Who are the people who are voting for the populist right? In the public debate they are usually labelled as ‘the people globalisation left behind’. So neatly do they fit into this category that any extreme right-wing following outside this group is hardly acknowledged. After Brexit the spotlights were likewise trained on the old, struggling industrial areas of the north of England where signs of decline are plainly visible in the shape of high unemployment, long-neglected housing estates, broken homes and alcoholism.
It’s a blind spot that is distorting reality. It is highly unlikely that the 52 percent of people who voted for Brexit is made up exclusively of victims of the economic downturn. That would make the British economy a basket case if ever there was one. Another false assumption is that most Brexit voters support the conservative Tory party, with the bulk of Labour supporters firmly situated in the remain camp.
The worldview that forms the basis of the far right appeals to a much broader group of voters. Extremism and its inbuilt aggression against those who oppose it poses a bigger danger precisely because it is not conveniently limited to ‘globalisation’s losers’. The political reaction to the looming threat of an authoritarian swing to the right will have to go beyond announcing a few measures to help this group.
But for now the old political order appears to be at a loss in the face of the disruptive effects of the emerging populist right. The image of a British political establishment in disarray may well add fuel to the flames.
Political scientist Sarah de Lange, senior lecturer at the University of Amsterdam and an expert on European populism, agrees. ‘We social scientists like to have neat and tidy explanations for phenomena such as these’, she says. ‘And so we tar voters for the extreme right with the same one-dimensional brush. We call them the losers of globalisation and there we are. But it’s no more than an assumption. There’s no empirical proof and, what is more, it ignores the presence of other explanations for the swing to the right.’
No matter how much the populist right may deviate from the usual patterns, its deeper motivation is the same as that of other parties. Stripped to its essence, its aim is to achieve power to serve its interests. Amid the multitude of populist right-wing electoral issues there is one that, openly or not so openly, invariably has a role to play, as was the case with Brexit: the desire to protect a prosperous society from ‘outsiders’ such as immigrants, and from institutions which are perceived to pilfer the state coffers rather than filling them, with the European Union heading the list.
Ever since the financial crisis of 2008 revealed the vulnerability of economic prosperity, the power struggle to safeguard this particular interest has turned increasingly ugly. It could be seen at its most aggressive and racist in some video footage shot shortly after Brexit showing Juan Jasso, resident in Britain for eighteen years, being mobbed and abused on a Manchester tram by three teenage thugs. He is called a ‘fucking immigrant’ who should ‘get off to Africa’. But the idea that a nation’s prosperity can be claimed as an exclusive property also appeals to those with a higher level of education and successful careers who feel they have got to where they are through their own efforts and that those who fail only have themselves to blame. This is a self-image that can also motivate a vote for the populist right.
Studies by research bureau Motivaction are pointing in the same direction. During his research Koen Damhuis, a Dutch sociologist who conducts studies for the European University Institute in Florence, encountered a number of self-made men none of whom could be considered globalisation’s losers by any stretch of the imagination. ‘My interviews with people who vote for Wilders sometimes involved ringing penthouse doorbells. These people are saying: I work harder than other people and I contribute more to the country’s prosperity. In the meantime, a lot of scroungers are taking advantage,’ Damhuis says.
It is safe to say that prosperity chauvinism – to coin a phrase – appeals to more than one type of voter group. This explains why, apart from the extremist PVV (Freedom Party), which is primarily interested in building a defensive wall around the welfare state, the VVD (People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy) too shows right- wing populist traits, both in its approach to immigrants and its opinions on Europe. With impeccable liberal logic, immigrants are only welcome as long as they contribute to the nation’s wealth. Refugees are regarded as a liability rather than economically productive and their number must be brought back to zero as quickly as possible. A united Europe, according to the VVD, is not based on solidarity but on free trade serving the growth of the national economy.
Koen Abts, sociologist at Leuven University, is seeing a comparable populism double act in Flanders. Vlaams Belang (Flemish interest), which is hand in glove with the PVV, takes the part of the extremist right while Bart de Wever’s Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA, New Flemish Alliance) represents liberal nationalism. ‘The N-VA has a broad appeal,’ Abts says. ‘It’s a people’s party to its bones and it’s whipping up feelings of discontent in order to pit Flanders against Belgium. When the Dutch want a good rant they have a go at the EU but in Flanders it’s the Belgian state. You can’t take on a whole herd of scapegoats all at once, after all.’
