The signs of a global shift towards conservative policies, by the illiberal right and left, are increasingly visible. These policies are opposed to liberalism (in its triple content of market economy, rule of law and polyarchy), but also to the progressive politics of the democratic left. Large parcel of the world’s citizens, including the popular sectors, are today seduced by authoritarian, fundamentalist and xenophobic right-wing leaderships and discourses. As historian Anne Applebaum has pointed out in “Twilight of Democracy: The Seduction Lure of Authoritarianism”: “The new right has broken with the obsolete lower-case conservatism – Burkean conservatism – suspected of changing rapidly in all its forms. Although she hates the term, the new right is more Bolshevik than Burkean: they are men and women who want to overthrow, circumvent or undermine existing institutions, to destroy everything that exists”.
Right-wingers with an authoritarian vocation are embracing political forms that mix the limitation of rights and institutions – traditionally linked to the democratic model – with variants of capitalism with marked patrimonialist and protectionist features. John Keane, from political theory, and Bálint Magyar, from comparative politics, have characterized the new power alliances with these groups as “polyarchies” by fusing the leadership of a caudillo, his family networks and businessmen who profit from contracts and national resources administered by the state.
These reactionary right-wingers claim a way of doing politics that is at odds with the liberal consensus. They postulate a people identified with roots, social and territorial peripheries, old identities and customs, loyalty to family, community and homeland. They manifest a criticism and a rupture with the consensus of the democratic right in its liberal-conservative duo, consolidated in the Post-War period, in its developed form in Western Europe and its limited variants in the U.S. and Latin America.
The spread of neoliberal policies since the 1980s has eroded this consensus. Thinkers identified with liberalism, such as Martin Wolf, author of “The Crisis of democratic capitalism”; José María Lassalle, and Francis Fukuyama, author of “Liberalism and its Discontents”. How to defend and safeguard our liberal democracies, have denounced that neoliberalism often leads to a distortion of the contents, goals and broad agendas of an integral liberalism, postulating totalitarianization (or, at least, excessive preeminence) of the pursuit of individual profit ahead of the other rights and freedoms that constitute the integral condition of citizenship. Then, the economic ― sociopolitical and cultural ― crises of 1997 and 2008 amplified the questioning of the possessive individualism model.
Against this background, the current rise of right-wing populism (a politically organized, effective and active expression of the authoritarian right) is linked, in part, to the weakening of the liberal side of the conservative sectors. However, this is not the only factor to be taken into account. In the history of the right wing, there is a tradition of appealing to particular ethnic identities and nativist politics that reject both liberal individualism and universalist collectivism. Another factor that has facilitated the irruption of right-wing populism is the emergence of new “cultural battles”, which have in the online “social networks” their initial and recurrent field of confrontation.
In this right-wing populism, polarization is established in horizontal terms between those “inside” and those “outside” the community, emphasizing the differences between the “people”, understood as a homogeneous organism, versus the other, the “stranger”, the “foreigner”, generally based on cultural or religious criteria. Its message is socially and culturally anti-pluralist. The subject “people” is defined and mobilized against the foreigner, in defense of an idea of homogeneous community that is presented as threatened from outside, even by those who, differently, live together in the same space.
The rupture of the “original community”, from the right-wing perspective, occurs due to an alleged penetration of external agents. To the extent that it marks a growing distance from liberal sectors, it imposes a discourse against the globalizing elites, which they label as “progressive”. Right-wing populists tend to separate the political elites from the economic elites, and their discourse of confrontation is fundamentally cultural, religious or ethnic, and political, opposing the people to the elite, but avoiding the economic confrontation, so recurrent in the left. For these movements, the recurrent enemies of the “people” are both the technocratic elite, labeled as a threat to democratic sovereignty, and immigrants, presented as a threat to traditional culture.
The defense of the traditional community, reinvented or recreated by the right, is based not only on the return to the homogeneous and harmonious national community, where the traditional hierarchies were assured, but also against the tolerance of practices that they consider “deviant” from the norm, and they mobilize against same-sex marriage or feminism. In this way, right-wing populists oppose the cultural changes that have taken place in Western society since the 1960s in terms of tolerance and sexual and cultural diversity. Once right-wingers shed their liberal convictions, they legitimize the confrontation against the institutionalism that guarantees the exercise of rights, especially those of minorities.
Right-wing populism, as a political movement and agenda, finds intellectual support in certain ideologies and mentalities that emerge in democratic societies and challenge the liberal democratic consensus. Radical libertarianism (which has catapulted candidates such as Javier Milei and intellectuals such as Agustín Laje, author of “The Culture Battle: Critical Reflections for a New Right”), evangelical fundamentalism (it finds in preachers in the U.S. and Latin America, tribunes for its support its dissemination) and illiberal and xenophobic ethnonationalism (represented by intellectuals such as Ben Shapiro, author of “The Right Side of History: How Reason and Moral Purpose Made the West Great”, and Ryszard Legutko, author of “The Demon in Democracy: Totalitarian Temptations in Free Societies”, with Creole epigones) outline an alternative that threatens the consensus built within our multicultural, free and democratic societies.
*Translated from Spanish by Micaela Machado Rodrigues