Comment

The far right’s broad electoral appeal should not let bad economics off the hook

Gerhard Schnyder / Jun 2024

Photo: Shutterstock

 

The recent European Parliament elections have seen a considerable surge in electoral support for far-right parties across Europe. French President Emanuel Macron’s decision to call a snap election, means that another EU country may soon have a party with roots in post-fascism forming the government. Understanding why people vote for the far right seems hence increasingly important for the survival of liberal democracy in Europe.

A very unhelpful contribution in that respect came last week from the Financial Times’s Janan Ganesh who roundly dismisses academic research that links the rise of the far-right to economic liberalism. He argues that there is no ‘correlation between a country’s exposure to market forces and its degree of populist anger’ and therefore it is an ‘academic error’ to understand support of the far right ‘as a howl against laissez-faire.’

In my academic work, I have argued the exact opposite (see e.g. here). Rather than an ‘academic error,’ understanding how support for far-right parties is linked to the fall-out of failed economic policies is a crucial step towards finally reforming economic policies that have undermined the living standards of a part of the population. If anything, Ganesh’s flawed arguments illustrate why we need serious academic research not anecdotal musings to understand the rise of the far right.

Ganesh’s argument is based on the simple observation that people vote for far-right parties in both deprived and affluent areas, in countries with austerity and countries without, in regions with and without deindustrialisation. Hence, it cannot be deindustrialisation and economic deprivation caused by economic liberalisation that causes support for the far right.

Specifically, Ganesh observes that the far right is on the rise in countries with high government spending – especially welfare spending – to GDP, e.g. in France and Italy. He concludes that ‘small state’ policies, welfare cuts, and austerity policies, associated with economic liberalism, cannot be the cause of support for the far right.

The first basic mistake Ganesh makes is that he falls prey to the classical ‘ecological fallacy,’ i.e. what is true at the aggregate level of the country, may not be true at the local or individual level. Moreover, comparing aggregate welfare spending to GDP figures across countries tells us nothing about why individuals in different countries support far right parties. To put it crudely, French voters do not care whether their country’s welfare state spending is higher or lower than the UK’s. What they care about is how materially secure they feel. Indeed, academic research shows that fear of status decline is the key driver of support for far-right parties.

In this context, current aggregate levels of welfare spending in a country do not tell us much about people’s sense of status security. In fact, high levels of welfare spending are not actually a sign of social security – as Ganesh implies  -, but may be the result of high levels of unemployment and early retirement spending by the state and hence a sign of precarity in a country.

To be sure, Ganesh does consider the importance of welfare cuts, but argues that the French were voting for Le Pen long before Macron’s (small) welfare cuts. Given that European welfare states have been dramatically transformed at least since the 1980s – not only since Macron came to power – this argument is of course absurd. Academic research focussing at the local level clearly shows that welfare cuts and austerity did contribute significantly to the Brexit vote for instance.

Ganesh indirectly contradicts the latter argument suggesting that voters in the affluent ‘home counties’ too voted for the far-right Brexit project. Yet, that (correct) observation does not invalidate the fact that the impact of economic liberalisation did play a role too. Rather, what that observation suggests is that there may be more than one factor driving far-right vote. This is Ganesh’s second basic mistake: he looks for a monocausal link between what he (wrongly) calls ‘neoliberalism’ and the rise of the far right. In particular, he expects an unmediated link between material deprivation caused by liberalisation and voting for far-right parties. If that simple link can be disproved, he thinks ‘neoliberalism’ is off the hook. Academic research shows, the reality is more complex than that.

Ganesh’s makes similarly flawed arguments based on aggregate measures of manufacturing employment. According to him, the fact that Germany has a much higher level of manufacturing employment than the UK and still a high level of support for the far-right AfD party, suggests that it is not liberalisation-induced deindustrialisation that causes support for the far right. That argument is flawed in two ways: Academic research shows that areas where import competition from China had a stronger impact on local economies were more likely to vote for Brexit just like the ‘China shock’ and associated deindustrialisation positively impacted electoral support for Trump in the US mid-West. So, deindustrialisation clearly is a cause for far right support – but it is not the only one.  Again, Germans do not vote based on whether Britain has more or less manufacturing jobs; and while German workers who lost their job due to off shoring may vote for the far right, they may not be the only ones. Academic research shows that it is not so much unemployment per se that drives voters to support the far right, but rather the fear of unemployment. Philipp Manow for instance [in German]  finds that it is not the currently unemployed, but rather those who have experienced unemployment in the past who support the far right.

Finally, Ganesh’s argument is also flawed due to what we could call and omitted variable bias. Deindustrialisation and hence large-scale job losses and unemployment are only the most extreme outcomes of liberalisation and deregulation. Research on France by Bruno Palier shows that changing work practices – due to what Ganesh would call ‘neoliberalism’ – leads to feelings of frustration and not being valued at work. Increasingly harsh and degrading working conditions mean that being employed, not being unemployed may lead to support for far right parties (see here).

Therefore, the more people work in manufacturing, the more voters may fear that their jobs will disappear due to the ‘China shock’ and other liberalisation-induced offshoring events. So, it may be perfectly logical that a larger manufacturing sector may lead to more votes for far-right isolationists.

In short, researchers have long understood that there is no far right voter;  There are many reasons why people vote for far-right parties and there are several far-right voter profiles. One of them may be liberalisation-induced unemployment – more important ones are fear of unemployment and of status loss. Others may include racism and xenophobia, or nostalgia for a bygone era. That’s why the far right appeals to both wealthy nationalist old voters in the home counties and the hard-off ‘red wall’ voters. Using that broad appeal of the far right – as Ganesh does – to reject justified and crucially important criticisms of the failed economic policies of the past forty years is both dangerous and irresponsible.

Gerhard Schnyder

Gerhard Schnyder

June 2024

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