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Understanding Radical-Right Populism and Migration

Three questions to Martin Schain

Understanding Radical-Right Populism and Migration
 Martin A. Schain
Professor of Politics, Emeritus, at New York University (NYU)

The Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s election in 2016 marked the breakthrough of right-wing populism in the West. Opposition to immigration has arguably been central to both events. In the following interview, Martin Schain, Emeritus Professor of Politics at New York University (NYU), examines the relation between populist radical-right parties and immigration, comparing differences across the Atlantic.

How has the issue of immigration shaped the Populist Radical Right (PRR) discourse in Europe?

Immigration has been central to nationalist populist discourse in Europe for many years. This has been accentuated with the immigration crisis on Europe’s Eastern border that began around July 2021. Definitions are relevant to the debate, so it is first important to differentiate the discourse from the actual level of immigration. Immigrants are a population already within the country, whereas immigration designates the "flow" from point A to B. As the flow increases, the presumption is that PRR support increases as well. Yet, a counterexample to this was the burkini ban issue in France. The ban had little to do with immigration and border crossing, but rather with immigrants already present coming from different cultural backgrounds. These two issues, while not entirely separate politically because they both hark back to xenophobia, can be analyzed differently.

For the PRR, immigration has not only translated into control by the state over its borders but subsequently also into a danger to the "nation". Immigration has become highly nationalistic - a contradiction in the context of the European Union (EU). Immigration not only encounters resistance to those who have immigrated from outside the EU, but also to those who have migrated within it. Incidents of Islamic terrorism have sometimes involved first and second-generation immigrants, and have been used by the PRR to mobilize political support. For instance, anti-immigrant attitudes in the UK have to do with immigrants coming from other parts of the Union ("Polish plumbers"). Immigrants (whether Muslims from the Middle East and North Africa, Romani from Eastern Europe in France, or Caribbeans in the UK) represent "the Other" for the PRR. This, in turn, ties into the question of identity which bears significant political importance. The immigration question shapes the way nations view themselves; it was notably at the core of the Brexit vote. The immigration debate also differs from country to country. In France, the focus has always been on North African immigration, and much less so on immigration from Syria (a country of concern for others). 

Is the radical right-wing discourse with regards to immigration different in the United States? How so?

Yes and no. It differs in its focus: in the United States, it focuses almost entirely on immigration across the southern border. That being said, the issue is very complex in the US. Immigration had been encouraged throughout most of the country’s history, as the southern border did not officially exist until 1848. Decades ago, the Rio Grande was open for crossing by boat, there were no barriers or walls and people could easily flow from one side to the other. In recent years however, the border has been completely shut. This began in the late 1950s, when border protection measures stiffened, but it only started to become notoriously strict in the 1990s. Today, Americans are often under the impression that a closed border was suddenly breached, yet it was the opposite - an open border was suddenly closed. 

The way people integrated in the US is complicated and very different from how they did in Europe.

In addition, the way people integrated in the US is complicated and very different from how they did in Europe. US attitudes towards immigrants have always been ambiguous. The US had a closed immigration policy in the 1920s, which it then opened again in the 1960s, yet always with a clear focus on European or Asian immigration. It was not until the late 1960s (after the passage of the Hart Celler Act of 1965) that the Western Hemisphere was considered part of a single immigration system. The Western Hemisphere had been excluded from the quotas imposed by the Johnson-Reed Act of 1924. 

The mythology of the US as a country of immigrants is largely true. Indeed, the countrydid have some sort of open immigration (which Europe did not) until the 1920s (with the notable exception of Asian exclusion, imposed at the end of the 19th century), when immigration quotas were imposed along racialist and eugenic lines. The US had been through the "racial composition debate" throughout much of its history, with the concept of "race" broadly applied to groups of different nationalities. The racist/eugenicist argument against immigration was also made in Europe (particularly in the UK, Germany and France), but it was far more dominant in the US.

The populist discourse has been strongly anti-immigration on both sides of the Atlantic. With a more diverse ethnic population in the US, the PRR has often differentiated between "good" and "bad" immigrants. Most Europeans (and now, sometimes Asians!) often fall into the former category. South and Central Americans, in contrast, are viewed as mostly "bad" ones. However, there have been important exceptions, as illustrated by the Cuban immigration. Cubans were different from other immigrants for two reasons. First, during the Cold War, there was legislation welcoming anti-communist Cubans to the US. Second, with an easier path to citizenship than most immigrants, at least the first generation mostly voted Republican compared to other immigrant groups, making the refugees and immigrants that followed much more welcomed by the American right. 

We often think of immigrants one-dimensionally, but their political commitments (often a reaction to the policies applied to them at their arrival) vary by their country of origin and their socioeconomic class. Immigrants from the Dominican Republic and Central America were less welcomed, or on different bases. Mexicans were welcomed as transient workers, with the idea that they would eventually return home. The first arrivals from Cuba were given privileged access under the Cuban Adjustment Act of 1966, but variations of this privilege lasted until 2017. 

What policy prescriptions would you recommend to deal with the Populist Radical Right in future?

Populist radical-right parties are often viewed as a kind of political pathology. Yet these are not "flash parties" that suddenly appear and disappear - rather, they are likely to continue to endure, since, like other political parties, they have voters who identify with them and networks and organizations that have solidified their support. They cannot be "cured" as a disease but rather they need to be dealt with effectively. 

