Why do they win?
Why is it that the far-right populists have done so much better than the left out of the rolling GFC and government spending austerity-induced rolling crises across European and U.S. society? The French Rassamblement National (formerly Front National), the Dutch FreedomParty, the German AfD, the Italian Lega, and other in Hungary, Poland, Austria etc, have all mobilized voters across the political spectrum and have all made actual government very unstable. They even took a big chunk of the European Parliament this year.
There are few left equivalents, with exceptions.
After the rise of Trump, Cameron and now Johnson, milder conservative parties have successfully adopted hard-right nationalist narrative techniques.
Is it really a great backlash against inchoate social grievances?
Did the near-death of European Christianity and death of Communism form a resonant void of value that liberative movements since the 1970s have not replaced, a need so great that only nostalgia for unconfused power and ethnic purity can successfully respond? (In Italy they even revolt against the Pope for being too liberal).
Surely the left was better positioned to rise in response to sustained economic and social crisis and loss of centres of social value and coherence?
Why, instead, has the strong left shrunken to near-nothing most everywhere?
Time and again, the rise of far-right populism is a generation-altering lesson in which messages are shaped to make them more appealing to broader and broader sectors of the population. Trump’s team learnt their winning lessons from Europe’s own hard-right successes, and now lead a Republic Party more extreme than UKIP.
The implications for the last remaining movements of the global left are of paramount importance: instead of co-opting or imitating far-right populists under the false assumption that their success simply mirrors the will of the people, we need to get underneath the car to figure how parties themselves shape popular demand.
(I’m certainly not making any points about their success forming governments or implementing policies. Generally so far they fail.)
Far-right populism is not simply demand-driven. Multiple insecurities – including cultural as well as economic and personal – indeed drive voter preferences. While these insecurities offer opportunities for political parties, however, they are not enough in themselves to warrant a party’s success. This is where supply comes in: how parties seize these opportunities is crucial in understanding the electoral appeal of far-right populists across a broad range of social and attitudinal groups.
It’s the messaging that is key to understanding the breadth of their electoral appeal. Certain far-right populist parties in western and northern Europe have proved able to tailor their message to extend support beyond their secure voting base of ‘angry white men’ in precarious employment with low levels of education, through a normalisation strategy. This distances them from fascism and association with right-wing extremism, so that they appear legitimate to a spectrum of voters, including those who would be uncomfortable opting for an explicitly racist party.
While diverse, these parties share an important commonality: they all justify a variety of policy positions on socio-economic issues on the basis of an ideology which draws on purported faultlines between the ingroup and outgroups. They advance a vision of democracy which prioritises the in-group, in terms of policy and provision of common goods. And at the core of this argument is civic nationalism.
What makes far-right populist parties successful is precisely their nationalist message – more specifically, the ways in which they justify the exclusion of the outgroup. This is no longer in terms of ascriptive or genetic criteria (as deployed by fascist or conventional extreme-right parties) but rather is done through civic distinctions – seeking to exclude those who supposedly do not espouse ‘our’ values of democracy and tolerance. Through this civic-nationalist narrative, far-right populists normalise exclusion: they offer solutions to voters’ multiple insecurities by using a rhetoric that excludes a variety of population groups on the basis that they are a purported threat to society’s value consensus, and hence to stability and prosperity.
The adoption of this form of civic nationalism, which excludes on the basis of ideological rather than biological criteria of national belonging, is the far-right populist party’s new ‘winning formula’, permitting it to appeal to a wide spread of social groups with different backgrounds and preferences. From Marine Le Pen’s embrace of French republicanism and laïcité to the AfD’s anti-Muslim campaign, what these parties have in common in the way in which they present culture as about adherence to
purportedly national values.
This makes them harder to beat, and helps explain the surging support for some of these parties across multiple countries in the last three years in particular. (This does feel pretty weird from New Zealand, which uses hyper-tolerance to mask some of the deepest social problems in the developed world. Our own repressed national narrative of virtuous tolerance makes for a somewhat of a lonely archipelago. We launched the Team New Zealand boat yesterday and we’re two weeks from a Rugby World Cup, without a flicker yet in the national pulse).
The European and U.S. far-right populists are certainly unstable, and
as in the U.K., their extremism can be successfully co-opted by the
larger conservative parties. Check this out from 2015: David Cameron
whipping up a particular kind of divisive nationalism, not caring if
it splits the country. And so it goes.
They learn, and they win or get close, again and again.
Not all far-right populists have adopted the civic narrative. They differ significantly in agenda and policy – especially economic and welfare policies – as well as on their stance towards democracy and the extent to which they employ violent practices. More extreme instances, drawing on ethnic-nationalist discourses, still compete in a number of European countries, mainly in Eastern Europe. Hence far-right populist parties are significantly ideologically divided.
But this isn’t about why they are so shit. This is only about why they rise and win.
While not a new phenomenon, (some) far-right populist parties present a new social challenge through their adoption of civic-nationalist narratives. As opposed to fascist parties or extreme-right variants, which tend to be ostracised and isolated, they are able to permeate the mainstream and in many ways drive party competition. Scapegoat the out group, justify its exclusion on (seemingly) non-racist grounds, legitimize positions, appear to mirror popular demand. Wrinse and repeat.
The problem is not only these parties’ electoral gains – which vary across country and time – but also the increasing consensus that to defeat them we must imitate them. This is deeply problematic. Those opposed to far-right populists need to understand this new winning formula and recognise their own ability, as well as responsibility, to frame an effective alternative political narrative, rather than sanitise the populists.
The search for a winning formula for the remaining left parties found one glimpse this year when the Social Democrats won in Denmark this year. “Dear young people, you made this election the first climate election in Denmark’s history,” 41-year-old leader Mette Frederiksen said in her victory speech in front of a cheering crowd on Wednesday night. It was also however the acceptance of a very anti-immigration stance by the left and by a great majority of voters.
They got the youth with climate, but they won by stealing votes from the Danish People’s Party.
The right now wins by redefining the nations’ exclusionary borders within the civic imagination.
That’s the formula.