The rise of right-wing populist movements across Europe has started to concern not only European governments but also countries around the world. Analogies with other right-wing populist parties such as the American Tea Party are being made. As politicians use populist rhetoric to win votes, one should examine and question how such groups differ from far-left parties, or even the political mainstream. Right-wing populist parties first visibly emerged in Europe – specifically in Austria – after the fall of the Iron Curtain, when fear of foreigners and of losing jobs to immigrants became salient. The tabloids fueled this fear with exaggerated statistics.
The public representation and construction of fear was highly successful. The right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPO), for instance, won 27 percent of the popular vote in the 1999 national elections. The FPO also won 20.5 percent of the popular vote in last year’s elections.
Today, voters are concerned about a variety of socio-political challenges. Fear of losing jobs to immigrants, of losing national autonomy, and of losing old traditions and values, combined with a disappointment with mainstream politics, government accountability and economic inequality, all help push populations to a state of fear. Satisfaction with the European Union is also at an all-time low – only a quarter of European citizens say they are satisfied with EU policies.
Right-wing populist politicians are media-savvy. They are strategically provocative, and thus succeed in setting the agenda in the media. They often portray themselves as victims of conspiracies and campaigns, and as saviors of the “men and women on the street.” They cast themselves as modern Robin Hoods. They claim to speak for the nation and its people. They arbitrarily define or construct a homogenous in-group and demonize pluralism, pitting the “real” and “authentic” Hungarian, Englishman or Austrian, for that matter, against everyone else.
Sociologist Dick Pels says that it would be dangerous to reduce modern right-wing populism to a “frivolity of form, pose and style,” and to downplay its messages and resonance. A dynamic mix of rhetorical style and right-wing content is what drives such political entities to electoral success.
Right-wing populist parties offer simple and clear-cut answers to people’s fears by constructing scapegoats and enemies that they blame for society’s problems. The scapegoats can be Jews, Muslims, Roma or other minority groups. They can be foreigners defined by race, religion or language. They can be capitalists, socialists, women, non-governmental organizations, the EU, the United Nations, the United States, communists, governing parties, members of the elite or the media.
Stereotypes and prejudices differ depending on historical traditions and the national, regional and even local contexts in which they’re used. Meanwhile, real divisions within a society, such as class, caste, religion and gender are neglected – or, when brought up, are interpreted as the result of “elitist conspiracies.”
It is important to stress that apart from endorsing a chauvinist, nativist view, and an anti-elitist, revisionist and anti-intellectual stance against the EU, right-wing parties differ in their focus. Some parties gain support via an ambivalent relationship with fascist and Nazi pasts (in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania and France). Others focus primarily on a perceived threat from Islam (in the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Sweden and Switzerland). Some restrict their propaganda to a perceived threat to their national identities from ethnic minorities (in Hungary, Greece, Italy and the United Kingdom). Still others endorse a fundamentalist Christian conservative-reactionary agenda (in Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Ukraine and Russia).
In EU member states, the financial crisis of 2008 certainly played a role in the re-emergence of neo-Nazi, fascist organizations such as the Golden Dawn party in Greece and the Jobbik in Hungary. Such parties also employ physical violence against migrants such as the Roma.
Yet, the recent rise of right-wing populist parties cannot be explained only as a consequence of the financial crisis. Such an explanation is too simplistic. After all, Switzerland, Austria, Norway and Denmark are among the richest countries in the world, but have some of Europe’s most successful right-wing populist parties.
In many countries, national causes have been combined with xenophobic, anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic overtones, or (for member states) a strong skepticism toward the EU.
The elections for the European Parliament in May 2014 will probably reflect the recent success of right-wing populist movements. Currently, however, opinion polls show that having more right-wing populist members of European Parliament won’t change European policies. Indeed, a victory of the center-left is predicted. But in these early days, it’s hard to tell what will happen.
Ruth Wodak is the Davis Chair for Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown University. She is co-director of the Austrian National Focal Point of the European Monitoring Centre for Racism, Xenophobia and Anti Semitism. This commentary originally appeared at The Mark News (www.themarknews.com).