Invernizzi Accetti: Christian Democracy That Can Counter Right-Wing Populists

On 24 September RevDem will be hosting a special symposium entitled “The Past and Present of Christian Democracy” which is inspired by Carlo Invernizzi Accetti’s (The City College of New York) book What is Christian Democracy? Politics, Religion and Ideology. On this occasion Vilius Kubekas asked Carlo Invernizzi Accetti to share some of his findings. You can listen to the podcast or read the edited transcript below.

Christian Democracy that can counter right-wing populism. Interview with Carlo Invernizzi Accetti

On September 24, 2021, RevDem will be hosting a special symposium entitled “The Past and Present of Christian Democracy” that is organized around Carlo Invernizzi Accetti’s (The City College of New York) book What is Christian Democracy? Politics, Religion and Ideology. For this occasion, Vilius Kubekas asked Carlo Invernizzi Accetti to share some of his findings.

Vilius Kubekas: Let’s start our interview with a biographical question. Your first book was about moral absolutes in democratic society, and then you shifted towards the examination of Christian Democracy. Meanwhile, your latest book, co-authored with Christopher Bickerton, is on techno-populism. Could you tell us how you become interested in the topic of Christian Democracy? To add to this question, I am interested in the methodology that use in your book. You have called it a “conceptual” approach, following closely the ideas developed by Michael Freeden. What does this approach tell us that is new about Christian Democracy?

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti: Maybe I should make clear from the start that unlike most people who have written about Christian Democracy, I do not come from this political family. I am not a Christian Democrat, my political background is different. I am not even originally a Christian.

I have been interested in Christianity primarily as a phenomenon of power. Being born in Italy, where the Vatican resides, the Church and Christianity always appeared to me as expressions of a certain kind of power: something that you had to understand if you wanted to understand politics more broadly. It is from this perspective that I have always been fascinated in the way Christian ideas play out in politics. So power was the way in. 

The second key concept I encountered once I started studying the way in which organized Christianity affects politics, especially in Europe, was the concept of ‘truth’. Of course, Christian politics is organized around a particular conception of truth. Christian values are assumed (by Christians, not necessarily by me) to be based in a revealed religion which articulates some fundamental political truths. So, I have been interested in exploring how this particular conception of truth manifests itself as a political phenomenon; that is, a phenomenon of power.

I began by studying Catholic Social Doctrine and its critique of “relativism” for my doctoral dissertation, which also became my first book. From there, I moved to study Christian Democracy. Catholic Social Doctrine was a clear expression of the politics of truth. That’s why the Vatican has always been a sharp – and indeed the first – critic of “relativism”. My argument is that it is this particular stance with respect to the issue of truth that has historically set the Vatican in opposition to ‘modern’ liberal and democratic ideals.

On this basis, I became interested in seeing if there is a way of mobilizing Christian principles, which is not anti-relativist and does not have problematic relationship with the democratic political form. Whereas, as I showed in my first book, official Vatican doctrine has had a very troubled relationship with democracy, I was interested in seeing if there is a form of Christianity that can reconcile itself with this political form. This is what led me to Christian Democracy, which of course was an extremely significant phenomenon of power in European history over at least a century. Again, truth and power were the ways into my object of study.

Finally, as you note, my last book has been about the concept of ‘techno-populism’; that is, about how technocracy and populism interact with one another in the contemporary political landscape. This new line of research may seem to engage a very different set of issues, however, in reality, it is motivated by the same set of underlying interests. I understand both technocracy and populism in different, but symmetrical ways as expressions of a ‘politics of truth’. Technocrats assume they have access to some kind of truth, revealed by their scientific expertise, and populists assume they have access to some kind of truth, which is the true popular will, as Jan-Werner Müller has well-described. So, here too, I have effectively been interested in studying the interplay between truth and power in politics.

