Neo-nationalism and Populist Politics in Europe

According to Mudde (2004), the defining characteristic of populism is a view of society as ‘ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, the “pure” people versus “the corrupt elite”’ (2004: 543; see also Rydgren 2007: 245-246). In the period between 1945 and the 1970s, populism was largely contained by a coincidence of economic and political organisation—between the welfare state, trade unions, employer associations and party systems (Zaslove 2008). As this consensus began to break down, a space for populist politics emerged. This included populist concerns regarding increases in the levels of immigration. Certainly immigration scepticism is one of the principal factors in voting for radical right-wing populist parties (Rydgren 2007; Ivarsflaten 2008). The association of neo-nationalism with xenophobia and anxiety over foreigners (Berezin 2006) has led some to explain support for right-wing populist parties through a lens of ‘identity crisis’. Such arguments tend to postulate that people experience fear, insecurity and a loss of identity—an ‘ontological insecurity’ (Giddens 1991)—as a result of the impact of globalisation on nation-states, which leads to a new resentment-based nationalism involving a search for new ways in which to anchor collective national identities (Koopmans et al. 2005; Skey 2011). The convergence of mainstream parties to the political centre is an important part of the political conditions which permit populist parties to gain support. Political parties come to be seen as too close to the state, professionalised and ‘out of touch’ with ordinary people. Party membership declines, as does voter turnout. The populists scorn the ‘cosmopolitan liberal elite’, who are seen to have lost any connection to the everyday lives of their voters.

Studies on the support for right-wing populist parties have tended to emphasise the petty bourgeoisie and the working class. For example, in its formative years in the 1970s the Front National received disproportionate support from farmers, artisans and shopkeepers (Betz 1994). In 1988 the party achieved electoral success through making appeals to the working class who had begun to experience growing levels of economic insecurity. Bourdieu et al. (1999: 381-391) give farmers and industrial workers as examples of declining classes who vote for the Front National (see also Billiet and Witte 2008 on blue collar workers and Flemish nationalism). Swank and Betz (2003) also examine how globalisation and welfare state systems ‘...have contributed to the electoral success of new far right parties in Western Europe’ (2003: 238). In particular, they argue that the decline of manufacturing jobs is ‘systematically associated with an increase in the electoral fortunes of radical right wing parties’ (2003: 238; see also Mewes and Mau 2013). In the wake of globalisation both semi- and unskilled workers and traditional middle-class groups face ostensible risks to income and employment, and it is these groups that disproportionately support radical right-wing parties’ (Swank and Betz 2003: 216). Thus Rydgren and Ruth (2013), in their analysis of support for the Swedish right-wing party Swedish Democrats, find a positive correlation between electoral support and unemployment and districts with large percentages of people receiving social welfare.

The growing significance of the working-class vote for populist parties has led to questions as to whether all such parties can be understood simply as right wing, let alone as radically right wing. Traditionally, rightwing populist parties have been associated with a combination of neoliberal anti-welfare and anti-statism and an authoritarian view on a range of social and cultural values. But not all of Western Europe’s anti-immigrant parties advocate a small state with neo-liberal taxing and spending policies. Michel (2014) has argued that some of these parties have adopted redistributive policies in order to speak to their working-class support. For Eger and Valdez (2014) the increasing accumulation of globalisation effects has produced a nationalist and protectionist turn amongst contemporary populist parties. Both the Front National in France, under

Marine Le Pen, and the Norwegian Progress Party have shifted from an anti-tax, anti-government position to one which promotes welfare issues. Similarly, Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom, has been an open proponent of welfare state expenditure. In 2012, Wilders withdrew support from the governing coalition in protest at proposed austerity measures. Of course, such redistributive policies remain within the framework of an exclusive and ethnic form of citizenship (sometimes referred to as ‘welfare chauvinism’), for instance by seeking to reduce immigration and immigrants’ access to benefits (Eger and Valdez 2014).

Clearly there has been a marked shift towards welfare populism in some of Europe’s populist parties. But this shift does not appear evident in the case of Britain’s UKIP The vast majority of UKIP supporters appear to hold ‘left populist’, or at least anti-corporate, attitudes on certain economic issues. For example, according to Ford (2014), 81 % of UKIP supporters agree that ‘big business takes advantage of ordinary working people’ (Ford 2014). Responding to popular sentiments like these, in 2013 the party adopted a moderate position on some economic issues, opposing the coalition government’s so-called bedroom tax and criticising zero-hour contracts. On welfare reform, however, the party’s position remains both radical and right wing. Its 2015 general election manifesto included policies designed to limit child benefits to two children and to remove welfare benefits altogether for new migrants until they have paid taxes and national insurance for five years. Overall UKIP faces problems in attempting to speak for the poor. When UKIP has made appeals to working-class voters, this has primarily been on the basis of anti-i mmigration sentiment and declining trust in mainstream politics. To this extent, UKIP sits firmly within Rydgren’s (2007: 243) identification of the ‘new right wing’, which is ‘right wing primarily in the sociocultural sense’, which centres on taking an authoritarian rather than liberal position on matters of law and order, immigration and abortion.

 
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