(Re)inventing scapegoats: On right-wing populism across Europe


The rise of right-wing populist movements across Europe has started to concern not only European governments but also other countries around the world. Analogies with other right-wing populist parties such as the American Tea Party are being made. As every politician uses populist rhetoric to win votes, one should examine and question how such groups differ from far-left parties (such as Germany’s Die Linke), or, for that matter, 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, printing headlines like “40,000 Romanians at Austria’s borders” (Neue Kronenzeitung, January 1990).

While the 40,000 Romanians, frequently described as “waves of migrants” or a “tsunami,” never arrived, the public representation and construction of fear was highly successful. The right-wing populist Freedom Party of Austria (FPO) won 27% of the popular vote in the 1999 national election.

The FPO also won 20.5% of the popular vote in last year’s election.

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 about a quarter of European citizens say they are satisfied with current EU policies.

Right-wing populist politicians are media-savvy. They are strategically provocative, and thus succeed in setting the agenda in the media. They frequently 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, Brit, or Austrian, for instance, against everyone else.

Former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi’s media empire is a case in point. He owns most of the Italian media, which then represents his policies positively on a daily basis.

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 European Union, 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 they’re used in. 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 (e.g., in Austria, Hungary, Italy, Romania, and France). Others focus primarily on a perceived threat from Islam (e.g., in the Netherlands, Denmark, Poland, Sweden, and Switzerland). Some restrict their propaganda to a perceived threat to their national identities from ethnic minorities (e.g., in Hungary, Greece, Italy, and the United Kingdom). Still others endorse a fundamentalist Christian conservative-reactionary agenda (e.g., 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 like 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 some of the richest countries in the world, but have some of the most successful right-wing populist parties in Europe. (Switzerland’s right-wing Swiss People’s Party, for instance, won more than 26% of the national vote in 2011.)

In many countries, national causes have been combined with xenophobic, anti-Semitic, or Islamophobic overtones, or (for EU member states) a strong skepticism toward the European Union.

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.

– written by Ruth Wodak, provided to BBJ by The Mark News

Ruth Wodak is the current Davis Chair for Interdisciplinary Studies at Georgetown University. She is co-director of the Austrian National Focal Point (NFP) of the European Monitoring Centre for Racism, Xenophobia and Anti-Semitism.

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