The Rise in Populism with Dr. Anna Grzymala-Busse

Anna Grzymala-Busse is the Michelle and Kevin Douglas Professor of International Studies in the Department of Political Science at Stanford University, and Senior Fellow and Director of the Europe Center at the Freeman Spogli Institute at Stanford. Her research focuses on the development of the state and its transformation, political parties, religion and politics, and post-communist politics. Other areas of interest include democratic backsliding, informal institutions, and corruption. She is the author of four books: Redeeming the Communist Past: The Regeneration of Communist Successor Parties; Rebuilding Leviathan: Party Competition and State Development in Post-Communist Europe; Nations Under God: How Churches Use Moral Authority to Influence Politics and Sacred Foundations: the Religious and Medieval Roots of the European State. Grzymala-Busse is currently the director of the Europe Center at Stanford University, and previously served as the director of the Weiser Center for Emerging Democracies and the Weiser Center for Europe and Eurasia at the University of Michigan. She received her PhD from Harvard University, her MPhil from Cambridge University, and her AB from Princeton University. She is a recipient of the Carnegie and Guggenheim Fellowships, and a member of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences.
Chumnan Jim Sangsvang '26 interviewed Dr. Anna Grzymala-Busse on November 2, 2023.
Photograph and biography courtesy of Dr. Anna Grzymala-Busse on behalf of Stanford University.

Recently, the EU announced its Global Gateway program in order to rival the Belt and Road initiative in China. Do you think that this initiative will be effective in attracting countries  back towards the West and democracy? Is there a possibility that it backfires or is simply not as effective as the Belt and Road?

There's a lot of disappointment with Belt and Road, because it's basically a scheme to leads a lot of countries into poverty. There are huge projects that costs billions of dollars, predicated on Chinese loans that countries can’t pay back. Then China winds up owning chunks of their infrastructure, ports, etc. It was conceived as a way of projecting China's power. It's done the job to some extent, but there's a lot of backlash too. The EU will be very careful not to present this as an alternative to the Chinese projects, but the EU will have a hard time convincing people that this won't come with strings attached. EU funds have to be spent in a transparent fashion and actually invest in infrastructure, which makes it much less attractive to the Orbáns of the world, who don’t want that oversight. But the program will be attractive to those who actually want investment in infrastructure.  

Why has the demonization and “othering” of certain communities, specifically the LGBTQ+ community, been so successful in garnering support amongst populist parties in Eastern Europe? Especially in the Polish and Slovak elections, what strategies have been used to create a narrative of “us versus them”?

All populists try to claim they represent the people, but before you can do that, you have to define the people. In Latin America, we see a very inclusive definition of the people. In Bolivia, 40 indigenous communities that were marginalized were brought into public life and celebrated. In Europe, most populists are very right wing, and practice a more exclusionary populism. It defines a certain social order, usually Christian and conservative when it comes to gender roles. It expects a reification of traditional gender roles and ethnic purity, which is why it's anti-immigration in a very particular way. The populists don't mind Ukrainian immigrants, but oppose immigration from Syria, Afghanistan, or Africa. They also embrace an anti-feminist stance partly because they're worried about declining birth rates. And the populists are also anti-LGBTQ for precisely that reason, because this upsets this natural order. Their idea is of a society that is ethnically pure and reproducing at a fast clip, with shared conservative values. Because of this, brown-skinned immigrants are as bad as gay men, trans women, or feminists—portraying them all as threats to their conception of national identity.

With the most recent elections in Poland, there was a huge age and demographic split. Do you think that right-wing populism is going to remain appealing to younger voters, or do you think it's a last-ditch effort to keep power before they are out for good?

In Poland, the governing PiS party lost votes in every single group, including rural voters, urban voters, young voters, and older voters. The 18-29 year-old voters are dissatisfied with the draconian restrictions on abortion, and they think the LGBTQ+ free zones the government tried to implement are ridiculous. They are much more cosmopolitan in their thinking, and much less likely to be religious. Even if they are conservative economically or socially, they view this stuff as moral panics. They don't care about demonizing Germany either. They think this is something that their grandparents did, and want no part of it.

The recent Slovak elections demonstrated the rise in populism and pro-Russian sentiments in a previously staunch ally of Ukraine. In what ways did Robert Fico and the Smer party capitalize off of Slovak sympathy towards Russia?

First of all, Slovak society is very split. Depending on which poll you read, pluralities either support Ukraine or blame it. It's a striking, ambivalent picture of Slovak society. As for Fico, he actually lost votes. He peaked at 44% in 2016, then fell to 29% in 2020, and now rests at 23%. In relative terms, he’s lost a lot. I would not call him a populist success story. He's widely seen as corrupt. By the way, even though Fico currently has this anti-Ukraine stance, he was the leader in 2014 who reversed the gas flow so Ukraine could get gas. He quietly supported arming Ukraine with armaments throughout the war. In short, Slovak politics is much more ambivalent than it seems and Slovak society itself is much more ambivalent and complex than the pro-Russia, anti-Ukraine image you read about.

I read about Russia using its embassy to disseminate pro-Russian propaganda through media like Telegram. Do you think that Russia's propaganda and influencing efforts have been more effective than the EU and former Slovak governments counter-efforts?

