The Prekariat – the Radical Right Populist Parties’ Voter Base?

Participating lately in a series of extremely stimulating conferences and personal discussions with other researchers in the field, I had to acknowledge that the traditional explanations with regard to who are the supporters of radical right populist (RRP) parties appear to fail to account for a much more complex and diverse situation.

A few remarks on the profile of the archetypal voter of RRP parties come forward from a quick review of the literature in the field – if one wishes such a reference to oversimplifying categories. Most scholarship points out that the radical right populist parties are generally finding their support among the so-called “net losers of globalization processes”. More concretely these are considered to be overrepresented among the low-skilled working class men who are educationally disadvantaged (lower to middle levels of education).

For this purpose I would dare to suggest perhaps a bit more innovative way of looking at the supporters of the RRP parties. I would argue that at a closer investigation, their social background is much more diverse than generally acknowledged, in the sense that the RRP party supporters come not only from a working class environment, but theirs is a rather mixed one, encompassing also lower middle class representatives, and even what is generally considered to be a sort of “solid middle class” background. Indeed, it is not only the proletariat that votes for the RRP parties from its disillusionment with the allegedly uncontrollable globalization processes, but also the lower middle class and even the “solid” middle class which had previously bought into the laissez-faire capitalist thesis that led to the latest economic meltdown. What are the implications of such diverse social backgrounds and how does this intersect with gendered and ethnicized hierarchies? Perhaps, and this is my main argument, what the voters of RRP parties have in common is their very precarious position.

In other words, I would recommend for the use of the umbrella term of “ perceived prekariat” gathering all these diverse origins. The term derives from the Latin precarium, which in Antiquity was name of a legal contract among civilians, by which the owner of a thing at the request of another person, gave her/ him a thing to use as long as the owner pleased. French and German sociologists have used the term to refer to a new social grouping defined by “vulnerable employment and unemployment” (French sociologist Robert Castel, German sociologist Franz Schultheis, Italian union and media activist Alex Foti, to name just a few). However, they use the term in a slightly different manner than the one I would suggest. My assumption connects social and economic precariousness with the specific political preference for RRP parties, and enlarges the specter of the definition to accommodate for perceived aspect of precariousness, thus widening the definition to encompass not only workers in precarious low skilled positions but also lower middle class artisans and entrepreneurs and lower level bureaucrats.  My argument is that the precariousness of the aforementioned social groups is exploited by the RRP parties for political gains, which usually combine what commonly scholarship in the field labels as “welfare chauvinism” (which postulates that only those born within the welfare system have an inherent right to access the welfare benefits, while immigrants are portrayed as a mere financial burden, if not epitomizing the source of the system’s crisis) and “social-conservatism” (generally understood as an appeal to renouncing to gender equality efforts, stricter social control – oftentimes aimed directly against women’s rights over their own bodies – and an enforcement of law and order, in short a return to a nationalist patriarchal brotherhood). In my view the two are thinly disguising xenophobic attitudes, generally argued to be simple appeals for protecting national solidarity as a base for preserving the national welfare.

In this context, and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, not only men in low paid positions are supporting the RRP parties at the ballot box, but even women with a tertiary education degree, who experience firsthand discriminatory gendered hierarchies on their attempts to find a job that corresponds to their level of education, and come to overlap globalization with manly dominance and embrace populist radicalism as a means to regain their dignity and as a way to protest against a fossilized system centered on the overprivileging of  men – as evidenced by Andrea Pető (Central European University) in her recent research presented at the second ECPG in Budapest.

Nonetheless this these just some preliminary thoughts and I am determined to discuss them further with my fellow researches and with non-academics alike who are genuinely interested in the matter at hand. Thus the question I am asking: Is this type of perceived prekariat the radical right populist parties’ voter base?

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Monday, January 24th, 2011 Research 5 Comments