The Global Cable, Europe, Democracy, Populism, & Domestic Politics

The Rise of Populism in Europe and Beyond with Andrew Moravcsik

March 20, 2020
By The Global Cable | Perry World House

This week's episode of The Global Cable features Andrew Moravcsik, this year’s Distinguished Scholar-in-Residence at Perry World House. He is Professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University, and an expert on European integration, international relations, human rights, and international law.

Andrew talks to us about the rise of right-wing populist parties across Europe, and what’s behind this trend; why populists’ bark might be worse than their bite; and why we need a serious social shift around the role of men in caregiving to truly achieve gender equality.

Music & Produced by Tre Hester.

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Andrew Moravcsik [00:00:09] The result of that is if no deal is reached, Britain gets hurt four times as badly as Europe just by virtue of their relative size. That means Britain is in a weak negotiating position because at some point, they're gonna get scared that the negotiations will fall apart and they'll have to make concessions. That's the structural logic of their circumstance. The way the conservative government tries to deal with this is to engage in heroic Churchillian rhetoric. You know, say we really, really, really want an agreement, and they even use the language of Winston Churchill to try to say, "even though we're small, we'll stand up to the Europeans." But I, for one, don't think it's very credible.

John Gans [00:00:50] Welcome to the Global Cable, the podcast from Perry World House at the University of Pennsylvania, where we discuss the world's most pressing issues with the people working on them. I'm John Gans, the Director of Communications and Research here at Perry World House. On today's episode, we speak to Andrew Moravcsik, this year's Distinguished Scholar in Residence at Perry World House.

[00:01:09] He's also a professor of Politics and International Affairs at Princeton University and an expert on European integration, international relations, human rights, and international law. He talks to us today about the rise of right wing populist parties across Europe and what's behind the trend. Why populists' spark might be worse than their bite, and what life will be like for the UK after Brexit. We even talk a little bit about parenting, in a modern world, in American politics, in the year 2020. Andy Moravcsik, welcome to the Global Cable.

[00:01:43] Andy Moravcsik, welcome to the Global Cable. Thanks so much for joining us.

Andrew Moravcsik [00:01:46] Thanks for having me.

John Gans [00:01:48] So, you've been spending the year here at Penn focusing a little bit on, and investigating, the rise of right wing populist parties across Europe. For our listeners, can you define what characterizes these parties and some of the factors behind their growth?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:02:03] So is this typical of academics. We've had a big debate about defining these kind of parties, but I'm going to make it simple. Usually they have three characteristics. One is that they are nationalists in some sense. Secondly, that they're populists—that means they believe in a plebiscitary or elective democracy, but not always with the same checks and balances or rule of law that we normally think of democracies as having. And thirdly, in international affairs, they're sovereigntist. So they believe in defending the sovereignty of the nation, in part because they are nationalists and populists and they think that's the source of their legitimacy.

John Gans [00:02:44] Is that a new definition, would you say, or does that track with what academics have found for a while?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:02:50] That tracks with what academics say, a summary of what I think most people think.

John Gans [00:02:54] So, we've seen these movements in these populist parties and, to a degree, parties that meet those criteria have gained ground in recent elections in Europe. In 2017 alone, right wing parties took almost 13 percent of vote in Germany, overall 26 percent in Austria, 13 percent in France, over 10 percent in the Czech Republic, and almost two percent in the United Kingdom. So why are they such attractive forces in politics? Why are they a growing presence in European politics?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:03:26] Well, before we answer that question, I think we need a relativize it a bit. They're still relatively small in most countries. We're talking about a presence of somewhere between five and 20 percent in most countries. And there have long been parties that are not mainstream parties in most European democracies, which are multi-party systems, that are like this both on the right and the left. And often when we read headlines, we exaggerate how big they are. So, for example, if you think of somebody like Marine Le Pen in France, head of the Rassemblement National, who got quite a number of headlines for running in the second round of the French presidential election, the truth is her underlying electoral support is about 17 percent. And she never had any chance of becoming president of France because almost all the other parties would coalesce against her. So, I think it's easy to exaggerate how important they are, but still they're a growing presence as you say. Most people attribute that to a combination of factors, a kind of perfect storm. One is a growing cultural dissatisfaction by some members in society, who view the society as too liberal, or not as committed to national or religious values as it used to be. In part, we have over the last 10 or 15 years had a fair amount of economic hardship, financial crises, growing inequality in most Western societies, and this has driven people to more extreme criticisms of how things are going in politics.

