France had a presidential election last weekend, and one of every five voters who went to the polls that day cast a ballot for conservative ethno-nationalist Marine Le Pen. In Greece, the rabidly anti-immigrant Golden Dawn party seems poised to win enough votes to enter parliament for the first time when elections are held on May 6. In Hungary, the Christian nationalist Jobbik movement won 17 percent of the vote in the first round of parliamentary elections in 2010 and wound up with 47 seats in the legislature. The list goes on.
Why are ethno-nationalist parties so popular in Europe these days?
In a book published two decades ago that is, unfortunately, quite relevant today, Stanford sociologist Susan Olzak wrote: “Factors that raise levels of competition among race and ethnic groups increase rates of ethnic collective action.” Building on the work of anthropologist Frederik Barth, she goes on to identify four processes as the major instruments of increases in ethnic competition: 1) migration and immigration, 2) economic contraction, 3) dispersion from previously segregated spaces, and 4) rising prosperity for previously disadvantaged groups.
Olzak used competition theory to explain patterns in racial and ethnic protest and violence in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th century, when waves of immigration intersected with dispersion from ethnic niches and economic contraction to spur local spikes in everything from strikes to lynchings.
Do those conditions sound familiar? If you’ve been paying attention to recent trends of Europe, they should. The rising vote shares for these ethno-nationalist parties are electoral markers of ethnic mobilization in response to competitive pressures intensified by the global financial crisis that began in 2008. According to the IMF’s latest World Economic Outlook, Greece’s economy contracted sharply each of the past three years and is expected to decline another 4.7 percent in 2012. France has fared somewhat better, but the 0.2-percent annual growth rate forecast for 2012 is still pretty dismal. Hungary has followed a trajectory similar to France’s, with a 6.8-percent contraction in 2009 and sputtering growth ever since. Of course, immigrant populations are hardly new to these countries, but immigration rates have risen in many parts of Europe in recent decades, and competition theory tells us that populations often respond to a shrinking economy by trying to kick out or close off other racial and ethnic groups.
The same dynamics arguably help explain the surge of the Tea Party movement, whose sympathizers evidently exhibit more racial prejudice than other American conservatives. Like much of Europe, the United States endured a bad recession in 2009, the same year Barack Obama arrived in the White House. It’s hard to imagine a brighter signal of the breakdown of ethnic and racial barriers in the United States than the inauguration of our first black president. Where many of us see a happy sign of social progress, competition theory teaches us to beware a rising risk of ethnic tensions and violence.
As for what is to be done about this alarming rise of exclusionary politics, I think Jack Goldstone got it right in a recent blog post on the causes and consequences of the Great Recession and its manifestations in Europe:
My hope is still that in 2013 or 2014 voters and politicians will give up their blind faith in austerity and other false idols of conservative faith, and start a hard search for policies that will give back growth. In the 1930s, it took six or seven years for this to happen, and in parts of Europe facism took over first. Perhaps the most alarming news in the last week is the huge increase in support for and influence of far left and far right parties France and the Netherlands. Hitler did not become Chancellor of Germany because a majority of people voted for him. He became Chancellor because just enough people were frightened of a surge of the far left to support his far-right party, and just enough was about a third of the electorate (only about double what France’s far-right National Front Party garnered last week). There are no signs yet we are headed there, but this is no time for complacency. Politicians and economists need to get serious about growth policy, not austerity, or more trouble lies ahead.
NB: An initial version of this post included “…in Europe” in the title and said less about the Tea Party, but I revised it to emphasize the generality of this trend. I think we in the U.S. often get stuck in a parochial view of right-wing politics in Europe and fail to see the clear parallels to nativist and racist politics at home.