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The year 2016 experienced unheard of electoral turbulence. While many thought that Brexit would mark the political event to be remembered for a generation, ‘The Donald’ put paid to that. These processes have tempted some commentators to ask whether we are witnessing the end of the West as we know it. As the presidential election in France draws, it is important to explore why the New Right is on the rise and what makes them so attractive for wider parts of the electorate in this particular time in history. The argument put forth below is that the New Right offers a comprehensive interpretative framework about the causes of the cultural and economic changes which make so many people feel left behind as well as the solutions needed to solve the problems they bring about.
The New Right’s Ideological Core
In the following paragraphs, the term ‘New Right’ will be deployed, as opposed to right-wing populism because it captures better the ideological core of the parties and movements surveyed here. The term populism, which emphasizes the virtuousness of the ‘common man’ and the people as opposed to elites and special interests, is a contested concept and can be used by a wide array of political actors from left-wing to right-wing and even the center, as Emmanuel Macron in the current French elections shows. Furthermore, populism itself does not necessarily work against liberal democracy but can be a rejuvenating method and may even expand democratic procedures (Rovira Kaltwasser 2012).
The New Right wants anything but. On the contrary, it seeks to dispense with the basic building blocks of liberal democracy, such as checks and balances or minority rights, and wants to establish an authoritarian illiberal or defective democracy where elections are held and votes are cast but the ‘general will’ tramples over any dissenting voice (Ágh 2016). At its center lies the belief in ethnopluralism, an ideology which holds that cultures are homogeneous entities with an unchanging and essential core specific to a certain cultural group. This culture belongs to a particular locality or region. Other cultures are not inferior to one’s own as in traditional Nazism or Fascism but must remain within their proper boundaries (Spektorowski 2003). In short: Separate but equal and Germany for the Germans. Any notion of mixing cultures or multiple, changing identities is deemed negative and destructive to the local culture.
Hence, while liberal multiculturalism holds that people from different cultural backgrounds may live within one society and decide on how to live with each other, ethnopluralism wants a homogenuous society where the individual has to appeal and assimilate to a common ‘Frenchness’ or ‘Russianness’. Newcomers are not welcome and rarely, if ever, become an equal citizen. That makes the New Right attractive not only for right-wing extremists and hate groups but also to conservative forces, providing the latter with a tougher profile and the former with some badly wanted dédiabolisation, a normalization strategy by the New Right shedding old symbols and slogans associated with Nazism to appeal to a broader audience. However, that seems to be no more than a marketing strategy. It is no coincidence that Trump’s chief strategist, Steve Bannon founder of Alt-Right online propaganda site Breitbart, borrows his thought from traditional Fascist ideologues. But if the notion of ethnopluralism and strong populist leadership is just rebranding, how is it that the New Right has become one of the most daunting actors in the political arena, influencing not only discourse but policies? The answer lies in the interpretation schemes the New Right offers to voters and the tying together of those schemes into a more or less coherent narrative about the problems faced by society and the remedies to resolve them.
The Demand Side of the New Right
No political ideology or discourse can be successful if it does not answer the pressing questions of its time. That is why it is important to note the social setting we are living in. The New Right tries to offer solutions for several pressing issues like socio-economic deprivation, meaning that vast sectors of society become poorer or have to work more for less, globalization and its subsequent hollowing out of democracy as well as issues of solidarity reworked as a question of national identity.
In political science, it has become common to explain the success of political parties by dividing electoral behavior into a demand side and a supply side, the former being the voters’ attitudes and the latter being the parties’ proposed solutions. Even though this demand-and-supply metaphor does not capture the whole picture of the political process, it can serve as a simplification and give us a first glimpse of what is happening at the moment. Let us start with the voters’ attitudes, or, in political scientific parlance, the demand side: In a paper for the Harvard Kennedy School of Government, Ronald Inglehart and Pippa Norris have looked at two factors which are brought forth to explain the rise in support for the New Right. The first account is the economic inequality thesis and the second is the cultural backlash thesis (Inglehart and Norris 2016: 11).