[00:04:56] And thirdly, there are particular issues, notably migration, that are issues that many people are concerned about, and where the overwhelming opinion in society is that migration should be restricted in most Western countries. You can imagine that the combination of concern about economic hard times, cultural dissatisfaction against modernization, and opposition to something like migration leads to greater support for exactly these kind of right wing parties that favor sovereigntism, nationalism, and the people having their say.

John Gans [00:05:32]  Would you say that these voters have been there for a while and these parties have been able to capture this or is this related somewhat to this moment of economic globalization, transnational issues like immigration and things along those lines?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:05:48] Both. There have always been more extreme voters than we think, who somehow get marginalized or incorporated into the political system. And that's been true pretty much ever since there have been democracies. In recent years, there's been a kind of hump in the increase of these parties. I think the height of them in Europe was maybe about five years ago before Europeans took steps to control migration and when the economic crisis was really at its height.

[00:06:13] But it's still a significant trend in Europe. And here, because we have President Trump, of course.

John Gans [00:06:21] We can get to that a little bit here. I think Brookings has found that there are far right parties in 23 of 28 European parliaments. And you say that doesn't mean that they're controlling those parliaments. You've pointed out that these aren't always huge parties, but you've argued that when it comes to these right wing parties, their bark is often worse than their bite. Can you elaborate on that? And why do they tend to govern more moderately or tend to blend in a little bit more with the existing governing structure than they might out on the election and out in the campaigns?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:06:58] So I should say specifically that I've looked mostly at their foreign policy and EU policy behavior. There are some other areas, like degrading the working of democratic institutions, that perhaps we should be more worried about. The simple way to think about it is this: if your party starts with only 10 to 20 percent of the vote, and a relatively extreme place in the political spectrum, and you're just one country among a lot of countries in the world, it's actually very difficult starting from that point to really make significant policy change.

So think about yourself as a party leader of one of these parties, extreme on the right wing of the spectrum and with 15 percent of the vote. What do you need to do? Well, first, you need to get those votes together and get elected. And a lot of people are going to look at you askance because your positions are extreme and so on. But let's say you do that, then you need to get seats in the parliament. And some parties are advantaged and some parties are disadvantaged by the way seats are allocated in parliaments. So you can get seven or eight percent of the vote and not get many parliamentary seats.

And then, suppose you make it into the governing coalition. Or suppose you want to get into government, you need to be invited into the governing coalition. And in most European countries, think Germany, think Denmark, and so on, the standard policy of moderate parties is to exclude these parties because they view them as beyond the pale. So you'll get the votes and you'll get the seats, but you're just going to have to sound off in parliament because you don't actually have any policymaking control.

Suppose you do get into the coalition, then you have to convince everybody else to go along with your issues. But you're very extreme. You don't have any alternatives to being in the coalition you're in. How are you going to do that?

The only issue in which they've consistently had success in doing that on is migration. But that's because restricting migration is an issue that is almost now universally held by parties—moderate or extreme—in Western societies, particularly in Europe. So in a way, they're pushing against an open door, not really making their voice felt. And suppose they get really, really lucky and they either are the majority party, which is true in Hungary or Poland, or if you view the British Conservatives in Brexit mode as such a party in Britain, and you want to pursue a foreign policy agenda, you need to convince other countries to somehow accommodate you. Because you're not going to go marching off with an army and change the world you have to do deals. And you can really see that dilemma for Boris Johnson trying to do Brexit. Where he wants Brexit, he has an idea of what Brexit is and how Britain might be advantaged, but he has to negotiate that Brexit—not just with the EU, but when he's done with that, he needs to negotiate alternative arrangements with the United States or India or China. And that's a tall order. So your views get watered down at home, watered down in the coalition, and then watered down internationally.

[00:09:58] And pretty soon very little is left. In fact, in Europe really the only example of a party that's had a significant impact (and we still don't know how much) on foreign policy outside of the migration issue is the British Conservatives in Brexit. Pretty much everybody else has been politics as usual.

