We have, in the intellectual world, spent much time trying to understand populism, fascism, illiberalism and the processes of autocratisation. Now, argues Luca Manucci, it is time to debate, to develop strategies to fight autocratisation, and to build democratic resilience
Fascism, unlike populism, is against democracy. However, both fascism and contemporary populist radical-right parties promote the idea that some external or internal enemy has humiliated the country, and that the leader will restore the character and the history of the nation.
Populist rhetoric that divides society between natives and migrants can only lead to the normalisation of fascist ideas, as recent studies show. Viktor Orbán started as a liberal, then became the face of the so-called ‘populist movement’. Finally, after years in power spent building what he calls illiberal democracy, he made explicit use of fascist rhetoric. Orbán announced that Hungarians ‘do not want to become peoples of mixed race’. As a result, Zsuzsa Hegedüs, one of Orbán’s most senior political advisors, described the speech as ‘pure Nazi’ and resigned.
Populist rhetoric that divides society between natives and migrants can only lead to the normalisation of fascist ideas
Fascist ideas never disappeared. Often, such ideas are labelled as populist, nativist, or nationalist because the people who espouse them are competing in democratic elections. An example of this mislabelling is Narendra Modi’s Indian People’s Party. This party is imposing Hindu nationalism and supremacism, governing through Islamophobia, anti-pluralism, internet shutdowns, and dangerous constitutional changes. The party has close ideological and organisational links to the National Volunteer Organisation, a paramilitary group whose founders openly supported the Third Reich. Modi has been (correctly) described as a populist. But this description forgets that it is the fascist roots of his party, not its populism, that are detrimental to democracy.
Radical-right actors use populism to separate society along nativist lines. This rhetorical tool can normalise illiberal tendencies and lead to autocratisation. The contemporary far right uses such normalisation to mask ideas born from an authoritarian and illiberal past.
I have, previously, shown how nativist politicians divide society into natives and ‘traitorous politicians’ who let foreigners / migrants enter the country. Another very common division is the one they create between ‘decent people’, who believe in the traditional family and gender roles, and those who fight for women’s and LGBTQIA+ rights. This might result in attempts to criminalise abortion, as in the United States and Poland. It can also lead to a heated debate against ‘gender ideology’, as we see in Turkey and Hungary.
Similar crusades are often waged against ‘cancel culture’. In this case, the division pits anybody who stigmatises racism, homophobia, or misogyny against those who feel ‘cancelled’ when they express those positions. Donald Trump, for instance, made this claim when he was banned by all major social media sites.
The radical right uses a range of tactics to separate society, masking ideas that come from an authoritarian past
Another connected issue concerns the media. By labelling the media enemies of the country, far-right actors attack media freedom while dividing society between ‘corrupt media elites’ and the common people, who are victims of misinformation and ‘fake news’. The anti-Muslim movement PEGIDA borrowed the slogan ‘lying press’ (Lügenpresse) from the Nazis. All this takes place while actual misinformation is proliferating. Far-right actors, of course, present this misinformation as ‘real’ because the media who do the fact-checking are ‘corrupt’ and therefore untrustworthy.
Another powerful tool for autocrats is the mobilisation of nostalgia. The past glory of a country must be restored after it has been attacked by internal or external enemies. Political actors in the UK and in Turkey have in recent years exploited this mechanism to achieve their goals.
Controlling the media, using migrants as scapegoats, attacking women’s rights, intimidating the opposition: these are all strategies of the far right. It aims to make democracy less liberal by reducing pluralism, eroding the rule of law, and promoting authoritarianism. The process of autocratisation is taking place across the world, and the damage caused by illiberal governments that articulate a populist and nativist discourse is severe.
At the same time, illiberal tendencies are by no means new, democratic institutions are widespread, and citizens continue to express support for democracy. Discourses about the end of democracy miss the point: democracy is a process, and no democratic achievement is forever. Rather than indulging in nostalgia about a golden age that never existed, we should instead focus on how to resist autocratisation.
The far right has been mainstreaming for at least two decades. Despite this, studies analysing how to respond to and resist the process of autocratisation remain relatively uncommon. Democratic resilience is the ability of a democratic system (including its institutions, political actors, and citizens) to prevent or adapt to external and internal challenges.
As a recent study shows, the process is not inevitable. Resistance stems from a variety of actors. Free and independent media, civil society organisations, democratic parties and leaders, ordinary citizens, transnational networks of activists, international and supranational institutions: all play a crucial role.
The process of autocratisation is not inevitable, and there are many ways to resist it
For example, we know that civic education programmes can deepen democratic engagement and values. Meanwhile, accountability mechanisms may prevent the breakdown of democracy if institutional constraints work together with civil society. Moreover, the radical right faces strong negative partisanship, so it necessarily has an electoral ceiling. One institutional remedy for stabilising or even lowering the ceiling is compulsory voting.
Timing is crucial when fighting autocratisation processes. We know that when autocratisation is already at an advanced stage, the opposition has fewer options for resistance and has to act – especially outside institutions. We must therefore contextualise our tools and strategies within the phase of democratic erosion.
Finally, the media has a crucial responsibility. It must avoid excusing, euphemising or giving exaggerated visibility to actors and ideas that threaten democracy.
In 1980, about half of all countries were closed autocracies. By 2017, however, they made up only 12% of regimes around the world. Democracy is not dying, and history did not end. Autocratisation, however, is real, and in this phase it is crucial that we develop the tools to resist it.