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Underdog politics

Support for parties of the populist right has been growing across Europe. Faced with 37 per cent support for the far-right Progress Party, according to polls in his home country Norway, political writer Magnus Marsdal travelled across Europe to find out why

June 14, 2008
12 min read

The dark clouds of right-wing populism are gathering over Europe. In Norway, it has taken us a long time to recognise the threat but now the Progress Party (FrP), established in 1973, has become the country’s leading opposition party with support reaching as high as 37 per cent, according to some polls in 2006. Its growth as the ‘new labour party’ is the most serious threat the Norwegian left has had to face since the 1940s.

The FrP is aiming for government power in 2009. Ten years ago nobody would have thought this possible. Members of the FrP were seen as crazy, established parties ignored them, journalists laughed at them. Nobody’s laughing now.

For my book The FrP Code: The Secret Behind the Progress Party’s Success (Manifest, 2007) I travelled around mainland Europe to investigate right-wing populism. I wanted to know why so many workers are voting for the harsh neoliberalism of parties like the FrP. Early in my travels, it became clear that this is an international phenomenon. A combination of xenophobia and aggressive rhetoric against the political elite has succeeded for Jean-Marie Le Pen’s National Front in France, Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party in Austria, Gianfranco Fini’s National Alliance in Italy, Belgium’s Vlaams Belang, the Swiss People’s Party, which is the country’s biggest, and the Danish People’s Party too.

Danish voters turn to the right

My first stop was Denmark. The government of Anders Fogh Rasmussen came to power in 2001, supported by the Danish People’s Party, Denmark’s counterpart to Norway’s FrP. The 2001 election produced the most conservative parliament since the 1920s. The new right-wing majority’s three parties (Venstre, Konservative and Dansk Folkeparti)increased their vote to 52 per cent from 40 per cent in 1998. And the biggest shift to the right occurred within the working class.

In 2001 many more workers voted for the right than the left. According to the Danish Valgprojektet (Election Project), ‘Workers’ support for socialist parties has fallen away … There is a class-defined demobilisation … an almost total loss of support for the workers’ parties among the younger part of the working class … especially among skilled workers.’

But class voting patterns do still exist: the Danish People’s Party is in effect the new labour party. No other Danish party has such strong support from the working class. In 2001, 61 per cent of its voters were workers, nearly three times as many worker-voters as the Social Democrats. Two-thirds of workers in the private sector voted for the right. The new right-wing coalition was re-elected in February 2005 and again in November 2007.

There are clear parallels between what has happened in Denmark and the FrP’s success with workers in Norway. As I travelled further south I found more of the same.

Earthquake in France

‘Earthquake!’ screamed the front page of the French newspaper Le Monde when the right-wing extremist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, beat the social democratic prime minister, Lionel Jospin, in the first round of the 2002 presidential elections. Everyone had thought Jospin and the conservative president, Jaques Chirac, would be fighting the second round. Instead it was Le Pen who was going forward. Political shockwaves hit Europe. Jospin resigned immediately.

Although Norway’s right-wing populists would rather not admit it, the FrP and France’s National Front have much in common. Both developed from minor protest parties for small businessmen into broad parties of discontent for many of the less privileged. The Front, like the FrP, has made use of many of the left’s traditions. Right-wing populists have worked to build a social movement. They have conducted long-term ideological training and propaganda. For a while, the Front even had its own trade unions, among the police as well as others.

So who are their voters? The Front’s electorate is divided. On one side are the bourgeois, highly paid and deeply conservative tax-haters; on the other, workers and the unemployed. Capitalism’s new service workers, in particular, vote for the far right: drivers, subcontractors, temps and employees in small companies with no union organisation. Their work is precarious; they have little education and few prospects. Young men especially turn to the far right. ‘The youth voting for the Front are the ones we don’t see,’ says political scientist Pascal Perrineau.

