The populist radical right as a new class vote?

The concept of class voting is shaken by neo-liberalism. Therefore, the quasi-natural link between social structure and voting is in question. Voting for radical right-wing parties is often considered as based on affects (e.g. anger). But these characteristics seem to be incomplete for grasping the determinants of this electoral behaviour.

The evolution of capitalism since the early 1980s has caused the social identities built around work collectives to falter through the multiplication of precarious forms of employment, the transformation of modes of production and the rise of unemployment. Formerly the backbone of the socialist and communist left-wing parties, the working-class sector in particular has undergone major upheavals; factory closures linked to a process of de-industrialisation in Western countries have led to the break-up of the work collectives in which political identity was structured.

Radical right-wing populist parties in Western Europe have benefited from the reconfiguration of these identities by neoliberal economies and the blurring of traditional socio-professional identities. Their social base has shifted in recent decades from a predominantly self-employed electorate to one that is strongly rooted in the working-class sector (Oesch, 2008).

This political inflection calls into question the quasi-natural link between social structure and voting. In addition to a materialist explanation of the vote, so-called post-materialist explanatory factors have been added. Voting for populist radical right-wing parties would thus be (solely) based on affects such as resentment and anger and on xenophobic ideological dispositions. But these dispositions seem insufficient when studying electoral behaviours. A materialist approach to political practices, however, remains indispensable, provided that it is broadened. The neoliberal shaping of social relations, modes of production and exchange has, along varying degrees of resistance, resulted in diverse living conditions which in turn underpin electoral behaviour. Exposure to globalisation, type of contract, nature of activity, income, etc. are all characteristics that define the position of individuals in the relations of production, of which we wish to assess the explanatory power for voting for a populist radical right-wing party. The attitude towards immigration seems a relevant indicator as a potential supporter of the radical populist right, as xenophobia and ethnocentrism are the main ideological determinants of voting for these parties (Mudde, 2007).

The consequences of globalisation are transforming national political spaces and allowing new cleavages to emerge between ‘globalisation winners’ and ‘losers’; the latter perceiving a decline in their social status as a result of globalisation and tending to vote for populist radical right parties (Kriesi et al., 2006). However, belonging to the heterogeneous group of globalisation losers alone is not sufficient to understand support for xenophobic/ethnocentric positions or voting for a populist radical right-wing party. Indeed, different social characteristics create resistance to xenophobic behaviour and call for an understanding of the complex interweaving of identities that make up a political subject.

Through the current research literature, we will attempt to capture these nuances in order to identify the effects of globalisation on political behaviour and attitudes towards immigration: how the threats it may pose, such as technological innovation and increased competition between workers, impact on attitudes towards immigration. We will then try to understand which occupational and economic vulnerabilities contribute to xenophobic views or to support for a populist radical right-wing party. Necessarily, we will look at occupational and residential conditions at the local level to capture patterns of political behaviour. This is an opportunity to relativise the scope of national analyses that do not take into account whether or not the voters are in contact with people with a migrant background.

Occupational vulnerability in the context of globalisation

The extension of globalisation has led to the emergence of industrial sectors on the periphery of the capitalist world-system that are capable of competing with the industries of Western Europe and North America. In addition, technological innovations in companies have made it possible to automate many areas of production in order to increase productivity. The status of some workers is endangered by the evolution of the capitalist system through the relocation of the means of production and the automation of their workstations. This material and status threat has a significant impact on the perception of the social world and on the political positioning of individuals. Ortega and Polavieja (2012) show that wanting fewer immigrants in one’s country is strongly correlated with holding manual-skilled jobs, regardless of the level of education. The diploma, all else being equal, however, has little significant effect on the opinion expressed towards immigrants; xenophobia stems from a feeling of vulnerability in a competitive labour market. On the contrary, communication-intensive jobs are done by individuals who are more tolerant of the arrival of more immigrants on the national territory. Job-specific human capital, i.e. the amount of training time needed to enter a specific job, also plays a positive role in determining the acceptance of an immigrant population.