John Gans [00:10:17] Now, is that politics as usual - is that governing record hurting or helping their appeal in terms of actual campaigning and gathering strength with voters?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:10:30] So by and large it's hard to sustain the energy as a critical populist party. One way to try to do it is to amend the Constitution to advantage yourself. That's what the Hungarians have done with the result that the governing party, though it has never achieved an absolute majority in Hungary, always gets a large majority of the seats in the parliament and can sort of do what it wants. But even that party has not actually achieved a lot internationally.

In other cases, parties tend to persist for a while and then lose support. Recently, the Austrian far right came into a coalition government for the second time in the last 20 years and immediately self-destructed with a scandal. And now the country is being run by the moderate right and the Greens. In Finland, the party split. In Italy, Matteo Salvini overreached himself. So, it's a very difficult strategic position to play. And most of these people have a great deal of difficulty playing it sustainably. Really, the only countries where we see a stable arrangement for the moment is Poland, Hungary, and Britain. And as I said before, those countries are still very cautious about what they try to achieve.

John Gans [00:11:48] Is this an argument for letting more moderate voices, say, let these moments happen and let these movements occur, with the knowledge that the system can endure them and endure their flashes of populist anger? Or is there a better way for more moderate and more democratic voices to push back against these movements?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:12:12] Well, that strategic decision has to be made country by country. Some countries like Germany, they've really maintained what's called a "cordon sanitaire." The other parties say, "we will not cooperate with these people, they're outside the pale." And given Germany's history, you can see why that is. But I think we can be a little more relaxed, at least in the European context, where you have lots of parties and coalition governments, about letting these parties into office because they tend to have less effect than they might and they tend to moderate. So another aspect of it is that even people who don't get into office but aspire to get into office, moderate their policies considerably to try to get there. Again, the example of Marine Le Pen in France is very instructive. Five years ago, six years ago, Marine Le Pen was in favor of holding a "Frexit" election and pulling out of the European Union and pulling out of the euro. And in the process of trying to run for president and trying to mainstream her party, she ditched both of those positions, as did Matteo Salvini, as have many other parties, because otherwise you're really frozen out in the wasteland of exclusion forever. So these parties really face a very tough decision. Most of them either moderate or die.

John Gans [00:13:23] Well, it's fascinating. It seems to me that the idea of actually letting these folks have their moment of democracy and sort of gain support of them and let that happen is actually a better outcome than sequestering voices. If I could just ask one question. Is it different in a two party system, like the United States, where a populist voice can overtake a major party and has more power?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:13:48] Yes, it is. There's a greater risk in two party systems or majoritarian systems, and there are two such risks which are combined in the UK and the US, which are two of the striking examples of this kind of populist governance. The first risk is that almost every majoritarian system over weights the seats won by a plurality party. So in the United States, President Trump won a minority of votes, but won the presidency. And famously, the Republicans win a majority of seats in the Senate with a considerable minority of votes. In Britain, Boris Johnson won a majority with 42 percent to 43 percent of the vote. So in that case, it allows populists, if the person running the party is so inclined, to govern without a coalition. So it increases their power. And that is made doubly dangerous if the parties themselves have a way of selecting nominees. That tends to privilege extremists. And both the United States and Britain have such a system. Britain, because party members of the Conservative Party who number about 400,000, who are more extreme than the population as a whole or the parliamentary party, make that selection. And the United States because of the primary system. So it is more dangerous in a majoritarian system.

John Gans [00:15:09] It's fascinating that you make the argument that we should be less supportive or perhaps pessimistic about populism's rise in Europe, but more worried about it in the United States.

Andrew Moravcsik [00:15:20] Yeah, I think that's right. I think most political scientists are quite skeptical of the American constitution, which for many reasons is a dubious document. But one is that it tends to push parties outward toward the extremes.

John Gans [00:15:38] It's fascinating. So, you mentioned Brexit and we'd be remiss we didn't mention that, as we deal with some of the consequences of this and the continued negotiations and things along those lines. What do you see are the potential obstacles to Brexit and what do you think the future of the UK-European Union relationship will look like?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:16:00] So again, think about this from Boris Johnson's point of view. And you think, okay, I'm a populist and my problem is how do I get to 50 percent plus and really maintain control of the government while I pursue this relatively extreme policy.

[00:16:13] Now, Boris Johnson is lucky because he is in a majoritarian system. So at 42 percent of the vote, he has 55 percent of the seats and a comfortable majority. But he still faces a lot of problems. We should remember nothing has been done so far substantively to achieve Brexit. That's supposed to happen maybe at the end of the year, but it's subject to an EU-British negotiation.

