I spent last week in Vaasa (or Vasa, in Swedish; the town is officially bilingual) participating in a workshop on populist parties. The work was quite intensive with five official sessions and no less than two dinners and here are some of my thoughts after the discussions:
1. Dealing with “the populist parties” in the Nordic countries as a group is problematic for a number of reasons, most notably because of the lack of formal links between the Danish People’s Party (DF), the Sweden Democrats (SD), Fremskrittspartiet (FrP) and Perussuomalaiset (PS) – DF and SD have shown an interest in creating some kind of ties, though – but also because FrP in particular occupy a different position in the political space compared to DF, SD and PS. FrP in many ways look more like a conservative party with more liberal positions on economy while DF, SD and PS all combine an economically centrist position with an authoritarian position on social issues (immigration and crime as the most notable issues).
2. Several of us implicitly or explicitly addressed questions related to the institutionalisation of populist parties in the Nordic party systems. Even if SD and – to some degree PS – are newcomers, all parties were established in the 1970s (FrP) or 1990s (DF, SD, PS) and while it is still difficult to predict the future strength of PS and SD, we should expect them to stay in the national party systems for some time. We should also note that the parties have led deliberate strategies to stabilise the party organisations on the membership and parliamentary level (A colleague noted that DF’s organisational practices in many ways resembled those of communist parties with a very strong and centralised leadership).
3. Two concepts often associated with populism were spectacular absent from the discussions: Charisma and distrust. There are many good reasons why charisma has fallen out of favour in academic discussions – the concept is hard to operationalise and the institutionalisation processes I described above make references to the party leaders’ charisma less relevant.
I am less certain about distrust. If we look at electoral research, populist party voters usually stand out with low levels of political and social trust compared with other voters. The phenomenon of distrust is not uncomplicated – a Danish research project from the 1990s argued that conflicts between elite and majority positions on the one hand and minority positions on specific issues on the other may generate distrust. Immigration and European policy were cited as the most likely sources of political distrust back then. That distrust disappeared from view has to do with the perspective changing from (voter) demand to (party) supply but this is probably where you write: “More research is needed”.
4. Marie Demker has argued that populist parties are better understood as nationalist parties. The argument is interesting as it sees nationalism as the ideological basis which sets these parties apart from other parties in the Nordic party systems. The argument would also fit with the parties’ position on the libertarian-authoritarian scale. Here populism could be seen as a means used by nationalist parties (and other parties – think of Anders Fogh Rasmussen’s famous New Year’s Speech from 2002) to mobilise voters.
If I should argue against Demker’s thesis I would first of all acknowledge that the present-day DF and SD (and in all likelihood PS) unquestionably qualify as nationalist. If we look at the Danish political history, nationalist agrarianism has manifested itself at certain points during the 20th century (The Free People’s Party, later the Peasants’ Party 1934-1945 and the Independents 1960-1966) but so has an outspoken anti-state populism (The Justice Party 1926-1960, 1973-1975, 1977-1981) and I would question if the Progress Party of the 1970s could reasonably be seen as a nationalist party. Again, more research would be necessary here. We should also consider if the peasant populism that we know from the 1930s and 1970s can be meaningfully compared with the working-class populism of the 1990s (in the case of Denmark: 1970s) onward.
One way of reconciling the “liberal” populism of the 1970s and the “nationalist” populism of the 1990s could be to focus on the European dimension. We know that the EC and later EU has been a continued source of problems for the Social Democratic parties in the Nordic countries with the parties being split between internationalism and welfare-state nationalism.
5. One final round of discussions, linked with #4, had to do with populist parties presenting themselves as “the true Social Democrats”. Both SD and DF have used this line of argument with the 1950s as some kind of imagined Social Democratic ideal (something which most people who were adults or adolescents during that decade would probably question) with the post 1968-Social Democracy presented as traitors to the national Social Democratic idea. This calls for some further arguments which I will leave for later.