Interview #33 – Nationalism and Populism between culture and economy

In this interview, Dr. Daphne Halikiopoulou illustrates the common denominator of nationalist and populist political actors such as Donald Trump, Alternative for Germany, and Rassemblement National: they draw on two sets of conflict lines, first between the ‘pure people’ against ‘the corrupt elites’ and second between the in-group and the out-group.

However, this does not mean that nationalism and populism are the same thing: populism, because of its ‘chameleon-like’ nature, can be associated with ideologies which have nothing to do with nationalism, while nationalism does not have to be necessariy associated to a populist rhetoric.

Moreover, while the traditional far right parties that adopt ethnic nationalism (i.e. biological justifications of national inclusion) are electorally marginalized in Western Europe, ‘civic nationalism’ is much more rewarding in electoral terms because it sheds the stigma of fascism by putting forward ideological justifications of national inclusion and emphasizing  values, democratic institutions and liberal cultures.


“Stop theft and impunity”. According to André Ventura, Portuguese people pay too many taxes because of migrants. His party, CHEGA!, is electorally irrelevant in Portugal.

POP) Many commentators talk of New Nationalism. What is new –exactly– in ‘new’ nationalism, and how often is nationalist content presented in populist terms?

Daphne Halikiopoulou) The ‘New nationalism’, a term famously used by the Economist in 2016, is a political phenomenon  —global in range— based on the pessimistic world-view that global and national interests are in direct competition with each other. It is characterised by the rise of parties, movements and individuals who maintain that the national interest clashes with global incentives and pledge policies that promote the ‘national preference’.

Examples abound, ranging from the election of Donald Trump in the US, to a series of far right populist parties in Europe such as the French Rassemblement National (formerly Front National), the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), Alternative for Germany (AfD) and others. While these parties are different in many ways, their common denominator is the use of both populist and nationalist language: i.e. they draw on two sets of conflict lines, first between the ‘pure people’ against ‘the corrupt elites’ and second between the in-group and the out-group.

Two points have to be emphasised here: First, while these parties often use nationalism in their rhetoric and programmatic agendas, nationalism and populism are actually distinct. Populism is ‘chameleon-like’ in character, and not necessarily always nationalist — for example, left‐wing populism pits ‘the people’ against an economic elite.

Second, while the rise of ‘new nationalism’ alludes to the emergence of new cleavages, it is mostly a supply- rather than a demand-side phenomenon. Indeed, in a recent article with Tim Vlandas we argue that while the rhetoric of these parties is centred on nationalism, the drivers of support are neither necessarily new nor exclusively nationalism-related. At the demand-side level, voters’ economic concerns remain pivotal within the context of the transnational cleavage. Take, for example, immigration: research shows that both cultural and (especially sociotropic) economic concerns over immigration shape those anti-immigration attitudes that drive far right party support. While cultural drivers are stronger predictors, economic drivers are still significant. This is often overlooked in cultural backlash explanations. At the supply-side level, parties use nationalism strategically in an attempt to broaden their appeal by presenting themselves as legitimate to large sections of the population (Editor’s note: see the tweet above, where Julien Odoul, member of the Rassemblement National at the regional level, recently called to support Nigeria against Algeria, “to prevent the continuation of violence and looting, to avoid the tide of Algerian flags, to preserve our national holiday”).


POP) You say that several far right parties have become successful after adopting ‘civic nationalism’. Why was civic nationalism so effective in making these parties appearing as more legitimate?

DH) In my work I have argued that, given that nationalism is so central to the discourse and programmatic agendas of far right parties, it is worth nuancing the type of nationalism these parties use to attract voters and extend support beyond their secure voting base. Nationalism is the common denominator of all far right parties and underpins their entire agenda. The “far right” umbrella includes parties and groups that justify a broad range of policy positions on socioeconomic issues on the basis of nationalism. The point here is not simply that they are all, to a degree, nationalist; but rather, that they use nationalism to justify their positions on all socioeconomic issues. They put the ‘national preference’ first, exclude immigrants from welfare provisions and public services and promote the nation in foreign policy at the expense of international trade-offs. Beyond this, however, the type of nationalism used in the programmatic agendas of the different far right variants differs.

The traditional extreme right adopts ethnic nationalism, i.e. biological justifications of national inclusion, and identifies the in-group in terms of ascriptive criteria of national belonging, such as common descent, blood, race and creed. These parties tend to be electorally marginalised in Western Europe. Those better able to expand their support base and attract a variety of social and attitudinal groups are those that utilise ‘civic nationalism’, i.e. put forward ideological justifications of national inclusion and place their emphasis on values, democratic institutions and liberal cultures. Paradoxical as it may sound, these parties use a liberal language to exclude those who they classify as threats to the liberal democratic traditions of Western European nations. This is precisely what makes them more appealing to a broad range of social and attitudinal groups: the ability to shed the stigma of fascism and appear legitimate by drawing on —and reshaping— the boundaries of toleration and exclusion; in other words, presenting themselves as the authentic defenders of the nation’s unique reputation for democracy, diversity and tolerance. Examples abound: parties such as the Dutch PVV, the French RN, the Swiss SVP and the AfD are doing this to some extent.


POP) You argue that the success of several far right parties has to do with what you call civic nationalism, but recently far right parties such as VOX, Lega, or (post-Brexit) UKIP started presenting themselves for what they are. They no longer need to ‘hide’ behind —or within— more institutional and moderate parties. They overtly undermine liberal democracy, leaving mainstream, traditional right-wing parties dealing with checks and balances, and political correctness. Is that just a gloom vision, or could it illustrate the near future of politics?

