con la colaboración de
Quique Curbelo

Understanding right-wing populism and what to do about it

Daphne Halikiopoulou, Tim Vlandas

9 mins - 30 de Mayo de 2022, 11:52

Following a varied and more subdued performance in the 1990s and early 2000s, the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 refugee crisis spurred an increase in right-wing populist party (RWPP) support across Europe. Worryingly, these developments have taken place at the expense of the mainstream: while the average electoral score of RWPPs has been steadily increasing over time, support for both the mainstream left and right has declined (figure 1).
Figure 1.- The rise of RWPPs has come at the expense of both mainstream left and right

This right-wing populist momentum sweeping Europe has three features. First, the successful electoral performance of parties pledging to restore national sovereignty and implement policies that consistently prioritise natives over immigrants. Many RWPPs have improved their electoral performance over time, although there remain important cross-national variations (figure 2). The French Rassemblement National (RN), the Austrian Party for Freedom (FPÖ), and the German Alternative for Germany (AfD) have all increasingly managed to mobilise voters beyond their support core groups, significantly increasing their support in their domestic electoral arenas. At the same time, countries previously identified as outliers because of the absence of an electorally successful RWPP are no longer exceptional –for example, Portugal with the rise of Chega and Spain with the rise of Vox.
Figure 2.- Cumulative share of RWPP votes received in most recent election

the increasing entrenchment of these parties in their respective political systems through access to office. A substantial number of RWPPs have either governed recently or served as formal cooperation partners in right-wing minority governments. Examples abound: The Italian Lega, the FPÖ, the Polish Law and Justice (PiS), the Hungarian Fidesz, the Danish People’s Party (DF) and the National Alliance (NA, Latvia). The so-called cordon sanitaire –the policy of marginalising extreme parties– has been breaking down even in countries where it has been traditionally effective, such as Estonia and Sweden.

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, the increasing ability to influence the policy agenda of other parties. RWPPs such as the RN, the SD and Ukip have successfully competed in their domestic systems, permeating mainstream ground and influencing the agendas of other parties. As a result, mainstream parties on the right and, in some instances, on the left have often adopted accommodative strategies –mainly regarding immigration.

Understanding the rise of RWPPs
What explains this phenomenon? Researchers and pundits alike tend to emphasise the political climate of RWPP normalisation and systemic entrenchment, where issues 'owned' by these parties are salient: immigration, nationalism and cultural grievances. The importance of cultural values in shaping voting behaviour has led to an emerging consensus that the increasing success of RWPPs may be best understood as a 'cultural backlash'. A sole focus on culture, however, overlooks three key issues: 
  1. The predictive power of economic concerns over immigration and the critical distinction between galvanising a core constituency on the one hand and mobilising more broadly beyond this core constituency on the other; 
  2. The strategies RWPPs themselves are pursuing to capitalise on multiple insecurities, including both cultural and economic; and 
  3. The role of social policies in mitigating those insecurities that drive RWPP support.
Figure 3.- The demand, supply and policy levels

People, Parties, Policies
To address these issues, our new report examines the interplay between what we call the "Three Ps": People, Parties and Policies.

People.- How do cultural and economic grievances affect individuals' probability of voting for an RWPP? How are these grievances distributed among the RWPP electorate? We argue that the assumption that immigration is by default a cultural issue is at best problematic.

Both cultural and economic concerns over immigration increase the likelihood of voting for an RWPP (figure 4). However, while cultural concerns are often a stronger predictor of RWPP voting behaviour, this does not automatically mean that they matter more for RWPP success in substantive terms because people with economic concerns are often a numerically larger group. The main issue to pay attention to here is size: as shown in figure 5, many RWPP voters do not have exclusively cultural concerns over immigration. 
Figure 4.- RWPP predicted vote for different levels of cultural and economic concerns over immigration

Figure 5.- Distribution of immigration concerns

This suggests we must distinguish between core and peripheral voter groups. Voters primarily concerned with the cultural impact of immigration are core RWPP voters. Although they might be highly likely to vote for RWPPs, they also tend to be a numerically small group. By contrast, voters that are primarily concerned with the economic impact of immigration are peripheral voters. They are also highly likely to vote for RWPPs, but in addition they are a numerically larger group. Since the interests and preferences of these two groups can differ, successful RWPPs tend to be those that are able to attract both groups. 

