How Can Tribalism, Fuelled from Above, Eat up Democratic Norms?


According to the rules of traditional, mainstream politics, you are losing popularity if you receive support from a foreign country. In the era of tribal politics, you should not be afraid. How can pernicious polarization eat up democratic norms? A case study on foreign intervention.

In May 2019, a secretly recorded videotape was published. On this record, two leaders of the far-right Austrian Freedom Party (FPÖ): Heinz-Christian Strache vice-chancellor and party leader and Johann Gudenus, a deputy leader of the Freedom Party were talking with a woman disguised to be the wife of a Russian businessman, Igor Makarov. The lady proposed the FPÖ media influence and positive coverage in turn for some government contracts. Strache and Gudenus were ready to go to a deal, practically being open to promising to give public assets such as motorway contracts to a Russian woman for some gains for their parties. "We like Russia," Strache says on the tape, revealing his intention that "We want to build a media landscape similar to Orbán's." Two days later the two were approached by a man who asked them, in the name of the fake Russian woman to release a smear press release against one owner of the Austrian construction company Strabag. They immediately did so.

This is a scarce moment when politicians' corrupt intentions are revealed prime time this openly. A few days after this scandal exploded, the Austrian government collapsed. The nationalist FPÖ that was caught on the tape with this scandal poses as the most prominent defender of Austrian interests. So many assumed that the party's popularity would nosedive and they would disappear after elections.

But nothing like this happened. Despite the scandal broke out less than a week before the European Parliamentary elections, FPÖ could gain 17 percent and delegate three MEPs in the European Parliament - among them one of the protagonists of the scandal, Strache (He later resigned from the post). And while FPÖ lost its governmental position as a result of the following elections, it is still a confident middle-sized party.

At the same time, it was only a fake, orchestrated sting story of Russian interference, where FPÖ leaders were dump enough to step into a money trap. Then they stepped down, allowing the party leadership to distance themselves from them. But there were cases of real Russian interference and help for populist parties that were revealed — but similarly did not turn the voters away.

Last summer, an even bigger scandal broke out in Italy. Gianluca Savoini, the right-hand of deputy prime minister Matteo Salvini, and leader of the populist right Lega party with two colleagues from the same party, met with three real Russians in a luxurious hotel in Moscow. On the meeting that took more than an hour, they discussed how the party could be illegally financed by Moscow via overpriced energy deals involving the Italian energy company ENI, through intermediaries. The goal of the support that they discussed was to finance the European Parliamentary election campaign of the Lega party.

"A new Europe has to be close to Russia as before because we want to have our sovereignty" — Gianluca Savoini said at the meeting where they agreed on a deal that would again put Russian and party interests in front of the interest of Italy. The whole conversation was taped and the transcript was released. While Salvini tried to distance himself from Savoini, saying that he was not even in the delegation, photos, to be precise selfies, showed them smiling together on the Red square, and details emerged on their decade-long alliance and friendship. A legal procedure began right after the event, and many thought it would be the end of Matteo Salvini and his party as we know it. These predictions proved wrong again. The "Moscowgate" affair had practically no impact on the popularity of Lega. With close to forty percent support, the party remained the by far most popular party in Italy. They suffered a small popularity loss later, due to the fact that Lega managed to outmaneuver itself from the Italian government and then a far-right challenger, Giorgia Meloni, took away some voters from Salvini.

A similar thing happened in France a few years before. Less than one year after it turned out that Marine Le Pen's Front National received 9 million euro loan from a Kremlin-close Russian bank before the 2014 EP elections, she had her best-ever electoral result, gaining 40% in the fir regional election in France and then she entered into the second round of presidential elections against Emmanuel Macron in 2017.  A more recent example from the Netherlands: Serious revelations of talks about Russian campaign money around the last elections with party comrades via Whatsapp in April did not have any negative impact on the popularity of the party of new far-right hopeful Thierry Baudet and his Forum for Democracy.

Of course, we find plenty of tribalism beyond continental Europe as well. In the Anglo-Saxon world, there are similar examples. Nigel Farage and Brexit could keep its support since 2016 despite a strong suspicion emerged that Arron Banks put some Russian money into the campaign, leading to serious investigations. It did not have a strong impact on voters: Farage’s Brexit party came first on the 2019 EP elections. What happened in the United States is even more striking though. After new and new pieces of evidence emerged in the US on how Russia interfered in the electoral campaign on the side of Donald Trump in 2016, Republican voters did not lose their trust in Putin and Russia. On the contrary: Russia became increasingly popular and friendly in the eye of Republicans.

How can this ignorance of voters be explained? These parties and politicians of EU and NATO countries are all posing as champions of national sovereignty. Still, their voters do not seem to care when it turns out that a malign superpower, Russia, interferes into their elections to help them and smear their opponents. They are ignorant despite if these are transgressions of democratic norms — in some cases, even legal ones. The reason is simple: political tribalism, or as others call it: “pernicious polarization”. In increasingly polarized environments where politics is understood as a tribal war, finding foreign allies is important. They can support our tribe with financial resources, leaks on the opponents, and (dis)information weapons. If Putin helps our leader of the tribe to win the political war — we will love him even more. Of course, it does not mean that publishing information on foreign connections of political parties makes no sense. Also, it is a moral obligation for journalists and experts. But nobody should assume that it will destroy their credibility in the Tribalist Age. In order to destroy the credibility of players who received outside help on elections it is not enough to reveal the fact of foreign interference — it should also be explained how it undermines domestic interests.

The article gives the views of the author, not the position of the "Europe’s Futures–Ideas for Action" project or the Institute for Human Sciences (IWM).