Rory Hamilton – 14th October 2022
Common Weal: International Affairs Series
What is happening elsewhere in the world? If you looked at the papers it would probably consist mostly of ‘far right holds balance of power in [insert country here] elections’. Recent elections in Italy, Sweden, France (not so recent), and in the not so far off European country of Toryland, have seen much media coverage given over to the ‘populist hype’. The ‘populist hype’ phenomenon we have seen in the last ten years or so, is a term used by academics Jason Glynos and Aurelien Mondon to describe the supposed ‘meteoric rise’ of the far right in relation to the status quo of ‘centrist’ politics. Populist hype serves to mainstream far right ideas and ideology and is generated by three factors in the reporting of elections: exaggeration of the results, exaggeration of the role played by the far-right parties and their leaders, and a binary framing of the electoral narrative.
Why is this important?
If there’s anything that bolsters racists, and fascists more, it’s believing they are part of a movement, or better still leading one. Think back to when Nigel Farage visited Donald Trump in the US for his election rallies, bringing the ‘Brexit spirit’ with him to ‘stick it to the establishment’. Just as building solidarity is important for the momentum of trade union movements, so too is it of symbolic importance to building momentum in oppressive movements. So…
You need to listen up and spot fascism when its coming at you, and pleasantly reading the Sunday newspapers’ less than lucid reporting of elections abroad without critically interrogating it, will find us eventually seeing deportation flights to Rwanda as relatively liberal in comparison to what we might be getting if we don’t do anything about it. So here is your step-by-step guide to spotting a misleading headline, inaccurate reporting, and actually understanding what the fuck is going on in the world.
Firstly, the change in vote share is usually shown as a key harbinger of the ‘rise of the far right’. The percentage increase in vote share can present the image of the ‘emergent’ party as an expression of ‘the will of the people’. However, this can be misleading, and hide some key facts about the elections. Let’s look at Sweden…
Turnout in Sweden was 84% – that’s pretty high compared to us in the UK. The Social Democrats (SDWP, centre-left) came out on top with 30.3%, Sweden Democrats (SD, far-right) second on 20.5%, Moderate (M, centre-right) on 19.1%, Left on 6.8%, Centre on 6.7%, Christian Democrats on 5.3%, Greens on 5.1% and Liberals on 4.6%. The main reporting has been that the Sweden Democrats, with Nazi roots in the party and a heavy anti-immigration stance, now hold the balance of power in government forming talks. But let’s look at these results a little more: while SD saw a 3% increase in vote share, the incumbent governing SDWP also saw a 2% increase in their vote share, the Left moved up into fourth place despite losing seats, and the Greens also overtook the Liberals to be only 0.2% behind the Christian Democrats. Do we think that reporting of the Swedish election accurately reflected this counter-shift against the right?
With centre-right parties making losses and the far-right gaining, why is the framing of the electoral narrative pitting this as a large loss for the ‘mainstream’ – this sort of narrative frames the election as if ‘mainstream’ or ordinary voters are shifting to the far-right, away from progressive values in Sweden. Totalled up, the percentage of voters who shifted their support to SD from the 2018 election largely came from those who voted SD last time (64%), while 21% came from those who previously voted for one of the other centre to centre-right parties, and 15% from those who had previously voted for a party of the left. The demographics of the election show that the SDWP was the most popular party among both blue-collar and white-collar workers (32% across both), and among 22 to 30 year olds, while the Moderates were the most popular among 18 to 21 year olds (26%) and entrepreneurs and farmers (25%). Where is the SD in all this? Why are reports failing to include this? Because it doesn’t make for a good story.
However, there are also important observations to make for the ‘mainstream left’. The narrative of the election was set against the intense scrutiny of Sweden’s immigration laws in the wake of increased violence and crime: 273 shootings, 47 of them fatal, in the last year. In this context, a further look at the rhetoric of the election shows how far the mainstreaming of far-right ideas has come with Magdalena Andersson, the now former prime minster saying “we don’t want Chinatowns or Somalitowns,” and expressing a very culturally homogenous view of Swedishness. Placed in context next to comments made by the UK’s Shadow Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rachel Reeves about ‘the problem’ of illegal immigration, we can see how the willingness of those on the soft left to accept far-right tropes and ideas about the society we live in have normalised ideas like that of SD’s supposed ‘repatriation express’: ‘Welcome aboard with a one-way ticket. Next stop, Kabul’.
The media framing of SD’s ‘success’ is not unlinked with the illiberal view expressed by the former Prime Minister – they enable each other, as parties seek to counter this threat from the far right by appealing to the tropes that are supposedly gaining support. It is not unlike the moves by David Cameron to appeal to the hardline Brexiteers in his party to prevent a supposed UKIP-takeover in the Tory party… look how well that’s gone.
