Populism, public opinion, and the mainstreaming of the far right: The ‘immigration issue’ and the construction of a reactionary ‘people’

Author: Dr Aurelien Mondon

Original Source: Mondon, A. (2022). Populism, public opinion, and the mainstreaming of the far right: The ‘immigration issue’ and the construction of a reactionary ‘people.’ Politicshttps://doi.org/10.1177/02633957221104726

This is an excerpt from the original article. You can download the full article below:

The shift towards anti-immigration issues in mainstream political discourse, and more broadly towards topics favourable to the right and the far right is hardly new (see, for example Hall, 1979). In fact, it is now common to witness centre-left parties pledge to tighten borders as they claim to listen to ‘the people’ and their ‘legitimate grievances’.1 Such shifts are often justified, in part at least, by the use and misuse of public opinion surveys that claim that immigration is among the top concerns of many if not most people. This reaction against immigration, multiculturalism, and diversity has been legitimised by a number of academics and think-tanks, who have argued that it is the ‘left behind’ who tend most to such grievances, and that, therefore, social democratic parties have most to lose if they do not listen to these cultural demands (see, among others, Eatwell and Goodwin, 2018; Goodhart, 2017). This has at times gone even further, with some arguing that ‘racial self-interest’ should be taken more seriously by politicians (Kaufmann, 2017) …

To illustrate the role played by the construction and dissemination of public opinion in the mainstreaming of far-right ideas, I present below some data taken from the Eurobarometer. I use the ‘issues’ questions, which provide consistent measures across time and are also easily accessible both in terms of availability of data and its basic interpretation.

Figure 1 shows the ‘immigration’ rate of response to the question ‘What do you think are the two most important issues facing (OUR COUNTRY) at the moment?’ for both the United Kingdom and the European Union (EU). When taking a longer view and comparing immigration to other issues offered to respondents across the most recent 10-year period (2009–2019) (Figure 2), it would appear rational to conclude that immigration is the issue of most concern to ‘the people’ qua representative sample in the United Kingdom. Other issues such as crime and terrorism often linked to immigration, particularly through far-right discourse, are also prominent in the results, with crime coming fifth and terrorism seventh. However, such averages only show us part of the picture and do not tell us much about whether this issue is indeed constant or not. Here, the EU was added to highlight some interesting trends. As we can see, there is a rise in concern regarding immigration in both the United Kingdom and EU in 2014. This corresponds with the EU elections which witnessed the ‘rise’ of far-right parties who campaigned on anti-immigration platforms, as well as these parties’ widespread coverage.

Figure 1. What do you think are the two most important issues facing (OUR COUNTRY) at the moment?

Source: Eurobarometer.

S = Spring, A = Autumn.

Figure 2. The United Kingdom: 10-year average (2009–2019) – your country.

Source: Eurobarometer.

The success of parties, such as the French Front National (now Rassemblement National), the Danish People’s Party, and UK Independence Party (UKIP) could infer that they responded best to what were rising concerns in the population. However, just as easily, rising concerns about immigration could follow a rise in their discussion in the public arena, as these parties and their pet issues are often given disproportionate coverage, something I will return to in the analysis. The peak happens in 2015 and 2016. Here, this matches the so-called ‘refugee crisis’ which saw an influx of refugees into the EU following the Syrian conflict. While this influx was shared unevenly across EU countries, with Germany taking in far more refugees, it was widely covered and became core to many far-right parties’ discourse and propaganda, as exemplified by the infamous Leave.eu ‘Breaking point’ poster in the Brexit campaign. In the EU, and in France in particular, although this country was not added to the graph, terrorist attacks conducted in the name of Islam, such as that against Charlie Hebdo, and their widespread and often racialised coverage, have also participated in fostering anti-immigrant sentiment (see Titley et al., 2017).

In the United Kingdom, these developments also coincided with the referendum campaign which had been promised by then Prime Minister David Cameron following the 2014 European election, despite UKIP being the only party running on such an issue, demonstrating their ability to set the agenda through their performance at a second-order election with massive abstention and despite a lack of representation at the national level. As demonstrated by Martin Moore and Gordon Ramsay’s (2017: 7–8) extensive survey of the media coverage of the referendum, while the economy was the most covered issue, ‘coverage of immigration more than tripled over the course of the campaign, rising faster than any other political issue’, and became ‘the most prominent referendum issue, based on the number of times it led newspaper print front pages’. Added to this priming of immigration itself, ‘coverage of the effects of immigration was overwhelmingly negative. Migrants were blamed for many of Britain’s economic and social problems – most notably for putting unsustainable pressure on public services’. This is corroborated by research done by Elizabeth Dekeyser and Michael Freedman (2021:13) which demonstrates that ‘individuals hold more negative attitudes toward immigration during electoral periods’ and that ‘this change is most significant in elections where anti-immigration sentiment is part of the political discourse, and among individuals across the political spectrum’. It is therefore no surprise that immigration as a major concern appears to recede dramatically after 2016 both in the United Kingdom and in the EU. While Brexit had won and the ‘refugee crisis’ abated, freedom of movement remained in place in the United Kingdom and refugees continued to arrive, demonstrating a disconnect between the reality and perception of immigration, something which has been well documented and again points to the mediated effects discussed earlier (Duffy, 2018).

