Into the Mainstream: Explaining the Rise of Radical Populist Parties in Europe


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Last week I attended the lecture “Into the Mainstream: Explaining the Rise of Radical Populist Parties in Europe” given by Reinhard Heinisch last Tuesday, a talk addressing the alarming populist trend in Europe that is no longer a fringe phenomenon. The fact that populism is still growing comes as a surprise to me – I assumed that it had leveled out or was tapering off.

Heinisch’s lecture explained what populism is and what populist movements have in common, political patterns in modern Europe, and the success of the current movements. Some of the characteristics of populism that Heinisch named were little respect for human rights, the breaking of taboos through provocative speech, nationalism, and nativism. The populist political parties in European nations share some but not all of these characteristics; though the “isms” often overlap between parties, some parties can lie at completely opposite ends of the political spectrum. I was intrigued by the way that Heinisch classified the similar but distinct populist movements spreading in Europe today, drawing lines between western, southern, and eastern Europe. Each geographic region of Europe, for example, shifts blame onto other parts of Europe and certain groups of people. Western Europe is characterized by using immigrants as scapegoats and blaming the failure of the European Union, eastern Europe uses the Roma (gypsies) and the liberal west, and southern Europe uses capitalism, the EU, and the advanced economies of the north.
I would be interested to hear more from Heinisch about the types of tactics populist political parties use to accomplish their ends and win support through fear. He touched on this by showing anti-Islamic and anti-immigrant posters, so I would be curious to understand more of the psychology and rhetoric behind populists’ use of scapegoats. I am also eager to know more specific reasons why men are more drawn to populist ideology than women. One of my professors asked this question at the end, and Heinisch responded that there is no definitive, proven answer.

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