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Nadia Urbinati: Populism? It’s not Fascism, and also Democracies Are “Elastic”

Interview with the political scientist from Columbia University on the publication of her books on the crisis of democracy and the victories of populism.

Nadia Urbinati (Photo

Professor Urbinati recently contributed to the political debate with two important volumes: Utopia Europa, published by Castelvecchi, and Me, the People. How Populism Transforms Democracy for Harvard University Press (coming soon). We met her in her office at the prestigious university in New York City to test the “political thermometer” on the health of our democracy and the challenges posed by populism, a few days before the European elections and about a year and a half before the highly awaited US presidential elections: "We have the internet, we have a solid democracy that has guaranteed 70 years of rule. Fascism will not return, it would be absurd, but there is a transformation of representative democracies because representation is no longer handled by the parties, but directly by the leaders ".

As we know, Columbia University in New York is praised for its illustrious tradition of political science and democracy studies which has never failed to analyze, from overseas, the events that characterize our beautiful Italy. For years, the unforgettable professor Giovanni Sartori, author of pamphlets that shook the public debate in our country, was contributing to this. Nadia Urbinati, naturalized in the United States, is an academic and political scientist who often appears in Italian newspapers, as well as a professor of Political Science at Columbia University. Most recently, she has contributed two important books to the discourse on the current state of democracy in Europe and in the world: Utopia Europa, published by Castelvecchi, and Me the People. How Populism Transforms Democracy, by Harvard University Press. We met her in her office at the prestigious university in New York City to test the “political thermometer” on the health of our democracy and the challenge posed by populism, a few days before the European elections and about a year and a half before the highly awaited US presidential elections.

The two books, Urbinati explains, are far from being pessimistic. The first, she underlined, is a “reconnaissance” to understand where the Europe in which we live comes from, a Europe that was built on treaties and promises that were not always respected. Above all, she says, “it is a book that ends with 10 proposals meant to anchor us in Europe– among which are solidarity, work, and so on. It is a manifesto for political action”. The second “aims to be a dispassionate analysis of what populism is”. And it is precisely on populism that Professor Urbinati reassures us: “Populism is the son of democracies. This distinguishes it from fascism, which is a derailment. Of course, fascism was also born as populism, but it did not have the courage to accept the risk of free elections. Populism accepts the risk, and it does so to the point of using the elections as a plebiscite, to exalt the leader and the majority “. Urbinati, in short, rejects the parallelism between the old fascism and the new populisms, which is nonetheless presenting challenges for democracy, as she also acknowledges. “The populist leaders are convinced — as Trump said in his inaugural speech- – that ‘finally the people have arrived here’, as if before, with other majorities, it was not true. This means that populism presents its majority as the only legitimate possibility, and believes that the others are manipulated by the parties, by the elites, by the minorities. As if there were only one legitimate majority, that democracy reveals but does not  create. In reality, however, democracy means creating majorities through elections”.

According to Urbinati, “populism sheds light on shortcomings and problems, but does not solve them”. In her view, the key to understanding it is the decline in the legitimacy of political parties. “After World War II, democracies were reborn, including the United States, which had a strong presidentialism with the New Deal. They promised to involve citizens and limit the power of leaders”. The party has precisely this dual function: “it can be seen by the people as an oligarchy, but it is also the instrument for the many to contain the power of the few. The parties have conveyed legitimacy from below, and have played a role in educating citizens to not only think about their own interests “. Today, on the other hand, they have been reduced to “machines for the election of some representatives and for the maintenance of power”. In short, we are now in an era of “party politics”, and populism on the contrary, “disputes that establishment, and opposes it to an anti-party movement that unites all the people”. In this feature, the similarity with regimes is undeniable: yet, populism remains “within the system”.

Professor Urbinati tells us that populism can be described by analogy, to a parasite– because it also needs an enemy to attack and the perennial enemy/friend tension with the opposition. “I see an internal transformation of electoral democracies and representative democracies. If we think of a democracy as an elastic band, it is at an extreme expansion, beyond which it could break”.

What can we say, then, about the concern expressed by Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the House of Representatives, who fears that if Donald Trump were to win re-election by a narrow margin, he might reject the results? According to Urbinati, this fear “may be reasonable”, because “in the face of populism, there are always two alternatives: tyranny or democracy. And it is very risky precisely for this reason”. She adds that,  “We have seen cases, such as in Latin America, where populism became a regime after the Second World War, a fascism with elections. However, wherever populism took root and wherever it ruled, the problems arose not during the time of governing, but in the aftermath: notice Venezuela”.

Trump-Mussolini (by Antonio Giambanco for VNY)

Urbinati does not believe that we can speak of “life cycles” for democracies. Rather, she believes that democracies are not static, because when the majority/opposition dispute spills out of the parties, “we arrive at a disintermediation of politics. Today the problem is the weakness of the political parties, which become parasites of the State”. “So far, in representative governments, there have been cycles: in the nineteenth century there was an element of ‘notability’, with the elected representatives being part of the ‘cream’ of society. When the opening [to other layers of society, nds] began, the problem of fascism arose. Today the openness is at its height, but this does not translate into policies that are in the interest of the whole population: indeed, they are always selective, they leave ‘others’ out of any organizational relationship. Think of the yellow vests and the many forms of indignados “.