Le Pen won nearly five million votes in 2002 and the Front became the biggest working-class party in France. Where 12 per cent of France’s working class voted for Jospin, 26 per cent voted for Le Pen. Though Nicolas Sarkozy has subsequently drawn away much of the right-wing vote, it was the same phenomenon we are now seeing in Norway and Denmark: radical, populist, right-wing forces gaining ground among the workers. Why?

Far-right identity politics

Talking to people who voted for the Norwegian populist right offers useful insights for anyone trying to fight radical right-wing populism elsewhere in Europe, particularly when it comes to what I call ‘identity politics’.

How does the FrP make the worker-voter identify with a party that is positioned so far to the right? Hostility towards foreigners and mobilisation of ‘white’ or ‘Norwegian’ identity plays a big part. So does the male-

orientated FrP’s anti- feminism, which mobilises identity among male voters.

The right-wing populists also play with a particular type of consumer identity that sets the population as consumer individuals against the state, the tax system and the elite. These are the obvious side of the FrP’s identity politics.

There are two other elements that are less apparent but even more important to consider, both in Norway and in other countries where right-wing populism is on the rise.

Worker identity

First, the FrP’s rhetoric offers its own worker-identity. This is not the worker as opposed to bosses and owners. It is the worker contrasted to the lazy and dole abusers ‘below’ and ‘posh’, cultured people ‘above’.

It is quite normal for people to imagine society as if it were split into three different sections, with themselves in the middle. Moral values determine who is worthy, and who is unworthy, both ‘up there’, ‘down below’ and among ‘proper working people’. The unworthy ‘up there’ include all those who represent the state, the Labour Party, the government and everybody else who ‘lies and steals money from common workers’, as Hans Erling Willersrud, the car worker who is the main character in The FrP Code, puts it.

Among people ‘down there’, the worthy are those who, through no fault of their own, have become ill, disabled or been made redundant. Everyone else is unworthy, including those who don’t do their jobs properly. For many workers worthiness equals skills – you are worth something because you have skills and you do something. This way of measuring worth and dignity is an alternative to measuring by income or education. On this essentially moral scale, the ‘honest worker’ comes out on the same level as, or above, the rich person or the leading politician.

The unworthy also include the dishonest: those who turn with the wind, pay lip service to all, who are not ‘solid wood’, as Norwegians say. The worst are probably those who suck up to ‘posh’ people and intellectuals one moment, only to denounce them among workers the next. Not being perceived as ‘solid wood’ has created quite a few problems for politicians, especially for the Labour Party, which needs to present itself favourably to different groups at the same time.

From my interviews with working-class FrP voters, I made a simple model to show how those ‘up there’ and ‘down there’ stand in relation to the ‘proper working people’. The elite ‘up there’ are divided into three different types:

  • the ‘know-it-alls’ linked to the education system and the state;
  • the greedy, found at the top of the economy; and
  • the politically powerful (often connected to the ‘know-it- alls’ and the greedy).

    How does the FrP’s rhetoric compare with this model? leader Carl Hagen proclaimed early on that, ‘I have no taste for self-indulgent actors who worship high culture.’ He has also expressed open contempt for politicians, calling them two-faced, for example. No Norwegian politician has exploited the moralistic concept of ‘the people down there’ to his own advantage as persistently, or effectively, as Hagen.

    Here he is in Norway’s biggest newspaper Verdens Gang: ‘I blame the layabouts, wasters, scroungers, those who are rude, people who lack respect, people who demand too much, those who are irresponsible, and loose women … We need better morals for our society, and for people to take the consequences of their own choices and lifestyle. We can no longer feel sorry for all those who get themselves into trouble. We can’t justify the cynical taxation of the hard-working and responsible in order to give to the lazy and irresponsible.’

