The Populist Radical Right in Western Europe: Ideology and Agenda Impact on International Issues
Dynamics of PRR impact
Williams (2006) has elaborated a theory of peripheral parties’ political impact which is quite relevant to the present analysis. Similarly to Meguid’s (2008) characterization, peripheral parties are considered as those who tend to focus on a narrow range of issues, mainly on the sociocultural ideological scale, and stand close to the ends of the political continuum. Populist radical right parties, by virtue of their programmatic characteristics illustrated above, can hence be considered as part of this group.
Williams also presents a series of propositions concerning the impact of these peripheral parties on the political system (2006: 35).
For example, it is argued that impact of these peripheral parties is not just synonymous with electoral strength as it can also occur through the dissemination of new ideas and interpretative frames. Further, the same capacity of impact is positively correlated with the sophistication of party organization. A particularly telling observation is that mainstream parties may attempt to strategically adjust their programmatic profiles and “co-opt salient issues from the radical right” (Williams 2006: 35). This choice will be driven by the need to forestall a potential realignment of some of their voters away from them towards their fringe neighbor on the political space. However, as shown above, it is important to bear in mind that this mechanism of cooptation is not deterministic, but rather shaped by strategic evaluations, namely (a) whether the issues at stake are owned or not by the PRR party, and (b) whether boosting one’s emphasis on these issues will expectedly strengthen the broader rightwing coalition vis-à-vis the left bloc.
Broadly understood as political influence, impact of the PPR needs a more accurate conceptualization for empirical testing. While several scholars interpret impact as exclusively limited to legislative output, this is just one of its possible facets. For example, Williams outlines three levels of impact, from the widest level to the narrowest one (2006: 44). First, impact can take place at the macro-level of the agenda, which consists of the broad political discourse and the complex of ideas and opinions circulating in the electoral market. The intermediate level of impact relates to the institutions, which for example include the structure of the party system, the ideological location of parties, and constitutional or electoral rules.
It is exactly at this level that the alleged mechanism of mainstream parties’ cooptation of the typical PRR issues or the repositioning towards the ideological space occupied by the PRR would occur. Finally, impact can regard the level of policy. This last dimension captures the introduction of new bills and laws which would demonstrate the ability of PRR parties to push their key issues (anti-immigration, Euroscepticism, law and order etc.) to the policy domain. However, the main problem in assessing this type of impact is that it is often difficult to attribute with full confidence a political issue to the agency of a specific party. To this end, considerations about parties’ perceived ownership and handling of come into play.
Political impact of niche, radical right parties is understood by Minkenberg (1998) as a set of “interaction effects”. This impact can manifest in different types and at various levels, similar to what observed by other scholars dealing with radical right impact (Schain 2006, Williams 2006). The two basic types are demarcation/confrontation on one side, and co-optation and incorporation on the other. Interaction also has two main levels: the agenda setting level, which includes public response and other parties’ reactions to the niche contender, and the policy making one (Minkenberg 1998: 6).
Again by focusing on the French case, the scholar thus argues that the FN was able to provoke a change of public opinion attitudes towards more intolerant views of immigration between 1984 and 1995 (1998: 7). Given that the actual number of immigrants in France had stayed rather stable through the 1980s, the argument is made that it was the politicization of the issue steered by the FN which led to this attitudinal change, rather than demographic variables (Ibid.). The radical right’s direct impact at the level of decision-making is considered as merely symbolic, whereas influence could occur through the change in the policy agenda of established parties in response to the altered issue priorities of large segments of the electorate. In its analysis of impact, Minkenberg also implicitly underlines the importance of taking into account timing to isolate the effect of the niche contenders on the terms of the discourse and the relative relevance political issues.
While in France, as said, it was the FN breakthrough which prompted mainstream parties to incorporate its anti-immigration issues, in Germany it was the conservative elite which first promoted a frame focused on nativism and ethnocentrism themes, which only later was picked up by the radical right (1998: 16). When assessing patterns of political influence, it is important to bear in mind that populist radical right parties can exert impact in two ways: both directly through legislation and policy when they are in office, and indirectly by changing the structure of the party system itself –for example by causing an ideological shift of the mainstream parties towards their issue priorities and positions (Schain 2006).
The second avenue of impact, however, seems even more relevant for the family the populist radical right, as its members have rarely drawn vote shares sufficient to obtain government positions, as happened in Austria, in Denmark and in Italy. Similarly to the above analysis, Schain (2006) points out that the main incentives for issue cooptation or positional adjustment come from the need of mainstream parties to recoup some of their former voters who have switched their support to the “upstart” –in this case the populist radical right party. Therefore, even parties with a short electoral momentum may have a far-reaching impact on the issue agenda, by altering what Schattschneider (1960) calls the “scope of the conflict” (2006: 272). In his investigation of the FN impact on the political agenda, Schain points out that the French PPR party effectively managed to influence the issue priorities of other parties’ voters. The FN thus exerted a systemic impact by increasing the saliency of issues such as immigration and law and order in the partisan competition (2006: 277).
A further profound political impact of the FN was detected by Schain in the party’s ability to induce voters whose sociological traits would predict their support for the left to vote for a radical right party instead, by insisting on issues which resonated greatly with them (2006: 278). This in turn caused a realignment of working-class voters form the left to right, another key dimension of systemic impact.
From this pattern of convergence in issue priorities between the constituencies of mainstream and niche parties, it follows that established parties may co-opt the PRR issues not just to get former voters back, but also to prevent a potential loss of other voters with the newly formed issue priority. For example, if the saliency of the threat to sovereignty posed by EU integration rises for most of the constituency of an established party and not only its most radical share, the established party will have strategic motivations to increase the emphasis of that issue in its policy programme. Otherwise, voters may perceive that the party they support is not committed to address the problems they are primarily concerned with, and thus look for political alternatives.
This process can be defined as “agenda friction”, meaning a mismatch between the policy preferences of parties and those of their voting base (Odmalm & Hepburn 2017). Hence, if PPR parties are able to influence the hierarchy of political issues at systemic level (i.e. what themes matter in the broad political debate), mainstream parties will have even more potent incentives to engage in issue cooptation and ideological repositioning towards their niche PPR contenders. The case study below will demonstrate that these factors indeed have a great deal of bearing on the dynamics of systemic agenda change at party level.
Another dimension of impact, besides the changed priority of issues in the political agenda, relates to way in which the issues themselves are framed. Populist radical right parties are quite successful in presenting pressing social questions in a manner which is in conformity with their distinctive worldview combining nativism, authoritarianism and populism. Therefore, a policy issue will tend to be portrayed in terms of a threat to national identity, internal security and popular sovereignty by a populist radical right party. For example, while in France the immigration issue was early discussed in relation to the labor market, it then started to be increasingly framed according to nativist, identitarian and law-and-order themes, mainly as a result of the FN agency (Schain 2006).
Other scholars have highlighted this ability of populist radical right forces to formulate their most salient issues as “omnibus issues”, which are linked to a whole set of other social problems. The emblematic example is that of immigration, which within these parties’ discourse is commonly related to a wide range of social evils such as less security, higher unemployment, and what is often dubbed “cultural suicide”. In the case of the FN, immigration served as a tool to bring to the fore these and other social woes, as “Le Pen has skillfully picked up and manipulated the issue of immigration, using it as a focus for the Front’s appeal. The immigrant has been resurrected as the traditional scapegoat for all France’s ills.” (Marcus 1995, quoted in Hainsworth & Mitchell 2000). The importance of this logic of framing will be appreciated in the empirical case study concerning the indirect policy impact of UKIP.
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