So what's the problem for the British there? Number one, they don't uniformly have an interest in disassociating. Even Boris Johnson doesn't think so. In fact, the interesting thing about the Tory government for the last five years is it's constantly arguing, "why are the Europeans pushing us around? We want to stay close." They would like to be legally outside the EU, but substantively, at least pick and choose what they're outside of. And the government knows that the moment that they screw it up and they get long lines at the border or a financial crisis or investment falls, the government will be hurt. So they don't want to take that risk.

They want it to be a smooth process. And so they have to negotiate with Europe to do this in an orderly fashion and the problem there is it's a very disadvantageous negotiation for the British. So in international negotiations over things like trade, your power is a function of how independent you are. That is how much you could withstand not reaching an agreement. It's just like buying a house. The more you want the house, the more you're gonna pay.

And in the British case, the more they want the agreement, the more in the end you expect them to have to pay. And the problem is Britain is relatively small compared to Europe. So if you think about trade as a percentage of GDP, British exports as a percentage of GDP are four times larger than European exports to Britain as a percentage of their GDP. The result of that is if no deal is reached, Britain gets hurt four times as badly as Europe just by virtue of their relative size. And that means Britain is in a weak negotiating position because at some point they're going to get scared that the negotiations will fall apart and they'll have to make concessions. That's the structural logic of their circumstance.

And the way the conservative government tries to deal with this is to engage in heroic Churchillian rhetoric. You know, say we really, really, really want an agreement, and they even use the language of Winston Churchill to try to say, "even though we're small, we'll stand up to the Europeans." But I, for one, don't think it's very credible.

John Gans [00:18:40] Well, almost 300 years ago, one of Penn's first trustees, Ben Franklin, who knew a thing or two about populism, government, and statesmanship and negotiation, developed a questionnaire used for conversations among fellow Philadelphians interested in current global affairs. We've updated it for today to anchor our Global Cable podcast. And these are short questions that can have short answers or long answers depending on your mood. So the first question we like to ask is who would you most like to meet today and why?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:19:11] So I guess Ben Franklin is not an option, because he seems like a really interesting guy.

John Gans [00:19:14] For sure, you can go sit next to him on Locust Walk here if you're interested. There's a statue there that you can have a conversation with him. Nobody will judge you.

Andrew Moravcsik [00:19:23] But actually, I'll give an iconoclastic answer. I really rarely think I want to meet famous people because famous people are only randomly, and not very often, interesting people to meet as individuals. Churchill, whom we were just discussing probably was such a person. Ben Franklin certainly so. But most people who are famous are famous for reasons completely separate from the reasons that might make them a fun person to meet or have a conversation with. So I think about sports stars or musicians, politicians, they're often difficult, even unsavory or just closed, busy people. So I'd love to watch Angela Merkel give a speech. I'd love to watch Roger Federer play tennis, Daniil Trifonov play the piano. But I'm rarely inclined to go talk to them afterwards. And when I have, I'm always disappointed. So maybe I'm just a curmudgeonly academic, but I don't really think about meeting famous people much.

John Gans [00:20:31] So the answer is no one?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:20:33] No one.

John Gans [00:20:34] That sounds alright. That sounds fair. So have you recently read anything, a book or article, seen anything, a movie or art exhibit, or listen to anything, a podcast or piano concerto, related to world affairs that our listeners might be interested in?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:20:54] Well you know I have wonky tastes, but I think of all the people who comment on international politics the person who I listen to most is Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. I think of him as a very sober economic analyst, very pragmatic, very realistic, but with a kind of historical vision. And I remember him saying at the start, a few years into the financial crisis, he said, you know, "All my life I've studied the 1930s and I've watched countries make mistakes in policies and make things worse. And I wondered, how could they possibly have done it? And now I know."

John Gans [00:21:32] It's funny because Martin Wolf is still one of those people that is out there writing every day—I mean every week. He's one of those people that isn't criticized or beaten up as much as some of the others who do. We won't mention names, but you have plenty of foreign affairs columnists that do. But I think, because I remember that same column and he said it many times, but it was always one of those ones where you never really appreciated why the center didn't hold once upon a time, until you were in a moment when you're like, "Oh, I could actually see how all hell could break loose at any moment."