It is not just the Eurobarometer that appears to paint a picture in which immigration is indeed a central concern. A similar question asked by Ipsos Mori (2021) returns very similar results over the same period. Yet, this picture is nuanced by an added question in the Eurobarometer, where the same respondents are asked what the two most important issues they are personally facing are. While the difference in wording would seem minimal at first thought and it would seem logical to expect similar answers, the reality differs markedly.

Figure 3 shows the respondents who put immigration as one of their top two issues of concern when they thought about themselves personally rather than their country. While for the latter in the United Kingdom, immigration only dips below 20% after 2017 and reaches a high of 43.69% in the Autumn survey of 2015, it only reaches 10% once when respondents think of their own personal situation (in the Summer survey of 2016, at the height of the referendum campaign). A similar trend can be witnessed for the EU where immigration is never one of the top two issues of concern for more than 10% of the respondents.

Figure 3. And personally, what are the two most important issues you are facing at the moment? Source: Eurobarometer.

S = Spring, A = Autumn.

When we look at a 10-year average (Figure 4), a similar pattern appears. While immigration was the top issue when respondents were primed to think about their country, and while other related issues in the media such as crime and terrorism were also prominent, all three fall off the radar when the same respondents are asked about their own lives (with crime, immigration, and terrorism, respectively, 10th, 14th, and 17th). Issues that appear as top concerns are based on the economic and social situation of respondents rather than on their more ‘cultural’ concerns, something I return to in the following section.

Figure 4. The United Kingdom: 10-year average (2009–2019) – You, personally.

Source: Eurobarometer.

To add a further degree of precision, Figure 5 shows the evolution of all the key issues over the period, demonstrating that immigration is consistently low on the scale compared to others when people think of their own day-to-day situation.

Figure 5. All issues between 2009 and 2019 – You, personally.

Source: Eurobarometer.

What this article illustrates through the use of Eurobarometer data should be obvious and yet whose ignorance has shaped our political landscape dramatically: opinion data are never unbiased, objective, or impartial. Its uncritical use and sometimes clear and wilful misuse have created narratives that have guided public discourse by priming certain issues over others, and justified their prominence in said public discourse by attributing them to ‘the people’ and ‘populist’ politicians. This does not mean that ‘the people’ however defined have no agency, of course, and cannot impose certain issues onto their elite, whether in the media, politics or academia. However, it would be naïve at best to think that in a society like the United Kingdom, which has deeply unequal access to public discourse, certain interests do not have more power than others to shape the agenda. To put it simply, we are faced with a vicious cycle which primes issues while obscuring others in what can be considered a democratic simulacrum.

This has a number of consequences which I can only explore briefly here to conclude and could be avenues of further research.

First, it leads to the legitimisation of elitist and far-right politics, as these are often wrongly described as ‘populist’ and thus ‘popular’. This legitimises not only far-right parties, but also perhaps more importantly their ideas, as mainstream parties act as if forced to address what are constructed as ‘legitimate grievances’: if ‘the people’ think immigration is a concern, then it must be addressed, whether we want it or not.

Second, it reinforces the invisibilisation and silencing of minorities and those truly left behind by creating an image of ‘the people’, which does not take into account power relationships, but also ignores that participation in political life, whether through voting or opinion surveys, is profoundly uneven. This adds to the inherent issues raised by majoritarian decision-making and what this may mean for minorities. As explored elsewhere, pushing reactionary agendas by constructing, for example, a ‘white working class’ also racialises certain sections of the population, whitewashing the most diverse section of society (and obscuring the very clear fact that it is this section which has mostly switched off and thus remains unheard) (Mondon and Winter, 2019, 2020).

Third, it serves to exculpate the political, but also media and to some extent academic, elite from their responsibility in the reactionary turn we are witnessing and the dire consequences this has imposed on many – these small sections have far wider access to shaping public discourse than the general population. The focus on certain issues during campaigning or even governing is blamed on ‘the people’ rather than owned by those who benefit most from them, whether economically or ideologically.

Finally, and linked to the previous points, it obscures the uneven power relationships at the core of societies like the United Kingdom, which have come increasingly to resemble oligarchic states rather than democratic ones (Dean, 2009; Rancière, 2005). This does not mean that they have become fully authoritarian, and ‘the people’ can still play an active part in shaping the agenda, as demonstrated by recent events such as the Black Lives Matter movement which has forced significant, albeit limited, discussion of systemic racism into the spotlight. It simply means that there is an urgent need to take the limits of democratic decision-making seriously as these are increasingly under threat. This has been a long time coming and under the noses of those who claim a responsibility in the working of democratic institutions.

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