Brexit Betrayed Rally organised by UKIP in London on September 12, 2019. Photo: Rupert Rivett.

Are deindustrialization and European integration fostering populism?

Deindustrialization and deeper European integration seem to be two of the several hazardous factors leading to the development of populism in Europe. Considering that neither deindustrialization nor European integration is expected to cease, populism will likely remain on the political spectrum.

By Daniel H. B. Gamez*

This article focuses on two postulates and, making use of extensive literature, tries to shed some light on the reasons for the increase in support of populism in Europe. The first postulate is that if industrialization in Europe has brought democracy support and stability, then, deindustrialization could contribute to the rise of populism and political instability. This postulate rests on modernization theory, which suggests a causal relationship between economic development and democratization (Liñán, 2017).

The second postulate has to do with political internationalization and deeper European integration, considering that many populist movements have opposed the European Union (EU) (Rodrik, 2020). In other words, the more we advance in economic and political international integration, the more vertical leadership and less direct democratic control are required, and the more likely populism will emerge. 

Deindustrialization and international integration are two fundamental issues for democracy and stability in the EU. Because both are currently threatened by populism, the importance of these themes as an object of study becomes all the more significant.

Discussion 

The first postulate of this research article rests on the modernization theory, which suggests that “a gradual differentiation and specialization of social structures that culminates in a separation of political structures from other structures makes democracy possible” (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997). In other words, progresses in several areas such as industrialization, education, communication, mobilization, and the like, prepares society for democracy (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997). However, the assumption here is not that those countries that become economically rich will become political democracies. Rather, that economic development and industrialization are crucial to maintaining democratic support among the population, provided they have already achieved democracy.

As a matter of fact, Przeworski and Limongi have demonstrated that per capita income is a good indicator of democratic stability (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997). This is partly because the richer a country becomes, the more it is likely to invest in the education of its citizens, and more educated people are more likely to develop democratic values (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997). Moreover, poor countries that have established democracy are more likely to slide back into authoritarianism than those who have reached a certain threshold of per capita income, after which the chances of democratic survival grow significantly (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997). However, they also found out that the economic crisis remains the most common threat to democratic stability, and that democracies, particularly poor ones with weak institutions, are extremely vulnerable to bad economic performance (Przeworski & Limongi, 1997).

Moreover, over the last two centuries, industrialization has significantly reduced economic inequality and boosted political liberalization (Boix, 2015: 264). Society has also become healthier and, thus, life expectancy at birth has increased considerably (Boix, 2015: 264). Research suggests that it was industrialization along with liberalism that has “contributed to the gradual democratization of European politics, but that neither would have been sufficient by itself,” (Congleton, 2004). Support for democracy has remained remarkably stable throughout the EU. This lends credence to the notion that industrialized countries with established democratic institutions are more likely to maintain support for liberal democracy (Congleton, 2004).

Nevertheless, considering that there is already a deindustrialization process underway in certain parts of Europe, it is crucial to understand precisely what role industrialization plays in developing support for democracy in the first place. Researchers such as van Noort suggest that industrialization is central to the institutionalization of liberal democracy; it seems that a large industrial workforce tends to induce democracy (van Noort, 2020)

However, deindustrialization expands the share of the service sector in the economy. This and other factors consequently disrupt political stability. For instance, economies dominated by services face either increasing low-wage employment or a high level of unemployment (Hahn & Kodó, 2017). Yet, as the service sector increases in size, trade unions, which have long supported democracy, see their influence reduced (Rowthorn & Ramaswamy, 1997). Moreover, if there is a loss of bargaining power in a fast-paced environment led by technological change, it becomes almost impossible for the unions to negotiate wages on reasonable terms (Rowthorn & Ramaswamy, 1997).

In other words, the protection offered through collective bargaining is not available through the market. Consequently, the greater the coverage of this social protection, the fewer the risks of inequality and economic crises on workers (Keune, 2015).

