How Globalization Pushed Working-Class Voters Towards Far-Right Parties
The rise of far-right parties increasingly came to the forefront in recent years due to the good electoral results of these parties in Europe. Lega Nord in Italy, the National Rally in France, or the Alternative for Germany on the other side of the Rhine are not merely anti-establishment and rebellious parties anymore but seek to exercise increasingly prominent political responsibilities.
Thus, understanding and analysing this phenomenon, without settling for hasty moral judgments, appeared to me to be the appropriate intellectual response. I therefore decided, a few weeks ago, to research the impact of globalization on the rise of far-right parties in Western Europe, but most particularly on the over-representation of working-class voters among the far-right electorate. This blog post will thus include the main findings of my recent literature review.
Globalization: a dual phenomenon
First and foremost, to fully grasp what globalization is about, it is fundamental to see globalization as a dual phenomenon revolving around two main components: economic and cultural globalization. Whereas the former refers to economic modernization, the passage from an industrial society to a post-industrial society, the latter refers to extra-European immigration and the growing perceived presence of immigrants and descendants of immigrants in Western Europe.
Having in mind these two facets is fundamental since the literature is rather unanimous on the fact that it is the interaction between economic modernization and uncontrolled extra-European immigration that electorally benefitted far-right parties. In 2014, in an acclaimed book, the French geographer Christophe Guilluy demonstrated that working classes (i.e. low- and unskilled workers) were particularly affected by that dual phenomenon. On the one hand, due to high rents, blue-collar workers increasingly live far away from urban areas where 21st-century wealth is created and supplied. And on the other hand, they also feel insecure about their identity, which they consider to be threatened by outside forces, most notably Islam.
The far-right electoral opportunism
Most academics and political commentators consider that the recent rise of far-right parties is in great part due to global modifications and disruptions that occurred in Western Europe in recent years. The two most challenging events being the 2008 financial crisis and the 2015 migrant crisis.
However, more surprisingly, other scholars argue that the rise of far-right parties is the consequence of the relative economic prosperity enjoyed by Europeans since social-cultural issues took precedence over socio-economic issues. Indeed, in modern liberal democracies, the socio-economic cleavage that fuelled much of the political debate in the past decade, opposing advocates of small government and advocates of state intervention in the economy, increasingly lost ground in favour of a new cleavage. This cleavage pits conservatives against liberals, or in other words, proponents of globalization against adversaries of globalization. For instance, in the interview below, Marine Le Pen clearly states that her duel with President Macron is not a duel between the left and the right, but between globalists and patriots.
Far-right parties thus very intelligently took advantage of this major change by addressing many grievances of the ‘losers of globalization’ (i.e. low-skilled workers unable to enjoy the benefits of globalization). For instance, in recent years, the French National Rally significantly modified its economic stances to make its program appealing to working classes. From pro-market and business-friendly viewpoints until the late 2000s, it now defends a lower retirement age and the preservation of the generous French welfare state.
The divorce between the left and working classes
At the same time, left-leaning parties who traditionally took strong stances to defend working classes against economic and cultural disruptions seemed to progressively divert from them, to defend new sociological categories. In France, this electoral revolution was remarkably acted in 2011 when the leading left-leaning think tank Terra Nova published a paper arguing that left-wing political parties should take their distance with working classes since their demographic weight was progressively fading due to deindustrialisation, and that blue-collar workers were increasingly defending cultural values remote from those defended by modern left-leaning parties, for instance on homosexuality, immigration or Islam.
The paper thus encouraged left-wing parties to abandon low-skilled workers, since most of them had now joined far-right populist and xenophobic parties, and to form a completely new sociological coalition around ethnic and sexual minorities, young voters holding university degrees and women.
However, this remarkable movement of working classes fleeing the left for the far-right due to globalization and strategic electoral changes should be nuanced. For instance, the German far-right party AfD has encountered a certain success in recent years, especially in regions of former Eastern Germany particularly affected by globalization. However, research has shown that AfD voters do not sociologically differ from other voters. Therefore, far-right voters are not automatically ‘losers of globalization’, instead, they often wish to express anti-establishment attitudes and concerns about their country’s handling of immigration.
Avenues of solution
Based on the analysis I made in this blog post, to prevent far-right parties from continuing their ascension, traditional political parties and especially left-wing parties must very seriously tackle globalization’s side effects. Defending the destitute workers against deindustrialization and accompanying them through economic modernization is fundamental. Also, policies designed to control the migratory flow and to accompany immigrants in their integration process are crucial if we want to prevent inter-community violence, xenophobia and distrust.