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Europe's 21st Century Challenge is Defining "The People"

Bulgarian political scientist Ivan Krastev comments on what he considers the driving forces behind the rise of populism, extreme nationalism, and identity politics across the European continent.

Interview with Ivan Krastev July 21, 2020 //   19 minute read

Ivan Krastev is one of Europe’s leading thinkers on democracy, authoring such books as Democracy Disrupted: The Politics of Global Protest. A contributing columnist to the New York Times, Krastev also heads the Centre for Liberal Strategies in Bulgaria.

The political scientist explains in this email exchange with Lindsay Lloyd, The Bradford M. Freeman Director of the Bush Institute's Human Freedom Initiative, what he considers the driving forces behind the rise of populism, extreme nationalism, and identity politics across the European continent. He distinguishes between the nationalism that has arisen out of the COVID-19 pandemic versus the nationalism that arose during Europe’s 2015 refugee crisis. Yet, he emphasizes, Europe is having to learn that ethnic and cultural diversity is the defining mark of the 21st century. The struggle is over how to define “the people.”

Protectionism, isolationism, and nativism are on the rise in many democracies, including here in the United States. How should democracies best respond to this inward turn?

The identity politics that is roiling Eastern Europe today in many aspects represents a delayed backlash against the several decades of identity-denial politics, which began in 1989. Overheated particularism is a natural reaction to an overselling of the innocence of universalism. This is why populists everywhere disparage universalism as the particularism of the rich.

The initial eagerness of the formerly-captive nations to join the liberal West in 1989 stemmed at least as much from nationalist resentment at Moscow’s 40-year hegemony as from a deep-seated commitment to liberal values and institutions. The slogan of Poland’s anti-communist movement before 1989 had been wolność i niezależność (freedom and independence), the latter referring to independence from Moscow.

Unlike in Western Europe in 1945, in Eastern Europe in 1989 nationalists were not the defeated party but part of the coalition that had overthrown communists. The interesting question is not why nationalism has come back, but where it was hiding in the 1990s and the early 2000s.

Nationalist sentiments were ever present in Eastern Europe after the end of communism, but nationalists lost their language. In the intellectual climate of the 1990s, ethno-nationalism was associated with the bloody Yugoslav wars and with the attempts of former communist leaders like Slobodan Milosevic to preserve their power.

But the intellectual climate started to change in the 1990s. While the liberal elites continued talking the language of universal rights, their nationalist counterparts eventually took control of the national symbols and national narratives. Nationalists focused on national victimhood and undeserved suffering.

What distinguishes the national populists is that they never apologize for anything their nation has ever done in its history. To act like a villain while retaining the moral right to feel like a victim is the nationalistic populist’s signature conceit.

What distinguishes the national populists is that they never apologize for anything their nation has ever done in its history. To act like a villain while retaining the moral right to feel like a victim is the nationalistic populist’s signature conceit.

In the framework of democratic transitions, it was commonplace to view fascism and communism as two sides of the same totalitarian coin. When it comes to the potentially murderous consequences of the two ideologies and their associated regimes, this is a completely legitimate comparison.

But viewing communism and fascism as twins misleadingly suggests that, in the democratic age, nationalism itself (of which fascism is an extreme version and distortion) will eventually fade away just as communism disappeared in 1989–91.

This was never realistic. Communism was a radical political experiment based on abolishing inheritable private property, while democracy presupposes the existence of a bounded political community and is therefore inherently national. Nationalism cannot disappear, like communism, with the rise of liberal democracy, because loyalty to the nation is a necessary precondition for any stable liberal democracy.

Have elites in the worlds of government, media, business, education, and elsewhere failed to understand the anxieties that people in democracies feel about changes that are disrupting their way of life? If so, how should they address those anxieties?

The current crisis of democracy in Europe in many respects is a crisis of meritocracy. It seems obvious that a meritocracy — a system in which the most talented and capable people are placed in leading positions — is preferable to a plutocracy, gerontocracy, aristocracy, and perhaps even democracy (the rule of the majority). But what we are witnessing today is a non-confidence vote against this vision of society.

Europe’s meritocratic elites aren’t hated simply because of the bigoted stupidity of raging populists or the confusion of ordinary people. Michael Young, the British sociologist who in the middle of the last century coined the term “meritocracy,” would not be surprised by the turn of events.

He was the first to explain that even though “meritocracy” might sound good to most people, a meritocratic society would be a disaster. It would create a society of selfish and arrogant winners and angry and desperate losers. It would not be an unequal society but a society in which inequality is justified on the basis of differences in achievement. The triumph of meritocracy, Young understood, would lead to a loss of political community.

Paradoxically, it is the “convertible competencies” of the present elites, the fact that they are equally fit to run a bank in Bulgaria or in Bangladesh or to teach in Athens or Tokyo, that makes people so suspicious of them. People fear that in times of trouble, the meritocrats will opt to leave instead of sharing the cost of staying.

