Written by Arslan Suleymanov, edited by Annica Auer
An infallible method of conciliating a tiger is to allow oneself to be devoured.
– Konrad Adenauer
In a democracy, statesmen of a diverse scope of ideologies, beliefs, and aspirations are vested with executive power by the people who voted for them. The fundamental principle of democracy as a system of governance lies in its emphasis on inclusiveness, which guarantees its capacity to evolve in response to emerging challenges by promoting equality among all individuals.
Yet, some democratic regimes have been self-destructive and catalysed societies’ transition into autocracies, dictatorships, and even an anarchic Hobbesian state of nature. The main shortcoming of a system that prioritises the power of the people is that it permits the ascension of a despot. In what has been labelled as the Platonian paradox of democracy, autocratic political forces that may threaten the very existence of democracy as an institution in the long run are free to run for office and be elected to exercise their destructive aspirations. People have, indeed, on many occasions, allowed themselves to be ‘devoured’, and entrusted authority to populist ‘tigers’, such as plutocrats, tyrants, and buffoons who have been able to impress or bribe voters with charisma and enticing promises. Democracy is the power of the loudest, owing to the fact that a victory in elections is often attained by the power of propaganda rather than the power of merit.
Critics, however, will argue that usurpation is a relic of the past and that modern societies are self-aware enough to prevent dictatorships from emerging. In Europe, calamities of the 20th century have forced democracies to introduce measures and mechanisms that preserve stability and prevent destructive systematic changes from happening. Nonetheless, the resurgence in the popularity of radical political ideologies in Europe, evident since the onset of the 21st century, may suggest that the electoral base has again become more susceptible to populist demagoguery. Throughout the European Union, far-right parties have become increasingly popular in the political sphere, securing parliamentary representation and influencing the media landscape. The existing data on the ongoing rise of popularity of far-right parties in Europe, as well as specific topics and issues raised in their narratives, suggest that these parties have been successfully using fear incitement as one of the key elements of gaining electoral support, manipulating the public and making them susceptible to their ideas. To understand the scope and origins of this phenomenon, it is important to understand the essence of far-right narratives.
Forces placing themselves to the right of the political spectrum tend to glorify traditionalism, financial self-reliance, and national identity. The difference between the right and the far right lies within their definitions of the scope of the three aspects mentioned above. Spanning from the centre to the far-right of the political spectrum, the key characteristics of a nation can vary in specificity, ranging from shared beliefs, values, and adherence to a common social contract to belonging to a particular race, ethnicity, or religion. Various political forces have skillfully exploited this ambiguity, creating numerous definitions of a nation to align with their party’s contemporary objectives. Far-right discourse has predominantly centred on portraying the nation as a guarantor of peace and security, a metaphorical garden, a sanctuary that shelters people from faraway beasts. In essence, the nation has been depicted as an overarching entity that unifies individuals in response to perceived threats or shared fears, encompassing concerns such as poverty, political instability, and catastrophes. In their narratives, politicians from this ideological spectrum have focused on eliminating proven and exaggerated threats that vary greatly, from galloping electricity prices to the “Islamisation of Europe”.
Fear of escalating threats as a catalyst for public support
In politics, a threat-elimination approach revolves around dealing with the emotions of voters by mitigating their negative emotions through future commitments (Polyakova, Shekhovtsov, 2016, p.4). There are three drivers behind the popularity of the European far-right that fall into a threat paradigm: distrust in contemporary political institutions, weakening of electoral alignments and parties’ adherence to their ideologies, and increased overall political and ideological fragmentation. However, while various studies and sociological experiments have reaffirmed the significance of an overall socioeconomic environment and unique political standpoints that amplify the popularity of radical political ideologies, the role of individual and subjective factors such as fear and anger cannot be underestimated when determining the reasons behind growing electoral support of right-wing and far-right political parties in the European Union. This is especially the case given the context of issues the bloc has been facing since the 2008 financial crisis, including the 2015 European refugee crisis and the concurrent threat of Islamic terrorism, as well as the ongoing Russian invasion of Ukraine.
