Book chapter: The populist right, the working class, and the changing face of class politics.

Co-authored with Hanspeter Kriesi. In J. Rydgren (Ed.), Class Politics and the Radical Right. Abingdon and New York: Routledge, 2013, pp. 10-29.

Read the introduction:

To many, the transformation of West European party systems since the 1970s and 1980s was seen as evidence that the era of cleavage based politics was over. The rise of identity politics was interpreted not only as a result of the waning of the traditional class and religious cleavages, but as evidence for a new era in which political preferences de-coupled from social structure began to shape voting behavior. It was assumed that voters were “beginning to choose” parties for their policy propositions, the quality of their personnel, or based on their value preferences. The more recent successes of the extreme populist right once again were taken to indicate that anti-establishment populist mobilization was cutting across class alignments. From this point of view, the by now well-established finding that the working class is over-represented in the extreme populist right’s electorate came unexpected.

While a host of hypotheses have been advanced to explain the propensity of parts of the working class to support the extreme right, the phenomenon still awaits a theoretical explanation and a systematic empirical test of the rivaling theses. In this chapter, we review the explanations that have been put forward and test whether economic grievances or cultural world-views are better in explaining the phenomenon. Both are related to the processes of modernization and globalization, which have a cultural, as well as an economic component. We argue that the changing nature of conflicts in West European party systems is crucial in explaining the shift of the manual working class to the extreme right. In particular, the dual transformation of political space has resulted in a new cultural divide that plays a pivotal role in explaining the extreme populist right’s appeal for the working class. Preferences along this divide are structured by education and by the experiences individuals make at their workplace, either making them more open to cultural liberalism, or leading them to endorse a anti-universalistic counter-model of community that is based on the exclusion of immigrants.

In conceptual terms, we make an innovative contribution by focusing both on the individual-level characteristics accounting for participation in elections, as well as on those explaining the choice of extreme right-wing populist parties. Using Heckman selection models, we show that the losers of economic modernization actually abstain from voting, while those uncomfortable with cultural modernity support the extreme populist right. Even if we control for political preferences and a number of other factors, however, the over-representation of blue collar workers in the extreme right’s electorate persists. The working class by now appears firmly rooted in this segment of the electorate. While not being the social segment worst-off in post-industrial society, it has experienced a relative decline as compared to the postwar decades, making it receptive to the culturalist appeal of the extreme right. These findings beg the question how individuals with similar political preferences vote in countries where extreme right-wing populist parties are absent. In a final step, we tackle this question. We show that not voting is the preferred option of anti-universalistic or authoritarian segments of the working class where an extreme right option is missing. Thus, the capacity of the mainstream parties to rally this electorate appears limited even in those party systems not facing an extreme right challenger.

The analysis is based on survey data from thirteen West European countries, six of which feature sizable extreme right-wing populist parties, while these parties failed to achieve an electoral breakthrough in seven others, the Greek LAOS and the Swedish Democrats having been on the verge of breaking through. We start with the discussion of the continued relevance of social class in West European politics and lay out our account of the formation of a new cultural divide. We then discuss various explanations that may account for the propensity of the working class to support the extreme right, and include measures for these hypotheses in our statistical models. The empirical part of this chapter is structured as follows. In a first step, we look at the class basis of the extreme populist right and analyze to which degree the propensity of certain occupational classes to support these parties is explained by education and preferences along the economic and cultural divides. We also take into account the factors explaining political participation. We then take a closer look at voting choices within the working class and try to discern the motives that push voters to vote for the extreme populist right, rather than other parties. Finally, we analyze the vote of those individuals within the working class that share the individual-level characteristics of those supporting populist right parties in the countries where these are present, but lack such an option in their own party system.