Conventional wisdom is that the rise of the far-right populists is down to a popular cultural backlash. What’s really happened is they have broadened their support through a civic-nationalist narrative.
One in four Europeans votes populist, according to the Guardian. Though we might have expected Europe’s economic crisis—with its resulting mounting inequalities—to lead more plausibly to the rise of left-wing populist parties, pledging to cater for voters’ material concerns, it has been far-right populists, with their promise to restore ‘national sovereignty’ in the name of ‘the people’, which have capitalised more effectively on social insecurities. The French Rassemblement National (RN) (formerly Front National), the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), the Austrian Party for Freedom (FPÖ), the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Italian Lega have all mobilised voters across the political spectrum through their populist-nationalist platforms.
Far-right populists have fared particularly well in recent electoral contests within their domestic arenas and are projected to gain about a third of the seats in the new European Parliament. Depending on who joins, Matteo Salvini’s initiative to create a successful far-right populist family, the European Alliance of People’s and Nations, threatens to make this one of the largest groupings in the European Parliament, challenging the European project at its core.
Why is this happening? A consensus has been emerging behind some version of a ‘backlash’ story, which sees far-right populism as the product of cultural grievances. Often this leads to rather fatalistic assessments of the populists, premised on the assumption that such ‘demand’ drives their ‘supply’, with the implication by extension that they should be passively accommodated into the mainstream—for example through the adoption of stricter immigration policies by centre-right and even centre-left parties.
On the contrary, to understand the rise of far-right populism we must recognise the importance of supply—the ways in which the populists themselves attempt to make their message more appealing to broader sectors of the population. The implications 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 should understand how the parties themselves are shaping popular demand. At the same time, we must also recognise their weaknesses—their ideological diversity and constraining nationalism, which in many ways account for their fluctuating electoral support and difficulty in forging successful transnational alliances.
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.
What parties say and do matters—the message is key to understanding the breadth of their electoral appeal. Certain far-right populist parties—notably those in western and northern Europe—have proved able to tailor their message to extend support beyond their secure voting base—‘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 ingroup, 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 organic 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, can in many ways be seen as 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.
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This makes them harder to beat—and in many ways explains the surging support for some of these parties in recent polls. Despite, however, the hype behind far-right populist #electoral support and potential European Parliament alliances, sweeping claims about the breadth and scope of this phenomenon often do not take into account the variation in support for these parties or the ideological heterogeneity among them.
Not all far-right populists are electorally successful. In fact, the 2014 ‘earthquake’ Euro-elections produced varied results, with parties including the FPÖ, the FN (now RN), the DF, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and the True Finns (currently Finns Party) increasing their support, but others such as the Greek Popular Orthodox Rally (LAOS), the Italian Lega Nord (currently Lega), the PVV and the British National Party (BNP) declining. Variations are also expected in 2019: while far-right populists are indeed expected to make significant gains, this is mainly driven by certain countries, for example Italy and Spain, while the far right in many countries, including France and Denmark, appears stagnant compared with the 2014 result.
Moreover, 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.
Despite the publicity which Salvini’s new alliance has attracted, unity in the European Parliament is thus not a straightforward endeavour. Currently far-right populists are spread across three groupings—Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy, European Conservatives and Reformists and Europe of Nations and Freedom—and some are unaffiliated. A number of the latter are likely to remain so because of their extremism, such as the Greek Golden Dawn, a blatantly Nazi organisation. Others belonging to the more moderate conservative groups won’t want to join Salvini’s coalition because they don’t want to be branded as far-right. Despite, therefore, the strategic necessity to unite, at core the ideologically nationalist predisposition of far-right populists makes international alliances difficult by definition.
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. The ability to scapegoat the outgroup and justify its exclusion on (seemingly) non-racist grounds makes their positions appear not only as legitimate but as if they were merely the mirrors of popular demand—as they have been represented.
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.
Understanding the populists’ weaknesses is also critical—and here there is a paradox. (Civic) nationalism now provides these parties with a key strength. Yet it is simultaneously a barrier to their forming an effective transnational bloc.