Who is drawn to right-wing populism and why is it so dangerous?
- The real danger of right-wing populism lies in its ability to forge broad societal alliances
In the United Kingdom, United States, Hungary, and Poland, right-wing populist alliances have shown that they can win majorities. This mass appeal is built upon a platform which is, however, not extremist. Right-wing populists accuse the corrupt, globalist establishment of exploiting the people. The naïve and delusional elite is blamed for exposing the people to Islamist terror and floods of immigrants. Right-wing populism pledges to give back to the people the power usurped by this oligarchic elite, and defend the defenceless against the forces of globalization. The alliance of Alt-right, white supremacists, globalization losers, and status quo conservatives has little in common in real terms, hence the populist agenda needs to stay deliberately vague. What brings this heterogeneous coalition together is the feeling of being forgotten in public discourse and excluded from social life. In the current atmosphere this message resonates both among those who fear social decline as well as all those who feel unrecognized by a libertarian society.
- The role of white supremacists is to shock the elite
For the right-wing populist alliance, the importance of white supremacists does not lie in their numbers. A recent study in Germany has shown that the number of right-wing extremists has not gone up, nor are their positions any more acceptable to the majority. The real function of right-wing extremists is to unsettle the elite consensus by saying the unsayable. Against the ‘cartel of political correctness’, they insist that there is an alternative, even if it exhausts itself in sabotage of the liberal order. It is this ability to upset the elite that attracts many protest voters who see no other way of being heard.
- The Alt-right offers reassurance in a world seemingly out of control
Intellectually, the right-wing populist alliance is led by the Alt-right. It aims at restoring governability (order and control) of an increasingly complex world by homogenizing society. Its dream is to reduce disorientation and uncertainty by offering simplistic solutions for complex problems. Contrary to “blood and earth” racists, the Alt-right insists that it does not reject the Other in itself but simply seeks to separate irreconcilable cultures into clearly delineated spaces. What this “privileging one’s own over the foreign” really means is, of course, the restoration of a white, heterosexual and patriarchal society through the aggressive exclusion of everyone who can be blamed for the alienation from modern society. The Alt-right gives a home to all those up in arms against what they perceive as moral decay.
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Why is right-wing populism so successful in almost every Western society?
- Right-wing populism gives reassurance in the vertigo of change.
Reactionary backlashes are fairly common in situations of overwhelming social change. In this vertigo, old certainties are shaken up, traditional values transvalued. Modernization drives the pluralization of values, the fragmentation of society and the diversification of lifestyles. Social transformation erodes traditional communities which used to give security and a sense of purpose. Authoritarians perceive diversity and disorder as a normative threat to the integrity of the moral order which they seek to remedy by kicking out foreigners and non-conformists. The right-wing populist narrative thereby attracts all those who yearn for security, search for identity, and desire (false) certainties.
- Right-wing populism promises to restore lost privileges
The reactionary call for the restoration of the „good old order“ resonates with traditional elites and established middle classes who feel put at risk by social change. In industrializing economies, the middle classes feel threatened by the aspirations for social mobility and demands of political participation by millions of migrant workers flooding into the cities. In post-industrial countries, the digital revolution with its intelligent robots threatens to wipe out middle class jobs. Fear of social decline drives racist vitriol and cultural resentment. The shifting relationship between the sexes is undermining the predominance of men in their families or at the workplace. Here lies the root cause for the resurgence of sexism and homophobia. Right-wing populism promises these “old, white men” they will get back their privileges.
- Right-wing populism promises protection for the losers of globalization
Right-wing populism gains support where fear of economic and social decline meets anger over social inequality. Globalisation and automation have wiped out jobs and depressed wages. In the deindustrialized rust-belts, with their jobs gone people lose not only income and social security, but meaning, dignity and social involvement. Neoliberalism increases the pressure on individuals by introducing competition into all aspects of social life, cutting back on social security. Tax cuts for the rich combined with austerity for the poor have brought back the extreme social inequality of the gilded age. Attempts to tackle the resulting consumer demand problem through public or private debt frequently trigger financial crises, which in turn are addressed by socializing the losses.
How can we wage a more successful struggle against right-wing populism?
- End the lack of alternatives through a political paradigm shift
Right-wing populism is dangerous because it is widely seen as the only alternative to the liberal mainstream. This is why the struggle against it cannot be won by targeting right-wing extremism. To counter its ability to win majorities, the millions without a consolidated right-wing extremist worldview will have to be brought back into the democratic flock. Too many people are drawn to right-wing populism because they see no other way of being heard. Taking their fears seriously does not mean abandoning the rights of sexual, religious or ethnic minorities but answering legitimate calls for social security, political participation and cultural recognition with concrete policies.