According to this account, voters’ turn to the New Right can be explained by growing economic inequality as the ‘losers’ of economic globalization in the 21st century try to fend off new challenges to their livelihood, be it international competition or the arrival of immigrants as competitors on the job market. In the last 30 years, Western societies have experienced a widening gap between economic growth and the rise in income to the working- and middle-classes. While real income has stagnated or even declined for a vast majority, the benefits of economic growth went to the often cited ‘1%’, meaning entrepreneurs, wealth holders and anyone trading in financial markets. Nothing sums up better this development than Branko Milanovic’s ‘Elephant Curve‘. Milanovic looked at the global income distribution over recent decades. However, he did not take the average income of countries as his measure, as is usually done in such studies, but took individual households into account. According to him:
“The biggest losers (other than the very poorest 5 percent), or at least the ‘non-winners,’ of globalization were those between the 75th and 90th percentiles of the global income distribution whose real income gains were essentially nil. These people, who may be called a global upper-middle class, include many from former Communist countries and Latin America, as well as those citizens of rich countries whose incomes stagnated.” (Milanovic 2012: 13)
Those people who find themselves to be among the 75% to 90% richest people globally have seen no gain in their income. This group where one finds the lower- and middle-classes of the industrialized Western countries. In other words, the middle- and working-classes of the West have been left out of any economic growth for nearly three decades. While societies in East Asia and wealth owners in the West have gotten richer and more affluent, the majority in Western countries have seen no progress and might be even poorer than they were 30 years ago. Is it any wonder that Donald Trump made China a big talking point in his campaign?
But not only has inequality risen throughout the Western world, but working conditions have also deteriorated. Jobs now are usually low-paid, insecure and characterized by long working hours. Hence, Oliver Nachtwey (2016) has coined the term Abstiegsgesellschaft, roughly translated as a descending society, which describes Western societies as an escalator going down. In order to remain at the same place, one has to run faster and faster up the escalator. Those who are fit enough may earn the same income as before but at the price of worsening labor conditions and exhaustion, while the ‘weak’ fall down the escalator into poverty. This economic pressure and decline – and this is crucial – leads to “in-group solidarity, conformity to group norms, and rejection of outsiders” (Inglehart and Norris 2016: 11).
Another way to look at the causes of the voters’ turn to the New Right is the cultural backlash thesis. According to that view, the high voter turnout for Donald Trump, Brexit or now Marine Le Pen is a reaction of some parts of the electorate to the cultural changes experienced in the last 20 or 30 years. The story goes as follows: As democratic capitalism succeeded in satisfying the material needs of the vast majority of citizens, people started to worry about other issues than economic hardships or the gap between rich and poor. As social and economic security was a widely held experience, broad sectors of society started to care about post-material problems like the environment, the integration of minorities or women’s rights (Inglehart 2008). However, this cultural change also sparked a negative reaction among older and less educated strata of society, articulated first by conservatives and then by the New Right.
The shift in cultural values has been long in the making and has replaced themes of economic redistribution at the top of the political agenda. This development was strengthened because both center-right and center-left parties seemed to adhere to the same economic vision: liberalization, free markets and international economic integration. For the mainstream parties, the only way to meaningfully distinguish oneself was to highlight questions about lifestyle or citizenship leading to cultural issues being predominant in the political arena.
This change, also called the ‘silent revolution’, put in question the social position of many hitherto privileged groups in society: ‘old white men’ (and women) in both the middle-classes and blue-collar jobs. Until recently, they formed the majority of Western societies and hold rather traditionalist and materialist views. As political debate progressively shifted towards environmental issues or the inclusion of groups formerly frowned upon and seen as second-class citizens – if citizens at all – those older sectors of society now felt themselves excluded and saw their privileges vanish: “Over time, therefore, the traditional values often held most strongly by the older generation, less educated sectors, and men have gradually become out of step with the changing cultures of contemporary Western societies, with this displacement generating resentment, anger, and a sense of loss.” (Inglehart and Norris 2016: 14) According to some, this nostalgic reaction explains much, if not all, of the New Right’s success in recent years. I, on the other hand, would argue that both factors, economic inequality and cultural backlash, influence and strengthen each other and form the demand side of politics on which the New Right tries to mold its image.
A Sense of Loss on Three Fronts
Overall, the demand side consisting of voters with affinities for the New Right might be explained as a loss which unfolds on three lines:
- An economic loss because wages and income are stagnating and declining;
- Cultural loss because the shift in values and the ethnic make-up of societies frightens a lot of voters;
- Loss of control over one’s life both in the private and public sphere. The third factor has not been mentioned so far but relates closely to the first two. As I would argue, many people, not only those voting for the New Right, are experiencing a loss of control over their lives.
In the private sphere, those people sense that they are left behind economically, trying harder and harder to keep up with the new demands forced on them, and culturally as they see their social environment change, leaving them to wonder what their place in society is and whether their beliefs remain a reference point in guiding their lives. Modern capitalism, for many, is a rat race with no end in sight (Dörre 2014: 8). Change for these people has not been a positive experience and leaves them with a pessimistic view of the future. This leads to an attitude which tries to stall and hold back any rapid transformation of contemporary Western societies.