    In a world full of layabouts and scroungers ‘down there’ and slick, lying careerists ‘up there’, the ‘honest worker’ stands high in the moral hierarchy. He’s the one who keeps the wheels turning, along with honest capitalists, bosses and managers, while others only think of themselves. This kind of worker-identity fits perfectly with the right-wing populism of the FrP. mentality,

    A sense of grievance

    A second element to the FrP’s identity politics is that of aggrieved identity. ‘I’m just an ordinary worker, I have no fucking say,’ says Hans Erling Willersrud. He knows what it means to be at the boss’s beck and call and he’s had enough of the condescending attitude of Labour politicians who ‘can’t be bothered to listen to what [he’s] got to say’.He had some contact with the social security office when he was sick, and ‘has had it up to here with the system’. ‘They wouldn’t even believe he was in pain,’ says his mother Eli.

    Hans Erling thinks politicians and bureaucrats are driving his country into the ground. He believes the social democratic elite has arranged things so the rich, the shrewd and the sleazy can take advantage of the system at the expense of the common man. He’s at the bottom of the pile at work. He’s at the bottom of the pile at the dole office. He’s at the bottom of the pile in the trade union (as an FrP voter) and in politics in general. He sees himself as a ‘political underdog’.

    This doesn’t mean he is weak. On the contrary: being an underdog is not about lacking personal strengths, but finding that they don’t count for anything. More powerful people, regardless of their competence, are lording it over theunderdog, without recognising his skills or paying attention to what he actually knows, thinks or wants. It’s humiliating. He feels aggrieved.

    And how does a political party like the FrP exploit the popular mood? It uses political language and images to touch a nerve with people who feel ignored, trampled on and overruled.

    Carl Hagen’s most important ploy is to place himself in the role of the underdog. When he rages against the other parties wanting to keep a strong FrP out of government, he says, ‘Our voters will not be treated as second-rate.’ This simple sentence is perfect for connecting with people who on a daily basis, whether at work, at school or in the media, feel that they are treated like second-class citizens. Widening the focus, Hagen implies that what ordinary workers are in the workplace, the FrP is in the party political system. The voters can identify only too readily with what he is saying.

    At the same time, Hagen – in the role of the affronted man who refuses to back down – offers the promise of vindication. For more than 30 years he has paid for the conceited sins of others, he tells them. But he turns the other cheek. Unlike the powerful and the arrogant, he is not driven by haughtiness or personal ambition. He is only fighting for what’s fair.

    This underdog pose is brilliant because it can be applied to so many different voter groups. Above/below is a relationship that most people can recognise. Because he understands the underdog mentality, Hagen can connect with social-democratic workers as readily as with Christian fundamentalists who feel that their Christian cultural heritage is under threat.

    Other subjects that mobilise the affronted population’s sense of themselves as the underdog include the FrP’s attacks on ‘politicians and bureaucrats’, its protest against schemes such as ‘the new opera being paid for by taxpayers’ and accusations that overpaid journalists are ‘persecuting the FrP’.

    The left falls for it

    This is a game that Hagen and his party have played for 30 years. The astounding thing is how leftists, journalists and the ‘cultural elite’ have fallen for it.

    They have attacked the FrP’s voters as ‘lacking intelligence’, they have condemned them for being a bunch of narrow-minded racists, and they have ridiculed Hagen as ‘irresponsible’ and ‘a populist’. They have, in short, done a fantastic job of elevating the FrP and its leader to a sort of political martyrdom. The more the dominant forces in politics and the media have scorned him, the better Hagen’s chosen role fits.

    The success of right-wing populism is not only about what its proponents do and what voters think. It is just as much about how other parties, and especially the leftist elite, have created an enormous division between themselves and ordinary people at the bottom of society. The right’s populist success is the other side of the left’s failure, whether they are self-satisfied social democrats occupying privileged positions in the state or ‘post-modern’ socialists entrenched behind trendy theories on globalisation, the ‘networking society’ and individualisation.

    The left will only be able to fight the racism and right- wing populism spreading through Europe’s working class if it is prepared to take a critical look at itself. As the FrP’s highly successful leader puts it, ‘The Norwegian people are sick of being patronised. The other parties, and Labour in particular, show nothing but contempt for the people.’

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