This essay will explore the resurgence of populist radical right parties in Europe and will seek to examine three reasons why they have been so successful electorally in recent decades. I will begin, by briefly, exploring what it means to be a populist radical right party in Europe, this will be followed by investigating their success at the national level with the use of empirical evidence to support this argument. Focus will then turn to the consequences that socio-economic reform has had on voters living in post-industrial Europe, particularly how an influx in migration has resulted in some of the electorate demanding closed borders, something the radical right promises. This essay will invite the conclusion that this is largely down to a decline in social cleavages, the modernisation process, and the incumbent governments economic performance. The radical right are also able to further their agenda by exploiting a bedrock of legitimate concern.
Populism views society as a dichotomy of the ‘corrupt elite’ and the ‘pure people’. It involves mobilising the peoples dissatisfaction with their present government and the prominent values it represents (Betz, 1994), such as individualism and multiculturalism. There are different types of radical right wing parties with varying ideologies, from the neoliberal xenophobic to the neo nazi’s who have relatively lower electoral success (Carter, 2013). Norris (2005) found that the support for; The Italian Social Movement/National Alliance, the Freedom Party of Austria, the Swiss People’s Party, the Danish New Right, the Norwegian Progress Party, the Belgian Flemish Interest, and the French Front National, had tripled in the last two decades.
European history demonstrates that politics was based heavily on stable social cleavage structures. In contemporary Europe, however, electoral outcomes have become increasingly unpredictable, many academics have put this down to a decline in social cleavages. The outcome of Irelands 2011 elections, demonstrates just how volatile voting can be in modern day Europe. There governing party, Fianna Fáil who had secured 42% of the vote in 2007 was reduced to 17% in the following elections, many scholars put this down to a widespread disillusionment with the party (Bale, 2013, pp.204). Thomassen (2005,pp.10) argues that the decline of traditional cleavages occurred in two waves, first with the composition effect. This stipulates that, as a consequence of social change, there is a deterioration in the number of people identifying with a particular cleavage. Secondly, the relationship between being a member of a given social cleavage and identifying with a party has weakened. Whereas, Elff (2007, pp.284) rationalises the decline in cleavage based voting by claiming that it is a result of members of the electorate becoming cognitively mobilised. This theory demonstrates that higher levels of education and the proliferation of the mass media has resulted in members of the electorate becoming less reliant on political cues (Ibid, 2007, pp.284).It should be noted, however, that some social cleavages are still visible in contemporary Europe. The persistent political dichotomy between Catholics and Protestants in Northern Ireland provides an example of this. Norris (2005) alleges that there has been a rise of new social cleavages that further the support of radical right parties. These cleavages include those who “have fallen through the welfare safety net in affluent societies”, Norris (2005) calls this the “politics of resentment”.
Additionally, the eroding of traditional social divisions along with a rise in education has led to the weakening of partisan affiliation. The resultant effect of this is that salient factors such as the economic performances of incumbent governments have become a more significant basis for voting decisions. These developments afford populist radical right parties with a favourable setting, through the rise in electoral volatility, and the number of qualified voters who make their decisions based on issues of the day, rather than conventional
partisan affiliations. When social cleavages decline and existing parties are slow to adapt, niches emerge that radical right parties are able to take advantage of. Even if the existing parties do react to these social changes, there tends to be little differentiation between their mandates. The mainstream parties converge towards centrist positions, with most of their policies established in neoliberal ideas. Merging on policy space creates an ideal political climate for radical right parties as voters become frustrated with the current system. Populist parties condemn the incumbent parties for collaborating with one another, labelling them as the ‘corrupt elite’. Radical right parties also benefit when the established far right parties support relatively centrist policies, as they leave a ‘gap’ in the electoral field that the radical right parties can exploit.