Unsurprisingly then, it is loyalty — namely, the unconditional loyalty to ethnic, religious, or social groups — that is at the heart of the appeal of Europe’s new populism. Populists promise people not to judge them solely on their merits. They promise solidarity if not justice.

Meritocratic elites envision society as a school populated by “A” students who fight for fellowships against dropouts who fight on the streets. But populists endorse a vision of society as a family where members support each other not simply because everyone deserves it but because everyone shares something in common.

At the heart of the populist challenge is the struggle over the nature and obligations of elites. Unlike a century ago, today’s insurgent leaders aren’t interested in nationalizing industries. Instead, they promise to nationalize their elites. They don’t promise to save the people but to stay with them.

In short, what populists promise their voters is not competence but intimacy. They promise to reestablish the bond between the elites and the people. A rapidly-increasing number in Europe today finds this promise appealing.

Not surprisingly, the crisis of democracy resulted in highly-polarized societies and the independent institutions — media, courts, central banks — are the major targets of the populist revolt. The major paradox of the current crisis of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is that a variety of opinion polls indicate that the overwhelming majority of Poles, Hungarians, and Czechs value democracy and the rule of law, but at the same time the illiberal turn in the region has not been reversed and populists’ electoral victories could not be treated as accidental.

The question then is, why do voters who routinely profess a commitment to democracy simultaneously support leaders who subvert it? And why do liberals’ attempts to position themselves as guardians of democracy not bring them electoral success?

The reality is that confronted with a choice to vote for the party they support while aware that its leaders have violated democratic principles, or vote for the opposition they detest in order to save democracy, ordinary voters follow their partisan instincts rather than their commitment to democratic principles. In polarized politics the gravest danger for democracy that an ordinary voter can detect is the opposite party winning elections.  

Political polarization has turned the Republic of the Citizens into a Republic of Fans. While for a liberal citizen the readiness to point out and correct mistakes of your own party is a sign of highest loyalty, the loyalty of fans is zealous, unthinking, and unswerving.

Political polarization has turned the Republic of the Citizens into a Republic of Fans. While for a liberal citizen the readiness to point out and correct mistakes of your own party is a sign of highest loyalty, the loyalty of fans is zealous, unthinking, and unswerving.

Enthralled fans, with their critical faculties switched off, are central to populists’ understanding of politics as a loyalty game: Their cheers reflect their sense of belonging. Trust-but-verify is replaced by rowdy adoration. Those who refuse to applaud are traitors. Any statement of fact takes the form of declaration of belonging.

In the Republic of Fans any electoral defeat is unfair (somebody’s conspiracy), and any criticism of one’s own party is a treason. Even while in government, populists prefer to view themselves as a persecuted minority. Their dream is to be viewed as a victim and be allowed to act as a villain.

To what extent do you see a sense of lost national or cultural identity contributing to a resurgent authoritarianism in Central Europe? Is this authentic, meaning it is coming from the bottom-up, or is it manufactured and coming from the top-down?

The European Union was born out of the tragic and violent failure of European nationalisms in the 20th century and this is the reason pro-Europeans have developed an almost automatic aversion to anything that smells of nationalism. The closing of the borders for pro-European liberals was like the effect of carpet bombing on the German cities in the last days of World War II — profound demoralization.

But this anti-nationalistic reflex could be the reason we can misjudge the different forms of nationalism that we witness in Europe these days. For example, the nationalistic reaction triggered by the refugee crisis of 2015 is very different than the nationalistic reactions and the closing of the borders triggered by the corona crisis.

During the refugee crisis, Europe was divided between those advocating open borders and the nationalists that dreamt to close them. In the case of COVID-19, when it comes to the closing of the borders, there was no difference in the reactions of liberal and nationalist governments.

Closing of the borders is the most traditional way of fighting epidemics. So, political commentators were wrong to interpret the nationalist instinct of the governments as the return of the nationalistic wave that Europe and in particular Central Europe experienced during the refugee crisis of 2015. In this sense the major impact of the coronavirus crisis is not the rise of nationalism but its re-framing. COVID-19 strengthened not ethnic nationalism but territorial nationalism.

In this sense the major impact of the coronavirus crisis is not the rise of nationalism but its re-framing. COVID-19 strengthened not ethnic nationalism but territorial nationalism.

In the refugee crisis, nationalism came in the colors of the cultural war. Nationalists talked about destruction of their national cultures and replacement by foreigners. Nations were defined in cultural terms. Bulgarians living outside of Bulgaria were part of the “we” while minorities living in the countries for centuries were foreigners.

COVID-19 replaced this aggressive cultural nationalism with a public health care nationalism that still has its xenophobic dimensions. Roma neighborhoods were among the first to be walled off by Central European governments. But it is territorial in nature and more inclusive.

