Right in Ascendance or Mainstream in Decline?

15. 3. 2017

The main reason why the old mainstream parties have failed to contain the rise of populist movements is because they stand discredited in the eyes of sections of the electorate. They not only lack the political arguments to reverse this state of affairs but also the political language to communicate across the cultural divide.

Commentaries on the spectacular rise of right-wing populist parties throughout Europe often shift between the postures of incomprehension and moral condemnation. During the past two decade (and especially since the Eurozone crisis) such reviews are often drawn towards providing a diagnosis of a political pathology, where supporters of populist parties are represented as patients who don’t quite know what they are doing. Some of the characteristics attributed to their behavior are that of resentment, an impulse to protest or to lash out against the political elites or against globalization or against change, an act of political helplessness or a reaction to multiculturalism. Supporters of these parties are always characterized as suffering from a powerful and irrational fear—fear of others, fear of immigrants, fear for their national identity, fear for their way of life. They are typically condemned as narrow-minded bigots or racists—embarrassing reminders of the prejudiced culture of the bad old days.

The tendency to portray supporters of populist parties as simpletons is invariably coupled to an analysis that depicts these political organizations as ones that set out to cynically exploit and manipulate people’s grievances. At best these are protest movements that represent the negative impulse of a backlash. The possibility that for many people voting for a right wing populist party is a positive choice and not just a gesture of protest is rarely considered. Yet for many voters of nationalistic populist parties the decision to reject the old established pro-EU mainstream parties represents a positive affirmation of a way of life.

They Don’t Talk to Us

Once upon a time the north-eastern Hungarian city of Miskolc used to be a socialist stronghold. In the recent years the far right and fascist-inclined Jobbik party has displaced the Socialists as the party of the poor and the dispossessed in Miskolc. After a few conversations with people from Miskolc it becomes all too evident why they switched their allegiance. Gyuri and his wife Zsuzsi used to vote for the left but now feel cheated by the corrupt politicians who “lied and betrayed them.” They hope that Jobbik will stand up for ordinary Hungarian people. Janos, an elderly former steel worker provides a compelling explanation of a political world turned upside down in Hungary’s second largest city. He claims that “they don’t talk to us.” By the word “they” he means the established mainstream parties. A recent analysis of Jobbik’s success in provincial Hungary echoes Janos’s point. According to a fascinating commentary in the Magyar Narancs , people in the countryside opted for Jobbik because the Left appears to be only interested in their votes.1

Hungary represents an extreme example where a significant section of the electorate— whose voice has been ignored and marginalized— has sought to defend their interest by voting for a far right chauvinist and racialist movement. Jobbik did not have to fight off political parties competing for the allegiance of the people who voted for them (20 percent of the electorate). The other parties—especially the Socialists—were either not interested or not able to find a language for communicating with the socially and culturally insecure people of provincial Hungary.

Janos’s words, “they don’t talk to us,” resonate with the British experience. Former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s “Bigotgate” moment is paradigmatic in this respect. During the 2010 General Election he was overheard denouncing a 65-year old lady who asked him about his views on immigration as a “bigoted woman.”That Brown was not prepared to have a conversation with people who are concerned about immigration is testimony to the psychic distance between the Westminster elite and the working class pensioners uncertain about their place in the world. “They are bigots and there is nothing to discuss” is a sentiment that spares politicians from the challenge of discussing some very difficult issues.

This time I am talking to a group of selfemployed artisans in the Kentish town of Sittingbourne in England. They are all going to vote for UKIP in the EU elections. Their decision to support UKIP is at least in part motivated by the negative impulse of giving the old parties a bloody nose. But they also have positive reasons for embracing UKIP. As far as they are concerned, UKIP speaks their language and addresses their concerns. When I inquire to find out just what it is about their lives that UKIP is able to address their response suggests that it is their sense of cultural insecurity what is at issue above all.

UKIP’s outlook, which is a mixture of traditional Toryism, conservative Liberalism and Little England patriotism has very little in common with that of Jobbik. But then the parties to which the generic label right wing populist is applied—Danish People’s Party, the Dutch Party for Freedom, the French National Front, the Greek Golden Dawn—often have very different policies and aspirations. Outwardly what they share is a common hostility to the EU and immigration. Inwardly what animates their supporters is their estrangement the cultural values promoted by the political establishment that dominates the EU and member societies. In a world where culture has become politicized they regard their identity as being under threat by governments who regard old traditions with scorn.

They Are Not Like Us

European media outlets have become obsessed with the rise of EU skepticism and populism. What such reactions often express is an apprehension that the prevailing institutions of society have lost touch with a significant section of the public. What is at issue in the numerous disputes between the political establishment and its populist opponents is not simply political differences but ones that are also profoundly cultural.

It is evident that in the current post-ideological era the differences between Left and Right have lost much of their political significance. Even questions like the role of the welfare state or economic strategy are rarely the topics of serious debate. Instead what divides Europe are issues of culture. Recent protest and controversy over subjects like family values, gay marriage, genderequality sex education, abortion, circumcision of boys, multiculturalism or immigration indicate that cultural issues have become politicized to the point that they deeply divide societies.

