Radical-right parties are transforming the welfare state, recreating a moral separation between the ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’.
Radical-right parties re-emerged in many European countries in the early 1980s. They sought to restrict migration and enact tough-on-crime policies, while promoting a right-wing economic agenda. In the mid-1990s, however, such parties began turning their redistributive position to the ‘left’.
The Danish People’s Party (DF) led the way. It reaped enormous electoral success by proclaiming to be the ‘true defenders of the Danish welfare state’. DF crafted a tailor-made message for the working class: we will defend your welfare state by excluding migrants from benefits. Most western-European radical-right parties swiftly adopted his rhetoric, referred to as ‘welfare chauvinism’.
In the run-up to Sweden’s general elections, Jimmie Åkesson, leader of the populist radical-right party Sweden Democrats, tweeted:
The election is a choice between mass immigration and welfare. You choose
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Thus, Åkesson showed how radical-right parties can reinvent themselves as a new form of workers’ party.
In analysing changes in the radical right’s distributive agenda, however, most scholars have dismissed the marketing. Some researchers have described such parties’ distributive positions as an inconsistent mishmash of left- and right-wing positions. According to this view, the radical-right populists strategically ‘blur’ their preferred social policy to attract an electorate with dissonant welfare preferences, while, in fact, not viewing distributive issues as a priority. This implies that we needn’t take the distributive positions of the radical right either literally or seriously.
New redistributive logic
The suggestion that radical-right populists’ distributive agenda is empty marketing is however becoming increasingly implausible, because these parties are making the issue more and more salient in their electoral programmes. By adopting the view that the welfare state is not a real concern for radical-right populist parties, and by choosing not to scrutinise their social policy stances, we also risk losing sight of these parties’ very real influence on policy-making on distributive issues. And we thereby miss an important welfare transformation.
Radical-right parties’ positions may seem incoherent and inconsistent when viewed through the lens of the traditional left-right division on welfare issues. But in a recent study, I write that this is only because it represents a new form of redistributive logic. Populist radical-right parties are developing a dualistic welfare state. This addresses ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ welfare recipients in very different ways, which go far beyond the notion of welfare chauvinism.
For the ‘deserving’ (such as nationals with long employment histories, and pensioners), the populist radical right are defending a protectionist welfare-state logic. For these people, they propose a welfare state based on generous and compensatory policies (pension, child benefits and unemployment benefits).
But the radical right proposes that the ‘undeserving’ (for example, foreigners and nationals seen as not contributing enough to the nation, such as the long-term unemployed) should not have full access to collective resources. Instead, they believe this group should remain subject to state discipline and surveillance. Such people’s access to social benefits should be conditioned by ‘workfare’ policies and the strong policing of welfare abuse. Although not introduced by the populist radical right, this coercive approach to the moral obligation to work fits aptly with its authoritarian rhetoric.
Not empty rhetoric
These positions on the welfare state are, moreover, not empty rhetoric. My work finds that radical-right populists do prioritise distributive issues once in power and that they do make a difference. In negotiations, parties push for policy reforms that align with their distributive agenda—and often succeed in influencing policy.
Recently, Giorgia Meloni, the radical-right Italian prime minister and leader of the populist radical-right Brothers of Italy, threatened to deny access to social assistance for those who refuse job offers, taking a hard line on ‘welfare abuse’. Sweden’s new government plan—under the Sweden Democrats’ influence—envisages tax cuts for pensioners and tougher benefit rules for immigrants.
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Moreover, the impact of the populist radical right extends far beyond its direct influence on government policies. Mainstream right- and left-wing parties are adopting parts of their distributive agenda—in particular, the idea that nationals should take priority in welfare distribution.
We should not underestimate the impact of the radical right’s new vision for the European welfare state. Populist radical-right parties are transforming the moral dimension of welfare policies. They assert their agenda on issues previously ‘owned’ by mainstream left-wing parties. They also legitimise the idea that the welfare state should be reserved for the ‘deserving’ few. This contributes to the stigmatisation and ‘othering’ of various social groups.
The new model of the European welfare state suggests that it is not merely legitimate for the state not to address poverty among its population—but that tackling poverty can be morally wrong. Feeding into the moral separation between ‘deserving’ and ‘undeserving’ is the legitimisation of unprecedented inequality—with the blessing of members of the same working class who have historically been supporters of redistribution, and the backing of mainstream parties.
The European welfare state has suffered many shocks since World War II, yet it has remained reluctant to accept high inequality or abject poverty among its population. This era, however, might soon be drawing to an end.