Interestingly, Kaltwasser and van Hauwaert’s research on the populist citizen shows that citizens are more populist in Latin America (significant inequality and weak democratic institutions) than in Europe (Rovira Kaltwasser & van Hauwaert, 2020). Moreover, European citizens do not have a strong belief that the world can be divided into a binary of “good” people versus “corrupt” elites (Rovira Kaltwasser & Van Hauwaert, 2020). Instead, while being very interested in politics, they are rather indifferent to political parties (Rovira Kaltwasser & Van Hauwaert, 2020). Additionally, populist supporters prefer democracy over any other form of government. Their decision to look for populist parties indicates that there is a significant dissatisfaction with the current way democracy is currently functioning in Europe (Rovira Kaltwasser & Van Hauwaert, 2020)

In sum, we see theoretically that deindustrialization and automatization produce a relative expansion in the scope of the service sector, which due to several correlated factors, such as economic grievances, provokes political turmoil in turn. Having established this, we can now observe empirical cases of five countries to test these assumptions. 

France

Although populism in France has been present since World War II (Ivaldi, 2019), the actors have changed, and so have their demands. Nowadays, two parties dominate the populist scene in France, namely the Front National (FN) and La France Insoumise (LFI) (Ivaldi, 2019).

Regarding the FN, it can be said to be the typical radical right-wing populism. Its leader Marine Le Pen claims that the party authentically represents the will of the people and fight for France’s freedom from globalization and the EU (Ivaldi, 2019). On the other hand, the LFI’s leader Mélenchon adopts a discourse and ideology that presents the left as an alternative to the neoliberal hegemony (Ivaldi, 2019).

Both populist parties argue against economic globalization and neoliberal capitalism. They oppose capitalist elites and financial institutions. Furthermore, both parties try to gain Eurosceptic voters (Ivaldi, 2019). For instance, the FN discourse describes the EU as a totalitarian prison that impedes the expression of the genuine will of the French people, especially when it comes to immigration and the control of borders (Ivaldi, 2019). On the other hand, LFI’s Euroscepticism is driven mainly by economic concerns and a desire to support those left behind by globalization. 

Ivaldi’s research has shown that the rise of populist parties in France has been fueled by economic instability, inequality, and the electorate’s discontent with mainstream politics. Moreover, the data shows that young people that vote for FN favor authoritarianism and that the probability of voting for Le Pen decreases with age (Ivaldi, 2019). Lastly, young people that have a strong democratic ideology are more likely to vote for Mélenchon. Her research also shows that people with higher education are also less likely to support FN (Halikiopoulou, 2020). This corroborates what has been mentioned above concerning the modernization theory- namely more educated people are more likely to develop democratic values. 

Greece

Greece has also seen a rise in left- and right-wing populism in recent years. However, when we look closer at the data from the 2015 election, we can see a significant decline in support for the mainstream parties (New Democracy or ND and Pasok), the triumph of the radical left Syriza, and the far-right Golden Dawn entering parliament for the first time. 

This shows that the electorate wanted to punish mainstream parties for their failure to manage the effects of the crises(Halikiopoulou, 2020). In fact, the following election in 2019 saw the defeat of Syriza to mainstream party ND (Halikiopoulou, 2020).

Halikiopoulou has also shown that the reasons for the rise of Syriza are the prevalent inequality, austerity measures, and the challenging economic conditions affecting the working class (Halikiopoulou, 2020). Despite the support for the far-right group, it can be observed that most of the Greeks preferred a more democratic approach as an alternative to mainstream politics. Similarly, Golden Dawn’s presence also shows that a violent and authoritarian populism can emerge where there are weak democratic institutions (Halikiopoulou, 2020). As stated before, established democratic institutions are essential to maintain support for liberal democracy.

Italy

Since 2000, Italy has borne witness to the rise of the anti-establishment Five-Star Movement (M5S) and the right-wing populist Lega party (formerly Lega Nord or the Northern League). The study of the last elections clearly shows that as greater inequality goes along with lower participation in the election, the dissatisfied and undecided voters are crucially targeted by populist parties (Pianta, 2020).