In relation to manual workers, the effect of automation strongly influences political behaviour. ‘Automation anxiety’ was a significant factor in the vote for Donald Trump in 2016 (Frey et al., 2017). Nevertheless, the process of automation is a determinant of voting for the populist radical right conditioned by the income level. Another study find that the threat of automation leads to electoral demobilisation or marginally to support for the radical left among the most precarious people (Im et al., 2019). Voting for the populist radical right is correlated with the threat of automation among people who are coping with financial hardship. People who fear losing a status fuel the electorate of the populist radical right. It has also been shown that routine-job has a negative impact on the opinion of the benefit of immigration to the national economy (Kaihovaara & Im, 2020). In their study, the researchers argue that among occupations with non-repetitive tasks, people with “offshorable” jobs tend to be less xenophobic than those with non-offshorable jobs. There are two possible explanations for this seemingly paradoxical result. On the one hand, the free movement of goods, services, capital and people (i.e. immigration) is much more accepted by non-repetitive offshorable occupations anchored in globalisation; on the other hand, the competition of non-offshorable occupations is played out within the national framework, and the presence of an immigrant population represents a serious competition on the labour market.

Precariousness as the driving force of xenophobia?

Beyond the variables of vulnerability on the labour market which are directly linked to the effects of globalisation, economic and professional insecurity contributes to a fear of loss of status. Which segments of the precarious group develop xenophobic attitudes? The socio-professional category of the self-employed, adopting liberal economic views and conservative cultural values – traditionally associated with the petty bourgeoisie – is nevertheless crossed by many components with the emergence of the new self-entrepreneurship. Jansen points out that precariousness and forced self-entrepreneurship are both determinants of support for the Dutch populist radical right-wing party but also of abstention (Jansen, 2017). This phenomenon is also found among people with high social insecurity. The vote for the Front National (FN, since 2018 : Rassemblement National) increases steadily between the socially secure and the most socially precarious groups (Mayer, 2018). But when abstention is taken into account, the FN’s highest score is reached among the second most precarious group, with the FN’s score decreasing slightly among the most precarious. Mayer highlights the political polarisation within the heterogeneous group of precarious people by distinguishing two forms of precariousness. The social precariousness experienced mainly by elderly, poorly educated and isolated people leads to abstention or to voting for the populist radical right. Conversely, “connected precarity” is represented by a young, educated population, connected to different social networks but subject to professional and financial insecurities. Connected precariousness is associated with higher electoral participation, which is reflected in support for radical left-wing parties. The divergence between these political behaviours can be explained by the relationship to the precariousness experienced. The so-called “connected” precariousness is experienced more as temporary.

Social insecurity has often been studied in the literature through the insider/outsider lens as defined by position on the labour market. However, membership of the insider/outsider groups is based on criteria that differ from one author to another. A study demonstrates that the various variants of outsiders developed in the literature offer contrasting results on their voting behaviour (Rovny & Rovny, 2017). A common finding among groups of outsiders, whose selection criteria may differ, is that they tend to abstain more than average. Defined by exposure to the risk of non-standard employment and by the level of unemployment in their occupations, outsiders – if voting – tend to vote for a party of the radical right. On the contrary, outsiders defined by employment status (permanent contract, part-time…) are more likely to vote for the radical left.

These results support the idea that voting for the radical right is an expression of the perceived threat of loss of status: precariousness within social groups, social insecurity and vulnerability on the labour market are determining variables. Vulnerabilities on the labour market originate from social or professional insecurity; the categorisation of social groups based solely on the winners/losers of globalisation’ dichotomy is limited. Globalisation has not been the only cause of the deterioration of the wage-earning society in Western Europe, but rather it has accompanied and reinforced neoliberal reforms. In order to grasp the full diversity of negative attitudes towards immigration, both among the working classes and the upper classes, it is necessary to add to this global analysis a particular attention to local contexts.

The importance of the local socio-economic context on attitudes towards immigration

The above-mentioned studies are limited to the analysis of data at the national level and do not take into account the local economic reality and the unequal distribution of immigrants in the territory. Thus, being in contact with people with an immigrant background within the family and friendship network significantly reduces the negative view of immigration (Rodon & Franco-Guillén, 2014). Professional or neighbourhood contacts with immigrants also positively change individuals’ attitudes towards immigration when territories are marked by high unemployment. Indeed, one hypothesis developed in this study is that the fear of losing one’s job would contribute to creating deeper professional solidarities within the work collective by putting aside racial identities.

