Populist ‘earthquakes’ appear to have become the norm in western democracies. Since the French Front National, UKIP and the Dansk Folkeparti (DF) won the 2014 European elections in their countries, there has been a growing sentiment amongst the elite that the rise of the populist right is irresistible. This appears to have been confirmed by the ‘shock’ of Brexit and Donald Trump’s victory in the US presidential election. More recently, Norbert Hofer managed to appeal to 47% of the vote in the second round of the Austrian presidential election, while the rejection of a referendum in Italy was touted as a victory for the populist Five Star Movement. However, this article, based on more extensive research (Glynos and Mondon 2016, Mondon 2015, 2017), argues that the focus on right-wing populism only uncovers part of the deeper crisis currently faced by western democracies, and could prove counterproductive to those hoping to revive more progressive sentiments within the electorate and the population.
Before looking at the issues at stake in the rise of right-wing populism, it is essential to contextualise something which is rare in the media frenzy about these parties. If we take the 2014 European elections, right-wing populist and far right parties performed unevenly, as demonstrated by figure 1.
Figure 1. Right-wing populist party results in the European elections
(as a percentage of the total votes cast) – source: European Parliament
This is even starker when abstention is taken into account: apart from the Dansk Folkeparti, all other parties failed to appeal to more than ten per cent of registered voters (figure 2). This comparison is particularly striking considering the disproportionate coverage some of these parties benefited from throughout their campaigns.
Figure 2. Right-wing populist party results in the European elections
(as a percentage of registered voters) – source: European Parliament
Immigration as a key issue: Following, appeasing, manipulating or creating public opinion?
Having provided a more nuanced picture of the rise of the ‘populist right’, this section aims to nuance the prominence of anti-immigration sentiment in public opinion. This question seeks to engage with the role played by the concept of public opinion, and gauge whether the rise of the so-called populist right and associated anti-immigrant sentiment is one based on elites following and appeasing public opinion, or rather manipulating and creating it.
The resurgence of the so-called populist right has often been linked uncritically to a growing anti-immigrant sentiment, considered to be particularly strong among working-class communities. However, various research projects have demonstrated that the mainstream media has played a key part, consciously or unconsciously, in the mainstreaming of what Ruth Wodak called ‘the Haiderization of Europe’ (Wodak 2013, see also Khosravinik 2009, Mral, Khosravinik, and Wodak 2013). The negative and skewed media coverage of political campaigns and their disproportionate focus on immigration is reflected in the way people (mis)perceive their broader community and the issues these imagined and fantasised communities face (Ipsos Mori 2015). However, well-recorded misperceptions do not allow in themselves a convincing argument as to whether public opinion is predisposed to anti-immigrant sentiment, inducing a self-misperception in turn leading elite discourse to respond on the matter, or whether this skewed understanding of society is created by elite public discourse through agenda-setting (McCombs and Shaw 1972). Some clarity emerges using a simple, and by no means exhaustive, experiment conducted using two questions from the Eurobarometer survey. The first requires respondents to provide what they think are ‘the two most important issues facing (their country) at the moment’. As Table 1 suggests, immigration does seem like a genuine concern across the EU, and in the UK in particular, where it is noted as the most important issue.
|Unemployment||Rising prices/inflation/cost of living||Immigration||The economic situation||Health care system||Pensions||Terrorism|
Table 1: Question: What do you think are the two most important issues facing (YOUR COUNTRY) at the moment? (Top 5 EU answers with immigration and terrorism). (Source: Eurobarometer, Spring 2015. Source: Eurobarometer, Spring 2015).
However, a different picture emerges when British and European respondents are asked what they think affects them personally. When European citizens consider their daily struggle, immigration and terrorism remain low on ‘the most important issues’ they face ‘personally’ (despite the poll taking place after the January Paris attacks) (see table 2).
|Rising prices/inflation/cost of living||Unemployment||Health and social security||The financial situation of your household||Pensions||Immigration||Terrorism|
Table 2: Question: And personally, what are the two most important issues you are facing at the moment? (Top 5 European answers with immigration and terrorism). (Source: Eurobarometer, Spring 2015).
Perhaps most striking here is that respondents felt immigration to be an issue when asked about their countries, but not about their own daily lives and struggles. Respondents know their daily lives, they experience them first-hand and their concerns appear to be practical, although not necessarily unbiased: cost of living; health; social security etc. Their neighbour is not perceived as an immigrant, but as someone who takes the bus, is employed or unemployed, goes to university and struggles in similar ways. However, when asked about their country, it is much harder to grasp first-hand what the concerns are or should be, and the appreciation of such concerns becomes necessarily mediated. The lack of or guided knowledge of politics through the media, relatives or any other social interaction mean that people’s construction of the national (and international) political context must rely on sources with various agendas.
