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The radical right’s rise in Europe isn’t fueled by economic grievances. Here’s why.

Income redistribution won’t put the populist genie back in the bottle.

- May 23, 2019

Will populist parties gain ground during this week’s European Parliament elections? Radical right-wing parties are polling well, but how will they fare now that the economy is picking up in Europe? Their success in the elections is a test of the conventional wisdom that economic crisis breeds radical politics.

Our research gives reason for doubt.

We tracked a representative group of 8,000 Dutch citizens through the financial crisis, recording year-to-year changes in their income and political attitudes from 2007 to 2015. We find some signs that people hit by the financial crisis turned to the populist left. But we find no evidence that people personally affected by the crisis are drawn to the radical right. Neither did they become more supportive of anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies.

Our findings echo those of a recent E.U.-wide study that dispels the notion that economic concerns have pushed people further to the right.

This means that the focus of mainstream parties on the economy may well have been misplaced. It also means we have yet to see the real rise of the radical right.

What’s at stake?

Voting booths opened May 23 for a four-day E.U. election — over 500 million Europeans from 28 countries will have the chance to choose their representatives in the E.U. parliament. The new parliament faces the challenge of negotiating Brexit and defusing the threat of other “exits.”

This challenge is exacerbated by the rise of radical right-wing populist parties calling for a return to the nation state. Such parties are polling well in Britain, Hungary, Italy and the Netherlands. In all these countries, radical right-wing parties are expected to outperform the center left and right.

Italy has a new populist government — and a new constitutional headache

Are economic crises at the root of political divisions?

Many analysts attribute the radical right’s gains in the last two E.U. elections — in 2009 and 2014 — to the 2008 financial crisis. Economic crises since the late 19th century have served as a fertile ground for radical political parties and candidates. Adolf Hitler’s rise to power in crisis-stricken Germany is a case in point. Ever since, governments have worried about the nightmare of extremists gaining power following mass unemployment.

Academics have found support for these fears: The radical right is stronger in nations and regions hit by high unemployment, inflation and low economic growth. If popular support for the radical right grows in times of financial turmoil, we may assume that radical parties draw their support from those hit by the crisis. But is this really the case? The problem with this assumption is that it draws conclusions about individuals based on aggregated data — but people aren’t countries, or regions.

Why did we focus on the Netherlands?

We focused on a people who both experienced the financial crisis and the rise of radical populist parties: citizens of the Netherlands. Geert Wilders’ Party for Freedom (PVV) has led the country’s radical right since 2006. The Socialist Party (SP) represents the populist left. In the last three elections, the two parties together held about a quarter of seats in parliament. Currently, they are the third and fourth largest party in the Netherlands, respectively.

We tracked the same citizens over an eight-year period immediately before, during and after the 2008 financial crisis. We looked at year-to-year changes in income, employment, political views and people’s alignment with radical populist parties. This is what we found.

Who supports the radical right in crisis times?

People who suffered a loss in income did not come to align with the radical right and their anti-immigration agenda. Neither did unemployment push citizens to the radical right. Instead, people hit by the crisis called for income redistribution. They also grew a little more sympathetic of the radical left.

Our findings do not contradict the fact that the ranks of the radical right grew in times of crisis. But it disproves the assumption that it drew its support from those who suffered most from the crisis. It may be that it’s not pocketbook concerns but fear of falling down the economic ladder that pushes voters to the radical right.

When left-leaning parties support austerity, their voters start to embrace the far right

Other research, however, casts doubt on that assumption. Sean Kates and Joshua Tucker’s study of 400,000 Europeans surveyed in the years around the crisis found that there was no difference after the crisis in the manner in which economic concerns were linked to self-identifying with far-right ideology. Moreover, both before and after the crisis, citizens who felt the economy had gotten worse actually were less likely to self-identify as far-right supporters.

What does this mean for Europe?

News media often portray the radical right and left as competing over the same group of dissatisfied voters. Our work suggests it’s shortsighted to treat radical left and right parties as a single group. The two parties draw on distinct voter bases, motivated by very different concerns. Economic concerns may lead voters to support the radical left — but our results suggest these concerns are unlikely to push people to the radical right.

The second implication of our work concerns how mainstream politicians address the challenge posed by the radical right. A European Commission policy brief concluded that “only compensation may render globalization sustainable.” These and other proposals to invest in social programs rely on the notion that income redistribution will pacify the radical right.

Yet, as our research shows, the link between economic hardship and support for the right seems tenuous at best. Greater commitment to income redistribution therefore is unlikely to put the populist genie back in the bottle.

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Jonathan Mijs (@JonathanMijs) is assistant professorial research fellow at the International Inequalities Institute at the London School of Economics, and a fellow in sociology at Harvard University. His research explores the political causes and consequences of social inequality.

Noam Gidron (@NoamGidron) is assistant professor at the Department of Political Science and the Joint Program in Politics, Philosophy and Economics (PPE) at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. His research engages with the growing appeal of populism within the twofold context of a fragmented electorate and ethnically diversifying societies.