For his PhD thesis Abts explored the relationship between the vote for the extreme right and the role of resentment, ethnocentrism and political cynicism. ‘The principal beef I have with publications about the extreme right is that attention is mainly focused on identity and cultural divides. This plays a role but I think it forms part of a façade which is hiding the true battle of interests. If you listen carefully to people when they talk about unwanted immigrants you will find it’s about who will gain the upper hand and the fear that it won’t be them. All this talk about culture, identity, the colour of people’s skin is a front. What is really at stake is the power over national prosperity and the power to define what is good and bad, and what is allowed and not allowed.’
Globalisation’s losers may well form the core of the populist parties’ electorate, Abts concedes but they certainly aren’t the only group susceptible to the rhetoric of salvation. ‘There is no doubt that globalisation has left people behind,’ he says. ‘It’s understandable that populism appeals to people who are living in poverty. They want to apportion blame for the lack of jobs, cutbacks on benefits and rising costs that affect them. Globalisation has taken away their jobs, and with them their only security in life. In this group, which accounts for about fifteen percent of the population, feelings of resentment, cynicism about politics and rejection of immigration are widespread.’
A potentially bigger group of far right voters is formed by people who have not yet experienced any adverse effects but fear their turn may soon come. Increasingly, they feel their livelihoods are at risk. ‘People belonging to the middle class are having to struggle more to keep their heads above water. You can’t put them in the losing camp, not yet anyway. But with all that is happening around them they are afraid that is where they will end up. They wonder if they will be able to survive. They are afraid that even their best efforts won’t be enough to preserve what they have. They are afraid of losing their social status and fearful for their own and, above all, their children’s future. Meanwhile they are looking up the ladder at the privileged who have nothing to worry about, and down the ladder at the people who they feel are enjoying the fruits of collective prosperity without having to lift a finger.’
According to Abts, the middle class is not so much affected by unemployment or loss of income as by a deep sense of vulnerability. For people with medium level vocational qualifications in particular the fall to the bottom may not be far away. ‘Lower middle class workers will be the first victims of robotisation. A whole category of work is at risk. You can see the jobs melting away. Some political scientists are going down the moral route and talk of a protest vote. That is far too lazy an explanation. Every vote has a certain logic, and this future crisis is part of it.’
Abts attributes the crisis to the disappearance of a collective faith in progress as a driving force and source of optimism. Hope for the future has been replaced by chaos, insecurity and decline. But that is not enough to explain the swing to the far right. According to Abts, susceptibility to right-wing populism deepens into conviction when the awareness of vulnerability is coupled with a sense of powerlessness.
‘For a long time during the post-war years faith in a better future pacified feelings of discontent,’ he says. ‘That faith has been replaced by a fear of decline and loss, not just in the lower class but in the middle class as well. Things may reach boiling point if people feel there is nothing anyone can do to halt the process, not them, not the politicians, not the employers and not the union leaders whose protection they could once count on. Look at Brexit. It, too, is a kick in the shins for the establishment. The institutions that people depended on in the past are being blamed for the crisis of tomorrow. In these circumstances a populist message promising new brooms can become tempting.’
If there is one group that does not qualify for the label ‘globalisation’s losers’ it is Koen Damhuis’ Wilders voters in their penthouses. ‘They are part of a group of individuals who believe that everything they have achieved is the result of their own talents and efforts. Their attitude is one of ‘We don’t need anyone else’. They imagine themselves to be strong individuals capable of achieving their life goals independently. They lose every vestige of empathy and develop a blind spot which causes them to forget that they have achieved their position thanks in part to the emancipation machine we call ‘the welfare state’ and the grants, state financed education, housing subsidies and health insurance that come with it,’ Abts says.
According to Abts, the welfare state has given people more freedom because it offered a way out of the collectivities they used to be dependent on. ‘Then, gradually, the critical noises begin: the governing bodies, the welfare state could do with paring down, people say. You see how the welfare state as an emancipation machine begins to crack under the weight of its own success. When I defended my thesis I made a point of thanking our institutions for offering me the money and the possibilities to do the job. Not many people do. Usually it’s a spouse, a mentor, or friends that get the thank-yous. They don’t see that they couldn’t have done it without the institutions. Perhaps what is needed is a bit of sociological imagination.’
