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Nativism Goes Mainstream, Moving the Needle on Migration Policy

Nativism Goes Mainstream, Moving the Needle on Migration Policy

GermanyAfDPoster MarkusSpiske Flickr

An anti-Islam poster from Alternative for Germany (AfD) hangs ahead of the October 2017 parliamentary elections. (Photo: Markus Spiske)

Nativist politicians in Europe and the United States in 2017 continued to seize on immigration and growing cultural and religious diversity as threats to national identity, making gains in promoting their agendas— whether they won elections or not.

U.S. President Donald Trump’s first year in office was the most striking example of nativism in action. The Trump administration moved to fulfill several of the Republican’s top campaign pledges, including a ban on immigration from certain Muslim-majority countries, sharp cuts to refugee admissions, the phaseout of a program shielding qualified young unauthorized immigrants from deportation, and the first steps towards construction of a wall along the U.S.-Mexico border.

Meanwhile in Europe, far-right parties that had been largely marginal in the post-war era until the 1990s have attracted more followers amid the migration crisis of 2015-16, often styling themselves as nationalist, populist, antiestablishment, or all of the above. While more moderate, establishment politicians have managed to thwart nationalist ambitions to reach the highest levels of power in many countries, populists performed strongly at the parliamentary level in France, Germany, and the Netherlands. As voters turn against elites and the status quo, a broader, more fundamental reshaping of the landscape—including political fragmentation, particularly in countries with proportional representation, and decline in support for mainstream parties—has made it easier for these formerly fringe parties to break through. Even when they do not win outright or enter a governing coalition, their emergence as serious contenders on the political scene influences policy by changing the conversation, as mainstream politicians move to the right on immigration and integration issues.

Winning at the Polls

While the overall electoral success of some nationalist parties proved weaker than expected in 2017, leaders with nativist proclivities won elections or came to power in two countries on either side of the Atlantic: the United States and the Czech Republic.

In the United States, Trump rose to the presidency on a wave of nationalist and populist rhetoric, calling Mexican immigrants “rapists” and painting immigrants and refugees as threats to national security. He took action within his first weeks in the White House to sign executive orders suspending refugee admissions and banning nationals of some Muslim-majority countries, signaling his administration’s decision to adhere to the hard line articulated during a highly contested primary campaign in which immigration played an unusually central role. The President’s ability to fully implement his immigration agenda has faced some roadblocks, however, with challenges lodged in the courts and opposition by some in Congress.

Across the Atlantic, nativism caught on in the Czech Republic, where another antiestablishment billionaire, Andrej Babis, and his Ano party swept legislative elections, with nearly 30 percent of the vote. The country’s formerly dominant Social Democrats tumbled to just 7 percent, falling behind the far-right Freedom and Direct Democracy Party, which polled nearly 11 percent.

While Babis has yet to choose the parties that will form his coalition government, his victory has fueled concerns that the Czech Republic may join Poland and Hungary in a nationalist bloc that could further deepen the divide between Eastern and Western Europe and jeopardize EU-wide efforts on policy matters including migration. Babis’s stance on refugee-sharing quotas seems to validate these fears: “We must do our utmost to reject migrants, including the quotas in which we were outvoted. I want to reject the quotas even at the cost of sanctions.”

Reshaping the Conversation

Issue No. 9 of Top Ten of 2017

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Even where they have been blocked from government, nationalist parties have reshaped conversations surrounding identity issues and migration policy, their voice amplified by the collapse in support for mainstream parties. In September, German Chancellor Angela Merkel appeared to have secured another term, but her center-right Christian Democratic Union (CDU) and its allies lost significant ground to the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) at the parliamentary level. The results have made AfD the third-largest party in the country, and propelled it into the Bundestag as the first radical-right party there in nearly six decades.

Migration—and public blowback against it—has caused many political headaches for Merkel, who famously allowed more than 1 million migrants and asylum seekers to enter Germany during the migration crisis. Shifting public opinion and pressure from within her bloc has since pushed Merkel to the right; she called for a burqa ban and, in a sharp policy reversal, ultimately agreed to cap refugees at 200,000 per year. Refugee concerns from the left likewise haunted Merkel through her attempts to form a coalition government with the pro-business Free Democrats and the Green Party, and disagreements over family reunification for asylum seekers contributed to the collapse of talks in late November. The center-left Social Democrats, who initially ruled out joining the government, have approved tentative talks with CDU.  

Similarly, in the Netherlands, though incendiary right-wing opposition member Geert Wilders failed to overtake the ruling party or join the coalition government, his anti-Islam Freedom Party (PVV) now holds the second-largest share of seats in a highly politically fragmented legislature. The PVV successfully redirected attention during the campaign to issues of national identity and Muslim integration, while other parties adopted similar rhetoric to deny him political space. Just weeks before the election, in an apparent attempt to regain ground lost to Wilders, Prime Minister Mark Rutte complained about those who refuse to accept Dutch values and said immigrants should “act normal, or go away.”

In Austria, the nationalist Freedom Party (FPÖ) accused Sebastian Kurz’s conservative People’s Party of stealing its platform on immigration, amid a right-ward shift following the migration crisis. Kurz’s party won the parliamentary election in October, setting him on course to become Chancellor, but failed to secure a majority. The party has opened coalition talks with FPÖ, which is reportedly conditioning any deal on gaining control of the Interior Ministry—which would give it direct influence over immigration policy.

Shifting Political Winds?

Still, developments elsewhere in 2017 have contained the reach of populist nativism. In France, the far-right National Front’s leader, Marine Le Pen, having attempted to “detoxify” the party brand by running on a euroskeptic platform of border controls and lower immigration, lost handily in a runoff to the centrist Emmanuel Macron after leading the polls in the first round of the presidential election. Further, the party’s vote share slipped slightly in legislative elections. Though some observers interpreted Macron’s victory as a signal of weakening nationalism, the fact that Le Pen came in second place in the first round and won the votes of one-third of French voters in the runoff should not be overlooked, nor should the strong showing overall of antiestablishment candidates at all levels. And notably, Macron’s success hinged in part on his ability to position himself as a centrist alternative to the status quo.

Meanwhile, in the United States, the outcome of a November gubernatorial race in Virginia—in which the Democratic nominee routed a Republican who had focused much of his advertising on illegal immigration—may have exposed the limits of Trump-style nationalism. It remains to be seen whether and how immigration will factor into 2018 races in Congress and beyond.

Could nationalism be plateauing or heading toward a decline? Experts point out that the underlying economic and cultural causes undergirding its rise, as well as broader popular disaffection with government and elites, are not likely to disappear soon. Nor are the growing fragmentation and breakdown of support for mainstream parties that allow populists space. However, as Macron’s victory in France illustrates, these parties may see their support dwindle if alternatives arise that effectively address public concerns about immigration and broader discontent with government.



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