You also asked a second question, which had to do with the method I employ in my book to study Christian Democracy, which I call it a “conceptual” approach. This is mainly due to the kind of literature that already existed on Christian Democracy before I started working on it. Most of it, as well as having been written by Christian Democrats, is written by either historians or political scientists. For these reasons, it is very much focused on actors, strategies and outcomes. In contrast not much had been written about the ideology of Christian Democracy. What were these guys, who were so influential, actually thinking? What were their premises? What was their philosophy? 

There is a plethora of published books bearing titles along the lines of “What is liberalism?” or “What is conservatism?”, describing the core principles of these political ideologies. Before I wrote a book entitled What Is Christian Democracy? there was no book-length reconstruction of this ideological formation from the point of view of political theory.

That is why I decided to look at this concept from this perspective, adopting Michael Freeden’s “conceptual” approach. I was interested in the concepts more than the history or the outcomes that had been looked at before.

Vilius Kubekas: Now we can turn to the discussion on the origins of Christian Democracy. In your book you reconstruct the main ideological elements of Christian Democracy, namely anti-materialism, personalism, popularism, subsidiarity, social capitalism, and Christian inspiration. You often refer to Christian Democrat politicians and Catholic intellectuals, but, it seems to me, the key intellectual resource in this reconstruction remained the French Neo-Scholastic philosopher Jacques Maritain. In your telling, somehow paradoxically, this Neo-Scholastic thinker was at the centre of forging Christian Democratic tradition. Therefore, I was wondering if you could comment on this interesting relationship between the political and the philosophical (and indeed the theological) in Christian Democratic thought. How does Christian Democracy relate to Neo-Scholasticism?

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti: Let me begin by saying I am not sure why you say “paradoxically.” The idea that a political movement would have its origins in a philosophical tradition doesn’t seem to me so surprising. Marxism is another example of a political movement originating from a philosophical one. Some would argue that liberalism has a similar structure, if you think that thinkers such as John Locke or John Stuart Mill have a comparable role.

Secondly, I would also note that I do not maintain that Jacques Maritain and Neo-Scholasticism more generally are the only intellectual traditions that fed into the formation of a Christian Democratic ideology. Christian Democracy has been a broad tradition, nourished by many intellectual sources, with important internal tensions and disagreements. With that said, I do maintain that Jacques Maritain and Neo-Scholasticism more broadly were important points of reference. A book on the Christian Democratic ideology that didn’t mention them would obviously be sorely defective.

But let me  indicate some of the other intellectual sources, which were also significant. The first, most important and most complex one is the tradition I mentioned before – that of Catholic Social Doctrine and the Vatican doctrine in general. I provisionally define Christian Democracy as an intellectual tradition characterized by the attempt to reconcile Christianity (and in particular Catholicism) with modern democracy. The need for it has its origin in what Paolo Pombeni has called a “traumatic encounter” between Catholic Christianity and modernity, which very much has its origins in the positions that the Vatican adopted after the French Revolution in the 18th and especially the 19th centuries with respect to modernity and liberalism. So  Vatican thought is an important source because Christian Democrats are effectively reacting to the Vatican’s official positions, without rejecting them, but on the contrary seeking to moderate them and make them more amenable to a reconciliation with modernity. Even though I think there is a distinction between Vatican doctrine and Christian Democratic thought, former is therefore an important source for the latter, which I refer to often in the book.

But then there are other thinkers that are also very important. Again, Jacques Maritain is crucial. But in France there are others: Emmanuel Mounier, a very important personalist, and Robert Schuman. In Italy I refer to many other important thinkers that had a decisive role: Luigi Sturzo, the founder of the Italian Popular Party and Giorgio La Pira, the former Mayor of Florence. In Germany, think of the role of a Joseph Höffner in the 1950s, or Ernst-Wolfgang Böckenförde, more recently. So there are many thinkers that contributed to this tradition.

I give such an important role to Maritain, without assuming that he is the only, or the most important one, for two reasons. One is that as a Neo-Scholastic he is a very synthetic thinker. His thought brings together many of the other intellectual currents I have already mentioned, not least the Vatican tradition and the personalism of someone like Mounier. 

