Anna Grzymala-Busse on the Global Rise of Populism

Anna Grzymala-Busse is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies in the Department of Political Science, the Director of the Europe Center, and Senior Fellow at the Freeman Spogli Institute. Her research focuses on the historical development of the state and its transformation, political parties, religion and politics, and post-communist politics. Other areas of interest include populism, informal institutions, and the role of temporality and causal mechanisms in social science explanations.
Nadine Zahiruddin '24 interviewed Dr. Anna Grzymala-Busse on on December 2, 2022.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Anna Grzymala-Busse.

Over the past decade, populist leaders have succeeded in capturing vote share in both new democracies and consolidated democracies. What accounts for the success of populist forces in European countries?

It's mostly a function of mainstream politicians and mainstream parties failing to be accountable and responsive to their voters. We have center-left parties that have been unable to arrest the erosion of the welfare state or articulate a set of coherent policies around immigration and marketplace competition. On the center-right, we have parties that have failed to hold in check extreme right parties and have in fact incorporated a lot of the far right’s language and legitimize it. As a result, populist parties take advantage of this.  They can point to both sets of parties and basically say, “Look, these guys are not meeting you where you are. They're not addressing your concerns. They're not being responsive to your worries, but because we're anti-elite and pro-people, we can really listen and articulate policies that are benefiting you much more readily.” It's really the failure of mainstream parties and the ability of the populists to capitalize on cultural and economic concerns.

It is interesting that the pandemic hasn't led to greater support for populist parties. If you look at what happened during the pandemic, a lot of populist governments fared badly. Inflation also hasn't really had much of an impact yet, but it's only been a year, right? A lot of the forces that put them into power are still around and so they are with us for the foreseeable future.

Are these factors similarly important for the rise of populist leaders in Asia, like India’s Prime Minister Narendra Modi and former Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte? Or are other factors more significant?

There are slightly different factors in Asia in places that have seen populism on the rise, like during the early 2000s in Thailand, in the Philippines with Duterte, or currently in India. This has a lot to do with weak state capacity and the popular frustration with a state that can't provide law and order, that can't provide justice, and that can’t provide basic infrastructure. Into that void step in populist leaders who say, “We're actually going to provide you with a state,” as in Thailand. Or they say, “We will provide order and justice,” as in the Philippines. “We will provide infrastructure and agricultural investments,” which is the argument that Modi made in India. In these cases, it's less about the failure of mainstream parties per se than it is about a weak state capacity and the ability of these actors to articulate sympathy. 

Poland’s Law and Justice Party (PiS) is currently praised for its active role in supporting Ukrainian refugees and Ukraine’s efforts to defend itself against an unprovoked Russian invasion, but before February 2022, the Polish government was criticized for using populist and anti-democratic strategies to win and hold power. What drove the rise of populism in Poland? How should we understand the success of this party (PiS)?

It’s a very similar development as in other European countries. In Poland, there is a party called Platforma, Civic Platform, that's basically been in power since 2007. For those eight years that it was in power, it increasingly grew complacent. It didn't really address voter concerns. It quite literally in their campaign offered warm water from the tap. It offered stability, more of the same policies, etc. It did not realize that during the 2015 election, people were really quite concerned about both a huge wave of immigration that was coming across Europe, and about the economy and the rise of economic disparities in various regions in Poland. PiS stepped in and very credibly articulated that a) they're against immigration, and b) they will speak for the lesser developed regions in Poland. With those two arguments, however, they didn't win the majority. They only had won 38 percent of the vote, but that was enough to give them the government.

Despite a reputation as a populist leader undermining democracy in Europe, Hungary’s Prime Minister Viktor Orbán has won the admiration of some members of the Republican Party in the United States. As you discussed elsewhere, Orbán even hosted the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in May in Budapest. What makes Orbán attractive to some conservatives in the United States?

There are three things. One is that he espouses the same kind of patriarchal, hierarchical social order that conservatives in the U.S. would very much want that basically places white men at the top. Two, he is successful and popular. By contrast, the GOP is now resorting to undercutting access to voting in order to stay in power. Three, Orbán is the anti-Trump. He says some horrible things, but for the most part, he's civilized, he's successful and he knows exactly how to get what he wants. He very systematically put in all these legal changes in Hungary that make him the incumbent for the foreseeable future. So Orbán is both ideologically attractive, and he comes off as a civilized, systematic, predictable politician that they would love to see as one of their own.

How important is the Kremlin’s support for populist parties and leaders in Europe? Has this factor been important in specific elections, like those in Italy, Hungary and France, or are the domestic sources of populism more significant?

It was much more important than it is now. Prior to the invasion, Putin funded numerous parties. There were some mutual support pacts signed between, for example, the Austrian populists and the Russian government. There were all kinds of new networks of influence and mutual support that were being established. Orbán was kind of seen as Putin's point man in the EU. After the invasion that became much less tenable. Rightwing populists have seen a precipitous drop in their support for Putin. Some of their members used to be around 40-60% supporting Putin, but now that number has fallen to around 3-10%. Putin has become such a persona non grata that even Marine Le Pen in France, who had prominently featured him in her campaign literature, just erased it from the party's memory. Putin is never mentioned any more. He is never talked about, even obliquely, Russia doesn't exist as far as they are concerned. Putin has been spectacular at shooting himself in the foot, and if he hoped to destabilize European democracy, attacking Ukraine was the worst thing he could have done.

If populism’s rise is predominantly a domestically-driven phenomenon, how do we account for the emergence of populism in Asia, Europe, North America, and elsewhere during the same time period? What global factors are especially important to understanding the multi-regional presence of populism?

Populism corresponds to a pretty broad time period.  It was there in the 1960s and 1970s, so it's not as if it's a new phenomenon over there in Europe. It really started to take off in the 2000s or so, in both Europe and Asia. In both cases, the impact of global economic flows really worried people. The fact that economies are open to trade means people lose jobs and there's nothing apparently to be done about it. People were concerned about preserving their own culture and their own national identity. Politicians were very willing to exploit that by saying, “Look, these immigrants are coming across the border, and they're destroying our nation.” This is a global phenomenon. It's not surprising that there will be people who are worried about this across the world, and that politicians are willing to take advantage of it.

How can governments across the world curb the rise in populist forces?

First and foremost, politicians could actually address popular concerns and talk to the voters. This is something that the Democrats, for example, in the United States have done a very bad job of. Parties need to offer a broad counter- narrative that addresses broad swathes of the population, not just different identity groups, whether it's the white working males as the Republicans would have it or the 10,000 smaller identity groups that the Democratic Party wants to address. They should speak in broad narratives, listen to the voters, and offer credible alternative policies. They should point out that what populism does is offer a lot of empty promises with no real policy gains and instead offer a policy alternative that actually speaks to the people. This is where, at least in the United States, Republicans have had more of an advantage in being able to speak a language that people more readily understand: remember how they talked about death panels and death taxes. Meanwhile, Biden talks about building back better and the Inflation Reduction Act, neither one of which tells you much. So, I think it's a question of adopting better rhetoric, addressing broader constituencies, and providing actual policy alternatives.

Nadine Zahiruddin CMC '24Student Journalist

US Government, Central Intelligence Agency., Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

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