Written by:
Ali Rattansi

Racism and the rise of populist movements

Read time:
5 minutes

Unprecedented growth in the number and influence of right-wing nationalist populist movements and political parties have characterised the first two decades of the 21st century. 

Brexit and the election of Trump represent only the tip of this global iceberg. Brazil has seen the election of Bolsonaro, a vocal opponent of same-sex marriage and race equality initiatives; in France islamophobic National Front leader Marine Le Pen was the runner up in the 2017 presidential election; Austria’s Freedom Party, which has vowed to ban free distribution of the Koran, has won over 25 per cent of the national vote and has been part of a coalition government. 

Meanwhile, in Germany, the Alternative for Germany, a party with distinct neo-Nazi overtones, now has 94 seats in the Bundestag (parliament) and is the largest opposition party. Likewise, in Switzerland, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, Finland and Norway, right-wing national populists have gained a significant share of votes and parliamentary representation. In Italy the xenophobic Legal Nord has been in government, while in Hungary and Poland authoritarian populist parties have been in government and have begun to dismantle independent judiciaries, repress dissent and even explicitly call for illiberal democracy. And so on.

But how and in what ways is racism involved in the phenomenal growth of this nationalist right-wing populism? First, it helps to define populism. At a minimum, populist ideology posits an opposition between a ‘pure’ people and a ‘corrupt’ political elite which is out of touch and is responsible for the damage caused to the nation or people. Populist electoral strategy is then based on a promise to rein in the power of this elite, rid it of corruption, and restore the fortunes of the people. There is usually a crucial element in which populists argue that there are internal or external ‘others’ who are involved in the downward fortunes of the genuine ‘people’ of the nation. It is in this way that racism can be inserted as an important part of the message. These others may be the EU, minorities, recent or even third generation immigrants, refugees or economic migrants, such as the Mexicans so strongly evoked by Trump as posing a strong economic and cultural threat to white Americans. Even the EU has created an external, xenophobic and racialised threat by a short-lived attempt to rebrand the head of the EU’s migration policy as ‘the commissioner for protecting the European way of life’. 

Sociologists and political scientists have argued that there are four main causes that explain the rise of nationalist right-wing populism, some aligned with the definition above. The four components are: a distrust of corrupt or out of touch power elites; a fear of the destruction of national cultures and identities; relative deprivation; and a dealignment between mainstream parties and electorates. This last issue is a phenomenon particularly reflected in the poor showing of social democratic, labour parties which have seen their working- class voter base eroded by the nationalist populists.

Each of these four main causes are intertwined with racism or racialisation in one form or another. The distrust of political elites is partly related to the unwillingness or inability of national elites to curb immigration, especially Muslim immigration. Muslims are racialised as practising a distinctly non-white way of life that is supposedly completely at variance with the ‘Western’ or ‘European’ culture. Relative deprivation in the form of a fall in living standards is easily blamed on the arrival of immigrants and refugees, and this is indeed what right-wing populists tend to do. The restructuring of the usual pact between working-class electorates and social democratic parties has occurred in the aftermath of the 2008 economic crisis in which social democratic parties, rather than the financial sector and its elites, are blamed for profligacy and being supposedly ‘soft’ on welfare ‘scroungers’, especially non-white immigrants (although white Eastern Europeans have also been caught up in a form of racialised, xenophobic framing).

What brings all these elements together is what has been called the ideology of ‘nativism’. “Britain first”, as the murderer of the British MP Jo Cox shouted as he killed her,  echoes Trump’s ‘America first’, and ‘Germany for Germans’ or ‘Sweden for the Swedes’, always with the strong sense that the ‘true’ or ‘genuine’ natives who are being defended are white. Trump’s rallying cry ‘Make America Great Again’ has been perceived as a thinly veiled call for making America ‘white again’, notwithstanding the fact that the earliest Americans we know were non-white indigenous peoples (formerly labelled ‘Red Indians’). In the case of Britain (and this might be extended to the whole of Western Europe), the fantasy of an original, pure white population is belied by the fact that the earliest Briton discovered so far (the so-called ‘Cheddar Man’ whose remains were found in the Cheddar gorge) would today be identified as black.

Right-wing national populism, then, is a thoroughly racialised phenomenon. Not all those who support nativism would see themselves as racist, but the consequences of adopting a nativist stance draws one into territory that is certainly stained with racism.

Recently, Hilary Mantel, twice winner of the Booker Prize, said that she thought racism was definitely a factor in the criticisms levelled against Meghan Markle, the mixed-race Duchess of Sussex. Mantel, who of course wasn’t the only high profile commenter to make this connection, also added that she thinks racism ‘is more deeply embedded in people’s consciousness than any of us is willing to admit.’

All the evidence points to the essential truth in Mantel’s admonition of attitudes towards the Duchess. Moreover, her description of ordinary people’s consciousness points to underlying, widely held racist beliefs. These can take the form of ‘cultural’ racism, Islamophobia, or even ‘colour-blindness,’ in which people accuse antiracists of racism, for raising the issue of racism. That is what is meant by “reverse racism”, which attempts to shut down rational discussion of racism and racialisation.

It is little surprise then that both racism - and the rise of nationalist right-wing populism that is fuelled by it - has flourished on such fertile ground.

Ali Rattansi is Visiting Professor of Sociology, City, University of London

These issues and many others are explored in greater depth in the second edition of his book: Racism: A Very Short Introduction, to be published by Oxford University Press on 24 March 2020.

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