[00:22:07] And that sounds alright. So he's at the FT I guess, you can read him if you're interested and have a subscription. Other than Martin Wolf, do you know of any individual in the United States or elsewhere who has recently done something that deserves praise or imitation?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:22:23] So here I want to talk about something that you and I have talked about in other circumstances, and that is, I take my hat off to men who have assumed the role of a lead parent. That is, men who are willing to play the taking care of the kids role and housework role. That's only four percent of the men in American society. Well over half of the married couples the woman does more housework and child care than the man. And in the rest of the cases, they report that the man does equal amounts, although one wonders about that. But it's a difficult role to play, because our societal expectations of men being career people and successful I think are very strong.

[00:23:10] And yet, it's essential that men play this role. Because we've done a lot in the last 20 or 30 years to promote women's sense that they're entitled to an equal role, that they can do that, to make opportunities available to them. But what we find when we look at the statistics is that women do perform as well or better than men in most professional settings until they get married and until they have kids. And at that point, it's always the woman who steps back from the career, or all but four percent of the cases. It's a woman who steps back and takes care of the kids and the man that goes on with the career. We can't solve that problem without the cooperation of men. So oddly, I think times have changed and now it's not consciousness raising on the part of women or how we treat women. That's the critical impediment or a necessary step to improve gender equality. It's how men think about themselves and how other people think about those men. And that is a whole agenda for the workplace and for government and for conversations that I think we're long overdue to have.

John Gans [00:24:20]  I know you've written in the Atlantic and elsewhere about this phenomenon and it's interesting. Totally unrelated to this conversation in terms of timing, a friend who was at a cocktail party with his wife for her professional career last weekend was called by one of her colleagues "the househusband" and it was said in a very negative way. And he is the sort of "flex-parent." He has a job, but he's able to get up in the morning and do his work very early and then takes the kids to school and does all sorts of things. And it was interesting, there needs to be a lot of work done to remove the stigma that comes with being a househusband or a flex-parent.

Andrew Moravcsik [00:25:00] And the simplest place to start is with language. I'm glad you brought that up. So "househusband," or worse, "Mr. Mom," are not words we want to use. We want to refer to people who are the primary caregiver and home worker as "lead parents." And they are lead parents if they're the woman, they're lead parents if they're the man. And that is an at least neutral and perhaps even sort of admiring term, "lead parent." And that's really their job. And I think we need to start with the language and then also change institutions. And it will be a long conversation in our society and elsewhere.

John Gans [00:25:42] So other than changing the language around lead parenting, is there anything that Penn students or Penn can do right now to be of service to the country or the world?

Andrew Moravcsik [00:25:51] So I think, consistent with our previous conversation about the role of political institutions, the most important thing people can do in this country is think about the reform of American political institutions. Everybody seems to be unhappy with the outcomes of the American political system and people have the sense that it generates more extreme outcomes when most Americans are neither red nor blue but purple and all that. But what do they do then? They think about the problem and well, the first thing is to blame politicians. But politicians just respond to incentives. So then when they think it through a little more, they blame people and they say, well, people are ignorant or misguided. But the truth is, political scientists believe people are almost always ignorant and self interested and ill informed. So how do we create democracies that work? We do so by designing them in a way that even imperfect people can achieve good policy outcomes.

[00:26:53] And that was the project of our founding fathers. But the document they came up with is not fit for purpose anymore. It's just terribly designed in many ways. It's majoritarian, when actually we have lots of shades of view in society that should be representative in government. It's a type of government that systematically blocks government action in an era when almost every advanced society has more robust government action in areas like health and welfare and so on. And it generates a kind of politics that's money laden, partisan, often unrepresentative and manipulative and inefficient. And I think that a lot of that is a function of constitutional design. Now, how we get there is very tough because I think the only thing people think would be worse than the kind of partisan wrangling we have now is to just open it up for a free for all about amending the Constitution. It would be tough. But I think there are steps we can take, like going to multi-member electoral districts for the Electoral College and things like that that move things  in that direction. And thinking creatively about that and being willing to think about political reform in the United States and not be afraid of feeling that you're somehow unpatriotic or not sufficiently deferential to Benjamin Franklin and other founding fathers is an important step. So I think every American has a responsibility to really think this through.

John Gans [00:28:21] I appreciate that and we're very glad you could join us today on the Global Cable. Thanks so much Andy.

Andrew Moravcsik [00:28:26] Thank you very much.