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Failure of mainstream parties promotes right-wing populism

Mon, 17 Oct 2016 | By NNA staff

The spread of right-wing populism is a threat to democratic societies. Its polarising arguments must be countered in the right way, argues Prof. Walter Ötsch.

An FPÖ poster for the 2013 Austrian general elections provoking opposition from the left. Right-wing populist language and ideology have not changed says Prof. Ötsch.
Photo: Barbara Lechner / Shutterstock.com

BERNKASTEL-KUES (NNA) – The spread of righ-wing populist positions in Europe poses a threat to democratic societies and is forcing the mainstream parties to engage in considerable learning processes. This is the view set out earlier this year by Prof. Walter O. Ötsch in a lecture on right-wing populism at the independent Cusanus University in Germany.

“Being upset and angry is not the right response as it only serves to further fuel the spiraling escalation,” the academic emphasised, who in 2000 published a bestseller, Haider light, analysing the policies of the then leader of the Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ) Jörg Haider.

The patterns of right-wing populist argumentation revealed by Prof. Ötsch – also evident across the Atlantic in the arguments used by Donald Trump in the US presidential elections – are no less relevant today than they were then: “The themes and people may have changed, but the language and ideology has not,” Ötsch said. He himself had been surprised about the extent to which his analysis still applied when he had looked at it again in the light of recent electoral successes of right-wing populist parties.

While for example the origins and stage of development of the FPÖ and its more recent German counterpart, the Alternative for Germany (AfD), might differ, their arguments and the ideology behind them were very similar.

In a diagram, Prof. Ötsch illustrated the spread of right-wing populist parties in Europe, from the UK Independence Party in the United Kingdom through the Front National in France, the Swiss People’s Party, Sweden Democrats and Party for Freedom in the Netherlands to the FPÖ in Austria and the AfD in Germany. In Poland, Hungary and Finland they were already part of the government with Law and Justice, Fidesz and the Finns Party.

Right-wing populist landscape

Speaking to students and a general audience at Cusanus University, Prof. Ötsch analysed the “inner landscape”, the thinking and arguments of right-wing populists. It began with dividing society into two groups which could be summarised as “us” and “the others”.

This fictional “us” group was then given a label such as “the nation” while the other group was presented as being “from another planet” to the extent of denying its members their humanity. “Then we can also shoot at them,” Ötsch said with reference to remarks by AfD leader Frauke Petry in connection with the refugee crisis that police could if necessary, as a last resort, use firearms to stop refugees trying to enter Germany illegally.

Ötsch then showed how the “core message” of right-wing populist argumentation, the threat to “us” from the other group, was used to turn the fear generated in this way – which might already exist anyway – into anger. “The question is how we deal with this anger,” Prof. Ötsch continued, since the feelings thus provoked might well be based on real discontent.

Here Ötsch saw a failure of the mainstream parties, a failure which had fostered the successes of right-wing populists throughout Europe: “If problems are ignored by politicians, or they fail to address them, then others will address them.” When he talked to politicians, it was his repeated experience, Ötsch said, that they had clearly lost sight of the “grassroots perspective”.

Only if politicians gave the clear message “I understand your problems” were the people concerned affirmed in their dignity. “I always ask them: are you able to look at our society also from the perspective of the poor or the people with few prospects, do you understand their anger?”

In this context right-wing populists then introduced an emotional overlay to any given topic which affirmed the split between “the nation” and an “elite” which did not have people’s interests at heart. This inflamed the social discourse considerably: “They want people to get angry.”

Keeping up the agitation

Managing such emotions was part of the strategy as much as keeping followers permanently mobilised, Ötsch said: “The agitation level has to be kept up.”

Haider, who could well be described as “the manager of the nation’s emotions”,  was a good example. Ötsch described the effect of the FPÖ politician, who was killed in a car accident in 2008, in a striking image: “He managed to keep driving a bull through the media village and then to ride it with great skill.”

Other patterns of argumentation of right-wing populists included the reduction of complex social relationships to simple reasons and naming scapegoats.

“No structures are analysed, no reasons are explained: such a reduction makes the world whole again,” Prof. Ötsch said in explaining the socio-psychological effects of the arguments of right-wing populism. Conspiracy theories were also included in their rhetorical arsenal. Such pseudo-clarity brought psychological relief in an opaque and complex reality.

Once the general threat had been established in the social discourse, right-wing populist politicians offered themselves as the solution. The threat to democracy posed by the increasing electoral success of right-wing populist parties lay, in Ötsch’s view, above all in a way of thinking which divided society and which called into question the legitimacy of democratic decisions as a whole.

“In dealing with these arguments, it is necessary to keep refering to these patterns, that is to go to the level of metacommunication,” Ötsch stressed. The way that hate speech was used and fears were stoked also reduced society’s capacity for sympathy and empathy.


In response to the question whether he expected Donald Trump to be successful in the US presidential elections, Prof. Ötsch said that here, too, there was a “narrativ against the elite” which included Hilary Clinton, while Trump and Bernie Sanders managed to move people. “I hope that I’m wrong – we will see what the mood is in November.”

Counter-strategies envisaged by Ötsch included spreading positive images of the future: “We need political mechanisms through which the good in people can be awoken.”

But he also asked: “What is civil society doing, where are the people who are alert to these things?” It was not inevitable that threat which had been described would come about, but it was a distinct possibility.


Item: 161017-01EN Date: 17 October 2016 

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