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Mainstream conservative parties paved the way for far-right nationalism

By talking up ethnic nationalism but not delivering, they opened up space for the radical right

- December 1, 2019

Radical-right political parties such as Germany’s Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) and Italy’s Lega have become enduring features of the political landscape in established democracies. This has received a lot of attention because these parties often promote anti-immigrant policies and assault the basic norms and rules of democracy. However, they present a real puzzle. Even where support for these parties has been growing, voters’ views have not become more extreme. There is little evidence in most Western countries that people, on average, are becoming more racist, xenophobic or Islamophobic over time. So what is happening?

What seems to be driving these parties’ support is the increased salience of nationalist beliefs among voters who identify their nation with the ethnic or racial identity of the majority group. Many people who have long been hostile to immigrants and minorities had not been voting based on these sentiments. They had other political priorities that mattered more to them in past elections. Over time, however, voters in many countries have begun to rank immigration, one of the main policy areas associated with exclusionary nationalism, as “more important” on public opinion surveys than other traditional areas of concern. Elsewhere, as in the United Kingdom before the Brexit referendum, immigration has also become linked to increasingly salient concerns about national sovereignty. In short, voters appear to be increasingly motivated by what they perceive as affronts to their national identities.

Why are nationalist appeals and attitudes now more salient? Many researchers blame radical-right politicians and media personalities for stirring up the anxieties of majority-group voters. This is certainly understandable. Rapid social, economic and cultural changes have created ripe conditions for appeals to ethnic nationalism, populism and authoritarianism — and radical-right opinion-makers have taken advantage of this situation.

However, a sole focus on the radical right misses the fact that mainstream parties, too, have made exclusionary nationalist appeals, long before the most recent electoral gains of extremist parties. For many years, traditional center-right parties have relied on xenophobic language to mobilize voters at election time both in Europe and the United States by reminding voters of the apparent threats posed to the nation by immigrants and minorities.

For example, leaders in Angela Merkel’s Christian Democratic Union (CDU), although firmly committed to democracy and notions of tolerance, throughout the 1990s, found it strategically useful to repeat: “We are not a country of immigration!” This slogan became an article of faith for the party. The CDU and its Bavarian sister party, the Christian Social Union (CSU), often claimed to be protecting traditional Christian culture against all external cultural threats.

Yet center-right political parties throughout Europe often did not match their nationalist rhetoric with actual policy, creating opportunities for the radical right. As voters have become more worried about immigration, they have become frustrated with the apparent inaction of mainstream parties and have drifted toward radical-right actors who were more intensely ethnonationalist. In the 2018 German state elections, for example, the radical-right AfD made previously unkept promises about crackdowns on immigration a centerpiece of its campaign in the Bavarian countryside. One campaign poster explicitly proclaimed: “We Will Do What the Christian Social Union [CSU] Promises!” In those rare instances, when these radical-right politicians gain power, they appear to deliver on their exclusionary promises. President Trump’s travel bans and family separation policies are case in point.

In articles commissioned for this symposium, we examine how radical-right parties capitalize on the growing salience of exclusionary nationalism, how this is shaping mainstream party messaging, and how mainstream institutions are responding. The pieces are inspired by a 2018 academic conference organized by Harvard University’s Weatherhead Center for International Affairs in Talloires, France.

The authors were asked to write about the causes and consequences of radical politics. They were not assigned specific topics for their conference presentations or the pieces featured in this series. Yet, all the articles touch in one way or another on the points we have made here. They can be read as stand-alone contributions or as pieces in the bigger puzzle of radical-right success.

In the first article, Sheri Berman suggests immigration is becoming more salient because center-left and center-right parties have converged on a neoliberal model of economic policy. When different parties no longer had different economic policies, voters focused instead on their very different cultural positions — including distinct understandings of national identity and immigration policy.

Lilliana Mason argues that this process has been accelerated as parties came to cater to very different supporters. In the United States, Democratic supporters have become increasingly diverse and concerned about racial justice, and Republicans have become increasingly white and invested in preserving the racial status quo. This has created openings for progressives to push racial issues, but it has also helped the Republicans by generating backlash among white majorities.

Complementing Berman’s and Mason’s emphasis on nationalism and immigration, Daphne Halikiopoulou and Sofia Vasilopoulou argue that voters’ preferences are also influenced by how they perceive the legitimacy of state institutions. Radical-right parties can succeed only if they expand their support beyond a narrow base of voters with extreme anti-immigrant views. When the government state doesn’t seem to deliver what citizens demand, voters with more moderate anti-immigrant attitudes are more likely to vote for anti-establishment parties, allowing them to grow their support.

Radical-right parties have more support, but they have rarely entered government. Tim Bale’s article suggests, however, that these parties can reshape political culture and policy even when they remain in the opposition. Focusing on the United Kingdom, Bale argues that the Brexit Party — and the U.K. Independence Party before it — set the terms of public debate and pushed the center-right Conservative Party to engage in constitutional hardball and embrace nativist discourse.

In the final contribution, Daniel Kelemen asks whether supranational institutions — in this case the European Union — could serve as a brake on those radical-right parties that have gained control of national governments and have begun compromising liberal democratic institutions. Recent controversies involving Hungary and Poland suggest the answer is no. Kelemen argues that the E.U. cannot provide oversight because of the weakness of European parties, unconditional E.U. financial subsidies to member states and the weakening of national opposition through intra-E.U. migration.

The five articles suggest liberal democracy is under strain. Economic shocks, an existing cultural hostility to immigration and the strategies of mainstream political parties are all making nationalism more salient across Europe and the United States. There is a deepening chasm between the mainstream and nationalist right’s approaches to immigration and the protection of minorities. At the same time, institutional safeguards are not strong enough to prevent some radical-right parties from moving toward authoritarianism. If we want to prevent the erosion of liberal democracy, we have to understand what’s driving the radical right. This collection of articles will help us move in that direction.

Read the whole symposium here on Good Authority:

Bart Bonikowski is an associate professor of sociology and resident faculty at the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University.

Daniel Ziblatt is the Eaton professor of government at Harvard University, where he has been interim director of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies.