Dr Aurélien Mondon is Senior Lecturer in French and Comparative Politics at the University of Bath's Department of Politics, Languages & International Studies.
Misdiagnosing the Democratic Crisis
With the French elections just around the corner, and with current polling suggesting the Front National is set to become a leading party in France, the stakes have never seemed so high. While the Front National is used to making headlines come election time, its strong position this year seems somewhat reinforced by the electoral events which shook the UK and US last year. Indeed, the Brexit vote and Trump’s election have sent a strong signal that nationalist and even racist politics are now part of the mainstream, and no longer an insurmountable handicap in electoral jousts. In fact, an uneasy sense of resignation seems to have enthralled the mainstream elite discourse: the people have turned reactionary and all that can be done is limit the damage.
Yet only a year ago, few would have guessed the way events would unfurl. Had they had to guess, most commentators, pundits and experts would have forecast that the UK would have voted to remain in the European Union and Hillary Clinton would have defeated Donald Trump. At that stage, predicting the results of the French presidential election seemed fairly straightforward: Hollande’s dismal record and approval rating would make it impossible for him – or any other likely socialist contender, such as Manuel Valls – to appeal to enough of their disenchanted base to reach the second round. The Parti Socialiste’s failure would clear the path for Marine Le Pen to do to the centre left what her father did to Lionel Jospin in 2002, and reach the second round. She would eventually lose to Alain Juppé, whose more consensual approach would serve as a shield against the far right – as Jacques Chirac had in the past. All in all, it would be business as usual. Bremain, Clinton and the French Républicains would triumph over the rise of far right racist politics, and life would go on for another political term, allowing the far right to polish its discourse and increasingly normalise its ideas as political distrust and disillusionment remain unaddressed.
But, things did not go to plan. Under the right circumstances, a campaign based on lies and racist stereotypes succeeded, reinforced by an alternative whose only argument was also based on fear and the pursuit of an unsatisfactory status quo. The US presidential election highlighted widespread political dissatisfaction across the west, as a candidate prone to racist and sexist outbursts, clownesque at the best of times, and whose own party banded against him, went on to beat the politician par excellence.
With an emboldened far right – and the media and experts lamenting the results and blaming parts of the electorate for their vote – key lessons have been mostly ignored. Brexit has for the most part been publicised as a plebiscite for the politics promoted by UKIP, thus justifying Theresa May’s choice to send the country down a hard Brexit line with a strong stance on immigration. This of course neglected the many reasons behind the vote, from the left-wing Lexit, to the more neo-liberal justification put forward by some Conservative pro-Brexit campaigners. More importantly, whether it be Brexit or the US presidential election, mainstream media coverage has allowed caricatural elitist politicians like Nigel Farage and Donald Trump to pass themselves off as the voice of the people, claiming they speak for a conveniently ‘silent majority’. Here again, a more careful analysis would highlight that, while their campaigns did indeed gather enough votes to win these particular electoral jousts, their politics are by no means majoritarian, with Brexit receiving ‘only’ 37% of the registered vote (split between all the Brexit factions) and Trump a mere 25% of the eligible voting population. Worse still, Farage’s UKIP only received 8.5% of the registered vote in the 2015 General Election, and yet was allowed a prominent voice in the debate. Of course, abstention and other forms of political discontentment were ignored in much of the mainstream discourse, as voting has become internalised as the only valid way to express democratic concerns (Mondon 2017).
Immigration as a Key Issue: Following, Appeasing, Manipulating or Creating Public Opinion?
As a result of this partial understanding, the Brexit vote and Trump’s victory have often been carelessly linked in the mainstream discourse to a growing anti-immigrant sentiment. Some commentators and politicians have welcomed that censorship on the issue has finally been broken, while most appear to have accepted the return of xenophobic and nationalist sentiment as popular and democratic demands. In the UK, such a reaction has even crossed traditional boundaries, with prominent figures in the Labour Party toeing a similar line to the Conservatives.
Yet accepting anti-immigration measures as a democratic demand emerging from the ‘demos’ itself is overly simplistic, and ignores the fundamental power relationships at play in our public discourse. Indeed, it would be naïve to think that people’s perceptions of their society beyond their immediate community are not mediated by the views expressed around them (and in particular within elite discourse). To put it simply, while those controlling the public discourse may not tell you what to think, they can certainly influence what you will think about (McCombs and Shaw 1972). It is thus not surprising to discover that the mainstream media has played a key part, consciously or unconsciously, in the mainstreaming of what Ruth Wodak called ‘the Haiderization of Europe’ (Wodak 2013, see also Khosravinik 2009, Mral, Khosravinik, and Wodak 2013). The negative and skewed media coverage of political campaigns and their disproportionate focus on immigration is reflected in the way people (mis)perceive their broader community and the issues these imagined and fantasised communities face. As demonstrated by the Ipsos Mori survey The perils of perception in 2015, it is common for respondents to overestimate the number of migrants and Muslims in their country (Ipsos Mori 2015), two categories of the population which occupy a disproportionate and stigmatised place in our media and political discourse (Kundnani 2014, Hajjat and Mohammed 2013). However, well-recorded misperceptions do not in themselves convincingly argue whether public opinion is predisposed to anti-immigrant sentiment leading elite discourse to respond to the matter, or whether this skewed understanding of society is created by elite public discourse through agenda-setting.
Some clarity emerges using a simple, and by no means exhaustive, experiment conducted taking two questions from the Eurobarometer survey. The first requires respondents to provide what they think are ‘the two most important issues facing (their country) at the moment’. As Table one suggests, immigration does indeed seem like a genuine concern across the EU, and in the UK in particular where it is noted as the most important issue.
However, a different picture emerges when respondents are asked what they think affects them personally. When European citizens consider their daily struggle, immigration and terrorism remain low on ‘the most important issues’ they face ‘personally’ (despite the poll taking place after the January Paris attacks). ‘The most important issues’ the French, British and Europeans are facing are those which have seemed conspicuously absent in the public debate about the future of the EU, or addressed through the immigration lens (see Table two).
Perhaps most striking here is that respondents felt immigration to be an issue when asked about their countries, but not about their own daily lives and struggles. It should not come as a surprise that respondents have a better grasp of their daily lives. They experience them first-hand and their concerns appear to be practical, although not necessarily unbiased: cost of living; health; social security etc. Their neighbour is not perceived as an immigrant, but as someone who takes the bus, is employed or unemployed, goes to university, and struggles in similar ways. However, when asked about their country, it is much harder to grasp first-hand what the concerns are or should be, and the appreciation of such concerns becomes necessarily mediated. This mediated knowledge of politics acquired through the media, relatives or any other social interaction means that people’s construction of the national (and international) political context must rely on sources with various ideologically-loaded agendas.
It must be noted that the results from the Eurobarometer discussed above are not taken as ‘real’ representations of public opinion, either at a personal or national level – as Pierre Bourdieu once argued, ‘there is no such thing as public opinion’ (Bourdieu 1973). Yet they point to a dissonance in what public opinion seems to desire when it is confronted with immigration. Instead of those issues more likely to be reported by the media being a pressing issue for respondents as could rightly be drawn from the question about the national context, the question about the self provides a counterpoint, which, while not evidence of immigration not being an issue in itself, shows that a different narrative is just as credible according to the same survey data. While providing an answer is outside the purview of this article, the aim here is to demonstrate that an obvious question is absent from our reporting: are ‘we’ worried about immigration, or do ‘we’ think immigration is an issue because it is so prominent in our public discourse?
Moving Towards the Acknowledgment of Systemic Failures
This is not to say that we should not take the rise of anti-immigration sentiment and its expression in xenophobic and racist acts seriously. Nor should we downplay the rise of the far right and the politics associated with it. The electoral surge of such parties and the mainstreaming of their discourse have dramatic and very real consequences for the lives of many and for the functioning of democracy. However, what this article argues is that the rise of the ‘populist alternative’ has not taken place in a vacuum, but has been used as a synecdoche for the much deeper crisis. Polls have suggested that a vast majority of Europeans no longer trust their representatives, be they embodied in the national parliament, government or political parties (including the so-called populists). Since 2004, the Eurobarometer (European Commission 2015) has recorded only one instance out of twenty where the trust in either parliament or government reached an approval rate of more than 40 % across Europe. Strikingly, this was in September 2007, before the GFC hit Europe. Since September 2009, the level of trust has fallen below 33% and as low as 24% in the Autumn 2013 survey. Trust in political parties is even lower, with only one instance in which levels reached more than 20% (22% in April 2006). In France in the November 2014 survey, 90% of respondents declared their lack of trust (80% in the UK in the same survey). This lack of trust in parties and institutions has demonstrated a schism between the demos and the cratos, and yet has only been addressed within the hegemonic understanding of democracy.
Therefore, the main argument put forward here is that mainstream narratives used to explain the rise of the so-called populist right offer at best an incomplete version of the complexity behind the state of contemporary politics. Ignoring abstention and focusing on partial and mediated attitudes to pressing issues has led to a fundamentally skewed understanding of the democratic landscape. In our post-democracies, discontentment takes many shapes and the resurgence of so-called populist parties is but one of the symptoms.
These findings would suggest, therefore, a different approach to policy if we are to counter the rise of nationalism and racism. This would first require a move away from short-term panics and quick fixes such as the borrowing of far-right discourse to deal immediate but ultimately counterproductive blows – Nicolas Sarkozy’s 2007 campaign (Mondon 2013), for example, or David Cameron’s promise of a referendum on the EU. Instead, more radical recommendations should be made to tackle such issues in the long term:
- Conduct careful and nuanced analysis of the political campaigns and elections in the Netherlands, France and Germany, where the far right is set to be a prominent actor.
- Shift the focus of discussion towards political dissatisfaction, and stress consistently the limited appeal of far right parties so far. Note that this should not downplay the very real impact these movements have on politics and policy, but should act as a word of caution to politicians and their mandates.
- Engage in a thorough analysis of the impact of political and media coverage of so-called right-wing populism and the potential hype it generates.
- If hyping is confirmed, explore ways to counteract the phenomenon and engage in alternative modes of enquiry and dissemination of information.
- Re-engage with the growing sections of the population who have demonstrated little to no interest in either alternative offered so far (‘business as usual’ or the ‘populist right’) in an open manner, beyond commonly understood political boundaries and horizons.
- Understand the current hegemonic status and challenge its contingent borders to make the possibility of more progressive and radical politics a reality.
- Explore systemic issues pertinent to the current level of dissatisfaction.
Obviously, these policy suggestions would require a thorough transformation in the way ‘progressives’ approach politics, even though they are rather modest. It would first of all necessitate a more radical approach, not just to politics, but to the way we think about political possibilities. If anything, the success of the far right in imposing its agenda and normalising ideas which were long considered to be unthinkable politically should demonstrate that political norms remain contingent and the mainstream something malleable.
This blog post is part of an IPR series focused on the rise of racism and the far right. This collection of commissioned blog posts will be published as an IPR Policy Brief in summer 2017. Sign up to the IPR blog to get the latest blog posts, or join our mailing list to receive invitations to our events and copies of our Policy Briefs.
Bourdieu, Pierre. 1973. "L'opinion publique n'existe pas." Temps Moderne no. 318.
European Commission. 2015. Eurobarometer. Brussels: European Commission.
Glynos, Jason, and Aurelien Mondon. 2016. "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 no. 4.
Hajjat, Abdellali, and Marwan Mohammed. 2013. Islamophobie. Comment les élites françaises construisent le "problème musulman". Paris: La Découverte.
Ipsos Mori. 2015. Perils of Perception. Ipsos Mori.
Khosravinik, Majid. 2009. "The representation of refugees, asylum seekers and immigrants in British newspapers during the Balkan conflict (1999) and the British general election (2005)." Discourse & Society no. 20 (4):477-498.
Kundnani, Arun. 2014. The Muslims are coming: Islamophobia, Extremism and the domestic war on terror. London: Verso.
McCombs, Maxwell, and Donald Shaw. 1972. "The agenda-setting function of mass media." Public Opinion Quarterly no. 36 (2):176-187.
Mondon, Aurelien. 2013. "Nicolas Sarkozy's Legitimisation of the Front National: Background and Perspectives." Patterns of Prejudice no. 47 (1):22-40.
Mondon, Aurelien. Forthcoming 2017. ‘Limiting democratic horizons to a nationalist reaction: populism, the radical right and the working class’, Javnost.
Mral, Brigitte, Majid Khosravinik, and Ruth Wodak, eds. 2013. Right-Wing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse. London: Bloomsbury Academic.
Wodak, Ruth. 2013. "'Anything goes!' - the Haiderization of Europe." In Right-Wing Populism in Europe: Politics and Discourse, edited by Brigitte Mral, Majid Khosravinik and Ruth Wodak. London: Bloomsbury Academic.