The greatest danger posed by the xenophobia driven prosperity chauvinism of the populist right lies with the group of disengaged individuals who think the government takes without giving back. Thanks to their authority, their money and their crucial positions in society, they have more power and influence than the struggling middle class, let alone globalisation’s losers.
‘This group frightens me most,’ Abst confesses. ‘These people are the first to say that the government is letting all those immigrants in to profit from what they have built. When I read about the 1930s I ask myself how it was possible that people ended up on the wrong side so quickly. I want to choose my words carefully but the possibility of a similar totalitarian backlash can’t be dismissed. I certainly don’t want to draw a parallel between the N-VA and the tendencies of the time but it is worrying to see how quick people are to rally ‘round the flag. The social climate has changed beyond recognition. Xenophobia and discriminating language weren’t tolerated ten, twenty years ago but have now become acceptable everywhere, including the upper middle class.’
Koen Abts political conclusion is that right-wing populism is not a flash in the pan. It is here to stay, he says, and its potential for growth is considerable. Michael Minkenberg, professor of comparative political science at the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt an der Oder, has come to a similar conclusion. To put forward monocausal interpretations of the rise of the populist right, such as the hostility towards immigration in Western Europe, or the authoritarian past of Eastern Europe, is to underestimate the danger, he says.
Sarah de Lange agrees that the extreme right is far from a temporary phenomenon. Repeated Ipsos polls have shown the PVV to be the party with the most stable following. Wilders has the most voters who say they will only vote for his party to the exclusion of any other.
‘We will have to take into account that the PVV will become big and will remain big,’ De Lange says. ‘After Fortuyn everyone thought the extreme right would peter out quickly. But that didn’t happen. Austria, France, Belgium all have parties which have had substantial support bases for thirty years. In Belgium people were congratulating themselves when the Vlaams Belang was trumped by the N-VA and sank even further because of internal squabbles. The same thing happened in Austria when Jörg Haider left the FPÖ and the party lost much of it support. In both countries it was believed this was the beginning of the end for the two parties. But the FPÖ is back with a chance in the presidential elections and, thanks to its new leader Tom van Grieken, the Vlaams Belang is shooting up in the polls.’
De Lange points to possible psychological factors that may play a role although she is reluctant to do so because of the trap of determinism, and the risk of stigmatising Wilders voters. ‘We know that people with a low level of education have more difficulty with complexity, diversity, high information density, all of which figure in politics, a domain where complex problems and opposite interests come to the fore. Psychological research also tells us that our thoughts aren’t the only driving force behind our actions. It works the other way around as well: our actions determine what we think. It’s a bit like leapfrog. Suppose you don’t agree with immigration and you decide to vote for Wilders. You will then tend to adjust your ideas in other areas to coincide with your choice of party and come the next elections you will find the PVV manifesto is even closer to your convictions. The upshot is that you will remain faithful to that party. Wilders becomes your hero.’
Those who vote for xenophobic and politically cynical parties will become more xenophobic and cynical themselves, studies have shown. ‘It’s the leapfrog effect again,’ De Lange says. Selective media behaviour is a factor as well. The report Gescheiden Werelden (Separate Worlds), a joint study by the Netherlands scientific council for government policy and socio-cultural think tank SCP, confirms this.
‘The media play a big part in how people view reality,’ De Lange says. ‘If your view of reality is determined by (right of centre outlets, red) De Telegraaf, Algemeen Dagblad, Metro and Hart van Nederland your perception of reality will be different from those who read (left of centre outlets, red) NRC Handelsblad, Trouw, and* De Groene Amsterdammer* and watch public broadcasters. This is where cognitive dissonance comes in. People try to exclude everything that doesn’t coincide with their way of thinking and limit themselves to media outlets that confirm their views. A process of interaction between media and audiences is set in motion with more and more media outlets bowing to commercial pressures: if this is what our audience wants, this is what our audience gets. Arguments that have nothing to do with journalism are starting to play a role: news has to be exciting, columnists must be controversial.’
