Progressive Futures

Progressives can’t ignore the rise of rightwing nationalism

23 September 2016

Dismissing voters as racists and xenophobes only serves to further fuel populist disdain of mainstream politicians

Matt Browne
John Halpin

As the US presidential election enters its final few weeks, Republican Donald Trump is closing the gap with Democrat Hillary Clinton in both national and battleground-state polling. Although Trump has a much more difficult path than Clinton to securing the 270 electoral college votes necessary to become president, a once unthinkable scenario is now at least plausible – one of the most diverse nations in western society electing a reactionary white nationalist to run its national government and represent the US in global affairs.

Trump, of course, is not new to political observers in the UK and Europe who are contending with the aftermath of the Brexit vote and rising rightwing parties such as the UK Independence party, the Front National, The Finns, Alternative für Deutschland, and the Danish People’s party. Trump’s brand of rightwing nationalism is much like its European counterpart with promises to reverse globalisation, reduce immigration, fight cultural diversity, and maintain a social welfare system that primarily benefits the majority white so-called native communities.

Reams of social scientific studies in recent years have explored the origins of rising nationalism across western democracies. From this research, it is clear that an interaction of economic, cultural, and anti-institutional grievances among primarily older, white segments of western societies are driving much of the anti-establishment, nativist, and authoritarian movements worldwide. White voters fed up with traditional politics and social change are fleeing their party homes for alternatives that promise to defend national interests against global intrusion and provide greater cultural and economic protections for their communities.

The question for progressives thus becomes what can we do, if anything, about these trends?

This is a tricky proposition given the important role of racial resentment and nativism in the success of rightwing nationalist movements. Progressive leaders cannot accept these values and policy positions. But neither can they ignore these attitudes and expect things to work out politically. Unfortunately, the alternatives frequently presented – for example, more economic populism or more identity-based politics – seem inadequate to successfully address the threat from the right and make headway in reducing class and racial antagonisms in western societies.

Issues such as inequality, declining wages, corporate power, and diminishing social mobility are critical ones for progressives, and solutions to these problems should be pursued. An exclusive focus on economic populism, however, is unlikely to blunt the nationalist drift, nor will it bring back white working-class voters in droves to progressive parties.

Much of this fight will inevitably occur on the values terrain. Progressives must strongly defend equality, tolerance, and economic opportunity for all people against forces that seek to marginalise and punish racial and ethnic minorities, migrants, and vulnerable communities of all kinds. The movement toward full inclusion in society, equal rights, and self-determination for all people is the central goal of progressive politics and should never be pushed to the side simply because the politics are thorny.

At the same time, other dimensions of white anxiety – distinct from overt racism based on beliefs about the inferiority of racial and ethnic minorities – need to be better understood if progressives are to develop viable strategies for bringing more working-class whites into cross-racial and ethnic alliances. Voters who may have questions about the policy impacts of migration, global trade, and the free movement of people are not all proponents of white nationalism, state-sponsored attacks on minority rights, or harsh treatment of refugees. Progressives would be foolish to simply leave these voters open to the nativist appeals of Donald Trump, the Front National, Jobbik, or Ukip without a forceful explanation of progressive values and ideas for dealing with people’s legitimate social anxieties. An approach that simply dismisses these voters as racists and xenophobes only serves to further fuel populist disdain of mainstream politicians and drive greater support for rightwing parties.

This will require some difficult conversations with voters about the benefits of rising diversity. Progressives should not shy away from these political discussions. In the modern world, the truth is not that societies can be strong in spite of diversity but that diversity itself is actually a necessary source of strength and national prosperity.

Progressive parties will also need to be more aggressive in their economic proposals and much more serious about political and institutional reforms. Progressives ultimately will succeed only by embracing, rather than ignoring, the desire for change among voters. This will require us to prove to voters, and marginalized people of all races and ethnicities, that we are truly committed to helping them overcome all economic and governmental barriers to personal success, happiness, and economic security.

Photo credit: Twocoms / Shutterstock.com