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Right-Wing Populism’s Impact on Liberal Democracy: Some Reflections Based on Norway’s Experience

Political Parties
John Erik Fossum
Universitetet i Oslo
John Erik Fossum
Universitetet i Oslo

Europe and the world are seeing a major upsurge in especially right-wing but also left-wing populism. Scandinavia seems to be a regional stronghold for right-wing populist parties. Not only have such parties been able to persist for decades, they have assumed governing responsibility at local as well as national level. Opinions are divided on the democratic merits of including right-wing populists in government. Some underline the possible legitimacy shortfall of explicit strategies bent on excluding populists from governing office; others underline that governing responsibility has important learning and socialization effects which will ultimately benefit democracy.
In this paper, the purpose is to provide a framework for assessing the extent to which the rise of right-wing populist parties such as the Progress Party (FrP) has affected the quality of party-based constitutional democracy in Norway.
An important methodological problem is to isolate the effects that right-wing populist parties have had. Right-wing populist parties have never governed alone, but have been junior partners in coalition governments, or have collaborated with a governing party (served as parliamentary supporters); we therefore do not know how the exact degree of influence they have had on the policies that have been adopted. Further, other parties have adopted many of the right-wing populist parties’ policy stances. These two different circumstances raise problems of possibly overestimating the policy or political influence of populists by saddling them with responsibility for actions initiated and/or carried out by others, and of possibly underestimating their importance. We may fail to acknowledge the entire repertoire of measures that populists have for shaping policy, politics and society, including the steps taken by other parties to adopt populist policy stances, and shifting their rhetoric and conduct in a populism-conducive manner. I address these methodological problems in a two-pronged manner. I develop a theoretical position on partisanship to clarify how and in what sense a party will be able to influence policies and the democratic character/quality of a polity with emphasis on those factors that we can readily associate with right-wing populist parties. Further, I propose that we examine populist effects along three distinct yet closely related dimensions: at the level of input; at the level of throughput; and at the level of output. The focus is not only on what populists do; attention is also paid to how they talk about issues, especially their use of normative language as part of their role in and relation to the politics of recognition. These issues are discussed with reference to Norway’s experience.
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