The study of populism has typically focused on national-level politics, leaving subnational politics lost in the shuffle. Eliška Drápalová argues that underestimating the importance of the sub-national level limits our understanding of the impact that populist movements have – and misses the fascinating developments happening below the national surface
Mattia Zulianello and Petra Guasti have debunked three die-hard myths about populism. They rightly warn against underestimating right-wing populists. They also alert us to the dangers of seeing populist parties as outsiders waiting for their turn instead of well-established players in national politics.
Yet, in their analysis, they overlook another die-hard myth. This is the assumption that the connection between the local level and populism is a thing of the past, limited to a few parties in rural areas and thus only marginally interesting for current populist developments in Europe.
The connection between the local level and populism is being lost in the shuffle. Populism researchers typically focus on national politics or the EU. They tend to treat local populist politicians as curiosities unless – like Boris Johnson in the UK or Andrés Manuel López Obrador in Mexico – they have made the leap to national politics.
Yet, if we fail to see populism from a multi-level perspective, we risk not fully understanding future developments, and why populists persist. A local perspective can help identify different types of populist actors and their strategies. It can also help us understand the different facets of widening polarisation in countries across Europe.
This lack of interest in the local is not a problem only in populist studies. It runs deep in political science, too. Researchers tend to see local-level populists as fading examples of local colour. Moreover, they view local elections as secondary events, and municipal policymaking (garbage collection, road maintenance) as the 'politics of potholes'. Researchers consider these things irrelevant compared with the pressing problems of national politics.
Yet, contrary to what is generally assumed, in Europe and elsewhere, linkages between local politics and populism are strong in the countryside and in thriving metropolitan areas. One can hardly find a (capital) city without populist parties represented in local councils. Many populist parties govern at this level and play an essential role in shaping local politics, public services and administrative reforms.
Many researchers dismiss local government as the 'politics of potholes', preferring to concentrate instead on the pressing problems of national politics
National populist leaders, like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, have successfully consolidated their power. This is, in part, because they set out to control local governments and created a strong local base. Parties that build a solid local support base have a better chance of surviving the next electoral cycle because local governments provide votes, financial revenues, and a pool of potential party recruits. Populists' control over local governments can uproot traditional parties and prevent new parties taking root.
Subordinating and disciplining subnational governments is, therefore, a successful strategy for democratic backsliding that has passed under EU institutions' radar.
There is another reason researchers brush off local politics: they assume there are no interesting insights left to uncover. Many assume that populists find support in white-working-class neighbourhoods of declining industrial centres and the countryside. They also assume that cosmopolitan and ethnically diverse cities will resist the populist appeal.
Many researchers simply assume that populists find support in white-working-class neighbourhoods, and that cosmopolitan, ethnically diverse cities will resist the populist appeal
Yet, populist victories in Barcelona, Prague and Rome, and the growing appeal of populists in urban areas, show that there's more complexity than this centre-periphery argument suggests. Recent research has called into question the strong local community ties and the social capital commonly assumed antithetical to populism.
Municipal politics is also a breeding ground for different populist types, and a test bed for their ideas. The nature of political representation in cities is much more direct, personalised and unmediated. Local politics is therefore exceptionally well suited for what Zulianello and Guasti call valence populism.
At the local level, politicians must implement policies, handle licenses and deliver services. Mayors thus need management skills. Technocratic populists emphasise competence, and effective management – and they bring business-inspired tools into city halls.
This style finds enthusiastic support from disenchanted voters who seek change. However, in a city, the gap between radical discourse and actual performance is not easy to disguise. My research with Kai Wegrich discovered that the clash of technocratic and populist elements creates deep tensions in the longer term. Eventually, these tensions give way to patronage and personal loyalty.
Municipal politics is also populated by numerous single-issue local parties that overlap with populist agendas, and use populist rhetoric
Municipal politics is also populated by numerous single-issue local parties that overlap with populist agendas and use populist rhetoric. These local parties and lists might campaign for more playgrounds, libraries, and dog shelters. Or, they might rally against large projects imposed from above, such as incinerators or housing centres for asylum seekers.
In Czechia, for example, these movements use local referenda to challenge nationally imposed policies. Tapping into the same discontent, local movements can rival large national populist parties and hamper their progress at the local level more successfully than traditional parties.
Scholars of populism should cast off methodological nationalism and adopt a multi-level perspective. Using a subnational focus, we can understand subtler mechanisms of democratic backsliding, evaluate the relevance of different populist sub-types, and identify the roots of polarisation. Digging deeper beneath national-level politics could help us understand whether subnational dynamics reinforce polarisation, or whether they give us clues about how to combat it.
Multi-level political tensions between populists and liberal political forces will have an impact on local autonomy and territorial governance. It is unclear whether we will see greater re-centralisation of territorial governance with majoritarian systems or a deepening of local autonomy and political fragmentation with directly elected mayors. Either way, what happens at the local level will have important consequences for national and European politics.