The rise and spread of populist leaders across the West has become a defining feature of our current political moment. And in the United States, the election of Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election has launched a debate among scholars as to why so many Americans supported his candidacy. In particular, opinions diverge as to whether cultural or economic anxiety contributed more to Trump’s victory. The supporters of the former viewpoint referenced surveys that linked cultural anxiety to support for Trump. Scholars discovered, for example, that a preference for Trump’s candidacy was closely linked to the racial resentment or “a moral feeling that blacks violate traditional American values.” By contrast, economic explanations emphasized the role of the Rust Belt regions in Trump’s eventual victory. Proponents of this viewpoint argue that the regions that suffered from job losses and economic decline as a consequence of globalization and market openness were more likely to vote for Trump.
In the U.S. context, many on the Left have preferred a simplistic narrative of racism (or, more generously, cultural anxiety) to explain Trump’s election and the broader resurgence of populism in the West. But there are several obvious problems with this approach.
First, methodologically separating the economic and cultural concerns is tricky, since a decline in one’s individual well-being may drive racism and anger against more “privileged” cultural groups. Second, racism-related theories fail to explain why radical and populist politicians tend to attack different social groups in different contexts. They attack blacks and Mexicans in the United States, oppose Muslim immigration in Western Europe, and criticize the Roma and Jewish population in Central and Eastern Europe. One could argue, of course, that the original driving factor behind all of these groups is globalization, which made large-scale immigration and related cultural change possible in these countries. Yet in Central and Eastern Europe the anti-Roma sentiment predated the immigration crisis, and the radical Right has long attacked the ethnic minorities that historically resided in these countries. Similarly, in the United States the influx of immigrants over recent years is comparable to previous periods. It strains credulity to believe that these countries became “racist” or “culturally intolerant” overnight.
Racism, then, cannot be considered the single decisive variable behind the current resurgence of populism. Economic anxiety is the more compelling explanation, the factor that underlies the apparent increase in xenophobia and racism across different countries, and which found its release in the scapegoating of various population groups.
This logic is particularly clear in Eastern and Central Europe—and especially so in Hungary, where populist and radical parties have enjoyed great success of late. Hungary’s radical Right party Jobbik—which has been in the Hungarian parliament since 2010 and consistently polls as the second largest party—was, until recently, notorious for its use of extremely xenophobic and anti-Semitic rhetoric. For example, a 2014 Jobbik election manifesto offered two ways to solve the “Gypsy question:” “The first one is based on peaceful consent, the second on radical exclusion … Our party wishes to offer one last chance to the destructive minority that lives here, so first it will consider peaceful consent. If that agreement fails, then and only then the radical solution can follow.”
In the paramilitary anti-Roma marches that Jobbik organized in the late 2000s and early 2010s, even harsher statements were made. Some participants went so far as to suggest that “all the trash must be swept out of the country,” and that “the Gypsy is genetically-coded for criminality.” While Hungary’s ruling Fidesz party has by and large not adopted Jobbik’s harsh anti-Roma rhetoric, it has at times also tapped into anti-Roma sentiment in subtler ways.
But it is not the Hungarian people’s deep-seated xenophobia that explains the electoral success of the radical Right. Jobbik’s popularity is better explained by processes of socioeconomic dislocation than by racist prejudice.
First, Jobbik tends to be more popular in the economically poorer, northeastern regions of Hungary. These are former Communist industrialized zones that failed to successfully integrate into the new economy following the market transition of the 1990s. The situation resulted in a substantive decline in socioeconomic well-being and loss of previous social status for many Hungarian peasants and blue-collar workers. This has been exacerbated by the dramatic upsurge in unemployment among the ethnic Roma groups, who previously had lower-skilled jobs in Communist factories. This situation fueled the ethnic conflict between the Roma and Hungarian groups.
Cultural anthropologist and sociologist Kristof Szombati conducted an in-depth ethnographic study of northeastern Hungary, which revealed that anti-Roma sentiment was galvanized by large-scale socioeconomic dislocations and political pressures that were acutely felt in these areas. According to Szombati, anti-Gypsyism was primarily fueled by rural Hungarians’ disenchantment with their place and trajectory in the new democratic regime and exacerbated by what they saw as “undeserved attention and support” granted by left-liberal elites to the Romani minority. The key to this story is that the underlying cause of the eruption of anti-Roma passions was the loss of social security and the increasing reliance of downwardly mobile rural citizens’ livelihoods on the state, rather than perennial ethnic hatred or prejudice.
