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<nettime> Marcel ten Hooven: Wilders' (= populist) vot
Patrice Riemens on Sun, 5 Mar 2017 16:39:59 +0100 (CET)

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<nettime> Marcel ten Hooven: Wilders' (= populist) vot

Rob van Driesum send me this one, which turns out to be 8 months old by 
now, but is still very timely. It is an argument I have made myself for 
a long time: do not look only at the current 'losers', look at at a far 
more 'dangerous'- and far larger group: those who think, and possibly 
quite rightly so - that they will be the (near-) future losers. Angst is 
a worse councellor than an actual bad situation, where need to survive 
and maybe be, opportunity to make changes, prevail.

This has also been my argument for a universal, unconditional, basic 
income: taking away economic insecurity/vulnerability at a base 
existential level will 'solve' neither poverty nor inequality, but it 
will go a long, long way, to prevent actual, and worse still, perceived, 

Cheers to all, p+5D!

Original to:
(6 juli 2016)
bwo Rob van Driesum

  Wilders' voters are not just ‘globalisation’s losers’

It’s not just ‘globalisation’s losers’ who are opting for the far right. 
Wealthy penthouse dwellers and insecure self-made members of the middle 
class are doing the same. What they have in common is their perception 
of a hostile outside world.

Who are the people who are voting for the populist right? In the public 
debate they are usually labelled as ‘the people globalisation left 
behind’. So neatly do they fit into this category that any extreme 
right-wing following outside this group is hardly acknowledged. After 
Brexit the spotlights were likewise trained on the old, struggling 
industrial areas of the north of England where signs of decline are 
plainly visible in the shape of high unemployment, long-neglected 
housing estates, broken homes and alcoholism.

It’s a blind spot that is distorting reality. It is highly unlikely that 
the 52 percent of people who voted for Brexit is made up exclusively of 
victims of the economic downturn. That would make the British economy a 
basket case if ever there was one. Another false assumption is that most 
Brexit voters support the conservative Tory party, with the bulk of 
Labour supporters firmly situated in the remain camp.

The worldview that forms the basis of the far right appeals to a much 
broader group of voters. Extremism and its inbuilt aggression against 
those who oppose it poses a bigger danger precisely because it is not 
conveniently limited to ‘globalisation’s losers’. The political reaction 
to the looming threat of an authoritarian swing to the right will have 
to go beyond announcing a few measures to help this group.

But for now the old political order appears to be at a loss in the face 
of the disruptive effects of the emerging populist right. The image of a 
British political establishment in disarray may well add fuel to the 

Political scientist Sarah de Lange, senior lecturer at the University of 
Amsterdam and an expert on European populism, agrees. ‘We social 
scientists like to have neat and tidy explanations for phenomena such as 
these’, she says. ‘And so we tar voters for the extreme right with the 
same one-dimensional brush. We call them the losers of globalisation and 
there we are. But it’s no more than an assumption. There’s no empirical 
proof and, what is more, it ignores the presence of other explanations 
for the swing to the right.’

No matter how much the populist right may deviate from the usual 
patterns, its deeper motivation is the same as that of other parties. 
Stripped to its essence, its aim is to achieve power to serve its 
interests. Amid the multitude of populist right-wing electoral issues 
there is one that, openly or not so openly, invariably has a role to 
play, as was the case with Brexit: the desire to protect a prosperous 
society from ‘outsiders’ such as immigrants, and from institutions which 
are perceived to pilfer the state coffers rather than filling them, with 
the European Union heading the list.

Ever since the financial crisis of 2008 revealed the vulnerability of 
economic prosperity, the power struggle to safeguard this particular 
interest has turned increasingly ugly. It could be seen at its most 
aggressive and racist in some video footage shot shortly after Brexit 
showing Juan Jasso, resident in Britain for eighteen years, being mobbed 
and abused on a Manchester tram by three teenage thugs. He is called a 
‘fucking immigrant’ who should ‘get off to Africa’. But the idea that a 
nation’s prosperity can be claimed as an exclusive property also appeals 
to those with a higher level of education and successful careers who 
feel they have got to where they are through their own efforts and that 
those who fail only have themselves to blame. This is a self-image that 
can also motivate a vote for the populist right.

