Far-right parties benefit from financial crises—but still blame immigrants for everything

Golden Dawn march in Greece.
Golden Dawn march in Greece.
Image: Reuters/Fotis Plegas G
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Poland swung to the right this week after the Law & Justice party won enough votes to govern without entering coalition with any left-leaning party. This is the first time that has happened since 1989, when the country emerged as a democracy after Soviet rule.

Law & Justice embraces some classic rightwing leanings like opposition to abortion and to in-vitro fertilization. It also campaigned hard on an anti-immigration ticket. The party’s success reflects a pattern that has played out across Europe in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. But not only that: new research shows a strong relationship between financial crises and swings to the right over the past 140 years across the developed world.

Image for article titled Far-right parties benefit from financial crises—but still blame immigrants for everything
Image: Funke, Schularick, and Trebesch

Three German researchers looked at data from elections between 1870 and 2014. In all, 827 elections were studied in 20 developed economies including the UK, the US, and Germany. (Poland wasn’t part of the cohort.) The study concluded that politics takes a “hard right turn” after severe financial crises (not just “normal recessions”).

On average, far-right parties boost their vote share by 30% after crises. General political polarization also increases, but leftwing parties don’t see nearly as much of a boost as their counterparts on the right.

Why? “After a crisis, voters seem to be particularly attracted to the political rhetoric of the extreme right, which often attributes blame to minorities or foreigners,” the researchers said.

Since the latest global financial crisis, more extreme parties have indeed gained ground. Some have been on the far left, like Greece’s Syriza; but Greece has also seen a strong rise on the right in the form of Golden Dawn, a neo-Nazi group. In some polls, the rightwing, anti-immigrant National Front in France and Sweden Democrats in Sweden are currently their countries’ most popular parties.

The tendency to blame immigrants has been exacerbated in recent months in Europe by the region’s growing refugee crisis. But while some countries, like Greece, have a genuinely huge and present refugee crisis on their hands, right-leaning parties have been able to capitalize on the problem even though it hasn’t yet made it to their borders—with Poland being a prime example.