The origins of Europe’s culture war lie with the shift in focus of governmental activity in the post-ideological era. Since the 1980s mainstream parties have lost much of their political baggage and identity. They have displaced the language of ideology with that of technocratic governance. As technocrats they are in the business of managing—rather than leading—public opinion. Instead of arguing and convincing the electorate they prefer to “nudge”and manipulate them. They justify their existence through assuming that they possess knowledge, values and insights that are in short supply among the electorate. Hence they are continually in the business of “raising awareness,” of “changing attitudes” and of social engineering. The pursuit of this social engineering project is expressed through scorn for a way of life best forgotten and for identities not wanted. The sentiments are most systematically expressed by the EU technocracy which believes that it is entitled to displace traditional cultural attitudes with its own “enlightened” sentiments. From this perspective the traditional family values and the old-fashioned sentiments appear as a prejudice that people need to be educated out of. They continually contrast their enlightened and healthy lifestyles to the bigoted outlook of those who refuse to adapt to the new Europe.

What is significant about this conflict of values is that its protagonists inhabit two very different worlds. The urbanized, university-educated and highly mobile political establishment has virtually no point of contact with those whose lives they scorn. In turn from the perspective of those who inhabit a traditional way of life, the world of their elites looks alien and culturally distant. From the standpoint of a UKIP or Danish People’s Party voters, these are not just people who “don’t talk to us” they are also not “not like us.”

Sometimes cultural conflicts can appear petty and even bizarre. Take the issue of pork. After reports that in some nurseries in Copenhagen, children were no longer served pork products, the Danish People’s Party decided to campaign against what it interpreted as a blow against the nation’s cultural identity. After its vociferous campaign provoked widespread indignation and concern, the Social Democratic Prime Minister, Helle Thorning-Schmidt was forced to acquiesce to the mood of the people and publicly affirm that the eating of pork is integral to Danish identity. “We have to stick with the way we eat and what we do in Denmark” she stated before adding “there should be room for frikadeller [meatballs].”

At first sight the politicization of meatballs appears absurd. But on closer inspection this is an instance of an “enough-is-enough” reaction. At least a significant minority of Danes perceive that what they could previously take for granted is now regarded as negotiable by their political masters. That so many people reacted so strongly about the non-availability of pork in their children’s nurseries indicates that what’s at issue is their identity as Danes, which they believe is challenged and redefined by forces beyond their control. Some commentators have classified this response as a simply xenophobic reaction to Muslims. No doubt, in some cases it is. However, this manifestation of cultural insecurity represents a demand for the affirmation of a way of life that is no longer deemed as special by the ruling elites.

The Politics of Bad Faith

Until fairly recently the European political establishment felt relatively confident about its authority. It could easily dismiss the occasional challenge from populist movements as simply a temporary manifestation of a backlash and protest. However, in recent years the European political elites have become increasingly anxious and defensive. Despite their influence over the media and EU institutions they have not succeeded in neutralizing the appeal of populist movements. Media campaigns waged against right wing populist movements have proved singularly ineffective. Despite the fact that virtually all British media have mobilized their resources against UKIP, the party continues to retain its political support. What the failure of this propaganda campaign against UKIP indicates is that the political influence of the British media has become seriously compromised.

Frequently the success of UKIP or the Danish People’s Party is attributed to the charisma or the political trickery of their leaders. Populist parties are often accused of manipulating people or scaring people or lying to them. The constant attempts to expose their real agenda is inspired by the naive conviction that it is their trickery rather than their political outlook that attracts support. The main reason for this patronizing response is because the European political establishment finds it difficult to acknowledge that its populist opponents actually speak for a section of the electorate. To acknowledge this reality would require that the mainstream parties face up to the fact that it is they who are out of touch with a significant section of public opinion.

The main reason why the old mainstream parties have failed to contain the rise of populist movements is because they stand discredited in the eyes of sections of the electorate. They not only lack the political arguments to reverse this state of affairs but also the political language to communicate across the cultural divide. Instead of engaging in democratic dialogue they outsource their authority to media-trained consultants and experts. In some cases mainstream parties have almost given up on attempting to influence groups such as elderly working class pensioners. They are written off as irredeemably prejudiced bigots whose outlook on the world can be safely ignored. Take the example of one video commissioned by the EU Information Centre, and released recently in Denmark. The video, featuring an oral sex loving superhero Voterman, sought to mobilize young people to vote in the EU election presumably to offset the votes of their prejudiced elders. Public outcry led to humiliating withdrawal of the video. This incident demonstrated just who is really out of touch with public opinion.

What the current EU elections expose is the unraveling of the world-view and authority of the political establishment that manages the destiny of most European societies. That a variety of populist movements are the beneficiaries of this state of affairs is not surprising. Their success was not so much of their own making as the result of the moral disorientation of the mainstream parties. What we see is not the triumph of the populist right but the implosion of the traditional governmental parties in many parts of Europe. Whether these populist movements have the capacity to transcend their minority status is an open question. However, the (irreversible?) decline of the old mainstream EU oriented parties is not in dispute.

Frank Furedi

is an Author of Authority: A Sociological Introduction, Cambridge University Press, 2013.

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