On Wednesday 8 November a panel came together at the Birkbeck Institute for Social Research (BISR) to explore the rise of the populist right in Western Europe and North America. The panel was chaired by Birkbeck’s Professor Eric Kaufmann, and the evening’s three speakers are renowned for their work on nationalism and populist right-wing politics. Professor Matthew Goodwin (University of Kent), Dr Justin Gest (George Mason University) and Dr Daphne Halikiopoulou (University of Reading) vigorously debated the causes of the resurgence of far-right nationalism, but all held central the role of the white working class.
Indeed, most political parties don’t know what to do with the white working class, according to Gest. They treat this group “like tigers in a circus – you keep them engaged, but from a distance.” The panel discussion was thus preoccupied with one question: were these ‘tigers’ being increasingly drawn to far-right populist parties in Western Europe and North America because of changing immigration landscapes, economic instability, a perceived cultural threat, or a desire to reclaim political power?
The discussion was combative: each speakers took a stance – or was perhaps unfairly assigned one – and took a fiery approach to defending their turf. But attempts to make totalising claims across divergent contexts about which factor was most important weren’t particularly illuminating. There were too many issues at play (starting with survey methodologies and ending with the specificities of each country) so by far the most interesting insights happened when the conversation was at a national level.
For example, Halikiopoulou positioned the rise of the far-right in Greece from a supply and demand perspective (she was careful with the term populist, noting that “everyone talks about ‘the people’!”). Her research suggests that while the general rationale for the rise of the far-right in Greece is a ‘cultural grievance’ – understood as a transnational and material argument against immigration which also includes the perceived inability of immigrant groups to assimilate – she found that the subjects of her study were more concerned about their jobs than immigration.
Halikiopoulou noted that concerns around employment in Greece aren’t simply the manifestation of a ‘demand’, a latent perception hidden in the hearts of the white working class that was magically uncovered at the ballot box. Instead she noted that there is considerable work being done on the supply side by Golden Dawn, who have moulded those concerns into an economically nationalist argument. Perhaps most significantly, she highlighted how those arguments have since been adopted by parties from across the political spectrum.
Goodwin started by noting that Austria and Sweden were in recent memory held up as states which shouldn’t have far-right populist parties because of the strength of their economies – but these two do, and they’ve been around since before the financial crash. He thinks that we’re at the beginning of a period of political volatility, and that this is being driven by a ‘value divide’ – a sense of political inequality where large swathes of the population don’t feel they have a stake in the political system.
For him, the silver lining is that these groups are now participating politically, so the question then becomes: how do liberals and progressives respond, and how do they take these claims seriously? He feels that the mobilisation of grassroots groups á la Corbyn is a start, but that in the recent UK election Labour ultimately didn’t engage the white working class, who turned out for the Tories in bigger numbers than they’d ever done so historically.
“They’re both right, and they’re both wrong”, said Gest in reference to his co-panellists. His research on the UK and the US found that in the rhetoric about reclaiming power (‘Make America great again’ and ‘Take back control’ here in the UK) was an underlying perception amongst the white working class that the pre-immigration past was a heyday of industrial success, stability, and social cohesion. This is in contrast to “cosmopolitans, ethnic minorities and urbanites”, who see that past as inherently racist, and thus unpalatable. For Gest, race is the driving factor – but since it’s not a ‘fun’ subject to discuss, a lot of work is undertaken to shield that racism through economic arguments.
So is it the economy, race, immigration, or culture? And if it is possible to untangle these factors, where do we go next?
It was interesting that the media wasn’t mentioned by the panellists in the discussion (albeit, the chair did attempt to bring the media in). Perhaps this was due to time pressures, but it almost goes without saying that the media plays a powerful role in creating positions, and right-wing press outlets across Western Europe and North America have of course sold many a newspaper through some seriously sensationalist reporting. Understanding the complexities of the intersection of arguments for the rise of the far-right is important – but so too is understanding how those positions are formed, endorsed, and reiterated in our national and international mediascape.
It’s worth ending with a note of caution – Halikiopoulou pointed out that while right-wing populist parties are becoming more popular, there are still large numbers of voters who have not jumped ship. In essence we have a responsibility not to over-dramatise the issue, while remaining attuned to the ‘tigers’ and their increasing support for the far-right.
This blog post was written by Jessica Adams who is a first year PhD student at Birkbeck, University of London, looking at the politics of participatory art. She holds an MA (Distinction) in Global Arts from Goldsmiths College, and a first class honours degree in International Relations and Art History from Victoria University Wellington. Jess is the Alumni Manager at the Sutton Trust, the UK’s leading education charity.