The populist right and the social-democratic left may contest for the support of the popular classes but, Sheri Berman argues, it’s not a simple zero-sum game.
Two of the most dramatic and consequential trends of the past decade have been the rise of the populist right and the decline of the social-democratic left. As I and others have written, these trends are interconnected in myriad ways. Despite this, diminishing the popularity of populism does not translate directly into renewed success for social democracy.
This is illustrated by the outcome of the recent Danish elections, which many observers nonetheless interpreted as demonstrating just that. The general take was that the Danish social democrats (SD) won and the populist-right Danish People’s Party (DF) lost—the latter’s vote share collapsing from 21.1 per cent in 2015 to 8.7 per cent.
Given the importance of understanding the fate of social democracy and the populist right, and how they are intertwined, it is worth examining what happened in Denmark more closely. Let’s begin with populism’s collapse.
In Denmark, as in the rest of Europe, scholars have found that most populist voters are ‘issue voters’: preferences on immigration policy are the best predictor of support for the populist right. Most observers accordingly view populism’s rise as a result of growing numbers of immigrants, rising xenophobia or some mixture of both.
As I’ve noted in Social Europe previously there is, however, little correlation cross-nationally between the number of migrants in a country or xenophobic or nationalist sentiment and populism’s success. Hungary and Poland, for example, have very few immigrants, yet have overtly xenophobic governments. Similarly, Swedes are among the least xenophobic and nationalist people in Europe, yet the right-wing Sweden Democrats are the third largest party in the country. The Irish and the Spanish, on the other hand, score relatively highly on such measures, yet populism has not been particularly potent in either country.
Nor do changes in related attitudes correlate well with populist success. Attitudes towards immigration have grown more positive and racism has declined across much of Europe during the past decades, at the same time as support for populism has increased.
Rather than rising numbers of immigrants or increasingly negative attitudes towards them, what seems to contribute most to populism’s success is the centrality of immigration to political competition. During much of the postwar period, political competition in Europe pivoted primarily around economic issues, and so voters who had conservative social views (for example, many members of the working class) didn’t vote on the basis of them. Over recent decades, however, political competition has increasingly focused on social issues such as immigration and national identity, leading voters to be more likely to vote on that basis.
When concerns about immigration are at the forefront of debate—in political-science terms, when immigration’s salience is high—the populist right benefits. This is because in most European countries right-populist parties now ‘own’ this issue: they are most associated with it and their voters are united in their views about it (whereas the left’s voting constituency is divided between social conservatives and social progressives). That populists benefit when the salience of social issues such as immigration is high explains why they spend so much time trying to keep such issues at the forefront of debate: demonising immigrants, spreading ‘fake news‘ about them and so on.
What makes Denmark interesting is that, with the exception of 2011 when the financial crisis was the most important issue, this was the first time in over a decade when immigration did not dominate electoral debate. This was largely because, over these years, the most important centre-right party, Venstre, adopted much of the DF’s agenda, while the SD also shifted course.
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Some argue the Social Democrats became an anti-immigrant party, ‘selling out‘ the left’s values. The party claims, however, to be committed to helping refugees, and its immigration platform recognises that Denmark has ‘benefited greatly from the contributions made by many of the people who have come here over the years. People who have learnt Danish, who have jobs, who share our values and who, quite simply, are now Danish.’ But the SD did clearly move right, accepting that ‘there are limits when it comes to the number of immigrants that can be integrated’ and expressing concern that too ‘many people have come to Denmark without becoming part of Denmark’.
Shifts by the mainstream right and left diminished the DF’s distinctiveness as well as the centrality of immigration to political competition—and support for populism collapsed. As the DF’s parliamentary leader, Peter Skaarup, conceded, perhaps the party had been ‘too successful’ and ‘maybe now the [immigration] issue isn’t so big for the public’.
If one lesson from Denmark is that when elections no longer pivot on social issues (such as immigration and national identity), populism’s appeal declines, another lesson is however that for the left to win it is not enough for the populist right to lose.
Although the SD was viewed as the election winner, its vote share in fact fell—from 26.3 per cent in 2015 to 25.9 per cent in 2019. But the collapse in support for the DF meant Venstre—whose share increased from 19.5 to 23.4 per cent—did not have enough support in Parliament to form a government. This enabled Mette Frederiksen, the SD leader, to form a minority government, with support from two smaller new-left/green parties (the Socialist People’s Party and the Red-Green Alliance).
Parties succeed when the issues on which they have an advantage are at the forefront of debate: populists do well when attention is focused on immigration, green parties do well when attention is focused on the environment and social-democratic parties do well when attention is focused on economic issues and, in particular, on the downsides of capitalism and unregulated markets—assuming they have something distinctive and attractive to offer on the economic front. (This has not been the case for many social-democratic parties for too long but many authors at Social Europe are trying to rectify that.)
What the Danish elections should remind us is that politics is largely a struggle over agenda-setting. Defeating populism requires removing the issues on which populism thrives from the forefront of debate. But for the social-democratic left to succeed, it must do more than neutralise the fears populists exploit. It must also focus attention on the myriad economic problems facing our societies—and convince voters it has the best solutions to them.
This article is a joint publication by Social Europe and IPS-Journal
Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College and author of Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (Oxford University Press).