The second reason is that Maritain was also extremely influential. Many of the most important Christian Democrats of the past century were deeply influenced by Maritain’s thought. Even though Maritain himself always had an ambiguous relationship with Christian Democratic parties, many Christian Democrats thought of themselves as Maritainians, both within the Vatican, Pius XII had a very strong intellectual cooperation with Maritain, but also many of the people I have mentioned: Robert Schuman was a great reader of Maritain; La Pira was a scholar of Maritain. So he was a synthetic and an influential thinker, and for this reason, he is convenient in my intellectual endeavour to try to give a synthesis of what Christian Democratic thought was. That is how I justify the role of Maritain in my book.

More generally I propose to focus on the role of ideas in politics, without reducing political action to an implementation of primary ideological principles. What I am trying to do in my book is to correct a bias in the existing literature, which had by and large marginalized the role of ideas in politics. If you read the most important book in English on Christian Democratic tradition, the one by Stathis Kalyvas, he explicitly says that he will not pursue “an ideational approach,” because he focuses on “strategies, outcomes and actors”. Without denying the importance of strategies, outcomes and actors, I think that ideas matter to politics and that is why I focused on them, and this is what led me to think to look at the philosophers underpinning this.

Vilius Kubekas: Next, I wanted to ask about Catholic understanding of democracy. Christian Democracy, just like Catholicism itself, has come a long way since its inception in the late 19thcentury to the present day. In “The Syllabus of Errors” (1864) Pope Pius IX famously denounced “progress, liberalism and modern civilization” as incompatible with Catholicism. And indeed, for a long time in politics many Catholics acted as the agents of the anti-Enlightenment tradition, if we may call it so, rejecting democratic order and embracing other political forms: monarchism and authoritarianism. After 1945, however, those who have advocated for such ideas found themselves on the margins of political life; this interestingly coincided with the beginning of the golden age of Christian Democracy in Western Europe. Does this success of Christian Democracy mean that Catholics finally made themselves at home with democracy? Why have Christian Democracy become so appealing and dominant in Western Europe, especially in Italy and Germany, during the Post-war period?

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti: I think that is an interesting and tricky question, because, as I mentioned, I propose to define Christian Democracy as the attempt to reconcile Christianity (and in particular Catholicism) with modern democracy. That was the goal. But, as I also said, there was a trauma. The need for this reconciliation stemmed from the presumption, at least in mainstream Catholic thought, there was a tension between them. The way in which Christian Democrats operated this reconciliation, I argue in the book, depended crucially on the development of what I call a philosophy of history. It is this philosophy of history, which I think offers the key whether Catholic Christianity has fully and successfully reconciled itself with democracy. But, in a nutshell, the short answer is: it’s complicated. 

Christian Democracy’s philosophy of history hinges on a distinction that can be usefully summarized with reference to a distinction first introduced in the late 19th century by the Italian Jesuit thinker, Carlo Maria Curci. The distinction is between what he calls the “thesis” and the “hypothesis” of Christian doctrine. What he calls the “thesis” is assumed to consist of a set of immutable and eternal principles. Talking again about the concept of truth, Jesus Christ is supposed to have revealed a series of fundamental truths that are eternal and immutable and will never change – that is the Christian “thesis”. However, there is also a “hypothesis”, which is the temporal manifestation of these eternal and immutable principles in different historical contexts. The Christian “hypotheses” therefore amounts to the different ways in which the fundamental Christian truths are assumed to be manifested in different historical periods.

The key claim here is that Christianity must assume different historical forms in different historical periods. On this basis, it is then claimed that, in the modern period, the fundamental, eternal and immutable truths of Christianity revealed by Jesus Christ manifest themselves as a commitment to democratic principles (drawing on the fact that Christianity was, supposedly, the first “universalist” religion, which proclaimed equality among all human beings etc).

