From the early 1980s on, parties that were dubbed as “extremist”, “radical”, or “populist”, or right that had been located at the margins of the political systems suddenly proved highly successful at the polls in countries such as diverse as Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, Norway, and Sweden. Their diversity not withstanding, it soon became clear that these parties had some important commonalities and should be grouped into a single-party family.
There is less agreement as to what motivates the voters of the extreme right. In many of the earlier accounts, the notion of a (pure) “protest vote” features prominently. The more recent literature, however, acknowledges that protest is often not un-ideological at all but clearly directed against immigration. Consequentially, the vast majority of comparative studies of the extreme right vote now adopt a theoretical framework that is based on the notion of a conflict between non-Western immigrants and the indigenous population over scarce resources (jobs, welfare benefits).
Given the importance that the issue of immigration has for the parties of the extreme right, it makes obvious sense to assume that the voters of the extreme right are primarily motivated by concerns about immigration. Due to data restrictions, however, there is surprisingly little empirical evidence to support this view.
While anti-immigrant sentiment and (to a lesser degree) notions of “pure protest” dominate the recent discussion, a third explanation holds that economic (neo-)liberalism is the key ingredient in the extreme right’s winning formula that mixes xenophobic statements with an attack on high taxation, the welfare state, and its bureaucracy. Such a program would appeal to working class and lower-middle class voters who feel that they do not benefit from “big government” but are likely to suffer from comparative disadvantages in a globalising labour market.
Thanks to the ESS, a large-scale, pan-European survey of social and political attitudes that is carried out every other year, these three accounts can be pitted against each other. Analyses of a subset of the ESS covering Austria, Belgium, Denmark, France, Italy, the Netherlands, and Norway show that protest does not have a statistically significant effect in most countries. Only in Belgium and the Netherlands is there a link between (dis)satisfaction and the extreme right vote. But even there, the difference in terms of the likelihood of an extreme right vote between those who are fairly dissatisfied and those who are fairly satisfied amounts to only about 2.5 percentage points. On balance, “pure protest” seems to play a very limited role.
Similarly, economic liberalism is obviously not a key ingredient in the electoral winning formula for the Extreme Right: its effects are insignificant in all countries. Crucially, the effect is negative (though statistically insignificant) for the voters of the French Front National, whose founder Jean-Marie Le Pen provided the blueprint for many other parties of the extreme right and (briefly) embraced Reaganomics.
On the other hand, positive sentiment towards immigrants generally exerts a significant negative effect on the vote. Put differently, concerns about immigrants and immigration policies emerge as major motivation for the voters of the extreme right in six out of seven countries. The single exception is Italy, where the effect is not significantly different from zero. This specific finding sheds an interesting light on the Alleanza Nazionale (which merged with Forza Italia in 2009), whose supporters make up the vast majority of the Italian extreme-right voters in the data set; first, even the Alleanza’s neo-fascist predecessor party MSI displayed only very limited hostility to foreigners, and second, the party has moderated its profile so much in recent years that some scholars do not longer consider it as part of the Extreme Right. While one can obviously not judge a party by its voters, the results demonstrate that the Alleanza’s supporters were different in so far as they were apparently not particularly attracted by anti-immigrant rhetoric and policies. Rather, they seem to be motivated by their general left-right preferences and their identification with the party.
In all countries, ideology and party-identification also have strong and highly plausible effects on the extreme right vote. This provides additional evidence against the pure protest hypothesis. To summarise, the extreme right vote is driven by intense feelings of anti-immigrant sentiment in all countries but Italy. In line with theories of ethnic conflict, these feelings are particularly strong within those segments of the electorate that compete with immigrants for scarce resources (low-paid jobs and welfare benefits). While the effects of anti-immigrant sentiment are important, they are, however, moderated by general ideological preferences and party identification. Market-liberal preferences, on the other hand, are not correlated with support for these parties. This sets the Western European extreme right apart from its North American counterpart.
The full research paper can be found here.