These are the words of Geert Wilders, posterboy of European populism:
“We are democrats. We believe in peaceful solutions. The reason why we reject Islam is exactly Islam’s violent nature. We believe in democracy. We fight with the force of our conviction, but we never use violence. Our commitment to truth, human dignity and a just and honourable defence of the west does not allow us to use violence nor to give in to cynicism and despair.”
Wilders has reportedly endorsed such policies as taxing women who wear headscarves and banning the Koran. These policies defy the commitment to the equal freedom of every individual that is the hallmark of liberal democracy. Yet Wilders’s rhetoric is anything but illiberal or antidemocratic.
Wilders is symptomatic of a new and growing wave of European populism that combines a fervent rejection of multiculturalism and immigration with soaring defence of western civilisation and national identity. Their message is resonating with large parts of the electorate. Parties like the Swedish Democrats and True Finns have made astonishing gains in local, national and European elections over the last five years. In some countries, such as Norway, Austria and possibly even France they are the second or third largest parties. In others—the Netherlands and, until recently, Denmark—they are considered important partners in governing coalitions.
Because several of these parties have historic roots in extreme right politics, many progressive politicians and thinkers view such rights-talk as a disingenuous veneer, a cover for bigots who couldn’t care less about liberalism. This is a mistake. To see just how dangerous the populist threat is, we should recognise the sincerity—and the grain of hard truth—in their words.
The latest study from Demos, “The New Face of Digital Populism,” which was released this week, shows why. Based on a survey of over 10,000 supporters of these parties across Europe, it dispels some myths about the current crop of European populists. They are disillusioned with out-of-touch political elites, but not with democracy, which they cite as a top personal value, along with the rule of law and human rights. They overwhelmingly reject violence. One of the most significant drivers of support is a perceived threat to national identity and culture posed by immigrants, other minorities, and increasingly…