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This is why we need to be alert when the success of right-wing populism is explained solely by blaming diehard racists, xenophobes, sexists and homophobes. Red herrings (“The aloof middle classes must learn again to show empathy for white workers”) divert attention from overdue policy shifts by explaining away fears of social decline and rage over inequality as the cultural ignorance of a hopeless few. On the contrary, it has been the neoliberal policies of enriching the elite, eroding the middle classes and excluding the “redundant” that have provided the fertile ground for right-wing populism. A truly transformative agenda, on the other hand, has the potential to rob right-wing populists of their greatest asset: to be the only alternative to the neoliberal mainstream.
- Don’t step into the framing traps of the Right
A flawed understanding of right-wing populism can lead to blunders in political communication which may involuntarily reinforce reactionary frames. A ‘democratic firewall’ against the Right can only work as long as right-wing populism is not on the verge of winning majorities. By taking over leftist protest forms (comedy guerrilla, pop culture, fashion), narratives (“99% against 1%”, “The People against The Establishment”) and concepts (struggle for hegemony, community organising, solidarity networks), the Alt -right has successfully reinvented itself as the real force of change against the alleged structural conservatism of “progressive privilege” and the political correctness of the “corrupt elites”. As a consequence, calling out right-wing populists for failing to uphold standards of decency can backfire when their supporters joyfully cheer on the self-declared “defenders of freedom of speech” against the political correctness imposed by the “cartel of lamestream media and system parties”. Insulting the “deplorables” can quickly make you a target of anti-establishment rage. Peddling fears in the hope of outdoing right-wing populists may involuntarily activate predisposed authoritarians, who in turn are more than happy to start an arms race of ever more reactionary messages.
A promising communication strategy needs to establish proper counter frames. This means first to stop telling right-wing populist supporters what they want to hear, as this will only reinforce the “Strict Father” frame underlying much of right-wing populist communication. Second, by using “Nurturant Parent” frames which emphasize communalities, stir up empathy for the weak and awaken hope for a better tomorrow. Progressive communication needs to rediscover its utopian heritage, and again offer alternative visions for a better future.
- Progressives need to offer a collective identity narrative
Winning back angry citizens can only work if progressives offer them an identity narrative to keep them grounded in the vertigo of change. In the tradition of the old labor lifeworld, symbols, myths, rituals and institutions are needed to give meaning and bolster self-assurance. To counter the Alt-Right obsession with homogeneity, this narrative should emphasize the strength of plurality (ex pluribus unum). Different from the identity politics promoted by the libertarian Left, the communality of “Us” needs to be given more emphasis. What is needed is a progressive patriotism.Whether that patriotism should be constructed around the loaded term of the nation, however, is one of the hottest debates on the Left. Those who warn against a new nationalism should remember that the nation was invented by the French Revolution. Today, from the Scottish National Party to Podemos and Nuit Debout, progressives are reclaiming this heritage. They have realized that the “99%” have very little in common except their opposition to the “1%”. The People, as a subject, first needs to be constructed before individuals become capable of collective action. Critics have warned that, in the age of globalized capitalism, the retreat into a national corral is a fallacy. Another debate has sprung up around the question whether “us” and “them” are inseparable by definition.”. Multiculturalists bemoan this as a slippery slope towards racism. Anthropology, however, suggests that human groups need the Other to understand themselves as a collective. This of course begs the question where the boundaries of this collective are drawn. To build a broad democratic alliance, it would be best if the identity narrative resonates as widely as possible. As these preliminary discussions reveal, this debate will be an enormous challenge for progressives. However, the price is too high for them to walk away from this battle. Those who will define the boundaries of solidarity will determine who is part, and who is not part, of the social contract.
- Only a broad societal alliance can stop right-wing populism
Be it Russian donors and bot armies, or the robber barons surrounding Trump, right-wing populism has powerful supporters with vast resources. Only a broad societal alliance can counter this power base. Such a coalition of different interests can only be built around a narrative which fosters identity, provides orientation, and points to a better future. Building such a narrative in the post-factual age with all its fake news, bots, trolls, click farms, filter bubbles is difficult. Right-wing populists’ effective use of social media has caught democratic actors ill-prepared. A counter strategy is required to stop the infiltration of society by right-wing opinion warriors. People warning against curbs on freedom of expression need to wake up to this new threat. Having learnt the lessons from Weimar, in Germany’s militant democracy the state has the constitutional responsibility to defend the liberal democratic order. It would, however, be preferable if civil society waged the struggle against right-wing populism. Again, the German constitution guarantees the Right to Resistance: „All Germans shall have the right to resist any person seeking to abolish this constitutional order, if no other remedy is available“.