Second, the choices of the political establishment in Hungary exacerbated the situation. Many Hungarians associated their economic hardship and loss of social status with the policies of the left-liberal elites, in particular the Socialist Party (MSZP). In the mid-1990s this formerly pro-labor party switched to a pro-market policy, embraced economic openness, and implemented austerity reforms. While these reforms succeeded in fostering Hungary’s reintegration into the European economy, they also accelerated the export of low-skilled jobs outside of Hungary. Hungarian peasants and blue-collar workers harmed by newly opened markets and globalization felt unprotected and abandoned by the political mainstream.
Populist and radical right-wing parties saw this situation as a political opening. They increasingly adopted an agenda that combined both anti-Roma and economically protectionist slogans, and reached out to disaffected population groups. In today’s Hungary the blue-collar workers tend to overwhelmingly support the radical and populist parties (Jobbik and Fidesz) rather than the leftist parties (Socialist Party and LMP). In particular, during its breathtaking rise in 2010, Jobbik won many of the counties in northeastern Hungary that previously were considered the bastions of the Socialist Party, including Borsod-Abauj-Zemplen, Szabolcs-Szatmar-Bereg, Hajdu-Bihar, Jasz-Nagykun-Szolnnok, Heves, and Nograd.
My own research has shown that constituencies that voted for the Socialist Party in 2006 were statistically likely to support Jobbik in the 2010 parliamentary election. And as Szombati shows in his book, in these regions Jobbik was able to instrumentalize deep-seated but previously depoliticized socio-ethnic frictions at a moment when those who saw themselves as the “rightful owners” of the state were gripped by powerful anxieties regarding their social status, security, and the future of their communities. More generally, Jobbik’s reactionary anti-Gypsyism and its promise to implement policies of “reverse affirmative action” gained traction against the central government’s policy to emancipate the Roma minority, which created incentives for formulating claims and demands in the language of ethnicity.
This process, however, is not unique to Hungary, but represents a common trend in European countries. Kai Arzheimer shows that the so-called “proletarization of the radical right” stems from a twin process of de-alignment and social change, in which the working-class groups increasingly became available for other parties than the traditional Left. In response, the radical Right in different countries has modified its programmatic appeal considerably, thereby becoming more palatable for members of the working class.
The American case further confirms this trend. In his book The New Minority, the political scientist Justin Gest focuses on the example of Youngstown, Ohio to suggest that support for the populist Right is primarily driven by the deprivation—the loss of social status and political importance—felt by white working-class voters, who are significantly concentrated in the Rust Belt and once occupied the center of American politics. This sentiment is exacerbated by resentment towards the liberal political mainstream, particularly the Democrats, whom they view as giving an unfair advantage in government assistance to the non-white immigrant population. Gest highlights that these economic and cultural narratives intertwine to create a sense of post-industrial abandonment among these voters, who are primarily lost and unhappy rather than fundamentally racist.
Donald Trump, of course, was the one political candidate who saw this situation as a political opening. In the 2016 election Trump ran on an openly populist platform, portraying himself as an opponent of global financial elites. For example, he promised to reintroduce the Glass-Steagall regulations, increase trade protections, and withdraw from NAFTA. This arguably brought Trump the support of the traditional Democratic bastions of the Rust Belt. As an acting President, Trump continues to emphasize the need for job creation and his successes in bringing the American jobs back to the country. According to Gest, this plays directly into the white working class’s acute sense of economic loss. Trump’s constant attacks on the political establishment also aimed to foster the support of the working classes, who feel abandoned by the political mainstream. Much like other populists across the globe, Trump used the scapegoating of different ethnic groups (for example, Mexicans and Muslims) as a way to channel the socioeconomic resentment of the white working-class voters.
Overall, this cross-country comparison suggests that rather than being overwhelmingly xenophobic and racist, the lower educated and working-class voters across the developed world have experienced a substantive decline in socioeconomic status and well-being. Combined with a feeling of abandonment by the liberal establishment, these grievances primarily drive the cultural resentment towards various ethnic groups who are perceived as being given an unfair advantage, and eventually culminate in support for radical candidates. Understanding this link should help policymakers everywhere to address the grievances of these voters, and to prevent further political radicalization in their countries.