In this context, the internet presents new challenges and new opportunities. “Podemos was born as a digital party but today it feels like it needs to be something more. Digital alone is not enough “. The internet has helped to demolish the old parties, “but it could also be the tool to bring out new connections. We are at the stage where the old is eroded and the expectation is that something new will be born”.

Nadia Urbinati during our interview, at her Columbia University office  (Photo VNY)

According to this political scientist, however, the fear of living through a déja vù of the darkest moments of our history is almost unfounded. “We have the internet, we have a solid democracy that has guaranteed 70 years of rule. Fascism will not return, it would be absurd, but there is a transformation of representative democracies because representation is no longer handled by the parties, but directly by the leaders “. For years, we have witnessed this phenomenon in Italy: starting with Silvio Berlusconi and Matteo Renzi, up to Matteo Salvini. “I consider them to be caesaristic,” she explains, but today’s constitutional systems “are structures capable of containing the power of leaders”. For Urbinati, the United States has an advantage over Europe. “America has a very strong Constitution”. Not even the fact that Trump is putting his men in the Supreme Court could weaken it. “The moment they take that role, they develop a sense of identification with the Constitution that they must defend.” In Europe, on the contrary, “parliamentary systems are weaker” because, among other reasons, “we have a bureaucratic system infiltrated by the parties, far more than the United States”.

What should we expect from these European elections, then? According to Professor Urbinati, Brexit was “an eye-opening element, because it allowed the anti-Europeans to understand that it was not convenient to leave the EU”. The same projects aimed at closing the borders by “xenophobic populists, such as Salvini, Orban, Swartz, Le Pen”, need to be abundantly financed: without Europe, they would be unrealizable. The populists, in particular, “need something that in Europe does not exist, and that the social democrats who have governed so far have not done–and that is a European budget”. The fact that the popularists have refused the alliance with the populists “helps us, it means that they keep themselves free from the right,” she observes. One thing is certain: “the populists will get many votes, especially in Italy, England and France”. It remains to be seen how the People’s Party will act in the face of this wave. However, Urbinati is convinced that, “Europe –let this be a warning for those who consider themselves pro-European — can no longer afford to remain as it is”. The Europe of the treaties, born by bonding similar countries with complementary interests — Urbinati observes- – today is founded on different bases: that complementarity no longer exists. “Italy is no longer the same as it was then, it is poorer because it cannot create work, yet it is difficult to send its own citizens to Germany because it finds itself competing with the new immigrants. And the countries are profoundly unbalanced during the crisis “. Not even the regulation that upholds Europe is sufficient anymore: “a political authority needs to make decisions on the continental solidarity and on issues that cannot be resolved at the state level, such as the problem of work and unemployment”. Another issue to be addressed is “the German austerity, which is strangling countries that could start their economy to grow with debt”.

A political Europe, which would need transnational parties, a European budget, a system of supportive European citizenship, and which would defend the collapsing public health, the scholastic and research topics, is a Utopic dream. For Urbinati, who refers to the principle of “no taxation without representation”, “if Europe had even a minimal but direct form of taxation, we would have more voice as European citizens. As European citizens, we would no longer think of Europe from the point of view of our own nations”.

Mussolini’s Style: Matteo Salvini speaking from a balcony (Photo – twitter)

There is another reason, according to the professor, to defend Europe: “There are too many powers and too many states that do not want it. Europe has very strong enemies–in Trump, in Putin and in their like-thinking friends. If there is to be a democratic project, today, it can only be European, because those are its ‘enemies’. It would be so convenient for those jackals if Europe no longer existed “. Furthermore, we live in a world in which a medium-large state, on its own, “has no chances from an economic or financial point of view as well as from a political one. Europe is a necessary Utopia. It is in our interest to be utopian”.

At the root of the times we are living today is the very deep crisis of the left. If in America the left seems to be rising from its ashes, thanks also to a party structure that is able to welcome outsider faces and positions (see Bernie Sanders), in Europe the crisis seems hardly reversible. The European left, explains Urbinati, once represented the “people in need”, the great multitude of workers, which it framed within institutions. With its crisis, the organization has become disorganized. “Instead of having unionized work, it accepted the idea of ​​having precarious work. This has made the left no longer organized and organizing, but made up of a wealthy middle class that has dramatically lost contact with its people. All this suggests that, in the European elections, the left will suffer its umpteenth disaster. “The [Italian, ndr] Democratic Party could improve, but it has no platform. After the elections, it will be a question of seeing what it will do “. And yet, for Professor Urbinati the PD [Italian Democratic Party, ndr] “is a compromised party, with a past that nobody likes, that takes everyone in, from Calenda to Bersani”. Today, “it is a party of notables, which unites everyone. Even those who voted for Five Stars, and come from a more left-wing tradition, do not feel like voting for the Democratic Party: they prefer not to vote”.

And the Five Star Movement? For Urbinati, more than “populism”, we should speak of “peoplism”. “Di Maio is not a charismatic leader, but he is able to impose his will. At this moment the real populism in Italy is represented by Salvini’s party”. Should we be afraid? No, “democracies are elastic. Of course, we should hope that they will not break. But I am confident.””

Translated by Yulia Lapina

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