The distinction between the “thesis” and the “hypothesis” of Christianity therefore allows Christian Democrats to claim that there is no contradiction in the fact that in 1500 Christianity was for monarchy and in 1950 it became for democracy, because it is the historical context that has changed around Christianity, not Christianity itself. Because the context changes, the historical manifestation of Christianity’s eternal and immutable truths also changes. So, on the basis of this philosophy of history, and in particular of this distinction between “thesis” and “hypothesis”, Christian Democrats are able to claim that Christianity is compatible with modern democracy, without fully disavowing the reasons for the previous tensions between them.

To be a Christian today means that you are for democracy. But, it is important to point out, does this mean that Christianity is now at home in democracy? Yes and no. The implication is that Christianity is manifested as a commitment to democracy in this historical period, but this leaves open the possibility that if historical circumstances change again, as they always do, Christianity will have to take different “hypothetical” forms.

Therefore, the long answer to your question is: in the present historical period Christianity is at home in democracy, but this doesn’t imply that that from now on to be a Christian means to be a democrat.

Let me emphasize that this is a very particular interpretation of Christianity, which I call the Christian Democratic interpretation of Christianity. This is already different from Catholic Social Doctrine. The Vatican’s position, in this respect is different and even more ambivalent, in my opinion. And then there can be other positions, which are much friendlier to democracy. So it is complicated. But this is what I think is the Christian Democratic position. 

Now to your other question: why has this particular synthesis of Christianity and democracy proved so appealing in post-war Western Europe? That is another very broad question. The philosophy of history I have described is only one aspect of a broader set of concepts that you mentioned: personalism, popularism, subsidiarity, etc. What became popular is not just this philosophy of history, but a broader “constellation” of concepts, which I tried to reconstruct in the book and unfortunately don’t have time to fully reconstruct here. 

To answer your specific question: why has this specific “constellation” of concepts proved so popular or appealing, to the point of becoming hegemonic in many countries of Western Europe in the post-Second World War period? Obviously, there are many reasons, but let me focus on three in particular, which I discuss at greater length in the book.

First, redemption from fascism. The two countries that you mentioned, Italy and Germany, where Christian Democracy was in power for longest, are also the two countries where fascism had come to power most prominently – in the form of Nazism in Germany and Fascism in Italy. What is important to remember is that (and many people, especially in Italy, but also in Germany, want to forget this today) these fascist regimes were popular. There were many Nazis in Germany, and there were many Fascists in Italy. And they didn’t suddenly disappear in 1945. So there was a big question of how a significant part of the population could be incorporated into the new democratic regimes founded after 1945. 

Christian Democracy, in my opinion, became the vehicle through which many of these people who had been, maybe not rabid Nazis or Fascists, but conservative, order-prone, right-wing, traditionalists, and especially anti-Communists, could be channelled into a democratic framework. Christian Democracy offered some kind of ‘moral redemption’ through a return to the tried and tested values of order and tradition. As such, it effectively became a respectable way of being a conservative democrat in the post-war context. Fascism became illegal both in Italy and in Germany and that was an important aspect of its success. Christian Democracy was the ‘legitimate’ post-war right: the channel through which the new democratic regimes were able to incorporate (and tame!) large swathes of the population that had previously supported the fascist regimes.

The second important reason was the Cold War, obviously. The United States needed a strong anti-Communist force in Europe, which couldn’t be fascism anymore. Here it’s important to note that despite Communism’s appeal in the immediate aftermath of the second world war for many in the west, it was never really a majoritarian phenomenon. There were also plenty of anti-Communists, at least half, and if you look at the election’s results, probably more. So, in a Cold war context, where fascism has already been historically discredited, what are these guys going to vote for?

If you look at the cover of my book, it has a famous poster from the Italian Christian Democratic Party of the 1950s, which shows the party’s symbol to be a shield with a red cross on it. What is this a shield against? It is a shield against Communism. Christian Democracy was always an oppositional project and, when it became dominant, it became dominant as a shield against Communism. As such, it was also, importantly a Cold War phenomenon (which is also one of the main reasons why the Italian DC effectively disbanded after the end of the Cold War, in the early 1990s: the main enemy against which it had been constituted as a ‘shield’ had collapsed, so it lost its raison d’etre). 

