No 31: Radical right populism: is it about inequality or ethnic nationalism?

Populist, right-wing nationalism is on the rise across Europe. What should the social policy community be doing about it?
A 40,000-strong demonstration in Dresden, Germany by Pegida, a nationalist, anti-immigrant, right-wing political movement, in January 2015. (Kalispera Dell/Wikimedia Commons)

by Markus Ketola

The recent successes of populist parties in countries such as Germany, Hungary, Austria, Czech Republic, Netherlands and Finland — to name but a few prominent European examples — have spurned a lively debate about the merits and demerits of populism. But does radical right populism matter for social policy?

Yes, it does. Radical right populism fosters a particular discursive logic that challenges pluralist approaches to welfare delivery. Moreover, it normalises ethnically motivated claims about access to welfare. In this way, the populist radical right is shaping the design and delivery of social policy.

The powerful flexibility of radical right populism

The aims and objectives of populism are deliberately vague and tend not to be associated with any particular political ideology. Cas Mudde, who has written extensively on the nature of populism, describes it as a ‘thin-centred ideology’ with an emphasis on majoritarian and anti-elitist political claims. Populists claim to represent the interests of ‘the people’, against the interests of the economic and political elite, where both groups — people and the elite — are seen as homogenous entities. The two are poised against each other in an antagonistic, zero-sum game that praises the people and disparages the elite.

Populism, therefore, has more to do with instilling the policy and political debate with a particular discursive logic, which stems from this majoritarian and anti-elitist approach. It is persuasive because it is so flexible. For example, ‘people’ tend to be constructed as a single, homogeneous unit by reference to the ‘globalisation losers’ thesis: workers from the industrial underbelly of the Global North who have lost out from globalisation and post-Fordist economic strategies.

What does this have to do with social policy? For one, as Gerard Delanty has persuasively argued, the extended levels of risk and uncertainty attributed to globalisation are associated with a growing sense of anxiety. Populists are quick to tap into such sentiments as evidence of the conflicting interest of the ‘people’ and the ‘elite’, arguing that the current design and delivery of welfare fails to serve the interests of those for whom it is meant. The safety nets meant to protect people from the negative consequences of global competition are failing, the welfare system is broken and unfit for purpose. This line of argument sets up an antagonistic relationship between the mainstream political elite and the citizenry: the welfare state no longer looks after the interests of the man on the street.

However, what differentiates the populist radical right from their left-wing counterparts is the definition of welfare in exclusive terms, most often on the basis of racial and ethnic criteria for citizenship rights. The above argument about risk, uncertainty and anxiety is further embellished with undertones of nativist welfare chauvinism. The key argument here is that the elites have given welfare access to non-native citizens, migrants in particular, at the expense of the welfare of the native population. Given that the resources assigned to welfare are limited, the argument goes, this not only has a negative impact on the quality of services but also weakens the nation state.

According to this view, the remedy to the failures of welfare can be found in nationalism, greater protectionism and in the rejection of multiculturalism. This synthesis of anti-elitism and nationalism lends itself nicely to vague generalisations about the links between welfare, migration and social citizenship rights.

It draws on a particular social citizenship perspective that problematizes universal, rights-based arguments for welfare from a majoritarian perspective. The interests of the ‘people’ (which in this context is a term synonymous with a simple majority of native citizens) must be prioritised as this represents the democratic will of the nation, and their interests must not be compromised in order to protect the rights of minorities. Moreover, the quality of welfare services must not be compromised by granting unlimited access to migrants. From a social policy perspective, it is the way arguments about risk and inequality on the one hand, and anxieties of immigration and ethnically defined social citizenship rights on the other, become synthesised that matters. This arranges itself to a particular, populist narrative about what the problem is and how it can be solved.

This narrative comes out clearly in the Brexit debate. If we were to listen to its key architects, the problem has been narrated as one of not being in control of immigration, lawmaking and economic policy, while the solution is presented in terms of ‘taking back control’. However, as Danny Dorling argues, inequality remains a key explanatory factor behind the outcome of the Brexit referendum. Seen from a social policy perspective, the result can be linked to the failures of successive UK governments to address the most fundamental social policy issues around poverty, inequality and fairness. This is what underpins the referendum outcome, rather than a sudden outcry of ethnic nationalism.

Why radical right populism matters for social policy

Radical right populism, therefore, matters for social policy for at least two reasons. One, the populist rhetoric, by appropriating the language of social policy, has mainstreamed and normalised the hardening attitudes towards immigration and against multiculturalism. Two, the success of contemporary radical right populism has a lot to do with the failures of governments to devise robust and sufficiently funded social policy interventions to address the problems of growing inequality and poverty.

For some, the mercurial rise of right-wing populist leaders signals the return of the miasma of 1930s authoritarian nationalism. Given the present-day trends of casting aspersions on expertise and revelling in ignorance, the preference for autocratic political leaders and disparagement of consensus politics, there is an almost irresistible temptation to identify Hitleresque tendencies in all of this. Yet resist we must. For as David Runciman persuasively argues, while the political rhetoric may sound familiar and the threat to representative democracy look similar, the underlying causes of today’s developments are different. Rather than look at what happened in the 1930s, we need to pay attention to what hasn’t happened over the last forty years, and rising inequality being on top of that list. The failures of successive governments to deliver on the social contract of fairness and equality have come home to roost.

But neither should one advocate for complacency. The language of austerity politics has become a vehicle for the normalisation of radical right political rhetoric, bringing the radical right closer to the centre while pushing the mainstream parties further to the right. This is a slippery slope with uncertain long-term consequences.

The task going forward is to unpack the complex web of structural inequalities that underpin these recent political developments and to offer carefully judged, evidence-based analyses of the linkages between inequality and radical right populism. Given that the public debate around radical right populism is rife with assumptions drawn from limited information and deprecating attitudes towards the other side of the argument, the academic social policy community has an important role to play to help us better understand the underlying dynamics of these crucially important contemporary political developments.

Dr Markus Ketola is a lecturer in Social Policy and Research Director at the School for Applied Social and Policy Sciences at Ulster University, Northern Ireland. He tweets @MarkusKetola.

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