Support for Russia has more to do with the material interests of various politicians than it does with public sentiments. Orbán’s support for Russia has everything to do with cheap oil and gas, and nothing to do with any historical affinity or enmity. This is where leaders and their interests matter more than anything else.

Given the recent outcome of the Slovak elections, how do you think a possible alliance between Orbán and Fico may hinder or damage unity in the European Union? How might their populist and nationalistic beliefs come into conflict with the rest of the EU? Furthermore, how might they influence and support other populist movements in the region in places like Austria, Italy and France?

Hungary has just gotten a new best friend. But, Poland and Hungary split over Ukraine. So even those kinds of friendships tend to be fractious: they are like-minded parties, but that doesn't mean that it's going to be easy. Yes, Hungary has gotten some help and this can make a big difference in how everything has been going. Hungary and Poland have had a sort of mutual protection pact, which is what Hungary will likely now have with Slovakia. But remember, they don't have a long record of working together and Slovakia is not particularly influential. It's not a very big country, and there'll be almost no impact on the other populists in Greece, Italy or anyplace else. 

Historically, Fico has been wishy-washy with his support. He’s a big talker, but he doesn't actually stand his ground. When bigger EU players start to crack down on Slovakia, do you think Fico will quiet down? If so, could that cause tension between Fico and Orbán? 

It's not going to be a particularly strong alliance. Fico is wishy-washy, whereas Orbán knows exactly what his interests are and will be happy to throw Fico under the bus. 

PiS recently underperformed in the Polish elections. How do you foresee the coalitions forming? Do you think that Civic Coalition, Lewsika, and Third Way will unite in order to  revent much of the democratic decline taking place under Duda and PiS?

They have already announced their intention to form the coalition. Even though PiS won the plurality of the votes, it doesn't have the majority in parliament. What's happening right now is the President has to nominate a coalition for Prime Minister. The cynical view is that he's waiting until December to allow PiS to destroy all records of its various malfeasance. He'll then ask PiS, who will fail, then he'll ask Tusk and the coalition will form. But, it is a coalition united by its opposition to PiS and by support for liberal democracy. They vary on policy a lot, like abortion. It might be a democratic coalition, but one that may not last long.

Poland has a unique relationship with religion. PiS tries to capitalize on very traditional, conservative beliefs. And Poland, has seen a huge rise in atheism and moving away from this traditional stance, even among religious people. It seems PiS is kind of standing on its last two legs, right?

The biggest problem for PiS is that it's a party of old people. Something like 700,000 people in its base have died since the last election. There's some replacement, but not at the same clip. PiS is fundamentally facing a demographic problem, where the kind of appeals it makes and policies it advocates just aren't popular among people who are younger than 60. That is the biggest challenge PiS faces. 

Young people are very dissatisfied in these countries, Slovakia, Hungary, Poland, and they are emigrating to other EU countries. Do you think that since the tide is starting to change, they will return? 

Once you have a family and are established somewhere else, it's much harder than move back to your own country. In Hungary, this is the least likely scenario because it is an autocracy. There's no other way around it. For people who left in opposition, there’s no reason to return. It might be more likely in the case of Poland and Czechia. But again, once you've been studying in college and working in another country, it’s not easy to pack up and go back. 

A huge part of this is age itself. When you're young, you can learn new languages and skills and move abroad much more easily than when you're older. Young people are accepting of risk and more willing to open themselves up to new perspectives. When you’re older and you've developed a set of skills, it's very hard to change your way of thinking. It's even harder to move someplace, and learn a whole new way of living. So, it's quite natural that older people want to protect their way of life, because it's just so difficult for them to envision anything else.

Much of your research has been done on identifying the role of religion and the Church, especially within Europe. I was curious to know how the Church aided in breaking down democratic institutions, and how the formations of authoritarian states and governments differ with the presence or absence of religion?

The clergy are not autocratically minded actors, but they definitely want policy influence. They're worried about secularization and foreign influence on their flock. These are very much trying to influence policy and shape debates in areas like abortion, education, and gender roles. They don't actually try to support the erosion of democracy. The flip side is that nationalist populist leaders, like Orbán or Kaczynski, are more than happy to use religious identity to legitimize themselves. Orbán, who as far as we know is an atheist, continuously invokes his Christian heritage and the Western Christian heritage of Hungary. It’s a talking point designed to differentiate Hungary from the decadent West. it's not an expression of sincere faith. It’s the same with Kaczynski, it's a way of shoring up a national identity that serves the party, without any sincere belief in the Church. 

Does the use of religion to legitimize yourself also help maintain power and influence in discussion over Muslim Balkan countries joining the EU, or even Turkey joining the EU? Given Orbán is so anti-EU, does religion provide a valuable crutch to lean on?

For all of Orbán's anti-EU stances, he's one of the biggest beneficiaries within EU. But you're absolutely right. These populists use the cloak of religion and national values to fend off threats of increased immigration or diversification of society. It’s an argument they repeatedly make. “We're a Christian, White nation, and we don't want brown immigrants from Syria on our doorstep”. It's literally that label. “These are Muslim immigrants, they'll establish Sharia Law”. It helps them spin a narrative that maintains their own power.

Chumnan (Jim) Sangsvang '26Student Journalist

Elekes Andor, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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