The third reason for Christian Democracy’s historical success is its adaptability. An important aspect of the Christian Democratic ideological outlook (which is already implicit in the philosophy of history I talked about before) is what I call a form of ‘principled pragmatism’. Just as the distinction between “thesis” and “hypothesis” implies that the eternal truths of Christianity need to be adapted to the specific historical context, Christian Democrats have always sought to adapt themselves to the contexts in which they have operated in strategic ways. But, crucially, this adaptability, this pragmatism, is principled. From what I have said, it follows that it is a core element of the Christian Democratic ideology to be adaptable to the times. At the same time, this obviously offers valuable ideological cover for what became essentially ‘parties of power’ to do what was necessary to maintain that power. Christian Democratic parties deftly adapted themselves to shifting conditions and were therefore able to change according to the times in important and complex ways. So there are many reasons why Christian Democracy was so popular and effective. I have indicated these three: redemption from fascism, anti-communism, and adaptability.

Vilius Kubekas: I think that we must touch on the topic of Christian Democracy’s role in the emergence of the European Union. As you note in your book, for Christian Democrats European integration became a “normative ideal.” Could you tell us more about what kind of Europe and integration does Christian Democracy entail? What does the examination of the history of Christian Democracy tell us about the European Union itself?

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti: Let me begin by noting something that Christian Democrats often reiterate in their discourse, but the general public doesn’t often recall.

The European Union was originally a project fostered primarily by Christian Democrats. Indeed, I dare say that it was, initially at least, a product of Christian Democrats in power. The three founding fathers that are always referred to in the history of the EU – Alcide De Gasperi, Konrad Adenauer and Robert Schuman – were all Christian Democrats. At the signing of the Treaty of Rome in 1957 all the signatories who were present were either members of Christian Democratic parties or involved in coalitions with them. 

Moreover, since its inception, the European People’s Party, which is the European Christian Democratic Party, has consistently been the largest single party in the European Parliament. All the most important positions within the EU’s institutional structure have historically been exercised by Christian Democrats. So, Christian Democrats often, rightly or wrongly, think of the European Union as their brainchild. 

This is reflected in the European Union’s institutional form still today. The fact that Christian Democrats made the European Union is still visible in what the European Union has become. And I think reading the European Union through this lens can teach us many important things that otherwise are inexplicable about the European Union.

To illustrate, let me take just one concept from the broader “constellation” I mentioned above, which is both at the heart of the Christian Democratic ideology and the EU’s institutional framework – the concept of subsidiarity. This concept is enshrined in the EU treaties and at the heart of much of its jurisprudence.

However, not everybody seems to recall that this is originally a Christian Democratic concept, tied to the broader Catholic intellectual tradition critiquing the notion of sovereignty. Indeed, I would say that subsidiarity is the Catholic counter-concept to the modern notion of state sovereignty.

What is important to recall here, to make sense of what is at stake in the distinction, is that Christianity and, in particular Catholicism, have historically been very sceptical of the concept of state sovereignty. For the idea of state sovereignty, and more specifically of the nation-state, is historically and conceptually tied to the ideals of the French Revolution and therefore to the concept of separation between Church and State. The sovereign nation-state is a state that separates religion and politics. You see this already in Hobbes, but it is clear after the French Revolution that sovereignty already involves an idea of secularity, and is politically manifested in the civil constitution of the clergy. That is the really traumatic element which leads the Church to react against the French Revolution and the principles of modernity. 

Against sovereignty, the Church has from the beginning developed a different idea, which is the idea of subsidiarity. This involves a very different articulation of religion and politics. Subsidiarity is the idea that not all power is concentrated in one place, the state. Power is dispersed throughout society in different organizational levels: the individual, the neighbourhood, the county, the political community, and ultimately, above that, the international community, which encompasses humanity as a whole. So there is an idea of distribution of power at different levels, not of the concentration of power in one point.

