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Cas Mudde on the Far Right Today

Simone Vlug

Does the far right pose a threat for liberal democracy? Should academics on populism and extremism engage more to educate citizens, e.g., in popular media? And does the far right have a bigger podium than they should?

On 17 February 2022, political extremism and populism scholar and author of multiple books on the far-right Cas Mudde visited Radboud University, Nijmegen. The event was hosted by the student association ismus. Topics discussed included the far right, and its influence in politics and the media. Mudde also shared his thoughts on who gets a platform in popular media and to what end, as well as the role of public intellectuals in defending liberal democracy.

When we think about extremism and populism today, we usually think of the far right. Indeed, Mudde diagnoses, the discussion is completely dominated by (concerns around) right-wing parties and politicians. This leads to a three-fold problem, Mudde argues. First, it completely ignores the presence of the other half of the populist spectrum – the left. Second, although populism is a crucial feature to the most important part of the far right, it is not their primary feature. Calling the far-right populists, then, does not really reflect what they are. Three, then, populism becomes a euphemism for the far right. Many people are cautious to identify parties or politicians as far-right. Calling them populist is often the easier, less extreme option. In 2019, Mudde published his book The Far Right Today to shift the conversation, as well as to find a balance between academic and journalistic reflections on the topic. Such a balance between hard-to-grasp academic articles and popular media texts would make populism and extremism more readable for the wider public, increasing general understanding of these phenomena.

Instead, to Mudde’s chagrin, what we see today is that the far right has become even more dominant in the public debate. After Brexit and Trump’s election, the populism discussion and far right discussion seem to have merged ever more completely. Yet, the influence of the far right on politics has also changed since, specifically regarding populist far-right inroads into the system, policy, or public opinion. At the same time, Mudde suggests, their influence may not actually as big as people assume it to be. For example, the younger generation remains more in favour of immigration and multiculturalism than against it. The radical right has not changed people’s opinions, but rather the salience of these issues. The radical right pushed topics like anti-immigration to the centre of attention even though only a tiny fraction of the population agrees with them. This suggests that the podium of the far right in politics as well as in public debate and media is bigger than it should be.

One thing the advent of the radical right did fundamentally change is the public relationship with democracy. There is a renewed and strong anti-establishment sentiment, with Covid-19 policies as its catalyst, that leads to increasingly more people receptive to conspiratorial and far-right ideas. Mudde’s solution to the radical right’s attempt to undermine liberal democracy is strengthening the latter’s defences. This requires a rebalancing of public debates and political agendas too easily dominated by right-wing themes.

Media play a very important role in this, as these give the radical right a platform. In contrast to more specialised journalism of the past, journalists nowadays are often forced to write across a wide range of different issues only sometimes interconnected -  Covid-19 policy, elections, and populism. It is difficult to consistently stay up-to-date on, for example, academic research across such vast issue areas. Consequently, Mudde diagnoses an overabundance of low-quality media reporting. Interestingly, he suggests, a side-effect of the pandemic may be that science journalism has risen to new prominence. This, Mudde suggests, presents an opportunity – to have scientific knowledge presented better in popular media across different disciplines and fields, whether by academics themselves, by public engagement professionals or science journalists. However, the responsibility also lies with us as citizens, who drive demand, after all, for sensationalist pieces about Trump and Brexit over anything else. To most people Trump’s tweets have been far more entertaining than an in-depth analysis of the radical right.

Near the end of the evening there was time for questions from the audience. Mudde mentioned that, like most authors writing about controversial issues, he also frequently receives harsh criticism of his work, even hate-mail. He was asked whether this influences him to change what he writes or says, especially regarding the far right. Mudde answered that while he was not personally bothered too much by the hate-mail he receives, he acknowledges the bigger issue with writers, scholars and journalists receiving threats or hate. He asks that journalists and public scholars be protected more and better. Serious threats might  otherwise directly or indirectly change their willingness to write on the topic, which leads to an ever more skewed and disproportional public debate. As an example, Mudde is an avid Twitter user, where the Dutch far right are significantly overrepresented compared to their actual presence within society. This is because many people grew tired with their constant barrage of hate on Twitter and left the platform. This ties in with the bigger picture of the far right having a bigger podium and making their topics more salient than they should.

In sum, the radical right’s rise in overall presence throughout Europe and the US may not have had the huge, direct impact on policies or public opinion diagnosed elsewhere. But, Mudde warns, they do pose a threat to the functioning of liberal democracy, and Covid-19 served them the perfect opportunity to make their platform more salient. We need to reclaim public debate with own issues, expertise, and transparent debate. Part of this defence of democracy means creating spaces for knowledge transfer and exchange in popular media. It is here that public intellectuals can play an important role to push back against the inordinate forum and voice radical right populists have slowly begun to accumulate.