What determines RWPP success is therefore the ability to mobilise a coalition of interests between core and peripheral voters. As the hypothetical example in figure 6 shows, it is possible that RWPPs galvanise voters with cultural concerns over immigration, while at the same time their success is dependent on their ability to mobilise economically concerned voters more broadly. 
Figure 6.- Hypothetical representation of difference between predictive power and substantive importance

What strategies do RWPPs adopt to capitalise on their core and peripheral electorates? While we examine the success of parties that tend to be defined as right-wing populist, we are also sceptical about the analytical utility of the term populism to explain the rise of this phenomenon. Instead, we emphasise the importance of nationalism as a mobilisation tool that has facilitated RWPP success. RWPPs have increasingly emphasised the national way of life (figure 7).

RWPPs in Western Europe employ a civic nationalist normalisation strategy that allows them to offer nationalist solutions to all types of insecurities that drive voting behaviour. This strategy has two features: it presents culture as a value issue and justifies exclusion on ideological grounds; and focuses on social welfare and welfare chauvinism. Eastern European RWPPs, on the other hand, remain largely ethnic nationalist, focusing on ascriptive criteria of national belonging and mobilising voters on socially conservative positions and a rejection of minority rights. Eastern European RWPPs are also more likely to emphasise negative attitudes towards multiculturalism.
Figure 7.- Value policy priorities of RWPPs in Western and Eastern Europe

What type of policies can mitigate the economic risks driving different social groups to support RWPPs? European Democracies have operated in a context of falling economic growth rates over the past decades, with recurrent economic crises in the 1970s, early 1990s and from 2008 onwards. Many advanced economies have in time recovered, but growth has often not returned to the level of previous decades and achieving low inflation has been a policy priority. Many governments have liberalised and 'activated' their labour markets (figure 8) often at the expense of a growing group of so-called labour market outsiders in precarious contracts.

In addition, accumulating debt is leading to a climate of permanent austerity while constraining the necessary physical and social investments that could underpin future growth. While economic developments obviously affect the life chances and insecurities as well as risks that individuals face, the degree of redistribution and the social insurance provided by developed welfare states shapes their prevalence and political consequences.
Figure 8.- Rising expenditures and liberalised labour markets in the context of falling growth and increased needs 

Welfare state policies moderate a range of economic risks individuals face. Our analysis illustrates that this reduces the
likelihood of supporting RWPPs among insecure individuals –for example, the unemployed, pensioners, low-income workers and employees on temporary contracts.

Our key point here is that political actors have agency and can shape political outcomes: to understand why some individuals vote for RWPPs, we should not only focus on their risk-driven grievances, but also on policies that may moderate these risks. This is consistent with a larger political economy literature documenting the protective effects of welfare state policies on insecurity and inequality.

What to do about it?
While this is a broad phenomenon, there is not one single RWPP success formula. Our analysis identifies regional patterns and different voter bases and grievances driving RWPP success across Europe. Progressive strategies addressing those necessarily face different obstacles depending on the context. For instance, the Western European centre-left has better chances of focusing on welfare expansion as an issue they own than many counterparts in Eastern Europe who have lost the ownership of those issues to RWPPs that promote distorted nationalist and chauvinist versions of similar ideas.

Centre-left parties should not be fooled into thinking they can simply copy the RWPP success playbook by going fully populist and embracing restrictive immigration policies and questions of national identity. Instead, they should appeal to the economic insecurities that many peripheral RWPP voters are concerned about focusing on an issue the centre-left owns such as equality. After all, centre-left voters tend to be pro-immigration and a nationalist turn will likely alienate them.
Figure 9.- Distribution of immigration concerns as a percentage of centre-left electorates

Successful centre-left strategies must attempt to galvanize the centre-left's core voter base addressing the (economic) grievances that concern much larger parts of the
whole electorate. Therefore more energy should be invested into thinking about new social investment strategies, growth regimes and/or a universal basic income, rather than focusing on purely on cultural concerns of a small part of the electorate.
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