Why is this significant in terms of the relationship between politics and religion? Because according to the concept of subsidiarity (and this is what sometimes the lawyers of the European Union forget) what organizes the relationship between the different levels of political power is ultimately a religious idea of “natural order”. How do you know which level is the appropriate level at which to implement a particular type of policy? Is schooling a matter for the municipality, the national state, or the supranational state? There is no answer to this question in the concept of subsidiarity itself. It is determined by a broader idea of “natural order” or “temporal common good”, which is inherently religious. So religion is the order that structures the different levels in which the different types of power are organized according to the Christian idea of subsidiarity. Subsidiarity is a deeply religious concept, because it implies that religion is the structuring fabric of politics. That is the part that is less often understood.

But, without this religious background the concept of subsidiarity becomes almost incomprehensible, because there is no criterion to establish what is the ‘right’ level at which to organize a specific type of power. And that is precisely what we have in the European Union today. An originally religious concept, which has then been deprived of this religious foundation and is therefore now difficult to make sense of. What remains is only the negative aspect of subsidiarity, which is the critique of sovereignty. That is effectively the EU is today: an attack on the idea of national sovereignty but deprived of the positive set of values which gave substance to it in the first place. 

To express this concept in my book, I use the metaphor of the hermit crab. These are crabs that you sometimes find on the beach that inhabit the shell of some other mollusc. The shell of the European Union was created by Christian Democrats and remains in many ways marked by that origin. Its institutional framework is effectively still Christian Democratic. However, the Christian Democratic soul that originally created this, the mollusc, has now lost the hegemonic position it previously occupied, and liberals and Social Democrats have moved in to fight with it. All of them are constrained by the Christian Democratic shell and try to change it.

You can understand a lot about EU politics, I think, if you see it through this lens. And what happened was that it became this strange structure, where you have both Liberals and Social Democrats trying to use this Christian Democratic shell to advance their own agenda.

Vilius Kubekas: One thing that I found particularly fascinating in your book is that you give attention to Christian Democracy in Latin America. In this way you approach Christian Democracy as a truly global phenomenon, whose impact reaches far beyond European politics. Would you care to compare these different experiences, namely the European one and the Latin American one? What are the main similarities as well as dividing lines between European and Latin American versions of Christian Democracy? What were the main challenges of exporting Christian Democracy beyond Europe?

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti: Again, many questions – all of them important. Christian Democracy in Latin America is a derivative phenomenon. It is, as you suggest, an export. Originally, both the problem that Christian Democracy stems from – that of reconciling Catholic Christianity and modern Democracy – and the specific solution it proposes, emerged in Europe. Only later it was appropriated, for different reasons, by other continents. So it’s arrival in Latin America occurs through a logic of diffusion or export. 

Because of this, it has often been assumed that Christian Democrats in Latin America were milder, paler, less, let’s say, distinct versions of their European origins. The argument I tried to make in the book’s chapter on Christian Democracy in Latin America is that is not the case. It is actually the opposite. Christian Democracy in Latin America was often starker and more radical than its European antecedents. For this reason it is extremely interesting, as it manifests many of the features of Christian Democracy in a more extreme and, therefore, clear form.

I will take a few examples. I argue that especially in the post-war period in Europe Christian Democracy was a phenomenon of the center. It positioned itself according to the language of a “third way,” which was then taken up by Blair in the 1990s but was originally a Christian Democratic concept. What it meant to be a Christian Democrat in the post-war period in continental Europe was that one was neither a socialist in the context of the Cold War, nor American-style liberal, but was a distinctive kind of centrist, dignified conservative. In Latin America this kind of “third way” thinking, which was referred to as tercerismo, took a very different, starker and, I would say, conservative form. The conflict there in the first half of the 20th century was not yet between Soviet-style communism and American liberalism, but it was more about the legacy of the independence movements.

