Book Review: European Populism in the Shadow of the Great Recession

Hanspeter Kriesi and Takis S. Pappas (eds.), European populism in the shadow of the great recession (Harbour House, Colchester: ECPR Press, 2016). 394 pp., €71,20 (hardback), ISBN: 9781785521249.

Reviewing a book comprising 16 chapters, each devoted to a country’s experience with populism, plus an introduction and a conclusion by the two editors is a very difficult task indeed. There is no way to do justice to all the chapters, praising specifically some of them, criticizing others, mentioning them all, and, what counts more, their authors. I will begin by saying that this is an excellent collection of highly informative essays devoted to the appearance and the dynamics of populist parties in all European democracies, with the unexplained exception of Spain and Portugal.
All the contributors were asked to deal with four major hypotheses formulated by the editors. First, does a deep economic crisis enhance the antagonism between “the people” and some political or economic elite leading to populist mobilization and to the electoral success of populist parties? Second, can one explain the success of populist parties with reference to political crises? Third, is the combined effect of political and economic crises particularly conducive to populism? Fourth, will populist parties that acquire political power moderate their discourse and their behavior when in office? Attempting, with a remarkable scholarly “discipline,” to explore whether and how the four hypotheses are confirmed or falsified in the populist experience of their respective country, all the contributors provide interesting and useful information on the politics and the economics of those countries.
While the economic indicators are classic and easy to find (variations in the GNP, in the rates of unemployment and in the size of the national debt), and provide reliable inter-temporal and cross-country measures, political indicators appear, at least to me, to be taken and interpreted with more caution and greater attention to the peculiarities of the different countries. Kriesi and Pappas have chosen to focus on three political indicators: electoral volatility, trust in parliament and satisfaction with democracy. An increase in electoral volatility is bound to destabilize the party system, while a decrease “serves as a sign of party system stabilization” and, somewhat more controversial in my opinion, that “the party system might have been going through an unstable period before and unrelated to the Great Recession” (p. 14).
Leaving aside the impossible task to deal with each chapter, all well worth reading (I have learned a lot from many of them, especially those on Nordic countries), I will offer some disjointed, but, I hope, useful remarks and criticisms hidden in the guise of requests for more elaboration. In the concluding chapter, the editors stress more than once that their initial hypotheses have encountered “partial confirmation”, which is, of course, “partially” true. What, then, becomes truly important is to explore more in depth those cases not confirming the hypotheses, highlighting which among the hypotheses have been more significantly challenged and explaining how and to what extent they should be revised or dropped. On the basis of what I have read, the least impact on populism has been produced by the great recession, that is, the appearance, the dynamics, the ascent to office of populism are not related, not significantly conditioned, even less, determined by economic factors. At most, these factors add something to a populist phenomenon in the making.
In some geo-political areas there may exist more favorable factors conducive to populism. For instance, Ann-Cathrine Jungar declares that “the Nordic region has been a fertile soil for populism” (p. 42). According to Giuliano Bobba and Duncan McDonnell, Italy “continues to offer excellent market conditions for populism” (p. 179), although I have lived most of my Italian life in a situation characterized by partitocrazia. On their part, Eoin O’Malley and John FitzGibbon almost seem proud of Ireland because its political system is in fact resplendent with populist actors and rhetoric” (p. 288). On the whole, however, I believe it would be a mistake to overemphasize the “threat” of populism to European democracies.
There is not a single case in which one could confidently state that had the economic crisis not appeared no populist phenomenon/party would materialize. However, some of the chapters hint, never in very strong terms, that a rise in unemployment, a decline of GDP, and a growing public debt may have been conducive to higher electoral volatility, to decreasing trust in parliament and to a lower level of satisfaction with democracy. If democratic parties, whose prestige, incidentally, is rather low and still declining in most countries, are unable to provide solutions, especially to competently manage the economy, the voters, or at least a sizable portion, will look for populist alternatives. Then, the search for alternatives will translate itself into high electoral volatility and into a growing pool of available voters. But high electoral volatility may mean just changing voting behavior among the existing parties, that is, shifting from one party to another, frequently and in significant numbers, without necessarily rewarding populist parties because—and here is my main point—populist parties may not exist.
In the 1950s the party system of the Fourth French Republic was in shambles. Yet the only populist attempt by Pierre Poujade proved to be not very successful and quite short-lived. In the early 1980s, Jean-Marie Le Pen could launch his populist challenge (and vehicle) because two opportunities were offered to him by changes in the political structure: i) the PR law used for European elections (1984) and re-introduced by President Mitterrand in national elections (1986); and ii) the direct popular election of the President of the Fifth Republic. I still harbor several doubts regarding the definition and classification of the Front National among populist parties made without hesitations or qualifications by Hans-Georg Betz because it has and it exhibits many features of “mainstream” parties. Moreover, and more generally, I would put a lot of emphasis on the quality of the (would-be) populist leader(s). Also, while I am not certain that the Lega Nord, Forza Italia, and the Five Stars Movement are all populist parties in the same analytical and political bag, I see in Italy an element that appears to be of the utmost importance in practically all the other cases of populism as well.
Yes, the populist political discourse is important. It is always based on a confrontation between the people and the elite: political, economic, intellectual, in the mass media. In some cases, the Jews occupy a place among the enemies of populism. At this point in time, two issues figure prominently in the populist discourse: immigration and Europe (that is, of course, anti-Europeanism). But at the end of the day, the more I kept reading the excellent chapters of this book and going back and forth to the editors’ introduction and conclusions, the more I became convinced that schumpeterian and sartorian perspectives throw vivid light on populist leadership and parties. No matter how significant may be the economic factors in creating discontent, dissatisfaction, distrust in those who hold political and economic power, unless a populist leader appears no one will be in a position to exploit all those favorable conditions.
Populism emerges, wins, consolidates itself and lasts if, when, and as long as there is a populist political entrepreneur. All chapters are replete with names of more or less successful populist political entrepreneurs: Orbán, Haider, Tsypras, Fortuyn, Wilders, Blocher, and to some extent Farage. Most certainly, Silvio Berlusconi’s trajectory, from media entrepreneur to extremely successful political entrepreneur to poorly performing head of government, exemplifies the various phases of the populist experience. Beppe Grillo’s experience ought to be situated on a different level where one could put together anti-political appeals, delegitimization of the political class, anti-system sentiments, hostility to the European Union and the dream of web-democracy. This is an unprecedented combination of elements that have little to do with nationalism and immigration. But Grillo’s role of political entrepreneur who found a political space, entered into it, and exploited it, is undeniable.
What makes of a man (I apologize to Marine LePen; contrary to Matthew Goodwin, I would not consider populist either Margaret Thatcher or, even less, Tony Blair), of a personality a populist political entrepreneur? This is the question lingering in practically all chapters of this book. My tentative answer is that in addition to the structure of political opportunities, duly stressed by the editors as well as by several contributors, there may exist some cultural country-specific factors. I would also suggest that future studies on populist parties ought to focus on the impact (as done by Zsoly Enyedi in the chapter on Hungary and, to some extent, by Kurt Richard Luther in his analyzed of Austria) those parties in government have produced both on the institutions on the political system and the culture of their citizens. Populism is an integral part of the democratic discourse: how much has populism already changed it and/or will it succeed in changing it in the near future?

Gianfranco Pasquino, University of Bologna and Johns Hopkins University

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