Cheered up by last week? The last few weeks have given us a respite from a seemingly endless wave of victories by populists and the right: after a miserable 2016, we have seen the radical right narrowly defeated in the Austrian presidential election, heavily defeated in the second round of the French presidential election and in the legislative vote, in decline in Germany and locked out of government in the Netherlands. And did I mention a hung parliament in the UK?

Brexit bus

It might be nice to relax and go back to critiquing neoliberalism, but we should not. The populist radical right is still a force to worry about for four reasons.

First, these electoral victories are not so impressive as they might look. In electoral terms, these votes are still scary. Only in the context of 2016 should we be glad that over forty percent of the French and Austrian electorates have voted for candidates from the darkest areas of the right.

Second, the right is directly wielding a lot of power. The radical right is in government or close to it in a number of smaller European countries. Trump is president. Despite much wishful thinking, he is likely to be president until January 2021. The UK is still likely to be governed by the Conservatives… partnering with the Democratic Unionists, a party of the radical right that has benefited until now from the refusal of the UK media to pay attention to Northern Ireland.

Third, the right shapes agendas. There is an alarming coincidence between the manifestos of UKIP and the manifesto that gave the Tories one of their highest-ever vote shares in the last election. The French even have a word for it: Droitisation, or the way the far right pulls the moderate right and even the center-left towards it, aping its arguments in an effort to get its voters. Theresa May’s whole campaign is a nice example of that. But Jeremy Corbyn, who broke with convention on so much, didn’t break with the increasingly nativist tone of politics on Brexit or immigration control.

Fourth, as the last two years have shown, politics after a decade of financial crisis isn’t easy to predict. Parties and party systems across the West have been losing stability for decades, social democratic parties have been eroding and the center-right becoming less centrist while the populist radical right parties grow.

Political scientists have written much about the populist radical right, which I review in a new article (free). The populist radical right has three characteristics. It is populist, siding with the people’s common sense over elite knowledge. It is nativist, believing there is a nation that needs defending. And it is authoritarian, expressing love and respect for authority. In the UK, that means UKIP and the DUP as well as some solid fraction of the Conservative party.

This is basically a toxic brew from the perspective of any likely reader of this blog. Populism is affirming since it relies on arguments anybody can understand. Authoritarianism is both popular in its own right and easy to trigger with, for example, scare stories about migrants.

Nativism, finally, can lead to “welfare chauvinism”, or what Alexandre Afonso calls “fake socialism”: not a neoliberal platform of cutbacks, but rather a generous and very exclusive, nativist welfare state. Think a well funded NHS that you can only use if you provide two forms of ID proving you legally reside in the UK. Trump, Le Pen, and May all campaigned on platforms with a strong element of welfare chauvninism.

Fortunately, there is not a lot of research showing that the populist radical right in office actually pursues welfare chauvinist policies. For a long time, the research found that they ran on welfare chauvinist themes and then enacted classic right-wing cutbacks (which is what you would expect of parties with a strong base in small business people who are notoriously hostile to regulation and welfare states). More recent research has found that in systems where they enter government in coalition, such as Austria or Belgium, they achieve little and what they achieve is in restricting access to benefits- more chauvinism, but not more welfare. The main reason or that is coalition government, which tempers the policy effect of any given party. The newest research seems to show that they also cut back less on welfare budgets relative to more conventional right parties. So: lots of chauvinism, not so much welfare.

In other words, the potential of welfare chauvinism is not being exploited, or at least consistently translated into policy. Trump is a particularly extreme example. After running as a welfare chauvinist candidate (whose logic pointed to a fully funded NHS for white people), he is promoting a Tea Party agenda that will be devastating to, in particular, working class rural whites above fifty who are a key part of his support. May talked a good welfare chauvinist game until people saw the Conservative manifesto, which was chauvinist without the welfare.

As the Canadian writer Jeet Heer noted of the unexpectedly good Labour result, it “looks like you can get young people, minorities, and white working class in a coalition if you offer them something.” That is a niche worth filling. Social Democratic parties exist to fill it, and collapsed after instead becoming unconvincing catch all parties. The populist radical right remains a threat, but if it empowers social democrats to actually pursue social democracy, then the long run outcome might be positive.

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