Without private means to address these problems, voters look to the political realm. But here too, no salvation can be found with mainstream center-right and center-left parties unable to deliver on their promises. Not only have both wings in the political spectrum converged on major issues, but they also seem to be incapable of pushing through legislation which would tackle problems of economic well-being and social cohesion even if they wanted to. Globalization and international competition are on the rise, hence parties face structural difficulties to tackle issues like inequality, material well-being or migration. Current governments are more occupied with fulfilling the demands of international financial markets and companies competing globally than serving the common good articulated by their citizens, scrapping democratic capitalism of its much needed output-legitimacy. While democratic capitalism until the 1970s was capable of embedding the market in a national framework and its political regulations, liberalized markets outgrew the boundaries of the nation-state. What previously had been markets embedded in society, and hence open to democratic control, have transformed themselves into societies embedded in global markets (Streeck 2016: 22). With the status-quo and its representatives unwilling and unable to deliver, a growing part of voters looks to new actors with new solutions to pressing issues of the time. Here, the pessimistic attitude regarding the future combines with a lack of a forward looking, positive vision of change. Having experienced better times in their lives, those disaffected voters long for a glorious past in which their beliefs mattered, their incomes grew steadily and elites, at least to some degree, had to give in to their demands.
The Supply Side of the New Right
It is exactly this void into which the New Right steps. The feeling of loss and betrayed life chances seeks a political vehicle. Campaign slogans like Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’, Brexit’s ‘Take Back Control’ or Marine Le Pen’s ‘Putting France Back in Order’ all play to the sentiments mentioned above: a perceived loss which has to be re-established. Political Parties act as the supply side of electoral politics because they offer their policy solutions to voters. The New Right, in this case, presents a convincing argument of how to (1) gain back democracy to win back control over public life through national sovereignty, and (2) how to address economic inequality and cultural change through the concept of national solidarity.
Historically, the nation state has been the place where democratic politics was located. It is here where political actors struggled for influence and tried to cope with pressing issues at hand. The legacy of the nation-state is ambivalent. Too vivid are the memories when in the name of ‘the people’ terrible crimes were committed and wars were forged. The 20th century acts as a witness to unimaginable atrocities for the sake of the nation. Nevertheless, the nation state also made possible a hitherto unfulfilled promise of democracy, freedom and civil rights. So far, no other political institution has accomplished the same degree of civilized political debate with checks and balances and the guarantee of basic human rights (Habermas 2011: 72).
However, the nation state is at a crossroads because, as mentioned above, markets have outgrown its regulations and complex global issues like climate change or migration can hardly be dealt with nationally. The European Union offers one way to cope with these problems but it suffers from a severe democratic deficit (Offe 2016: 27). Its institutions do not fulfill democratic standards because the European Parliament is weak and without strong legislative power. At the same time, many laws and regulations come from Brussels and therefore limit the sovereignty of nation states, the only place where voters have meaningful channels of influence.
A logical conclusion would be to fully extend democratic procedures to the European level. Yet, that path faces two major obstacles. First, any political community needs to draw from a more or less coherent common identity in order to build the solidarity necessary for the common good. How can solidarity be forged in the face of 400 million European citizens who have never met nor speak the same language? And secondly, even if that (weak) common identity could be developed, it seems that now is the most improbable time as the economic crisis pits Northern and Southern Europe against each other. For the New Right, this makes it particularly easy to agitate against the ‘dictates’ from Brussels and to propose not a deep reform of the EU but its complete destruction in order to restore democracy and make voters’ voices heard again.
But it is not only European nation states which face difficult challenges regarding globalization. Dani Rodrik (2011) developed his political trilemma of the world economy which every nation, large and small, faces. According to him, there is a tension between democracy, the nation-state and globalization of which we can only have two simultaneously. If economic globalization is pursued, we either have to sacrifice democracy or the nation state. In the former case, democracy kept to a minimum because the government tries to follow global rules and be attractive to foreign investors. Meanwhile domestic groups which seek higher taxes, protectionist tariffs or social security can not influence the government because that would threaten the interests of global capital. In the latter case, the nation-state’s role would diminish because economic integration would be governed democratically on an international level. In social science, this is called global governance. It is clear that this vision, even though partly realized in the EU, remains just that: a vision.
Because globalization is such a complex issue that undermines the capabilities of democracy and the nation state, it is no wonder that nationalist movements grow in Western societies. To use Rodrik’s trilemma, the New Right successfully positions itself as a democratic force which wants to defend the nation-state against global markets. This falls on fertile ground as pessimistic and nostalgic voters look for alternatives to bring back control over public life which these voters have so desperately looked for. ‘Choose France’ and ‘America First’ are just radicalized expressions of this futureless notion.
By doing that, the New Right does not only evoke a past experience in which democracy was properly functioning, as in the 1970s with a nationally regulated market, it also puts forth a new axis of conflict between those forces which seek to restore national sovereignty and democracy against those which favor an anonymous transnational governance which lacks the democratic procedures cherished by citizens. This axis of conflict, against global markets and their political representatives, can be described as a conflict on the vertical line. On the bottom the national citizens and the New Right and on top mainstream parties favoring economic integration and international capital. With mainstream parties proposing similar solutions to current issues, the New Right can successfully claim to represent national interests and ‘the people’ against self-serving ‘globalist’ elites.
