right-wing extremism and its historic paragons of National Socialism and fascism, in particular biologically determined racism and anti-Semitism. Instead, right-wing populists argue in favor of a racist exclusion and depreciation on the basis of economic, cultural, and religious grounds. These groups are denied the ability and willingness to economically contribute to the common good and to integrate themselves into society. Right-wing populism firstly antagonizes people with a non-European, non-Christian background, especially migrants with little funds and job qualifications. Anti-Muslim racism is prevalent where right-wing populists justify exclusion and devalorization with economic and cultural-religious reasons. Anti-Muslim racism serves as an ideological bracket for diverging right-wing populist movements in Europe and serves as reason for international mobilization.
As opposed to right-wing extremism, right-wing populists do not wish to replace parliamentary democracy with a government of dictatorship. They rather aim at a eroding and deforming democracy. Right-wing populism proposes the idea of a largely homogenous group united by descent and culture against the prevalent model of a society of diversity where the individual’s freedom of expression and development are a vital goal and where thus the rights of minorities are defended, too. The alleged shared will of a majority defined by descent and culture shall be enforced against minority groups. Thus, right-wing populist demands oftentimes include the impairment of parliamentary mechanisms of the constitutional state in favor of direct voting in the form of referenda.
The political rhetoric of right-wing populism aims at establishing a strong bond of cohesion based on ethnicity and culture, and in opposition of the established political elites as well as political antagonists on the one hand, as well as against socially marginalized groups, which are depicted as “other” and “foreign”.
One trajectory of political polarization of right-wing populism thus follows the opposition of “us” versus “those at the top”, another against “the others” and “foreigners”. Oftentimes, right-wing populists assume a conspiracy of the political elites, which they discredit altogether as criminal or pathological throughout. For example, they would aim to weaken their own people and make it easier to suppress and exploit by encouraging immigration or women’s rights. Right-wing populists thus construct a relation of “those at the top” with “the others”, and “the foreigners” in which they position themselves as a protest movement of an alleged majority of the population.
After there have been several failed attempts over the past decades to establish a right-wing populist party in Germany, “Alternative für Deutschland” (AfD), founded in 2013, successfully gained representation in the European Parliament as well as a number of parliaments of the federal states (Landesparlamente).
At the latest since the separation of a right-wing liberal/right-wing conservative wing of the party in the summer of 2015, AfD eventually has to be rated as a right-wing populist party with a right-wing extremist quota. In 2017, AfD reached representation in the German Parliament (Bundestag) with a total of 12,6% of the secondary votes.