Koen Abts’ thinks the forceful manifestation of right-wing populism is a logical political reaction to the fading borders and disappearing social structures of the modern era. ‘Until the 1970s we were living in a time of relative security, stability and progress. The nation state had well-defined borders. Social divides and different religious and secular groups provided a clear societal structure. But external national borders have become porous or have disappeared altogether and the clear lines of the internal social structure have become vague and indeterminate. To put it bluntly, society has been shattered. Old certainties are fading away. New areas of conflict have opened up in the political arena leaving the old political order without an adequate response. The populists have the answer, and it’s to create a closed society folded in on itself and hostile to everything that is not of it.’
American journalist Thomas Friedman is thinking along very similar lines. According to Friedman, the theory that Brexit is a typically British manifestation of anti-European feeling holds no water, comforting though it may seem. He thinks the political system is too sluggish to respond adequately to the great changes of today, such as the technological revolution and the global shift in the balance of power. That is not a phenomenon unique to Britain but a universal given.
In his column in The New York Times Friedman writes: ‘It’s the story of our time: the pace of change in technology, globalization and climate have started to outrun the ability of our political systems to build the social, educational, community, workplace and political innovations needed for some citizens to keep up.’
Against this background the political message of populism is a clever construct creating a perfect pattern of everything people perceive as threatening about the modern era. The promise of a closed society which will help restore what is ‘ours’ appeals to feelings of nostalgia for a time when everything was in its proper place. Brexit showed how deeply-rooted those feelings can be. With its clear distinction between ‘them’ and ‘us’, populism restores order to a complex society with porous borders and fading social structures.
Abts puts it like this: ‘A return to a closed society is first and foremost a return to nations with clear borders. This will be followed by an internal restructuring, based on identity and along the lines of ‘we’ versus ‘them’. And it is up to us to decide who ‘we’ are.’
As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote in an article in the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeiting as early as 1994: the human need for certainties is also a need for a clear distinction between good and evil. Populism satisfies this need by dividing the world into friends and enemies. In this vision a disregarded group is stuck between an unworldly elite on the one side and immigrants on the other, allowing any feelings of discontent to be projected on the outside world .
Populism invariably comes with leaders who embody this clear cut vision of society. With typical self-confidence they profess to know the will of the people (‘I speak for millions’). ‘The truth is on our side,’ Wilders said at a meeting of like-minded European politicians on January 29, 2016. ‘Get used to it.’
‘The disregarded last can become the empowered first,’ says Abts. ‘That is the promise of populism: a reversal of the balance of power.’ The people who feel let-down, who think immigrants get all the help while they are left to struggle on their own will come out on top. That promise makes populism strong. It’s a potent remedy against the feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness that plague Wilders’ voters.’
According to Abts, populism is stepping into ‘a democratic void’: ‘The power of political movements is based on their ability to combine three factors. They represent a group with a clear identity, they translate the interests of this group into a political message and they strive for power. This was the basis for the success of the Christian democrats, the social democrats and the liberals but their appeal is falling off. What we are seeing is a crisis of representativeness. Although it is a construct, the far right seems to be able to achieve this trinity comprised of a group, the interests of this group and an undisguised appetite for power.
The anti-democratic and authoritarian nature of the populist right will reveal itself completely the moment its images of the truth turn out to be so many fantasies and promises remain unfulfilled. What if Geert Wilders or Marine Le Pen come to power and voters discover that they have been told a pack of lies? That their situation hasn’t changed for the better, that migrants are still entering the country, that prosperity is still not exclusively theirs and that they continue to be beset by feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness? It is not in the nature of the populist right to admit it got it wrong. It will point the finger at the same old scapegoats which only a strong leader can rid them of.’
Abts sees the danger too: ’The narrative of populism is reactionary. It refers to the relatively closed societies of the 40s and 50s and offers no vision for the future except that it will look something like the past. The emptiness of this narrative became painfully clear after Brexit. The establishment had been given a black eye but nobody knew what to do next. Populism can only thrive in the presence of scapegoats. If it disappoints and disillusionment sets in, the danger is that an even more radical anti-democratic movement will come along and promise to really clean things up.’
Translation: Hanneke Sanou