DH) Indeed the civic nationalism thesis is not universal. A good example is the Golden Dawn in Greece, which managed to grow from marginalised violent grass roots movement to a fully-fledged political party with parliamentary representation during Greece’s crisis years. The Golden Dawn is completely different from those more moderate far right variants using civic nationalism that I described above: the party is openly neo-nazi, espouses violence, and its leading cadres are currently undergoing trial for grievous bodily harm, murder and maintaining a criminal organization. The party’s success, however, was short lived. In Greece’s recent elections it failed to make the 3% threshold and did not enter parliament.


Another example, as you mention, is UKIP: Following the referendum, the party has shifted its rhetoric adopting more traditional far right positions. Its electoral support, however, has declined dramatically. So while not all far right parties adopt a form of civic nationalism, the ones that do tend to (not always and not exclusively) be more electorally successful. I’m not sure this is less gloomy. Through these narratives, far right parties are more resilient and better able to permeate mainstream ground.

POP) If we look at Southern Europe, we notice that both right- and left-wing populist parties obtain significant electoral results in Greece, and very recently in Spain too, but not in Portugal. Do you think this is mainly linked to supply-side factors? Is it possible that the three countries developed different levels of stigma of the fascist past, which in turn influence the acceptability of far right populist actors?

DH) A comparison between these three countries is very interesting. They all experienced the severity of economic crisis and received bail-outs. Yet only Greece experienced the dramatic rise of a far right party, the Golden Dawn — indeed an extreme right variant. In Spain, Vox’s success came much later. In Portugal the far right has failed to make significant electoral gains. I’m not sure the fascist past per se is the explanation here. Interestingly the Golden Dawn experienced high levels of support in 2015 even in constituencies that had suffered the worst of Nazi atrocities.

In our article for Government and Opposition, Sofia Vasilopoulou and I explored the variation in far right party support in Greece, Portugal and Spain arguing that the difference between the three countries has to do with the extent to which the system was able to withstand the crisis. This does not have to do with the intensity but rather the nature of the crisis, and the extent to which voters perceived the system as able to handle its effects. In other words, it’s a question of state capacity and democratic representation: in Greece severe issues of governability impacted upon the ability of the state to fulfil its social contract obligations, resulting in declining levels of trust in state institutions and party system collapse. This increased the electoral opportunities of anti-systemic forces like the Golden Dawn, which in the immediate aftermath of the crisis were elected because of, rather than despite, their extremism.

POP) To conclude…social democracy is in crisis, or so they all claim (although established right-wing parties are not doing much better, ask the Partido Popular). At any rate, Europeans seem more concerned by gender, borders, and race, rather than inequalities, redistribution, or climate change. Do you think the economic dimension will re-become central in the near future? In that case, who will benefit from it?


DH) Increasing consensus is that the rise of far right populism is best understood as the product of a cultural backlash, driven by those on the wrong end of a new transnational cleavage who feel that cosmopolitan elites have made gains at their expense. However, I wouldn’t go as far as to argue that, within this context, the economic dimension is irrelevant. Cultural insecurity tells half the story. First we need to look at different patterns within Europe: while transnational cleavages are more prominent in the West, in Southern Europe the left-right cleavage remains dominant.

Second, even within the context of the transnational cleavage in Western Europe, economy still matters. As literature has shown, the culture Vs economy distinction is very much a false dichotomy — they overlap, shaping each other and reinforcing broader societal insecurities. A case in hand is immigration, which is often referred to as a cultural factor. However, there are ample reasons to expect the material aspects of immigration scepticism to still matter even within the context of a post-materialist cleavage as material interests continue to shape policy preferences and perceptions of competition with immigrants. Negative attitudes towards immigration are likely to be associated with one’s position in the labour market, one’s perceptions of how well public services function, or even one’s perception of security threats.

Third, these parties themselves are very much focusing on economic issues in their manifestos and programmatic agendas. Indeed, while we are quick to dismiss economic explanations, many far right populist parties, for example the RN and the Austrian FPÖ, focus on welfare in their attempt to capitalise on voters’ economic insecurities. Take Marine Le Pen’s rhetoric: the RN has significantly shifted its economic platform from predominantly right-wing to left-wing, in an attempt to make the party appear credible to deal with rising unemployment and economic hardship, and attract those economically insecure French voters marginalised by the crisis, globalisation, technological change and other societal shifts.

So, to conclude, this is a multi-faceted backlash driven not only by cultural concerns, but also inequalities, lack of trust in institutions and perceptions of loss of social status. At the demand-side level, societal insecurities are multiple and overlap. At the supply-side level, far right parties are using nationalism to appeal to a broad range of insecure voters.

DaphneDaphne Halikiopoulou (PhD LSE) is Associate Professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Reading. She has written extensively on nationalism and the cultural and economic determinants of far right party support. She is  author of The Golden Dawn’s ‘Nationalist Solution’: explaining the rise of the far right in Greece (with Sofia Vasilopoulou) and numerous articles on European far right parties. Her research appears in the European Journal of Political Research, Journal of Common Market Studies, Government and Opposition and Nations and Nationalism among others. In 2016 she was the recipient of an American Political Science Association (APSA) European Politics and Society Section Best Paper Award for her co-authored article ‘Risks, Costs and Labour Markets: Explaining Cross-National Patterns of Far Right Party Success in European Parliament Elections’ (with Tim Vlandas). She is an editor of the journal Nations and Nationalism and co-editor (with Daniel Stockemer) of the Springer book series in Electoral Politics. Follow her on Twitter here.

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