Now, a foreigner is not the one who is not born here but the one who is not here. It is not your passport but your actual residence that matters. Even co-nationals traveling from corona-infected areas are as unwelcome as any foreigner.

In this pandemic, government takes responsibility only for those who have decided to stay within the walls of the city. Bulgarian citizens who for one reason or another have decided to stay outside of the country are suddenly out of the government’s responsibility.

So, the nationalism triggered by the corona crisis is in contrast to the ethnic nationalism triggered by the refugee crisis.

How do you assess the impact of the flow of people across borders on the stability of western democracies?

The combination of population decline, economic insecurity, and massive migrant flows into Europe from the outside and between European countries has dramatically changed the politics of European nation-states and the ways in which governments try to shape those politics.

The combination of population decline, economic insecurity, and massive migrant flows into Europe from the outside and between European countries has dramatically changed the politics of European nation-states and the ways in which governments try to shape those politics.

In the 20th century, revolutions, world wars, and waves of ethnic cleansing changed the ethnic map of Europe. All these traumas and upheavals left behind a Europe whose states and societies had become more rather than less ethnically homogenous. In the 20th century, ethnic homogeneity was viewed as a way to reduce tensions, increase security, and strengthen democratic trends.

Minorities were viewed with mistrust. Not only nationalists but also communists and self-prophesied internationalists believed in the central importance of ethnic homogeneity. After World War II, Polish Communist leader Wladislaw Gomulka instructed party officials, “We must expel all the Germans because countries are built on national lines and not on multinational ones.”

The outcome of post-World War II ethnic homogenization is particularly visible in Central and Eastern Europe. In 1939, almost a third of Poland’s people were something other than ethnic Poles (there were substantial German, Jewish, Ukrainian, and other minorities). Today, ethnic Poles account for more than 95 percent of Polish citizens. Unsurprisingly, in this corner of Europe, many people see ethnic homogeneity as essential to social cohesion.

Yet the 21st century is bringing more diversity. If the 20th century in Europe was the century of unmixing, the 21st century is one of remixing. Behind the migration challenge that Central and East European countries see themselves facing is an intellectual one: In order to deal successfully with migration, these societies will have to unlearn what many of them still see as the 20th century’s major lesson — that ethnic and cultural diversity is a security threat.

In order to deal successfully with migration, these societies will have to unlearn what many of them still see as the 20th century’s major lesson — that ethnic and cultural diversity is a security threat.

Regulating migration is becoming as essential for 21st century European democracies as the regulation of the class conflict was for the industrial democracies of 20th century. As David Mille, author of Strangers in Our Midst: The Political Philosophy of Immigration, has suggested, the critical question of today is, “Should we encourage immigrants to join our societies, or try to keep them out?” Moreover, “If we are going to take some in but refuse others, how should we decide which ones to accept?” In short, the demographic decline in Europe has the potential to remake the nature of democratic regimes.

The demographic shock voiced in parts of Europe today is caused by political fears of demographic decline, depopulation, and a widening gap in opportunities and social attitudes between metropolitan centers and outlying areas. Not only anxiety about migration but anxiety about population implosion is at the heart of right-wing populism’s rise in Europe.

In a democracy, numbers matter. When numbers change, power changes hands. The democratic narrative insists that power changes hands because voters change their minds. But in reality, power may also change hands when the population changes.

It is not migration with foreigners coming in, but also outmigration with people leaving the country that can dramatically change democratic politics. In Central and Eastern Europe millions of people have moved away, mostly to the West after the end of the Cold War, and liberal political forces in Central and Eastern Europe have seen their power drop, as so many of their voters are among those who have left.

The clash between liberalism and illiberalism in Europe today is a contest between two contrasting ideas of how we define the “people.” Liberalism is a vote for an inclusive body politic representing the diverse nature of modern societies. Illiberalism tries to preserve the ethnic homogeneity of the body politic while opening the labor markets for foreign workers.

What might be the impact on democracies in general and Central Europe in particular if America retreats from international leadership as well as from international institutions?

The post-Cold War democratic moment in Europe was preconditioned on an international order which was not simply dominated by the United States but where the U.S. was viewed as model which others want to imitate. In this context the current crisis of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is partially the result of the fact that America’s power is in decline and that many people in Europe are rather scared than inspired by the current state of America’s democracy.

...the current crisis of democracy in Central and Eastern Europe is partially the result of the fact that America’s power is in decline and that many people in Europe are rather scared than inspired by the current state of America’s democracy.

It took democracies several years to recover from the 2008 financial crisis. What impact might the coronavirus have on democratic societies with open markets?

When I think of the post-COVID-19 world, I am reminded of a line from Stephen Leacock’s Nonsense Novels: “Lord Ronald said nothing; he flung himself from the room, flung himself upon his horse, and rode madly off in all directions.”