Traditionally, in the independence movements of Latin America, the conflict was between liberal modernizers, who were also broadly secular and anti-clerical, and conservatives tied to the old Spanish order, who were also traditionally Christian and clericalist. In this context, Latin American Christian Democrats in countries such as Chile, Venezuela and Mexico, propose a very distinctive interpretation of tercerismo. They become a mediating force between these two positions by arguing for conservative values within the modern, secular regimes created by independence movements. So they are actually much more on the right than in the centre initially. As the anti-independentist old order ancien régime forces die, Christian Democrats become the way of reinterpreting the old order within the new and are therefore far more to the right than their European counterparts.

Subsequently, the situation was reversed. You see that in the 1960s and 1970s, in Europe Christian Democracy moves slightly to the left. In Germany there is the grand coalition between Christian Democrats and Social Democrats, in Italy starting in the 1963 the centro-sinistra, which amounts to a coalition between Christian Democrats and Socialists. In the process Christian Democrats warm up to welfarism, also as a way of containing rising social tensions. 

In Latin America, this ‘left turn’ is much more radical. Influenced in part by the liberation theology movement, Latin American Christian Democracy becomes a progressive, developmentalist force in the 1960s and 70s. This too is a consequence of the Cold War. Latin American Christian Democracy becomes the way in which conservative forces try to resist socialist revolution by investing in massive developmental, infrastructure and welfare programs, such as those promoted by figures like Rafael Caldera in Venezuela and Eduardo Frei Montalva in Chile. Today, both these figures would be considered progressives – they are for state investments, with an anti-socialist perspective, but still much more progressive than Christian Democracy ever was in Europe in the 1960s and 1970s. 

These are just a couple of examples of the argument I try to make that Christian Democracy in Latin America is more radical, even though it is a derivative phenomenon, than Christian Democracy in Europe.

Vilius Kubekas: In your book you connect your historical analysis with a normative claim about the essence of Christian Democracy, arguing that Christian Democracy remains relevant to contemporary politics. Therefore, in my last question I would like to touch on the rise of populist tendencies in contemporary politics. Some politicians standing at the forefront of the populist wave in Europe, perhaps most prominently Viktor Orbán who has advanced nativist populist agenda in Hungary, presented themselves as the true Christian Democrats, suggesting that Christian Democracy is all about the strengthening of national identity vis-à-vis the allegedly globalist tendencies within the European Union. Having written this impressive book, how do you see the relationship between Christian Democracy and the rise of nativist populism? Is there a genealogical connection between these two? Can Christian Democracy help to counter nativist populism, or, on the contrary, should we look for other intellectual resources for successful defence against right-wing tendencies in Europe and beyond?

Carlo Invernizzi Accetti: Let me begin with the concept of popularism. This is of course another core concept in the Christian Democratic “constellation”, as evidenced by the fact that the first Italian Christian Democratic party was called the Partito Popolare Italiano, the main European Christian Democratic party is still called the European People’s Party. In the last chapter of my book, when I touch on the issues you are asking about, I draw a distinction between the idea of populism and the idea of popularism. This distinction revolves around the way you understand the notion of ‘the people’.

The populist understands ‘the people’, as theorized for instance by Ernesto Laclau, as oppositional. The people are defined by what they are not (elites, foreigners, etc). In this respect, it is similar to the Schmittian idea of friend and enemy – the friend is defined by the fact that he is not an enemy. The people are defined by the fact that they are not something else. This is the core of populism, which gives it this confrontational, oppositional, dimension that is in my opinion very foreign to the Christian Democratic idea of what politics is (even though Carl Schmitt was a conservative Christian, but a different kind of Christian).

Popularism refers to a very different idea of ‘the people’. Here ‘the people’ is defined not by what it is not, but in relation to the positive set of values that it espouses. Not by what it opposes, but what it stands for: a people is a set of individuals who share a common set of principles. According to the Christian tradition (exemplified for instance by Pius XII’s famous Christmas Message of 1945) those principles ultimately turn out to be Christian principles. Christianity, the Pope says, is like the ‘soul’ that binds a true people together, distinguishing it from a mere mass.

