Jos de MulJos de Mul (1956) is Professor of Philosophical Anthropology at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Among other things, his research focuses on the impact of technology on people and society. On 7 March, 8:30 p.m., De Mul will be presenting the revised version of his book Paniek in de Polder. Polytiek in tijden van populisme (‘Panic in the Polder. Polytics in times of populism’) during the Studio Erasmus talk show in the Rotterdamse Schouwburg.

The populist Party for Freedom (PVV) holds a lead
in the polls. What’s going on?

“One of the key contributors to the rise of populism is the fact that – despite a large number of new parties – for quite a few years now, voters have had very little to choose between. In a democracy, all segments of the population need to be represented. But at the end of the day, does it really matter whether you vote the People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) or Labour (PvdA)? This whole thing started with ‘Purple’ [the socialist-liberal coalition formed by PvdA, VVD, and Democrats 66 and headed by Wim Kok, eds.] and the embracement of the neoliberal model. For part of the Dutch population, the associated globalisation and European unification proved very advantageous: students were able to study everywhere; international trade became a lot easier for companies. But the free movement of persons and goods has also made a lot of casualties – people working in transport or construction, for example. And the same applies for the multicultural society. For some of us, it’s very nice to be able to eat in a Thai or Mexican restaurant and enjoy a novel by Kader Abdolah or Najoua Bijjir. But when you see your old neighbourhood going downhill, are one of the few white people left in your street, and you lose your job to boot, it may be a very different story. At that point, you want someone to stand up and say ‘we’re fed up with this’.”

Nationalist populists are advancing throughout
Western Europe. Have things ever been this much
on edge before?

“Demagoguery is as old as democracy itself. During the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, more than four centuries before Christ, Cleon came to power by stirring up the people. And in the Netherlands too, we have a long tradition of offering each other our unvarnished opinions. Erasmus’s In Praise of Folly, for example, is all about taking those in power to task. Nevertheless, today’s populism is different to that seen in the Greek city-states. At that time, the entire electorate was involved in the government’s decisions. In our representative democracy, a small group – which you could call an elite – is selected to represent society at large. The moment this group no longer represents the interests of the people, a populist could justifiably claim that they are no longer listening to us.”

em-afd petry populist Duitsland

Isn’t populism simply the ultimate form of democracy?

“In a certain sense it is. It’s good that populists give people who feel ignored a voice. Except the tricky thing is that populists have a rather totalitarian idea of what ‘the people’ are. Wilders’ closing argument in the case brought against him for his ‘fewer Moroccans’ speech is a classic example. First he only talks about his own electorate: one million people. Then he refers to the two million votes that he expects to win in the parliamentary elections on 15 March. Slightly later, he talks about ‘half the Dutch population’, and finally, he issues an ominous condemnation of the judges and the public prosecutor on behalf of ‘the people’. He wraps up his argument with a messianic statement – which reminded me very strongly of Pim Fortuyn (the murdered rightwing politician – ed.) – saying ‘I am here for you; I am your elected one’.”

How dangerous are these views?

“Things get really dangerous when populists gain a parliamentary majority. That’s when they set to work on dismantling the rule of law and eliminating so-called ‘alien’ and ‘hostile’ elements. You can see this happening in countries like Hungary, Poland and Venezuela. In many cases, the first casualty is the free press: journalists are intimated by thugs or incarcerated. Trump also declared himself ‘in a running war with the media’ after his inauguration.”

The rise of Donald Trump also marked the definite arrival of ‘fact-free politics’. Nowadays, you can deny that there’s such a thing as climate change and still win the elections. How do you explain this?

“Populists have always made grateful use of mass media. They prefer to address the people directly rather than through a ‘sham parliament’. But the rise of social media has ushered in a new phase for populism. For three reasons. Twitter with its 140-character restriction aligns perfectly with the populist tendency to simplify political issues: ‘Throw all foreigners out of our country!’ In addition, you can tailor your message to each of your target audiences. In 2008, as a visiting professor at the University of Michigan, I was very impressed by the Obama campaign – and not just in a positive sense. Everyone was presented an entirely different Obama. For black voters: the first black President. For highly-educated voters: the Harvard graduate. For conservatives: the man who will be restoring the American Dream. For progressives: Change! The third point is that there’s no critical review on social media, which effectively clears away all the obstacles for fact-free politics.”

Most parties have stated in advance that they won’t
be forming a coalition with PVV, in an attempt to
counter populism. Is this a smart move?

“Perhaps in electoral terms. But personally, I don’t support a cordon sanitaire out of principle. You’re actually using the same strategy of exclusion as the populists. In addition, it hasn’t proven very effective. In Belgium, Filip Dewinter’s party Vlaams Belang has been successfully excluded from government, but this hasn’t weakened the populists’ grassroots support. And I believe that the approach suggested by political theorists like Chantal Mouffe and Eric Mudde, to combat right-wing populism by strengthening left-wing populism – as a countermovement – is equally ill-advised. You’ll end up falling into the same populist trap, claiming that you speak on behalf of the people as a whole.”

So what would work?

“I’m all for naming problems and entering into dialogue. I thought Rutte was sensible in saying ‘we don’t mind talking with PVV, but he’ll have to retract his ‘fewer, fewer, fewer’ statement.’ This way, you make it very clear that you take someone seriously without shedding your own ideological feathers.”

Some people say: ‘Let them have a shot at government
– that will teach them.’

“We tend to forget, which is why we keep having to get set straight ourselves. That’s what happened when Wilders withdrew from the ‘parliamentary support agreement’ for the first Rutte cabinet. PVV dropped from 24 to 15 seats. Voters saw that he had a big mouth but didn’t want to take responsibility. Except the electorate has a very short memory – as is becoming clear again.”

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What would your advice be for politicians who
want to reach voters without resorting to populist

“Stop talking in a disrespectful way about ‘those people’ and their views. One of Hillary Clinton’s biggest mistakes in her campaign was that she called a share of the Trump supporters ‘deplorables’. That’s a very irresponsible way of condemning an entire section of the population. And it would be great if in the Netherlands, we could once again have a real ideological debate about which way we want to head as a society. We gripe about our healthcare system and our pensions when they’re actually among the best in the world. In a secret memorandum published on Wikileaks, an American diplomat characterised the Netherlands as a country that could no longer look beyond the edge of its own dikes. In that sense, I think Trump’s statements about possibly leaving NATO actually present opportunities for countries in Europe. We will need to start thinking for ourselves again.”