Conventional wisdom holds that public anxiety increases support for far-right movements and agendas. Radicals capitalise on and amplify emotional responses to shifting social orders and challenging political or economic conditions, effectively employing fear as a means to accomplish their objectives. This phenomenon can be elucidated through the Affective Intelligence Theory, which posits that individuals experience fear when they perceive a threat to their well-being originating from an unknown source. The theory contends that fear aids in exaggerating the magnitude of a threat. As a result, fearful individuals become more receptive to persuasion, given their uncertainty in confronting such threats.
Concurrently, fear and anxiety prompt individuals to reassess their previous habits and choices, directly influencing party loyalty. Amid collective fear, voters tend to consume more news, rendering them vulnerable to propaganda. This susceptibility can be attributed to challenges that some individuals encounter when processing extensive news information and their hesitance to verify the credibility of received data. In times of public unease, fearful voters exhibit diminished partisanship, abandoning their party identification in favour of a contemporary agenda that provides direct solutions to pressing societal issues (Vasiloupoulos, Marcus, Valentino, Foucault, 2018, pp.6-9). Consequently, the narrative of fear may have served as a potent instrument for European far-right parties to sway public opinion and attract supporters from various political affiliations.
The scarcity of resources and opportunities represents another prevalent catalyst for collective fear. According to the Realistic Group Conflict Theory, resource scarcity pervades every society, resulting in continuous competition among social groups to maximise benefits and optimise resource utilisation. However, conflicts may also arise from diverging values and cultural identities.
Dominant social groups often harbour anxiety regarding potential disruptions to the societal balance of power. They fear that their identity and abundance of resources may be overshadowed by the expanding influence of practices espoused by other domestic and foreign social groups. In light of the climate crisis and rising unemployment—both of which relate to resource scarcity—growing European Union-wide fear may have contributed to the increased popularity of far-right parties, as suggested by the Realistic Group Conflict Theory.
Political movements that prioritise the preservation of identity, values, and beliefs in their agendas tend to assuage these fears, subsequently garnering electoral support (Lucassen, Lubbers, 2001, pp.547-549). By addressing the concerns stemming from resource scarcity and cultural anxieties, far-right parties have successfully resonated with the electorate’s collective apprehensions.
Uncertainty, chaos, changes, and alienation – the pillars of the far-right playbook
Far-right political movements across the European Union have consistently exploited uncertainty in their pursuit of power. Recent relative electoral successes of far-right parties in Sweden, Italy, Germany, Austria, and Finland demonstrate their ability to popularise and address fundamental concerns such as economic downturns, mass migration flows, crime, terrorism, and national sovereignty (Polyakova, Shekhovtsov, 2016, p.1). In accordance with the theories described earlier, far-right parties have employed fear-incitement narratives to present seemingly clear-cut solutions amid uncertainty felt by Europeans due to events of both local and global scope.
Still, however, over the years, the rhetoric of the European far-right has generally become “softer”. Fears are now instigated through near-scientific suppositions rather than conspiracy theories, as was previously the case. In response to uncertainty caused by major regional and global calamities, far-right political figures pledge to mitigate fears with radical solutions. The far-right consistently engages in scapegoating, a practice of pinpointing a single institution, event, or ethnic, racial, or political group as the root cause of a complex issue with negative consequences. Scapegoating fosters anger, fear, and discrimination while simultaneously elevating the image of the accuser. By continuously adjusting accusations to address contemporary issues, far-right parties attract stronger support from voters who might otherwise shy away from displays of overt racism and religious fundamentalism.
Historically, a manufactured fear of rising instability has played a significant role in the far-right’s playbook. Following the 2008 financial crisis, the European far-right promoted strong isolationist demagoguery, blaming EU institutions for the crisis and exacerbation of economic downturns. Radicals manipulated people’s fears of unemployment, poverty, and an uncertain future. Through this narrative, the French National Rally achieved an unexpected victory in the 2014 EU parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, Austria’s Freedom Party doubled its electoral support between 2006 and 2013, with far-right parties in Hungary, Poland, and Romania experiencing similar successes.