Secondly, populist hype attributes a key role in the ‘success’ of the far-right to the parties and their leaders themselves; not only does this give them a semblance of credibility or competence, but it also provides a reductive account of the elections themselves. In Italy, elections saw Giorgi Meloni’s Brother’s of Italy (FdL) party take 26% of the popular vote (up from 4.4% in 2018), and all the headlines have been raving that she will become the first female Prime Minister of Italy (the government-forming process hasn’t even started yet!). The framing of this is important for disentangling the portrayal of the role of the far-right. My first observation about this is that it took me a lot of looking about in news articles to find a description of what exactly FdL’s policies are. From the Guardian to Reuters, to CNN, to Politico, this atrocious level of reporting aids neo-fascist actors such as the FdL in their bid to be ‘presentable’. Novara Media reported their slogan to be “God, fatherland and family” which is rather reminiscent of Ein volk, ein reich, ein führer wouldn’t you say?
Meloni also rallied against the ‘LGBT lobby’, and promised to guarantee women the right to not have abortions, and promoted racist theories of the ‘great replacement’, a conspiracy theory believed by most on the far-right that Muslims and people of colour are a threat to ‘the white race’, and relaxed immigration laws and bodies like the EU will lead to white people being wiped out – a disgusting theory that should not be given any credible platform. However, owing to reports by mainstream media outlets across the world, failing to include key bits of information such as this, Meloni can appear to give the fascist right a ‘presentable’ face. These reports also ‘freeze’ fascism and racism into history, with the credibility afforded to Brothers of Italy represented as something different to that of Mussolini, thus making the party appear credible in another sickening way.
My second observation about this is that FdL fought the election as part of a ‘Right alliance’, alongside old establishment, slimy-guy, paedophile Silvio Berlusconi and his Forza Italia, and Matteo Salvini’s Lega (another far-right, anti-EU, anti-immigration party, more akin to UKIP). Reports which emphasise Meloni’s role as leader and the FdL as a party neglect to include this tactical move as playing a key role in carrying Meloni to 26% of the vote. Indeed, in 2018 Lega had a 17.4% vote share, and FI 14%, both of which dropped to around 8%, with some of this naturally switching to FdL as part of this alliance which has legitimised the Meloni’s neo-fascists and therefore reduced the stigma for many Italians to openly express a fascist preference which had previously been hidden under the guise of conservative policies and simple anti-EU sentiment with FI and Lega.
Furthermore, this alliance legitimised FdL owing to the attachment to previously establishment parties: FI had formed governments under Berlusconi in the past, and Salvini had been Minister of the Interior in a coalition government with the Five Star Movement. Therefore, Meloni’s party could effectively present themselves as both anti-establishment representing the ‘will of the people’ against the corrupt elite, whilst also gaining the governing credibility attached to the allies in the political alliance. This anti-establishment image was therefore able to co-opt the rhetoric which the Five Star Movement (that of little fixed left or right ideology) had previously relied on before becoming a party of government itself, and take support away from a party which pitted itself as ‘of the people’, and fighting the corruption of the system.
And all this takes place against a backdrop of an election with falling turnout despite the implementation of a new voting system. Turnout was down 9% from 2018, at 63.8% and 63.7% in the Chamber and Senate respectively. If this tells us anything, is that voters are moving away from expressing their views at the ballot box owing to the state of politics and corruption in the country. If a platform were offered to really mobilise people and inspire them to support a bold vision for Italy’s future, this might change, but we absolutely should not read this as a failure of the people to turn up, rather that politics has failed them, and when it does that, fascism wins. By painting the picture of the Italian election as simply a victory for the far-right negates all these key features which are important to understanding how much of a threat Meloni is, as well as contextualising how much influence they actually had in the election. It all makes Liz Truss’ tweet of congratulations seem all the more vacuous.
Finally, the third crucial aspect of the populist hype is the binary narrative which pits ‘democracy’ against ‘populism’ (which to some sounds like ‘the establishment’ against ‘the people’).You might, at this point be thinking, ok so how did we really get here? For some it might feel like a complete shock that fascism has returned to Europe, for others it might feel a continuation of events since the Brexit vote six years ago. Both views are valid, for much of the legitimisation of these narratives have been enabled by a political vacuum in the ‘centre’ (some might say ‘mainstream’) of politics, with people feeling disenfranchised by hard-left and -right ideologies. So in swoop the centrists like Emmanuel Macron who essentially view the social policies of the left as politically advantageous at the ballot box because it doesn’t make them seem as bestial as those on the right, whose austerity policies disregard for workers’ rights they’ve also grabbed because they think it’ll satisfy the middle classes. Macron benefited in 2017 from being the ’anti-establishment’ candidate (despite having served in government before and essentially being the establishment rebranded), as he had never run before and his party was new, but Le Pen had run in the past, as had her father many times, and the Rassemblement Nationale was a long-established party.
The problem for centrism, however, is that its luck quickly runs out because as an ideology it is politically weak, and easily co-opted by nefarious ideologies purported by the far-right and the media as ‘legitimate grievances’. For example, only recently did Macron’s interior Minister Gerald Darmanin battle with long-time far-right candidate Marine Le Pen on French national television, and proclaimed her to be ‘too soft on Islam’ (it really is a remarkable exchange, take a look: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7iikHKikEM8). On top of this stance, workers are disempowered and exploitative practices let off the hook (look at the excellent work of the Gig Economy Project on this: https://braveneweurope.com/gig-economy-project-we-are-still-fighting-against-macron-only-now-at-the-european-level-interview-with-edouard-bernasse-of-the-collective-of-autonomous-platform-delivery-workers#comment-163704). This weakness of centrism mainstreams the views of the far-right, and also alienates voters.