Two dynamics limit the prospect for growth of PRR parties. First, ambition for power is often linked to deradicalization (as the Italian Lega and the French National Front (FN) tried a decade ago), which can unsuccessfully lead to party splits. Even when this reorientation is successful, participation in governing power has tended to reduce, not increase, their electoral support (as with the Freedom Party of Austria, FPÖ). Second, as this electoral support increases, so does the strength of electoral opposition that seeks to block them from gaining seats or forming coalitions. Electoral support for Rassemblement National (RN) in France peaked between 2017 and 2019, and is likely to diminish in 2022, with a challenge from its right in Eric Zemmour. Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany has not managed to increase its electoral support since 2017; Vox in Spain has not increased its support since 2019. Electoral support for radical right parties in Denmark, Norway and Greece has also declined in the past few years. 

Structure matters. As the case of the US demonstrates, federalism and localism can sustain radical right parties in local fiefs, and protect them even if their support at the national level does not grow or even diminishes. Indeed, the accentuated "gerrymandering" of congressional districts will probably sustain the radical right at the national level (about 15% of the Republican caucus) even if electoral support at the national level declines.

Moreover, their power at the national level will increase over time in a congressional power system based on seniority. Nevertheless, it is also worth noting that the potential support base for populist radical-right parties is diminishing. Sustained immigration both in Europe and the US is likely to result in a growing share of the population with an immigration background.

It is also worth noting that the potential support base for populist radical-right parties is diminishing. 

In 2020, 10% of eligible voters in the US were immigrants, born-abroad, two-thirds higher than in 2000 (most of whom were Hispanic or Asian). In Europe, the percentage of voters with an immigrant background varies considerably from country to country, according to citizenship laws. However, the impact of these voters is often seen at the local level (in the Netherlands, for example), where the rules for voting are often less demanding than at the local level. 

The share of the immigrant population eligible to vote may differ from the percentage of that population inclined to support radical right parties. However, history of voting patterns indicates that the answer differs by immigrant origin. For example, first voters of Portuguese background in Europe, and first voters of Cuban and Chinese origin in the US, tend to vote more to the right. This vote then shifts to the left in subsequent generations. Over time, the working-class voter base of populist radical-right parties is fading and being replaced by the very immigrant workers these parties have militantly opposed. In the US and in every country in Western Europe, the percentage of blue-collar workers in the workforce (and the electorate) has been steadily declining for decades. 

In the West, addressing the broader underlying drivers of success for the PRR implies thinking creatively about how best to serve citizens benefitting the least from globalization. This exclusion is partly due to the contraction of stable full-time employment in traditional sectors, slow economic and real wage growth, and the diminished role of the welfare state. 

Governments should re-commit to funding the welfare state for those in need to blunt the argument that newcomers take benefits away from citizens, and to demonstrate solidarity with citizens in need.

While there is no direct link between unemployment and voting patterns in favor of the radical-right, there is a relationship between support for the radical-right and a lack of faith in the economy. In the wake of the last 2008 recession, many governments in Europe pursued austerity policies that limited economic growth and diverted funding away from social institutions. Preserving access to welfare state benefits can be a major component of PRR parties’ arguments against immigration - as exemplified during the Brexit campaign in the UK. Governments should re-commit to funding the welfare state for those in need to blunt the argument that newcomers take benefits away from citizens, and to demonstrate solidarity with citizens in need.

Finally, empowering trade unions to have genuine collective bargaining abilities (and increasing their visibility and representation) can act as a powerful countervailing force. Trade union membership as a proportion of the workforce in both Europe and the US has been declining since the 1970s, particularly in the private sector. In general, union membership rates have been lower in the US (at about 10% in recent years) than in Europe (over 20%); in Europe these rates have varied between 55% to 75% in Scandinavian countries and 8% in France. Nevertheless, as the labor market has tightened, rates of unionization have begun to increase on both sides of the Atlantic. In addition, union affiliation among the foreign-born has steadily increased, even as affiliation among native workers has continued to decline, resulting in a steady increase of the proportion of foreign-born workers among union members. Studies in the US (and some European countries) indicate that high membership is related to some kind of compulsory system that creates benefits for union membership. 

Even where trade union membership is historically weak, union power and responsibility has been enhanced through systems of professional elections for bargaining bodies, as seen in Germany, France or the US. Mobilizing immigrant populations in trade unions and professional elections provides an added benefit. Numerous studies since the 1950s have shown a direct relationship between union mobilization and voting in political elections.

For modern economies to remain competitive, there may be limits on how much resistive power trade unions should yield. However, they are crucial (and often the only capable actors) in lobbying for workers’ rights and wages - which may be even more important as new and unregulated industries emerge with future shifts in the economy. Trade unions can also reinforce economic confidence by providing some insulation for workers from market disruptions, such as through unemployment and retraining support. Reinforcing trade unions is really a way of empowering immigrants themselves, so that they are not just objects of politics but also subjective actors, able to use their own voices. In the EU, just as the US, this is a dynamic progress: people are now part of the country and the electorate. Immigrants are voters, and any policy that encourages immigrants as political actors is key to combating the influence of the PPR on the electoral, political and social level. Policymakers have to help create a population that can act on their own behalf, not just objects that have to be acted against or for.


Copyright: Drew Angerer / GETTY IMAGES NORTH AMERICA / Getty Images via AFP

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