Studies by research bureau Motivaction are pointing in the same 
direction. During his research Koen Damhuis, a Dutch sociologist who 
conducts studies for the European University Institute in Florence, 
encountered a number of self-made men none of whom could be considered 
globalisation’s losers by any stretch of the imagination. ‘My interviews 
with people who vote for Wilders sometimes involved ringing penthouse 
doorbells. These people are saying: I work harder than other people and 
I contribute more to the country’s prosperity. In the meantime, a lot of 
scroungers are taking advantage,’ Damhuis says.

It is safe to say that prosperity chauvinism – to coin a phrase – 
appeals to more than one type of voter group. This explains why, apart 
from the extremist PVV (Freedom Party), which is primarily interested in 
building a defensive wall around the welfare state, the VVD (People’s 
Party for Freedom and Democracy) too shows right- wing populist traits, 
both in its approach to immigrants and its opinions on Europe. With 
impeccable liberal logic, immigrants are only welcome as long as they 
contribute to the nation’s wealth. Refugees are regarded as a liability 
rather than economically productive and their number must be brought 
back to zero as quickly as possible. A united Europe, according to the 
VVD, is not based on solidarity but on free trade serving the growth of 
the national economy.

Koen Abts, sociologist at Leuven University, is seeing a comparable 
populism double act in Flanders. Vlaams Belang (Flemish interest), which 
is hand in glove with the PVV, takes the part of the extremist right 
while Bart de Wever’s Nieuw-Vlaamse Alliantie (N-VA, New Flemish 
Alliance) represents liberal nationalism. ‘The N-VA has a broad appeal,’ 
Abts says. ‘It’s a people’s party to its bones and it’s whipping up 
feelings of discontent in order to pit Flanders against Belgium. When 
the Dutch want a good rant they have a go at the EU but in Flanders it’s 
the Belgian state. You can’t take on a whole herd of scapegoats all at 
once, after all.’

For his PhD thesis Abts explored the relationship between the vote for 
the extreme right and the role of resentment, ethnocentrism and 
political cynicism. ‘The principal beef I have with publications about 
the extreme right is that attention is mainly focused on identity and 
cultural divides. This plays a role but I think it forms part of a 
façade which is hiding the true battle of interests. If you listen 
carefully to people when they talk about unwanted immigrants you will 
find it’s about who will gain the upper hand and the fear that it won’t 
be them. All this talk about culture, identity, the colour of people’s 
skin is a front. What is really at stake is the power over national 
prosperity and the power to define what is good and bad, and what is 
allowed and not allowed.’

Globalisation’s losers may well form the core of the populist parties’ 
electorate, Abts concedes but they certainly aren’t the only group 
susceptible to the rhetoric of salvation. ‘There is no doubt that 
globalisation has left people behind,’ he says. ‘It’s understandable 
that populism appeals to people who are living in poverty. They want to 
apportion blame for the lack of jobs, cutbacks on benefits and rising 
costs that affect them. Globalisation has taken away their jobs, and 
with them their only security in life. In this group, which accounts for 
about fifteen percent of the population, feelings of resentment, 
cynicism about politics and rejection of immigration are widespread.’

A potentially bigger group of far right voters is formed by people who 
have not yet experienced any adverse effects but fear their turn may 
soon come. Increasingly, they feel their livelihoods are at risk. 
‘People belonging to the middle class are having to struggle more to 
keep their heads above water. You can’t put them in the losing camp, not 
yet anyway. But with all that is happening around them they are afraid 
that is where they will end up. They wonder if they will be able to 
survive. They are afraid that even their best efforts won’t be enough to 
preserve what they have. They are afraid of losing their social status 
and fearful for their own and, above all, their children’s future. 
Meanwhile they are looking up the ladder at the privileged who have 
nothing to worry about, and down the ladder at the people who they feel 
are enjoying the fruits of collective prosperity without having to lift 
a finger.’

