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Back | Programme Area: Identities, Conflict and Cohesion (2000 - 2009)

Exclusionary Populism in Western Europe in the 1990s and Beyond: A Threat to Democracy and Civil Rights?

Since the late 1980s, a new breed of right-wing parties and movements has gained considerable political ground in a number of liberal democracies, particularly—but not exclusively—in Europe. Among the most successful of these parties have been the Schweizerische Volkspartei (Swiss People’s Party), Fremskrittspartiet (Norwegian Progress Party), Freiheitliche Partei Österreich (Austrian Freedom Party) and the Front National (National Front) in France.

Several characteristics distinguish these parties and movements from the more traditional parties: reliance on charismatic leadership; the pursuit of a populist strategy of political marketing with a pronounced customer (that is, voter) orientation; and the appeal to and mobilization of popular anxieties, prejudices and resentments, the main target of which has been the political establishment. The goal has been to discredit the “political class” in order to bring about radical political change. Typically, new populist parties and movements have marketed themselves as uncompromising defenders of the rights and fearless advocates of the interests of the common people, as well as the only true representatives and promoters of “genuine democracy”.

At the same time, they espouse an ideology that is perhaps best described as a type of exclusionary populism. The core of this political doctrine consists of a restrictive notion of citizenship, which holds that genuine democracy is based on a culturally, if not ethnically, homogeneous community; that only long-standing citizens are full members of civil society; and that society’s benefits should only accrue to those who have made a substantial contribution to it. In its more extreme cases, exclusionary populism has taken the form of cultural nativism which, rather than promoting notions of ethno-cultural superiority, aims at the protection of cultural identity and idiosyncratic values and ways of life against alien intrusion and contamination. In the contemporary populist right, this means, above all, safeguarding and defending the achievements and gains of European culture and civilization.

Although expressed hostility toward foreigners, strong opposition to immigration and vocal objection to the building of multicultural societies are central characteristics of all new right-wing populist parties in Europe and elsewhere, the majority of these parties are not single-issue protest parties. In many cases, these parties promote a comprehensive programme of socio-economic, sociocultural and sociopolitical change, the implementation of which would have far-reaching consequences. At the same time, the new right-wing populist parties have used a range of diverse issues in their attempts to mobilize popular resentments, whose appeal can only be explained within the specific national context, and among which immigration and multiculturalism have only been one—albeit very important—issue. It is the appeal to these issues, as much as the appeal to latent and diffuse xenophobic sentiments, that has gained the new right-wing populist parties of Europe an audience and political support.

There are several reasons for their political success: widespread popular disaffection and disenchantment with the established political parties, politicians and the political process (and perhaps even democracy) in general; diffuse feelings of anxiety in the face of rapid and profound socioeco-nomic and sociostructural change associated with globalization and the information technology revolution; and a general unease with respect to the cultural challenges posed by the inflow and presence of a growing number of non-European immigrants. While unwanted by the majority of Europeans, such immigrants are increasingly needed to compensate for falling birth rates, prevent labour shortages, and provide some of the funds necessary to pay for the welfare state.

Given these disparate motivations for right-wing populist support, it is perhaps not surprising that the electoral base of new right-wing populist parties cannot be reduced to one single group, such as the petty bourgeoisie. In a number of cases, there has been a significant “proletarization” of the social basis of their support (that is, the number of blue-collar workers voting for them has increased rather dramatically). This does not necessarily mean, however, that these parties appeal only to those groups who feel most threatened by technological and economic change. Approaches that focus on attitudes and value dispositions might help more to understand support for the new populist right than more traditional class-based analysis. Similar caution might be appropriate with respect to sociostructural variables such as gender, education and age.

Given the current confluence of increasing competitive pressures stemming from globalization, growing demographic pressures stemming from the rapid greying of European societies and a persistently high level of political disaffection, it is rather unlikely that the appeal of right-wing parties espousing an ideology of exclusionary populism will significantly diminish in the foreseeable future. Undoubtedly, their success represents a serious challenge to liberal democracy in Europe. Whether or not it will become a genuine threat to democracy will ultimately depend on the strength of the democratic institutions and political culture that Europe has developed during the past 50 years.
  • Publication and ordering details
  • Pub. Date: 1 Oct 2004
    Pub. Place: Geneva
    ISSN: 1020-8194
    From: UNRISD