Populisms of both the right and the left have been on the rise in advanced democracies. However, while left populism is not without its successes, right populism has, on balance, clearly been the stronger performer. Why is this?
Two European political scientists, Valerio Bruno and James Downes, recently completed an interesting study of this question. While the study is confined to European countries, there are lessons here, I think, for the left in the United States.
Their basic conclusion:
"What factors can explain the electoral success of radical right parties in the post-economic crisis period? First, the party strategy of the radical right has tended to be simple and clear, with a focus on issues such as immigration and an attempt to link this directly to general discontent and dissatisfaction with the EU. Second, the radical right has a much broader voter base to target with this narrative than radical left parties have. Recent research has shown that radical right parties have the ability to attract traditional working-class voters away from centre left parties, primarily due to their effective use of the immigration issue.
The simplicity and clarity of the radical right message has been a key part of their success. Powerful images of nationhood have combined with fears over issues such as immigration to drive this support. Capitalising on popular fears has been shown by previous research to be a core element of the radical right narrative. And the ‘accessibility’ of this message is arguably one of the most important differences between the approach of the radical right and the radical left.
In contrast, the radical left remains to some extent a platform for abstract intellectual ideas. Such narratives are far more difficult to translate into the slogans and messages which have proven successful in the digital age of politics. The perceived inability of the radical left to form concrete policy responses to the global economic crisis has not helped their cause. The radical left has in many cases failed to weave together a clear and simple narrative on the economy which can rival the message of the radical right, while it has also been less willing to focus on the key issue of immigration which the radical right has used so effectively to attract support."