Nationalist rhetoric promotes right-wing parties

Nationalist rhetoric promotes right-wing parties

Exclusionary and nationalist rhetoric brings new votes, especially to right-wing parties. © Andrii Yalanskyi/ iStock

In order to win back votes from right-wing parties, some established parties are taking up right-wing narratives and integrating nationalist demands into their election programs. But this tactic could have the opposite of the desired effect. This is now suggested by a study that analyzed survey data, election programs and election results from 26 European countries from 1995 to 2020. Accordingly, although many people have nationalist views, they do not usually vote for a right-wing extremist party. However, if established parties also spread their narratives, the nationalist concept becomes more activated, which brings in additional votes for the right-wing extremists.

What requirements does a person have to meet to be truly “German”? Does she have to be born in Germany? Have you spent most of your life in Germany? Master the German language? Feeling like you belong to German culture? And what about the origins of the parents? With questions like these, researchers determine how respondents define nationality. Studies have shown that people who set particularly high barriers to belonging to a nation are often more nationalistic and support harsh immigration policies. But that doesn’t automatically mean they vote for right-wing parties, even if they have the strongest focus on nationalism and strict immigration rules.

“Although many people in Europe have an exclusionary understanding of national identity, relatively few people in most European countries vote for extreme right-wing parties,” write Antonia May from the Leibniz Institute for Social Sciences in Cologne and Christian Czymara from Tel Aviv University in Israel. In their study, they examined how nationalistic attitudes are related to voting decisions and what influence political narratives on the topics of immigration and nationalism have. “For this purpose, we analyzed 26 years of survey data from a total of 135,000 respondents from 26 European countries and compared them with election programs,” explains the team.

Influence of political discourse

“Our results show that more than half of those surveyed have exclusionary ideas about nationality,” report May and Czymara. “However, the connection between such attitudes and right-wing extremist voting decisions is weaker than one might assume due to the ideological overlap.” However, that changes when issues such as nationalism and strict immigration policies also become an issue among parties outside the right-wing spectrum: “The otherwise loose “The relationship between exclusionary national identity and right-wing voting preferences is significantly stronger in times when exclusionary rhetoric is used across different parties,” explain May and Czymara.

If centrist parties also included nationalist formulations or negative statements about multiculturalism in their election programs, people with nationalistic attitudes were more likely to vote for a right-wing extremist party. In their analysis, the researchers also took other influencing factors into account, including the number of refugees in relation to the population of the respective country and the unemployment rate. Although these factors had an important influence on both political discourse and voting decisions, the observed effects remained even when the researchers removed these influencing factors.

Nationalist attitudes “activated”

According to the study, the connections are particularly clear in Hungary. After many people fled to Hungary in 2018, the topic of nationalism became more and more present in the political discussion. At the same time, the share of votes for the right-wing populist party Fidesz, which has ruled Hungary since 2010, increased. The team observes similar effects, albeit at a lower level, for countries such as Denmark and Latvia. For Germany, too, the researchers found that nationalist and exclusionary attitudes became more important in political discourse during the refugee crisis from 2015 onwards – along with popularity for the right-wing populist party Alternative for Germany.

“Our results suggest that right-wing parties benefit from an overall exclusionary political climate in which national borders are on the political agenda,” write May and Czymara. They assume that many people’s existing nationalist views are only activated through relevant political discussions in such a way that they are actually reflected in voting behavior. “Consequently, it appears that parties that are not right-wing extremist are likely to harm themselves when they use such rhetoric,” the research team summarizes.

Source: Antonia May (GESIS – Leibniz Institute for Social Sciences, Cologne) et al., Nations and Nationalism, doi: 10.1111/nana.12985

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