If we have already established that the citizenry no longer vote according to their social cleavage, then it is reasonable to assume that they cast their vote based on their judgement on the economic climate in which they live. Evans (2004, pp.143) hypothesised that participation increases during times of economic discontent as individuals are eager to decide which party will be best able to recover the economy. According to a survey carried out by Abraham and Smith (2016), 53% of Spaniards feel that the state of the economy is the biggest issue facing their country. When economic conditions are unsatisfactory the electorate tend to become disconnected from the established government (Anderson, 2000). In these circumstances, voters tend to punish the government by voting in an anti-establishment way by voting for the radical right. During times of economic unrest some of the native population may feel as if they are in competition with migrants in the vocational sphere. This often creates tension and animosity, and may exacerbate any otherwise latent prejudices. The European Social Survey (2017) explored the ‘attitudes towards immigration in Europe’ and found that only 22% of French people, over the age of 65 with minimal qualifications, had ‘positive views of the cultural impact of immigration’. The radical right are able to capitalise this hostility, by drawing a connection between economic turmoil and immigration. The populist radical right parties exploit the fear that immigration poses a threat to national identity. Radical right parties vilify immigrants in a way that they can plausibly deny being prejudicial, with the objective of activating those who have underlying xenophobic sentiment. Abraham and Smith’s (2016) survey asked Germans what they think the biggest threat to their society is, 49% of them concluded that it was immigration. Murray (2017) mentions a study carried out by the Friedrich Ebert Foundation, which found that 30% of Germans feared their country had been “overrun by foreigners” who had migrated due to social benefits Germany could provide.
Ivarsflaten (2008, pp.3) concludes that radical right parties electoral success is dependent on their ability to mobilise grievances over immigration. This may be precarious terrain for the populist radical right, however, as they receive support from the unemployed to the small business owners (Evans, 2005). This support is based on beliefs regarding culture and not economics, and, as a result, is potentially jeopardised whenever the economic sphere becomes more pertinent.
Some political philosophers associate the electoral success of the radical right to the modernisation process and the resentment it breeds. This process can be attributed to most advanced industrial democracies (Thomassen, 2005, pp.18). Its target are those who feel insecure, apprehensive and hindered by rapid societal change. These individuals may pledge their support to the radical right parties that seem empathetic towards individuals who feel ostracised by globalisation. The underlying identification with populist rhetoric is more significant during times where individuals feel least advantaged by the modernisation process. Betz (1994) carried out a study in which he focused on people who identify as working class and how they are impeded by a post-industrial economy. These individuals may feel dissatisfied if they have been unable to maintain the
same level of economic well being as they once experienced. The notion that the incumbent government is either unable or unwilling to provide a remedy, combined with a general scepticism for the future, propels individuals towards the nativist rhetoric of the radical right.
Inglehart (1971) has theorised that the process of modernisation has led many citizens to adopt ‘post-materialist’ values, where they are politically motivated less by economic worries (as subsistence is a given) and instead, more by issues concerning equality. This conversion from materialist values to post-materialist values has produced a “silent revolution” (Ibid, 1971, pp. 991). Ignazi (1995, pp.3) contends that a ramification of post materialism is a “silent counterrevolution” that benefits radical right populist parties, as individuals feel that they need to defend their traditional values in an increasingly liberal society.
According to Carter (2013, pp.214) there is a wealth of disenchanted voters predisposed to radical right rhetoric. This can be easily activated by politicising their resentment to the current structure of society. It is those who feel that they have been disadvantaged by multiculturalism and an ever modernising society that are attracted to the protectionist policies that the radical right promise. The radical right exploit this feeling of insecurity, often by introducing racist arguments masquerading as mainstream and legitimate policy.
There are legitimate concerns with immigration and multiculturalism, and the radical right piggy back these concerns whilst pandering to less legitimate fears. It is difficult to calculate with any certainty which of these three theories has the greatest influence in generating the rise of the radical right. In reality it is likely to be a culmination of all these and, most worryingly, each factor appears to give traction to the others.