But globalization does not only happen from above. In contrast to economic globalization, a globalization from below is also taking shape in the form of migration from crisis ridden countries on the periphery to the countries in the center, the latter being Western societies which are highly industrialized and, on average, highly prosperous (Benton-Short et al. 2005). Due to a revolution in communication and transport technologies, which make it easier to cross huge distances, migration to richer countries on different continents is more affordable to a larger number of people than at anytime before. Whether the reasons for migrating to another country are wars, climate change or poverty; it is a rational individual response to hardships experienced in home countries in the Middle East, Africa or Latin America. The changing ethnic composition of Western societies, however, contributes to the three dimensions of loss for potential voters of the New Right:
- Culturally, as cities inhabit numerous cultures and languages which makes some citizens feel foreign in their own country;
- Economically, as the newcomers are seen as potential competitors for scarcer and scarcer resources like jobs, welfare and housing;
- Perpetually, control over public life because there seems to be no political actor to successfully address these issues. The threat of Islamist terrorism only aggravates the anxieties felt by potential voters of the New Right.
In addition to the vertical axis of conflict against elites, the New Right steps into these anxieties and opens up a new horizontal line of conflict against newcomers and culturally different people. This horizontal line represents a cultural and distributional conflict which pits national citizens against immigrants who come from outside the national boundaries. Here, it can build upon common sentiments that immigrants, or anyone new to a social group in general, should wait in line after the needs of those already there are met (Zick et al. 2016: 76). This sentiment is not necessarily racist as anyone knows from work life when new employees are promoted before their older colleagues who have spent a longer time in the company, but it can be easily reconstructed to serve ethnic and racist ideas. As potential voters of the New Right are pressured from above by worsening working conditions and betrayed life-chances, they grow extremely resentful to anyone who may be perceived as ‘skipping the line’, whether that holds true in reality or not.
Parties of the New Right intervene in this scenario and propagate a distributional conflict between those who fear of losing out – their voters – and those who are new to society – immigrants or their children and grandchildren. This is what political scientists have called ‘Welfare Chauvinism’ (Keskinen et al. 2016) which describes the attitude that social benefits and civil rights only accrue to the native population of the nation and have to be defended against people migrating into a country. It is clear that in this atmosphere, any claim to equal rights for migrants or even a special treatment out of religious reasons, as in the profane case of Halal meat in schools, sparks anger among those people in society who sympathize with the New Right.
In tumultuous times, whether culturally or economically, the New Right offers the promise of a renewed solidarity and the common good. But solidarity only to those who appear worthy of it. In times of crisis, when economic resources seem to be scarce, many turn to their kinship or ethnic identity to define the proper boundaries of solidarity – a terrain the New Right happily covers. Furthermore, solidarity has to be earned through a willingness to provide for one’s life. Any group of people who seem to benefit without contributing to society can become the target of the New Right whether they are bankers, unemployed or refugees. This explains the difference of economic policies by the New Right throughout the Western world, neoliberal on one end of the spectrum, protectionist on the other (Pelinka 2013: 15-17).
Conclusion or: The Center Does Not Hold
Voters of the New Right see themselves squeezed between global market forces from above, and migration from below. Both developments contribute to the three dimensions of loss mentioned before. The New Right tells a comprehensive story, or narrative, of who is to blame for the negative developments in recent decades and how to resolve it. With economic and cultural changes abound, parties of the New Right offer voters an explanation of why their lives are worsening. Vertically, the foes are global elites which have anything in mind but the interests of citizens. Horizontally, migrants, women and sexual minorities seem to outpace people formerly in the majority both in economic and cultural terms.
The story laid forth by the New Right has the considerable advantage that it can refer to experiences from a ‘glorious’ past, in which countries were ethnically homogenuous and did not have to serve interests of international business. They can connect to a memory, whether real or imagined, of a broad sector of society. A common factor to all the solutions of the New Right is that they try to scale back politics to manageable entities to again enable people to influence their life-world.
In lieu of a positive and achievable vision of the future, nostalgic and pessimistic voters increasingly find the roll-back of the New Right appealing. In order to combat these tendencies, political actors have to come up with their own sets of policies and their own political narrative in order to address pressing issues of economic well-being, democracy and solidarity in the 21st century – policies which need to be grounded in real-live experiences and should not come across as a moralistic education program for rednecks and hillbillies. If liberal values are only envisioned as liberalized markets which benefit the few, it is no wonder that the many turn towards illiberal solutions. As of yet, center-right and center-left parties seem incapable of forging a new narrative for the future which could stand against the New Right. Hence, it is upon other actors to construct it. That may take years, if not decades, to achieve. But it is about time we started.
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