Fuller Prize Co-Winner
By Professor Nicholas Startin
Media debate and speculation about the rise of right-wing populism and its potential threat to liberal democracy has become increasingly prevalent in the last decade. From Trump, to Bolsonaro, to Orbán, to Erdogan, the notion that an era of ‘illiberal democracy’ is gaining momentum, has become an increasingly dominant media narrative.
Over the last twelve months, the debate has intensified in Europe with Marine Le Pen and the Rassemblement National’s strong performance in the 2022 French elections, followed by Giorgia Meloni, the leader of the Fratelli d’Italia, becoming the first female Prime Minister of Italy.
Certainly, what with the cost-of-living crisis and tensions around migration across the West, on the face of it, the demand side conditions remain favorable for Radical Right populists. But we shouldn’t be as pessimistic as some media channels, academics and experts would lead us to believe. And here is why!
The reality is that populists are not in control, in spite of attempts to exploit the ‘echo chamber’ of social media and to spin ‘fake news’, of the shifting demographic, generational cycle. A consequence of this is that the regressive policies of the Radical Right do not chime with the evolution of public opinion among the younger generation in some very key areas.
Let’s take ‘climate change’. Traditionally, European Radical Right Parties (RRPs) have tended to be in ‘denial’ or ‘sceptical’ about ‘climate change’ but as the issue has taken on more salience (particularly among younger voters), this has led to a scramble among RRPs to appear credible on the ‘climate crisis.’ But, in the case of France, there is no doubt that Marine Le Pen’s commitment not only to stop all new wind farm projects, but also to dismantle existing ones, was a real reality check for many, younger undecided voters as they weighed up the pros and cons of voting for Le Pen or Macron in the second round of last year’s Presidential election.
Conversely, on value issues, like abortion and same sex marriage, the demographic sands are also shifting away from the Radical Right. It was apparent how some Republican candidates were unable to exploit the Roe versus Wade debate to their advantage in some key contests at the November midterm elections. And, in Italy, the Meloni government is unlikely to instigate any national legislation on the reform of abortion law, for fear of it being overturned by a constitutional referendum.
The reality is that as the wheel of demography continues to turn so do progressive social attitudes. No amount of regressive framing by populist news channels and on social media sites will be able to reverse this. These demographic shifts are more likely to strengthen liberal democracy in a global context rather than ‘illiberal democracy’ in a national one!
The simple truth is that the ‘generational genie’ is out of the bottle. It can’t be put back in!
About the 2023 Fuller Prize author: Dr. Nicholas Startin is Associate JCU Professor of International Relations. He joined the Political Science and International Affairs Department in the Fall of 2022 and teaches Comparative Politics, Western European Politics, and Populism. His research focuses primarily on Euroscepticism. He also publishes on the Radical Right in Europe and the media’s influence in the Eurosceptic debate.
Read Professor Startin’s profile and university interview.