Human beings are afraid of change, as it often has a major impact on the well-being of society as a whole. During the 2015 Syrian refugee crisis, parties like the Sweden Democrats attracted public support by convincing voters that they must be afraid of the “imminent
Islamisation of Europe” and of the “destruction of the European identity” by asylum seekers. In the eyes of the far right, major cultural shifts and events that impact society’s collective mindset inevitably threaten their conservative values, which according to them are fundamental to maintaining law and order. Thus, according to radical propaganda, social changes and realist policy adjustments are the root cause of chaos and destruction. In 2015, the French National Rally made a promotional poster depicting two women, one of whom had her face covered by a hijab with the following headline: “Choose your suburbs – vote for Front [the party used to be called “National Front” at the time].The Polish Konfederacja party called for political and humanitarian isolationism amid the influx of Ukrainian refugees during the Russian invasion of Ukraine in 2022. These instances exemplify how significant societal transformations are construed to incite fear, subsequently fostering misconstrued narratives around shifts in the domestic balance of power.
Fear of replacement as a tool driving electoral support
Far-right political ideologies often idealise the “common man” and utilise narratives that emphasise the fear of being left behind amid global structural changes and related issues. These radical agendas instigate a fear of alienation, an exaggerated and artificial public anxiety about the mistreatment of the voter majority by elites, migrants, corporations, or as a result of technological breakthroughs. A large proportion of the EU’s population consists of working-class individuals who are susceptible to challenges caused by income disparity, mass migration, and automation of labour.
The European far-right exploits the common man’s fear of being “left behind” by their employers and governments alike. However, radicals seldom explain the complex nature of these challenges or their mitigation. Far-right political parties accuse dominant European centre-right parties of not representing the “true people” in the face of large economic and financial corporations, which allegedly aim to exploit the working class. This narrative aligns with Euroscepticism and opposition to the European single market, in which unqualified workers from less developed member states risk being “replaced” by more qualified foreign counterparts or even machines (Rodríguez-Aguilera, 2014).
European far-right political parties have consistently tapped into the emotional undercurrents of their voter base to achieve electoral success. By continuously adjusting their manifestos, agendas, and electoral promises, they have addressed the most common fears and concerns expressed by voters across the European Union. The increasing popularity of radical ideologies from the far-right side of the political spectrum suggests that European voters exhibit a weakened sense of party loyalty when confronted with calamities that have a Union-wide impact.
European far-right parties have continuously acted as tigers, and sadly, we did not take Adenauer’s statement seriously for decades. As a result, these parties have managed to capture the attention of voters, even attracting those who might otherwise shy away from their radical ideas. The future of far-right politics in Europe hinges on both the changing social and political landscape and the ability of citizens and policymakers to recognise and counteract fear-based narratives. The growing influence of military conflicts near the Union’s borders, rapid advancements in labour automation, and the exponential expansion of multinational corporations may further amplify the popularity of the far-right. Yet, certain questions remain unanswered: will the fear-incitement narrative continue to prevail in the future, considering the public’s increasing awareness of such tactics? Will policymakers be wise enough to design stricter mechanisms to contain populism? As the time advances, we will be able to see the direction of further developments in this sphere.
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POLYAKOVA, A., & SHEKHOVTSOV, A. (2016). What’s Left of Europe If the Far Right Has Its Way? Atlantic Council. http://www.jstor.org/stable/resrep03454
VASILOPOULOS, P., MARCUS, G. E., VALENTINO, N. A., & FOUCAULT, M. (2018). Fear, Anger, and Voting for the Far Right: Evidence from the November 13, 2015 Paris Terror Attacks. SSRN Electronic Journal. doi:10.2139/ssrn.3208577