According to Abts, the middle class is not so much affected by 
unemployment or loss of income as by a deep sense of vulnerability. For 
people with medium level vocational qualifications in particular the 
fall to the bottom may not be far away. ‘Lower middle class workers will 
be the first victims of robotisation. A whole category of work is at 
risk. You can see the jobs melting away. Some political scientists are 
going down the moral route and talk of a protest vote. That is far too 
lazy an explanation. Every vote has a certain logic, and this future 
crisis is part of it.’

Abts attributes the crisis to the disappearance of a collective faith in 
progress as a driving force and source of optimism. Hope for the future 
has been replaced by chaos, insecurity and decline. But that is not 
enough to explain the swing to the far right. According to Abts, 
susceptibility to right-wing populism deepens into conviction when the 
awareness of vulnerability is coupled with a sense of powerlessness.
Medium large populisme 2

‘For a long time during the post-war years faith in a better future 
pacified feelings of discontent,’ he says. ‘That faith has been replaced 
by a fear of decline and loss, not just in the lower class but in the 
middle class as well. Things may reach boiling point if people feel 
there is nothing anyone can do to halt the process, not them, not the 
politicians, not the employers and not the union leaders whose 
protection they could once count on. Look at Brexit. It, too, is a kick 
in the shins for the establishment. The institutions that people 
depended on in the past are being blamed for the crisis of tomorrow. In 
these circumstances a populist message promising new brooms can become 

If there is one group that does not qualify for the label 
‘globalisation’s losers’ it is Koen Damhuis’ Wilders voters in their 
penthouses. ‘They are part of a group of individuals who believe that 
everything they have achieved is the result of their own talents and 
efforts. Their attitude is one of ‘We don’t need anyone else’. They 
imagine themselves to be strong individuals capable of achieving their 
life goals independently. They lose every vestige of empathy and develop 
a blind spot which causes them to forget that they have achieved their 
position thanks in part to the emancipation machine we call ‘the welfare 
state’ and the grants, state financed education, housing subsidies and 
health insurance that come with it,’ Abts says.

According to Abts, the welfare state has given people more freedom 
because it offered a way out of the collectivities they used to be 
dependent on. ‘Then, gradually, the critical noises begin: the governing 
bodies, the welfare state could do with paring down, people say. You see 
how the welfare state as an emancipation machine begins to crack under 
the weight of its own success. When I defended my thesis I made a point 
of thanking our institutions for offering me the money and the 
possibilities to do the job. Not many people do. Usually it’s a spouse, 
a mentor, or friends that get the thank-yous. They don’t see that they 
couldn’t have done it without the institutions. Perhaps what is needed 
is a bit of sociological imagination.’

The greatest danger posed by the xenophobia driven prosperity chauvinism 
of the populist right lies with the group of disengaged individuals who 
think the government takes without giving back. Thanks to their 
authority, their money and their crucial positions in society, they have 
more power and influence than the struggling middle class, let alone 
globalisation’s losers.

‘This group frightens me most,’ Abst confesses. ‘These people are the 
first to say that the government is letting all those immigrants in to 
profit from what they have built. When I read about the 1930s I ask 
myself how it was possible that people ended up on the wrong side so 
quickly. I want to choose my words carefully but the possibility of a 
similar totalitarian backlash can’t be dismissed. I certainly don’t want 
to draw a parallel between the N-VA and the tendencies of the time but 
it is worrying to see how quick people are to rally ‘round the flag. The 
social climate has changed beyond recognition. Xenophobia and 
discriminating language weren’t tolerated ten, twenty years ago but have 
now become acceptable everywhere, including the upper middle class.’