The residential context plays a significant role in shaping xenophobic views. However, all else being equal, local levels of wealth and immigration density do not have a significant impact on attitudes towards immigration. It is only in interaction with particular worldviews that urban ecology influences attitudes towards immigration (Perry & Sibley, 2013). Thus, xenophobic attitudes emerge in neighbourhoods with a high density of immigrants on condition that they perceive their social world as dangerous, which is measured by the feeling of insecurity in the public space. Contrary to common sense, which stipulates that it is in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods that xenophobic attitudes are expressed the most, this study demonstrates that a low level of wealth does not systematically lead to negative perceptions of immigration. Perceiving the world as a competitive space, marked by a low level of trust in others, strongly contributes to xenophobic representations in the most economically advantaged neighbourhoods. This result is explained by the fact that these people wish to limit the entry of newcomers into areas of high social status in order to guarantee the preservation of a white, affluent clique.

The study of political behaviour at the local level becomes a necessity in order to understand everyday experiences embedded in the socio-economic dynamics of a territory. The composition of immigrant and native-born occupational skills is important for understanding labour market vulnerabilities (Bolet, 2020). Bolet’s study is based on socio-economic data (income, share of immigration, share of skilled employment) and the results of the FN in the 2012 and 2017 presidential elections in each French municipality. Municipalities with a high rate of low-skilled natives or with medium and high-skilled immigrants tend to have higher than average FN electoral scores. The vote for the FN party seems to increase where the labour market is competitive between immigrants and natives with similar qualifications. The effects of local labour market competition on voting for the radical populist right are accentuated in deprived areas. However, native unemployment does not contribute to high election results for radical right-wing populist parties. This is due to the high abstention rate of the most precarious populations. Moreover, high unemployment among immigrants contributes significantly to a low score for the FN. This study illustrates that the presence of immigrants is not the determining factor in voting for the populist radical right, as the FN vote decreases when immigrants occupy a lower social position or level of qualification than natives. Thus, it is the subversion of the social hierarchy anchored in a racial relationship and the fear of a loss of status in the face of foreign populations or populations perceived as such that represent the fertile ground for xenophobic parties.


In all the studies presented, the fear of losing status is the common factor for xenophobic behaviour. The assumption that the losers of globalisation constitute a reservoir of voters for radical right-wing populist parties is not totally incorrect if it is nuanced by the finer analysis of living conditions and local labour market dynamics. The factors that lead to abstention and to voting for the radical populist right are similar. On the one hand, the economic drivers of voting for the radical populist right cause individuals to fall into abstention when a certain threshold is reached: this vote turns into abstention. On the other hand, the electorate of the radical populist right is highly volatile, defined by intermittent voting rather than stable support. From these findings, we can assume that firstly, precariousness or insecurity alone are not determinants of xenophobia, as negative attitudes towards immigration appear when one’s social position is threatened relative to what it should be. It is therefore a contrast effect between the way one perceives oneself and the actual positions one occupies. An individual who does not consider his or her status to be endangered will not develop xenophobic attitudes or support for a radical right-wing populist party to a significantly greater extent than the average. Furthermore, we see that xenophobia is not a static behaviour but rather a dynamic one that is created in relation to the individual’s trajectory in his or her professional and residential space. Knowing that xenophobia and ethnocentrism (two closely related factors) are the main determinants of voting for the populist radical right, the success of these parties appears to be temporary to a situation of relative deprivation, i.e. the feeling of having been deprived of an advantageous social position in comparison to other social groups such as welfare recipients or immigrants in the case of this electorate.

Identities less connected to the professional sphere have gained influence, such as gender or race, to the extent that these social characteristics structure the political fields. The electorate of the populist radical right is not spared, with a strongly male electorate (Givens, 2004), although gender has significantly lost its predictive power in voting for the FN in the last decade (Mayer, 2015). It is the articulation of the fear of losing one’s status with particular social properties that significantly leads to a vote for the populist radical right. This fear seems to arise from an experience of vexation made by people who think their physical properties (being male and non-immigrant) should lead them to comfortable social positions, but do not. Thus, being a woman and/or coming from an immigrant background inhibit this political behaviour. However, even the figure of the ‘typical voter’ of these parties, the white working-class man close to retirement living outside the metropolises, is not a guarantee of support for these parties. Indeed, within the working classes, solidarity allows for resistance to xenophobia and competition on the labour market. The ethnic divide can be pushed into the background in favour of a common class and/or local affiliation. While communist and socialist movements have succeeded in differentiating social status from social class by aspiring to overthrow the social hierarchy through a victory of resource-poor social groups, radical right-wing populist parties try to link social status to physical properties and to legitimise the social hierarchy on the basis of race and gender. Creating resistance to the discourse of the populist radical right will necessarily require the articulation of a common project for exploited groups with a consideration of different relations of domination within them.

This article was published on 21 April 2021 by Transform!Europe. 


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