Populists, greens and the new map of European politics

by Sheri Berman
In light of the gains by green parties and right-wing populists in the Euro-elections, Sheri Berman explores how the traditionally dominant parties respond to such challenges.
‘Peak populism’ and the ‘green wave‘ was how many observers summarised the outcome of the recent European Parliament elections. Green parties will have 69 seats in the new parliament, up from 51 in the last, while right-wing populists increased their vote share to 25 percent from 20 percent last time. As is the case in many national parliaments, a critical consequence of this rise of green and populist parties is that for the first time since direct elections to the European Parliament began in 1979, traditional centre-right and centre-left parties will no longer have a majority in it.
How can we understand these trends? Although right-populist and green parties are often considered polar opposites, they are similar in that both are what political scientists refer to as ‘niche parties’: they draw their strength from their association with a particular issue—immigration and environmentalism, respectively. Perhaps for this reason, most explanations for their rise focus almost exclusively on structural trends which have purportedly propelled these issues to the forefront of political competition.
Green party advance, it is argued, is thus best understood as a consequence of the growth of post-materialist values, which emphasise self-expression and quality-of-life issues, such as the environment, over economic and physical security, while populism’s success reflects the surge in immigration—or, rather, voters’ backlash against it. Yet, while seemingly intuitive, such explanations are at best the beginning of the story of the rise of green and populist parties, not its end.
Post-materialist values, for example, have become more prevalent in all western-European countries over the past decades, yet green parties have become powerful political forces in only some of them. And those countries where green parties have been strongest, such as Germany, are not necessarily the most post-materialist (that honour probably belongs to the Scandinavians).
Similarly, there is little correlation cross-nationally between the number of migrants in a country, or even racist or nationalist sentiment, and populism’s success. Swedes, for example, are among the least racist and nationalist people in Europe, yet the right-wing Sweden Democrats are the third largest party in the country. The Irish and the Spanish, on the other hand, score relatively highly on such measures, yet populism has not been particularly potent in either country. Relatedly, immigration flows and racist and nationalist attitudes also can’t fully account for populism’s gains over time: attitudes towards immigration have grown more positive and racism has declined across much of Europe during the past decades, at the same time as support for populism has increased.
Alongside empirical shortcomings, the larger problem with explanations that focus on structural trends is that they assume such trends translate directly into voting decisions. But whether ‘new’ issues such as environmentalism or immigration cause voters to shift their allegiance to green or populist parties depends critically on how traditional centre-left and right parties respond.
Distinct strategies
When new issues and parties emerge, existing parties can adopt three distinct strategies. The first is dismissive, which entails ignoring the issue and niche party. This only makes sense, however, if the new issue is unimportant and/or fleeting and the niche party is likely to fade away. Otherwise the dismissive strategy simply cedes ‘ownership’ of the new issue to the niche party, enabling it to capture voters who prioritise it.
The second strategy is adversarial, which involves clearly and vociferously opposing the niche party. When mainstream centre-left or right parties adopt an adversarial strategy, they raise the salience of the niche party’s issue—since they contribute to keeping it at the forefront of political debate and competition—and therefore help entrench the niche party’s ownership of it. This only makes sense, therefore, if mainstream parties are confident that most voters, and their own voters in particular, do not agree with the niche party’s position on the issue and are therefore unlikely to defect to it.
(An adversarial strategy could theoretically also make sense if a mainstream party believed its main competitor would lose more votes to the niche party than it would. A left party, for example, might calculate that by vociferously opposing the populist right on immigration it would raise the issue’s salience and the populist right’s ownership of it, which would lead anti-immigrant voters to abandon the centre-right for the populist right. Centre-right parties might play a similar ‘game’ with environmentalism, to strengthen the greens at the expense of social democrats. This approach has, however, evident dangers and downsides—most obviously, miscalculating the consequences of raising the salience of a new issue and its electoral consequences.)
The third strategy is accommodative, which requires mainstream parties moving their policies closer to those advocated by niche parties. This strategy is the most discussed by social-democratic parties today. In Germany, for example, in response to the Greens overtaking the SPD in the Euro-elections, the party’s chief whip, Carsten Schneider, said its failure to highlight climate change had been its big mistake: ‘I think the main issue was climate change and we didn’t succeed in putting that front and centre.’ Now a poll has put the Greens ahead of all other parties for the first time. Meanwhile, other leftists in Germany have openly called for the left to champion a major shift in immigration policies to win voters who support the right-populist Alternative für Deutschland.
By bringing their policies closer in line with those of niche parties, mainstream parties hope to limit defections to them. The problem is that this works best early on—once a niche party owns an issue, it is likely to backfire.
When a new issue, such as environmentalism or immigration, appears on the scene, if mainstream parties believe it is important, unlikely to fade away and a significant number of their supporters care deeply about it, it makes sense to try to prevent a new niche party from gaining ownership of it and thus being able to attract voters who prioritise it. There is evidence, for example, that in countries where the mainstream right quickly shifted to more restrictive immigration policies and openly placated nationalist concerns, the populist right was less successful.
But an accommodative strategy is most effective during the ‘window of opportunity’ before the distinctiveness and credibility of the niche party’s position on the issue has been firmly established. Once a niche party owns an issue, an accommodative strategy becomes risky, since anything that raises that issue’s salience or propels it the forefront of political debate is most likely to help niche and hurt mainstream parties. Which is why, of course, populists spend so much time demonising immigrants and Greens spend so much time talking about a coming environmental apocalypse. (This doesn’t mean mainstream parties shouldn’t take stances on such issues—only that they should do whatever possible to avoid moving them to the forefront of political debate and competition.)
As real as environmental problems and controversies over immigration are, they alone cannot account for the ‘peak populism’ and ‘green wave’ Europe is currently experiencing. Party behaviour matters. But just as the success of populist and green parties can’t be understood without examining the actions of the centre-left and right, where populist and green parties have become established the nature of political competition has shifted.
The political future will therefore depend heavily on how successful green, populist, social-democratic, Christian-democratic and other parties are in keeping the issues that benefit them most at the forefront of political debate and competition.
This article is a joint publication by Social Europe and IPS-Journal
(Sheri Berman is a professor of political science at Barnard College and author of Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe. From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day (Oxford University Press).