Koen Abts political conclusion is that right-wing populism is not a 
flash in the pan. It is here to stay, he says, and its potential for 
growth is considerable. Michael Minkenberg, professor of comparative 
political science at the Viadrina European University in Frankfurt an 
der Oder, has come to a similar conclusion. To put forward monocausal 
interpretations of the rise of the populist right, such as the hostility 
towards immigration in Western Europe, or the authoritarian past of 
Eastern Europe, is to underestimate the danger, he says.

Sarah de Lange agrees that the extreme right is far from a temporary 
phenomenon. Repeated Ipsos polls have shown the PVV to be the party with 
the most stable following. Wilders has the most voters who say they will 
only vote for his party to the exclusion of any other.

‘We will have to take into account that the PVV will become big and will 
remain big,’ De Lange says. ‘After Fortuyn everyone thought the extreme 
right would peter out quickly. But that didn’t happen. Austria, France, 
Belgium all have parties which have had substantial support bases for 
thirty years. In Belgium people were congratulating themselves when the 
Vlaams Belang was trumped by the N-VA and sank even further because of 
internal squabbles. The same thing happened in Austria when Jörg Haider 
left the FPÖ and the party lost much of it support. In both countries it 
was believed this was the beginning of the end for the two parties. But 
the FPÖ is back with a chance in the presidential elections and, thanks 
to its new leader Tom van Grieken, the Vlaams Belang is shooting up in 
the polls.’

De Lange points to possible psychological factors that may play a role 
although she is reluctant to do so because of the trap of determinism, 
and the risk of stigmatising Wilders voters. ‘We know that people with a 
low level of education have more difficulty with complexity, diversity, 
high information density, all of which figure in politics, a domain 
where complex problems and opposite interests come to the fore. 
Psychological research also tells us that our thoughts aren’t the only 
driving force behind our actions. It works the other way around as well: 
our actions determine what we think. It’s a bit like leapfrog. Suppose 
you don’t agree with immigration and you decide to vote for Wilders. You 
will then tend to adjust your ideas in other areas to coincide with your 
choice of party and come the next elections you will find the PVV 
manifesto is even closer to your convictions. The upshot is that you 
will remain faithful to that party. Wilders becomes your hero.’

Those who vote for xenophobic and politically cynical parties will 
become more xenophobic and cynical themselves, studies have shown. ‘It’s 
the leapfrog effect again,’ De Lange says. Selective media behaviour is 
a factor as well. The report Gescheiden Werelden (Separate Worlds), a 
joint study by the Netherlands scientific council for government policy 
and socio-cultural think tank SCP, confirms this.

‘The media play a big part in how people view reality,’ De Lange says. 
‘If your view of reality is determined by (right of centre outlets, red) 
De Telegraaf, Algemeen Dagblad, Metro and Hart van Nederland your 
perception of reality will be different from those who read (left of 
centre outlets, red) NRC Handelsblad, Trouw, and* De Groene 
Amsterdammer* and watch public broadcasters. This is where cognitive 
dissonance comes in. People try to exclude everything that doesn’t 
coincide with their way of thinking and limit themselves to media 
outlets that confirm their views. A process of interaction between media 
and audiences is set in motion with more and more media outlets bowing 
to commercial pressures: if this is what our audience wants, this is 
what our audience gets. Arguments that have nothing to do with 
journalism are starting to play a role: news has to be exciting, 
columnists must be controversial.’

Koen Abts’ thinks the forceful manifestation of right-wing populism is a 
logical political reaction to the fading borders and disappearing social 
structures of the modern era. ‘Until the 1970s we were living in a time 
of relative security, stability and progress. The nation state had 
well-defined borders. Social divides and different religious and secular 
groups provided a clear societal structure. But external national 
borders have become porous or have disappeared altogether and the clear 
lines of the internal social structure have become vague and 
indeterminate. To put it bluntly, society has been shattered. Old 
certainties are fading away. New areas of conflict have opened up in the 
political arena leaving the old political order without an adequate 
response. The populists have the answer, and it’s to create a closed 
society folded in on itself and hostile to everything that is not of 

American journalist Thomas Friedman is thinking along very similar 
lines. According to Friedman, the theory that Brexit is a typically 
British manifestation of anti-European feeling holds no water, 
comforting though it may seem. He thinks the political system is too 
sluggish to respond adequately to the great changes of today, such as 
the technological revolution and the global shift in the balance of 
power. That is not a phenomenon unique to Britain but a universal given.

