Security discourses and the radical right

Ruth Wodak launches a series of updates on the rise of the far right and exclusionary discourses in Europe. What should the democratic response be to these ideologies?

Ruth Wodak
18 June 2012

There is ample evidence for the current rise of right-wing populist movements and related political parties in Europe. These are frequently triggered by the on-going financial crisis and growing unemployment (like in Greece, Hungary or Spain), which is linked to the construction of a threat which migrants might pose to national economies or to national security (like in Sweden, the United Kingdom, Denmark and Switzerland) or drawing on the fading trust in politics and politicians (like in Belgium, France, and the Netherlands). However, one should not underestimate the weight of traditional xenophobic, homophobic, and anti-Semitic resentments, as well as collective revisionist memories of fascist or national-socialist pasts (as in the Ukraine, Austria, Italy or in Germany). All these dimensions are interdependent and can be linked in complex and intricate ways.

For example, on May 25 2012, the British Home secretary Theresa May announced the closing of British borders should Greek immigrants suddenly ‘flood’ the United Kingdom. The Telegraph reports, framed by a huge headline in bold letters ‘Theresa May: we'll stop migrants if euro collapses’, that ‘The Government is drawing up plans for emergency immigration controls to curb an influx of Greeks and other European Union residents if the euro collapses, the Home Secretary discloses today’. Other British newspapers followed.

Such – mainstream – rhetoric fuels fear which is then easily instrumentalized by radical rightwing populist parties, frequently in explicit and blunt ways. Parties like the Golden Dawn Party in Greece or the Jobbik in Hungary, immediately seize the opportunity to make visible their nativist and xenophobic agenda, deploying publicly Nazi and fascist symbols, dress, and salutes in this new context, in the centre of Athens or Budapest respectively.

A European landscape of far right turbulence

A new volume edited by Ruth Wodak, Majid KhosraviNik and Brigitte Mral Rightwing Populism across Europe. Discourse and Politics brings together over twenty contributions on the formation of rightwing populist movements in 19 European countries (and the United States) from a range of disciplines (history, political science, sociology, discourse studies, media studies, and anthropology), in an attempt to describe, understand and explain the many context-dependent details and transnational similarities of such groups. More specifically, in this context, swe want to scrutinise the interplay between this rise of the far right and security discourses and policies.

Right-wing extremism and right-wing populism are, of course, not new phenomena. Ever since the end of the Second World War, revisionist ideologies have been taken on board by neo‐Nazi or right-wing extremist parties such as the FPÖ (Freiheitliche Partei Österreich/ Austrian Freedom Party), the FN (French National Front/ Le Front National), and the BNP (British National Party). While resemblances to more traditional ideologies can be traced in many of the ‘new’ right-wing discourses, it is also obvious that right-wing populism differs from those other trends as it does not convey a coherent ideology but rather proposes a mixed bag of beliefs, stereotypes, attitudes and related programmatic agendas which aim to address and mobilize a range of contradictory segments of the electorate.

Rightwing populist parties, claiming to speak for ‘the people’ and to oppose those in power, characteristically endorse chauvinist ideologies openly calling for the privileges of natives over migrants. These ideologies lead to an overall ‘politics of fear’, as spokespeople conjure up the fear of losing one’s job; of being ‘inundated by migrants’, of criminality and terrorism, and so forth. Why and how these fears resonate in the wider public cannot be explained simplistically. Various socio-political, socio-economic, ideological and structural factors contribute to the success of such extreme populist right-wing parties and their exclusionary and chauvinist worldviews.

The role of the media must be questioned too. Currently, we are witnessing the development of a ‘media-democracy’ across Europe and beyond, in which the individual media-savvy performance of leaders is becoming more important than the political process. Accordingly, the most complex politics can easily be reduced to a few slogans apparently comprehensible to the broad public at large. Hence, the role media communication and appropriation has played in the recent success of populist-right parties is worth considering in some detail. The disproportionate success of some of these parties could certainly be explained by the excessive exposure that they receive in the media, despite their lack of the requisite organizational and political structures.

Far-right extremism is overtly reliant on charismatic personalities and on a clever use of the media. In this way populist extremist discourses seem to fill a gap created by the public's disenchantment with mainstream politics. Recent opinion polls such as Eurobarometer reveal that trust in mainstream politicians and governing parties has dropped significantly across Europe. Indeed only 29 per cent of European citizens trust their national governments as opposed to 34 per cent in 2007; in 2009, the numbers dropped even more: only 13 per cent of British citizens, for example, trusted their politicians, and 82 per cent believed that politicians were not telling the truth. In 2011, on average, 16 per cent trusted their national political parties, and the level of trust in several major EU countries (including the UK and France) did not exceed 10%.

Against this backdrop, rightwing populist parties have managed to challenge the traditional right/left cleavage : in Austria, Sweden and Norway for example, radical right-wing parties are today gaining votes amongst working-class electorates previously leaning towards the left which they specifically target. An apparent consensus on economic policies and security measures obfuscates traditional notions of class politics.

Should radical right parties be outlawed?

Considering this landscape of the European far right raises some concrete ethical and democratic issues: should such far-right parties in any way be restricted by law beyond electoral mechanisms? The efficiency of such a move is dubious, as banning a party from official participation in the public sphere would not necessarily result in thwarting its attractiveness in society. Quite the contrary, it might prove counter-productive and actually lead to the opposite reaction.

This debate has remained controversial for many decades and will probably intensify in the future. The case of laws prohibiting Holocaust Denial is here particularly telling: while such laws have been passed in Austria, Germany, France, and the Netherlands since the end of the Second World War, they do not exist in other European countries. Yet the concrete impact of such laws on radical right parties remains unclear. Prohibition does not solve the ethical dilemma posed by the radical right: whether or not a party with inherently undemocratic, discriminatory and exclusionary policies can or should be seen as a legitimate entity in western democracies.

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