It must be noted that the results from the Eurobarometer discussed above are not taken as ‘real’ representations of public opinion either at a personal or national level. Yet they point to a dissonance in what public opinion seems to desire when it is confronted with immigration. Instead of being a pressing issue for people – as could rightly be drawn from the question about the national context which is more likely to be reported by the media – the question about the self provides a counterpoint, which, while not evidence of immigration not being an issue in itself, shows that a different narrative is just as credible according to the same survey data.
Moving towards the acknowledgment of systemic failures
This is not to say of course that these results have no consequences, and that they should not be of concern. The electoral surge of such parties, no matter how small, has dramatic consequences on the lives of many and the functioning of democracy, when they are allowed to play a part in shaping both politics and policy. However, what this paper (and my current research) argues is that the rise of the ‘populist alternative’ has not taken place in a vacuum, but has been used as a synecdoche to the much deeper crisis currently underway. Polls have suggested that a vast majority of Europeans no longer trust their representatives, be they embodied in the national parliament, government or political parties (including the so-called populists). Since 2004, the Eurobarometer (European Commission 2015) recorded only one instance out of twenty where the trust in either parliament or government reached an approval rate of more than 40 per cent across Europe. Strikingly, this was in September 2007, before the GFC hit Europe. Since September 2009, the level of trust has fallen below 33 per cent and as low as 24 per cent in the Autumn 2013 survey. Trust in political parties is even lower, with only one instance in which levels reached more than 20 per cent (22 per cent in April 2006). In France, 90 per cent of respondents declared their lack of trust in the November 2014 survey (80 per cent in the UK in the same survey). This lack of trust in parties and institutions has demonstrated a schism between the demos and the cratos, and yet has only been addressed within the hegemonic understanding of democracy.
Therefore, the main argument put forward here is that mainstream narratives used to explain the rise of the so-called populist right offer at best an incomplete version of the complexity behind the state of contemporary politics. Ignoring abstention and focusing on partial and mediated attitudes to pressing issues has led to a fundamentally skewed understanding of the democratic landscape. In our post-democracies, discontentment takes many shapes and the resurgence of so-called populist parties is but one of the symptoms.
Based on these findings, the following policy recommendations are suggested:
- Shift the focus of discussion towards political dissatisfaction, and stress consistently the limited appeal of right-wing populist parties so far. Note that this should not downplay the very real impact these movements have on politics and policy, but should act as a word of caution to politicians and their mandates.
- Redefine the working-class in the public discourse, away from nativist misconceptions.
- Engage in a thorough analysis of the impact of political and media coverage of right-wing populism and the potential hype it generates.
- If hyping is confirmed, explore ways to counteract the phenomenon and engage in alternative modes of enquiry and dissemination of information.
- Re-engage with the growing sections of the population who have demonstrated little to no interest in either alternatives offered so far (‘business as usual’ or the ‘populist right’) in an open manner, beyond commonly understood political boundaries and horizons.
- Explore systemic issues pertinent to the current level of dissatisfaction.
European Commission. 2015. Eurobarometer. Brussels: European Commission.
Glynos, Jason, and Aurelien Mondon. 2016. “The political logic of populist hype: The case of right wing populism’s ‘meteoric rise’ and its relation to the status quo.” Populismus working paper series no. 4.
Ipsos Mori. 2015. Perils of Perception. Ipsos Mori.
Khosravinik, Majid. 2009. “The representation of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in British newspapers during the Balkan conflict (1999) and the British general election (2005).” Discourse & Society no. 20 (4):477-498.
McCombs, Maxwell, and Donald Shaw. 1972. “The agenda-setting function of mass media.” Public Opinion Quarterly no. 36 (2):176-187.
Mondon, Aurelien. 2015. “Populism, the people and the illusion of democracy – the Front National and UKIP in a comparative context.” French Politics no. 13 (2):141–156.
Mondon, Aurelien. Forthcoming 2017. “Populism, abstention and the stigmatisation of the working class.” (currently under review).
Mral, Brigitte, Majid Khosravinik, and Ruth Wodak, eds. 2013. Right-Wing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Wodak, Ruth. 2013. “‘Anything goes!’ – the Haiderization of Europe.” In Right-Wing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse, edited by Brigitte Mral, Majid Khosravinik and Ruth Wodak. London: Bloomsbury Academic.