How to explain the rise of the far right in Europe and the US? Many commentators focus on materialist explanations, arguing that unemployment and economic inequality are to blame. Such analyses tend to ignore the far right’s ideological underpinnings, such as ethnic chauvinism or the longing for authority. These have little to do with economics. To counter the far right’s surge, ideas have to be fought with ideas.
Authors: Joseph de Weck and Ivo Nicolas Scherrer
Economic determinism seems to dominate the thinking of many opponents of the far right. Didier Eribon, a French left-wing intellectual celebrated in Germany, thinks President Macron’s reforms will deepen economic misery and propel Marine Le Pen to power in 2022. The Economist’s analysis is equally materialistic: If Macron fails to kick-start the economy, Le Pen may no longer be kept at bay.
In this line of reasoning, the economic crisis in the US rust-belt was key to Trump’s election and Brexit would not have been possible without increasing economic inequality in the UK. But is the performance of the far right simply the mirror-image of a country’s economic state and its effects on society?
It’s not (only) the economy, stupid!
Attributing the rise of far-right movements to economic distress alone appears short-sighted if we look at Denmark and Switzerland. In both countries, economic and social indicators are at levels that provoke envy across the continent. Unemployment is low and income inequality as measured by the GINI Index below the OECD average. Moreover, real wage levels are above Germany’s, and the welfare state offers a comparatively generous safety net.
Nevertheless, the far right play a pivotal role in both countries. The Danish People’s Party is the second biggest, with 21% of the vote. The Swiss People’s Party, the country’s largest for two decades, represents 30 % of the electorate. Both point to immigrants and the European Union as the sources of all evil.
Hence, a thriving and inclusive economy does not constitute comprehensive insurance against the far right: the recent German elections provide another case in point. According to one exit poll, 84% of voters rated the country’s economic situation as «good», which is 10% above the level seen in 2013. Still, the nationalist AfD entered German parliament for the first time, gaining 13% of the vote.
Anti-immigration sentiment is not on the rise
But a country in crisis is surely more likely to fall prey to the politics of nationalism and exclusion, we might think. Not quite so, argues Larry Bartels, a political scientist, pointing to the European Social Survey, which questions Europeans regularly on their beliefs and attitudes. According to the data, the sense of economic frustration rose sharply in the first years ensuing the 2008 financial crisis, along with a slight increase in political distrust. At the same time, anti-immigration and anti-European sentiment has remained largely and surprisingly stable.
Although discontent with their economic situation, not more Europeans have developed nationalistic or xenophobic worldviews. So, how can we explain the success of far-right parties in the past years? Bartels thinks they have simply become more apt at mobilising their potential voter base, who have always shared their ideas but did not go to the polls. Recent insights from Germany seem to confirm this hypothesis: 25% of the AfD’s supporters did not vote in the previous election.
Taking ideas at face value
The ideas of the far right, offering a politics of authority, tradition and exclusion to the desire for order, orientation and community, seem to be attractive on their own, independently of a country’s economic and social performance. To them, foreigners, globalisation and social diversity then constitute problems in themselves, undermining their vision of an orderly society.
The importance of these ideas is revealed by the research of Robert Ingelhart and Pippa Norris. Also using data from the European Social Survey, they show that far-right voters voters are motivated by authoritarian values, a critical attitude towards foreigners and international cooperation, rather than economic insecurity.
In the U.S., a survey by the Patrick Forscher and Nour Kteily of people who self-identify as “alt-right” seems to confirm this hypothesis. The study finds that alt-right supporters do not have a more negative outlook on their own economic welfare and the economy overall than the rest of the population. Tellingly, 73% of AfD voters perceive the economic situation of Germany as «good», according to exit polls. This is below the average, but still relatively high.
Fight an idea with another idea
So, what can we do? One can fight an idea only with another idea. This proverb from the famous Ben Hur movie might serve as inspiration to the opponents of the far right. It is their task to advance their own ideas and to communicate them emotionally – in the hope to fully capture and enlarge the reservoir of votes.
The counter project to the longing for authoritarian strongman is the separation of powers and human rights, the ultimate safeguards from tyranny. To respond to the need for community, an institutional patriotism cherishing a collective identity in the joint exercise of democratic rights, can be celebrated. In an attempt to tame the self-centered traits of humans, the promotion of education and (self-) enlightenment are key. The zero-sum logic of tribal and national competition can be opposed with a win-win narrative of cooperation. Finally, to the politics of exclusion, an answer can be found in the defence of an open and pluralist society, mindful of keeping the balance between the individual pursuit of happiness and leaving no one behind.
Advancing economic inclusion as well as finding clever solutions to social and economic problems will always be important and are goals in themselves. However, it does not – and will not – suffice to keep the far right at bay. Ideas need to be fought with ideas.