At the 2022 legislative and presidential elections, turnout was at 47.5% and 73.69% respectively in the first round. Most outlets again reported that the presidential election was a two horse race between Macron (on 27.85%) and Le Pen (on 23.15%), failing to give genuine column space to Leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon’s 21.95% of the vote. In the meantime, much hype was given to Eric Zemmour, a former journalist pushing the same great replacement theory as Brothers of Italy, as a ‘serious contender’ who finished on a mere 7%. So voters were then left with the predicted run-off in the final round between an out and out far-right ideology, and one masked as a mainstream ‘liberal’ ideology. The support for Melenchon showed, however, that a popular Leftist vision could counter this bad choice, and in the legislative elections the NUPES coalition of almost all parties on the left, incuding the Socialist Party of presidents past, proved majorly popular in winning over voters, taking 25% in the first round and 31% in the second round, finishing second to Macron’s Ensemble coalition. NUPES sought to forward progressive ideas such as lowering the retiremeny age to 60, raising the minimum wage and capping the price on essential products, and put aside differences on nuclear energy, and policing among other things – and it showed to great effect. As one member said, “This is a gathering of the forces of the social and ecological transformation on the basis of a profound change in society.”
The success, whilst against a low turnout, shows how a unified message and cross-party work can empower the many and combat the racist, classist, and sexist ideologies which permeate from the far-right to the ‘centreground’.
So what lessons does the populist hype have for us in Scotland?
This last example in France shows a stark contrast to the behaviour of ‘progressive’ parties in Scotland – in particular, as Craig has discussed in previous weeks, the SNP and Green government putting the rent freeze in its policy plan (in vague terms), only weeks after Labour tabled a motion to introduce the legislation. If we are to learn anything about European politics it is that only acting on issues when it is politically expedient to do so is a sure fire wash to alienate voters and appear hollow. It disappoints me to see it happen because the potential for a really strong progressive platform in Scotland would have strong appeal, not only for Holyrood but for Westminster too. When we think about the vicious racism of the Tory government through things like the Rwanda deportation scheme or the attempts to stop workers striking through coercive means (rather than offering them the wages and conditions they quite reasonably demand), we should be looking for a united front to counter what is quite clearly the movement of the Tory party away from conservatism and towards reactionary politics built on the back of headlines in the Daily Mail and the Telegraph.
The SNP and Greens should be wary of falling prey to the centrist weaknesses demonstrated in France, and they still have the time to be part of a progressive vision for Scotland, but it must reject the neoliberalism of the Sustainable Growth Commission for a start. It was wonderful to see the First Minister rebut Stella Braverman’s remarks about immigrants, but it would be even more wonderful to see the First Minister lead cross-party efforts to build any future vision on progressive economic values as well as social ones.
One thing to understand is that the ‘mainstream’ (Labour, the Tories, Lib Dems, SNP, and their European equivalents), is not essentially good, rational or moderate, and the willingness of these parties to adopt a ‘radical’ position is co-dependent on the media’s legitimisation of narratives which support views lying outside the mainstream. The issue of the populist hype leads us to ask more questions about who has control of the narrative? In the UK, we know the control of our media is overwhelmingly concentrated in the hands of a small few, and even those public service broadcasters are at the whim of ideological powers (think about Emily Maitlis’ speech, or the attempts to privatise Channel 4). Not only does this have important implications for the reporting and analysis of elections, but it also makes us question just how ‘free’ our speech is, an issue I will come back to in a later instalment – but remember those who often claim to be silenced are those who possess the means to silence.
If anything is to be learned, however, it is that statistics can be misleading, and we have to interrogate them at every opportunity – news I’m sure Craig will be delighted to hear. I’m not trying to dismiss the threat of the far-right by any means – quite the opposite. By highlighting the misleading way in which their influence and power is represented, we can better be aware of their presence and work hard to counter the legitimacy of their ideas and claims. The far-right is indeed a very real threat, and we must not allow their ideas to be mainstreamed any more than they already have been. If we want to build an inclusive society that works for everyone, regardless of race, gender, class, ethnicity, religion, and puts all of us first then don’t believe the hype, and always challenge your sources.
Articles and sources referred to in this piece:
Brown, Katy, and Aurelien Mondon. ‘Populism, the Media, and the Mainstreaming of the Far Right: The Guardian’s Coverage of Populism as a Case Study’, Politics (Manchester, England), vol. 41/no. 3, (2021), pp. 279-295.
Glynos, Jason, and Aurelien Mondon. “The political logic of populist hype: The case of right-wing populism’s ‘meteoric rise’ and its relation to the status quo.” POPULISMUS Working Paper Series (2016).
De Cleen, B., Glynos, J., & Mondon, A. (2018). Critical research on populism: Nine rules of engagement. Organization, 25(5), 649–661.