Thus, from a popularist perspective, to be a real people you have to share a set of Christian values and principles. This implies that the unity and coherence of the popularist idea of the people is not given by its opposition to the foreigner, or to the elite, but by its sharing of a certain set of values and principles, which are essentially the Christian Democratic principles. Which is why you can have a party called the People’s Party, because what they mean by ‘the people’ is that part of the people as a whole who share in Christian Democratic principles and values. This is a very different idea of the people, because its unity comes from within, rather than without. It is not defined by opposition, but by a kind of solidarity around the set of principles and values.

I think that the popularist idea of the people is not only at odds with the populist one but implies a very different type of politics. Here politics is not a war between friends and enemies. Politics is about the constitution of a people through the creation of a commonality, a solidarity, that is, ultimately, through inclusion rather than exclusion. This is the Christian Democratic tradition.

And I think this still transpires today. Think, for instance, of when Angela Merkel famously said “Wir schaffen Das!” with respect to the 2015migration crisis. The point there was ‘we can do this, we can include them’. Christian Democracy is not about excluding, but ultimately including everyone – like Christianity which, as I said from the start, construes itself as a universalist religion. 

In this sense, popularism involves a universality idea of the people. Through the concept of subsidiarity, it is ultimately projected at the scale of humanity. Thus, everybody is part of the people. Just like everyone can become a Christian, everyone can become a part of the fold. This fundamental openness to inclusion puts popularism profoundly at odds with populism. They stand for diametrically opposed political outlooks.

Now, as you mentioned, some of today’s populists claim to be Christian Democrats. Of course, politicians do this all the time – they try to appropriate labels and change their meaning; maybe they will succeed, maybe they will fail. I think that in order to succeed, they would have to profoundly transform Christian Democracy into something else. I think Orbán’s type of populism uses Christianity as an identity, as a way of excluding, by saying who is Christian and who is not. This is profoundly at odds with what I take to be the Christian Democratic tradition, which is universalist and inclusive, not exclusive, originally.

So, is it possible to reconcile populism and Christian Democracy? My answer would be that there is a fight right now within the European People’s Party and within national Christian Democratic parties. A fight between those who want to change and go in the Orbán’s direction and make Christianity into an identity, rather than a principle of inclusion, and those like Angela Merkel, who want to retain this more traditional orientation towards inclusion of the other. 

Christian Democracy could change. For a while, it seemed that the inclusive Christian Democrats, the Merkels, were losing. Now Orbán has been booted out of the European People’s Party; Armin Laschet has taken the reins of the Christian Democrats in Germany. He represents a more ‘Merkellian’ approach so the fight is ongoing. I don’t know who will win. 

Christian Democracy is not an essence, it may very well change. But originally, I think there is an important difference between populism and popularism, which tells us two things. First, that Christian Democracy was not originally populist. And second, that it could be an antidote for it. This is the last point I will make: in the fight against populism, popularism can be an important resource. Most of the existing literature on populism has been written by academics, who broadly speaking are on the centre-left, like me. They are Social Democrats. So if you read the literature on populism, you are always told that the best way to counter populism is through more Social Democracy, more welfare. Personally, I am all for more Social Democracy and for more welfare. However, it seems to me that, from a political point of view, from an electoral point of view, the idea that people who are now voting for Orbán, or who are now voting for Matteo Salvini, or who are now voting for Marine Le Pen, will go and vote Social Democrat seems a little implausible. There is a significant component of people who are conservative, who are right-wing, who are Christian and therefore against the secularist progressivist dimensions of Social Democracy. And the question is: who are these people going to vote for?

In my opinion, Christian Democracy can anchor conservatism in a democratic context. And that is what its role can be. So it is not about getting votes from the left, it is about how can you move people from the far-right to the centre-right.

I am not a fan of either the far-right, or of the centre-right, but I think that the normative potential of Christian Democracy, or popularism, against populism today, lies in anchoring this exclusionary identitarian tendency in a different kind of Christianity, one that is not exclusionary, but one that is universalist and inclusive.

In collaboration with Ifrah Hassan.

The interview was slightly modified for the clarity reasons

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