In his column in The New York Times Friedman writes: ‘It’s the story of 
our time: the pace of change in technology, globalization and climate 
have started to outrun the ability of our political systems to build the 
social, educational, community, workplace and political innovations 
needed for some citizens to keep up.’

Against this background the political message of populism is a clever 
construct creating a perfect pattern of everything people perceive as 
threatening about the modern era. The promise of a closed society which 
will help restore what is ‘ours’ appeals to feelings of nostalgia for a 
time when everything was in its proper place. Brexit showed how 
deeply-rooted those feelings can be. With its clear distinction between 
‘them’ and ‘us’, populism restores order to a complex society with 
porous borders and fading social structures.

Abts puts it like this: ‘A return to a closed society is first and 
foremost a return to nations with clear borders. This will be followed 
by an internal restructuring, based on identity and along the lines of 
‘we’ versus ‘them’. And it is up to us to decide who ‘we’ are.’

As the Polish philosopher Leszek Kolakowski wrote in an article in the 
Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeiting as early as 1994: the human need for 
certainties is also a need for a clear distinction between good and 
evil. Populism satisfies this need by dividing the world into friends 
and enemies. In this vision a disregarded group is stuck between an 
unworldly elite on the one side and immigrants on the other, allowing 
any feelings of discontent to be projected on the outside world .

Populism invariably comes with leaders who embody this clear cut vision 
of society. With typical self-confidence they profess to know the will 
of the people (‘I speak for millions’). ‘The truth is on our side,’ 
Wilders said at a meeting of like-minded European politicians on January 
29, 2016. ‘Get used to it.’

‘The disregarded last can become the empowered first,’ says Abts. ‘That 
is the promise of populism: a reversal of the balance of power.’ The 
people who feel let-down, who think immigrants get all the help while 
they are left to struggle on their own will come out on top. That 
promise makes populism strong. It’s a potent remedy against the feelings 
of vulnerability and powerlessness that plague Wilders’ voters.’

According to Abts, populism is stepping into ‘a democratic void’: ‘The 
power of political movements is based on their ability to combine three 
factors. They represent a group with a clear identity, they translate 
the interests of this group into a political message and they strive for 
power. This was the basis for the success of the Christian democrats, 
the social democrats and the liberals but their appeal is falling off. 
What we are seeing is a crisis of representativeness. Although it is a 
construct, the far right seems to be able to achieve this trinity 
comprised of a group, the interests of this group and an undisguised 
appetite for power.

The anti-democratic and authoritarian nature of the populist right will 
reveal itself completely the moment its images of the truth turn out to 
be so many fantasies and promises remain unfulfilled. What if Geert 
Wilders or Marine Le Pen come to power and voters discover that they 
have been told a pack of lies? That their situation hasn’t changed for 
the better, that migrants are still entering the country, that 
prosperity is still not exclusively theirs and that they continue to be 
beset by feelings of vulnerability and powerlessness? It is not in the 
nature of the populist right to admit it got it wrong. It will point the 
finger at the same old scapegoats which only a strong leader can rid 
them of.’

Abts sees the danger too: ’The narrative of populism is reactionary. It 
refers to the relatively closed societies of the 40s and 50s and offers 
no vision for the future except that it will look something like the 
past. The emptiness of this narrative became painfully clear after 
Brexit. The establishment had been given a black eye but nobody knew 
what to do next. Populism can only thrive in the presence of scapegoats. 
If it disappoints and disillusionment sets in, the danger is that an 
even more radical anti-democratic movement will come along and promise 
to really clean things up.’

Translation: Hanneke Sanou

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