1963-2013 - 50 years of Research for Social Change

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Back | Project: Racism and Public Policy

Abstract of Paper by Hans-Georg Betz

  • Project from: 2000 to 2001

Exclusionary Populism in Western Europe: A Threat to Democracy and Civil Rights?
Since the late 1980s, a new breed of right-wing parties and movements has gained considerable political ground in a number of liberal democracies, particularly—but not exclusively—in Europe. Among the most successful of these parties have been the Austrian Freedom Party, since the beginning of last year a member of a coalition government; the Swiss People’s Party, which, under the leadership of Christoph Blocher, in the 1990s saw its popular support double in national elections; and the Italian Northern League, which will be in the next government if Berlusconi’s electoral alliance wins the upcoming national election. Other significant parties are the Belgian Flemish Block, the Norwegian Progress Party, the Danish People’s Party, and the two rival movements in France, Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front and Bruno Mégret’s Republican National Movement. Finally, there are several marginal parties such as the German Republicans and the Swiss Freedom Party.

Several characteristics distinguish these parties and movements from the more traditional parties: reliance on charismatic leadership; the pursuit of a populist strategy of political marketing with a pronounced costumer (i.e., voter) orientation; and the appeal to, and mobilization of, popular anxieties, prejudices and resentments, whose main target has been the political establishment. The goal has been to discredit the ‘political class’ in order to bring about radical political change. Typically, new populist parties and movements have marketed themselves as uncompromising defenders of the rights, and fearless advocates of the interests of, the common people and as the only true representatives and promoters of ‘genuine democracy’.

At the same time, they espouse an ideology that is perhaps best described as a type of exclusionary populism. The core of this political doctrine consists of a restrictive notion of citizenship, which holds that genuine democracy is based on a culturally, if not ethnically, homogeneous community; that only long-standing citizens are full members of civil society; and that society’s benefits should only accrue to those who have made a substantial contribution to it. The spirit of this common doctrine has found poignant expression in the notion of ‘the own people first’ and the call for ‘national preference.’ In its more extreme cases, exclusionary populism has taken the form of cultural nativism, which, rather than promoting notions of ethno-cultural superiority, aims at the protection of ‘the own’ society, culture and way of life against alien intrusion and contamination. For the contemporary populist right, this means above all safeguarding and defending the achievements and gains of European culture and civilization, which are seen as besieged from a number of different directions.

Although expressed hostility toward foreigners, strong opposition to immigration and vocal objection to the building of multicultural societies are central characteristics of all new right-wing populist parties in Europe and elsewhere, the majority of these parties are not single-issue protest parties. In many cases, these parties promote a comprehensive programme of socioeconomic, sociocultural and sociopolitical change, whose implementation would have far-reaching consequences. Thus both the Northern League in Italy and the Flemish Block in Belgium have been vocal proponents of a breakup of their respective nation states; the Austrian Freedom Party has marketed itself as an anti-system party working toward the creation of a Third Republic; and the Swiss People’s Party is increasingly promoting an end to Switzerland’s consociational system. At the same time, the new right-wing populist parties have used a range of issues in their attempts to mobilize popular resentment, whose appeal can only be explained within the specific national context, and among which immigration and multiculturalism have been only one, albeit a very important one. Examples are Christoph Blocher’s vocal defense of Switzerland’s role during the Second World War; the Northern League’s appeal to Northern Italian resentment of the mezzogiorno; and Jörg Haider’s assault on the pillars of Austria’s post-war national identity. It is the appeal to these issues, as much as the appeal to latent and diffuse xenophobic sentiments, that has gained the new right-wing populist parties in Europe an audience and political support.

Several reasons account for their political success: widespread popular disaffection and disenchantment with the established political parties, politicians, and the political process (and perhaps even democracy) in general; diffuse feelings of anxiety in the face of rapid and profound socioeconomic and sociostructural change associated with globalization and the information technology revolution; and general unease with respect to the cultural challenges posed by the inflow and presence of a growing number of non-European immigrants, whom the majority of Europeans don’t seem to want, but whom they increasingly need to compensate for falling birth rates, prevent labour shortages, and safeguard the future of the social security system and the welfare state in general.

Given these disparate motivations for right-wing populist support, it is perhaps not surprising that the electoral base of new right-wing populist parties cannot be reduced to one single group, such as the petty bourgeoisie. Although, in a number of cases, there has been a significant ‘proletarianization’ of the social basis of their support (the number of blue-collar workers voting for them has increased rather dramatically, for example, in France and Scandinavia, as well as in Austria and, to some degree, Switzerland and Northern Italy), this does not necessarily mean that these parties are parties of the ‘modernization losers.’ Approaches that focus on attitudes and perhaps even value dispositions might be more fruitful in assisting understanding of support for the new populist right than more traditional class-based analysis. Similar caution might be appropriate with respect to sociostructural variables such as gender, education and age, although the new populist right tends to be particularly attractive to younger male voters with low to medium educational attainment. These also tend to be the groups that have the most reservations toward immigrants, refugees and foreigners in general.

Given the current confluence of increasing competitive pressures resulting from globalization, growing demographic pressures stemming from the rapid graying of European societies; and a persistently high level of political disaffection, it is rather unlikely that that the appeal of right-wing parties espousing an ideology of exclusionary populism will significantly diminish in the foreseeable future. Undoubtedly, their success represents a serious challenge to liberal democracy in Europe. Whether or not it will become a genuine threat to democracy will ultimately depend on the strength of the democratic institutions and political culture that have developed in Europe during the past 50 years. There certainly is reason for concern, but I am fairly confident that the institutions of democracy and civil society will meet the challenge.