Are populist radical right parties stigmatized? And if so, is this stigmatization consistent over time? Testing these questions in a country where the populist radical right has been traditionally stigmatized, this article illustrates that the Sweden Democrats face indeed a strong stigma among the Swedish electorate. This stigmatization persists even now that an official cordon sanitaire no longer exists, or it is at least questioned. Through experiments realized in 2011 and 2018 the authors describe the degree of stigmatization of the populist radical right in Sweden and its evolution over time.
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Radical right parties continue to do well in many European countries, but despite this other parties and many voters continue to regard them as substantially different from other parties. Many parties refuse to co-operate with them or face harsh criticism when they do. The current collaboration between the Swedish government and the Sweden Democrats (SD) is one example of this, with especially the Liberal party being rebuked both from within the party and by its European allies. When it comes to voters there is research showing that there is a social stigma associated with supporting or voting for radical right parties. In a recent article we add to this field by studying if this stigma also extends to political proposals made by radical right parties.
There is ample research showing that voters’ evaluations of political proposals are influenced by who makes these proposals. Therefore, it is reasonable to assume that proposals made by actors that many voters consider to be beyond the pale, such as radical right parties, will be viewed less favourably than if they were made by someone else. There is a sort of guilt by association. We wanted to learn more about if such a stigmatization effect exists, and if so under what conditions.
In our study, we were primarily interested in two questions. First of all, we ask if the stigmatization of the radical right is consistent over time. Over the past few decades radical right parties have grown in voter support, indicating that a larger share of the population is willing to actively support these parties, and a cordon sanitaire from other parties have been weakened or removed all together. Both these factors should signal to voters that the radical right parties are at least somewhat less stigmatized than in their early days, almost regardless of whether the parties have moderated their positions or not. On the other hand, stigmatization can be thought of as a binary state, a party either is stigmatized or not. If some voters or parties choose to vote for or cooperate with a party despite the stigma it does not necessarily follow that the stigma has disappeared.
Secondly, we ask if the stigmatization effect is dependent on the contents of the political proposal. On the one hand, one could expect that a proposal having to do with issues commonly associated with the radical right, such as immigration, would make voters especially wary. On the other hand, if stigma is present, voters might be sceptical towards any proposal from the party, either because they do not want to agree with anything associated with the party or because they might suspect some nefarious purpose behind a seemingly benign proposal.
We use two survey experiments to answer these questions. Both were carried out in Sweden, with the SD as our example of a stigmatized radical right party. The first experiment took place in 2011, when the party had just recently been elected to parliament for the first time and there was a strict cordon sanitaire enforced at all levels in the political system. The second experiment was run in 2018, when the SD had become the third largest party in the country and several parties on the right had softened their stance towards the party.
In the first experiment respondents were asked about a fictional proposal of banning the use of Muslim headscarves in schools. Respondents were either told the proposal was made by a representative of the SD, of a representative from the Liberal party or not given any information about the sender at all.
In the 2018 experiments the respondents were randomized into one out of four groups. In addition to a control group where a political proposal was told without a defined sender, respondents were cued by the SD, the Social Democrats or the Moderate party. In this round of experiments, respondents were asked to assess two different political proposals. One was selected to be representative of the type of issues often associated with SD, in this case a proposal to ban people from begging on the streets. An issue that at the time was strongly associated with economically vulnerable migrants from other EU countries. The second issue exemplifies an issue that is not particularly associated with SD. Instead, we chose an economic issue that we expected most respondents to be in favour of, lowering taxes on pensioners.
The results show that there is a stigmatization effect. All proposals were evaluated lower by respondents who were told that the proposal was delivered by SD compared to other parties. In the 2011 experiment, respondents were significantly less positive to the proposed ban on headscarves if the proposal was made by an SD-politician than by a Liberal, or not labelled with a sender. In 2018 the results were slightly more complex. For the proposal with lowered taxes for pensioners there was a significant difference between SD and all other three groups. In the experiment with the ban on begging there is a significant difference between SD and the Social Democrats, and SD and the control group (where no sender is specified). While the respondents evaluate the proposal slightly lower if it is sent from the SD compared to the Moderates, this difference is not statistically significant.
We conclude that there is a stigmatization effect associated with the SD, and that it exists for various types of issues. Furthermore, despite the party having grown substantially over the past decade and at least some of the other parties have opened for co-operation with it, the effect largely remains over the seven years between our two rounds of experiments.
This might be bad news for the radical right parties in the short term, since it indicates that many voters will be put off by any proposal they make. In the long term, however, it could also indicate that the radical right has not yet reached its maximum potential. We still do not know much about if or how stigma associated with parties may disappear. But if it does, some of the voters that are today put off by the social stigma might be easier to persuade to vote for the radical right. The recent Swedish government formation and the inclusion of SD as a coalition partner (although formally outside of the government as a support party) could be a perfect natural experiment to explore this question further. If the stigmatization effect is still intact after the party has become the second largest in Sweden and also is accepted as a coalition partner, almost on an equal footing with the moderate centre-right parties, we can reasonably conclude that stigmatisation is indeed a resilient characteristic of the radical right. If not, we may gain important insights into the extent to which the behaviour of the centre-right is key to understanding how voters perceive the radical right. We therefore conclude by calling for a replication of our study once SD has gained some experience in the highest echelons of politics.
Niklas Bolin is Associate Professor of Political Science at Mid Sweden University, Sundsvall, Sweden. His main research interests are parties and elections, particularly organisation, leadership, intra-party democracy, radical right parties and green parties. He is co-editor of Managing Leader Selections in European Political Parties (Palgrave, 2021) and has published in journals including Party Politics, Journal of Elections, Public Opinion and Parties, Scandinavian Political Studies and West European Politics.
Stefan Dahlberg is Professor in Political Science at the Department of Humanities and Social Science at the Mid Sweden University and at the Department of Comparative Politics, University of Bergen, where he is Scientific Leader at the Digital Social Science Core Facility (DIGSSCORE). His research interests include democratic representation, political legitimacy and survey methodology. Recent publications have appeared in Journal of Politics, Public Opinion Quarterly, Electoral Studies and West European Politics.
Sofie Blombäck is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Mid Sweden University, Sundsvall, Sweden. Her main research interests include parties and party systems, with a particular focus on European elections and new political parties. She has published in journals including Party Politics and Scandinavian Political Studies.
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