This is possible because, in recent decades, income inequality has been bringing with it disaffection with politics in general and, thus, mainstream political parties (Pianta, 2020). Moreover, the adoption of policies that protect the wealth of the higher classes while harming the working class has also impacted the political landscape (Pianta, 2020). Cleverly, the League abandoned its regionalism stance to adopt a more state-wide anti-Europe and anti-elite attitude to win the unsatisfied (Vampa, 2020).

Finally, the case of Italy shows that income and wealth inequality can have significant political consequences (Pianta, 2020). That is why events such as the widening of the service sector, which favors the better educated classes and the decline in the industrial workforce due to deindustrialization are so significant.

Spain

The rise of Podemos in Spain offers a practical example of populism as a discursive logic rather than as an ideological formation (Zarzalejos, 2016). Apart from that, Zarzalejos identifies the existence in Spain of factors that benefit populism, namely, inequality, high unemployment, declining middle- and working class, and shrinking incomes. Similarly, the financial crisis and the highly public corruption cases have aggravated the already weak trust of the people in mainstream politics (Zarzalejos, 2016).

Furthermore, as Podemos established itself, VOX, a far-right populist party, started to make gains with the electorate. Research into the April 2019 Spanish election shows that Podemos was more successful in provinces characterized by levels of deprivation and big cities, as well as those with an independent ideology (Vampa, 2020). In contrast, VOX succeeded where there was economic difficulty and a lack of independent ideological discourse (e.g., Murcia region) (Vampa, 2020). Considering that Podemos joined the Socialist Party to form a government after the elections, it can be observed that the Podemos vote came largely from voters seeking a bottom-up approach as an alternative to neoliberalism. 

The United Kingdom

Analyzing the United Kingdom local elections in 2016 and the general election in 2017, it can be observed that the UK Independence Party (UKIP), a Eurosceptic and right-wing populist party, helped the conservatives to victory by splitting the opposition vote. This forced the incumbent prime minister, David Cameron, to make good on his promise to hold a referendum on EU membership (Fetzer, 2020).

Although much has been researched on the misleading and deceiving “Leave” campaign promises, it is important to consider that the UKIP party managed to convince working-age adults to vote for it to protest mainstream politics (Fetzer, 2020), especially around the issues of wages and working conditions, and of course, migration.

Fetzer claims that Brexit is a product of the specific features of British economic and political history but also adds that the erosion of unionization and collective bargaining, precarious employment, unemployment, and weaker employment protections were also relevant (Fetzer, 2020). These, it should be noted, are all effects of the process of deindustrialization and automatization. 

Countries
where populism has had electoral relevance
Rise of inequality Decrease in wages Disappointment with traditional parties Support for Democracy of populist electorate Support for authoritarianism of populist electorate Ruling party or part of coalition government
France
Greece
Italy
Spain
UK

These five European countries have served as empirical examples to test the postulates that deindustrialization fosters populism. The analysis shows that by generating economic grievances, especially in the middle and working class, deindustrialization has significantly contributed to the rise of populism in Europe. Indeed, inequality, loss of wages, de-unionization, automatization, precarious employment, mistrust, and dissatisfaction are among the effects of deindustrialization that have pushed electorates to vote for populist alternatives.

Moreover, Vlandas and Halikiopoulou have shown that social policies can reduce support for the far-right among those exposed to social vulnerability. In other words, it is not only absolute impoverishment that drives people to turn to populism but also the perception of economic decline (Vlandas, & Halikiopoulou, 2021). Nevertheless, the government has the tools to shape political outcomes by addressing the right social policies (Vlandas, & Halikiopoulou, 2021). Similarly, Boix (2019) argues that while deindustrialization, automatization and technological change are inevitable, voters and governments can step in to apply policies that offer transfers to those left behind or permanently unemployed. Again, democratic institutions and elections enable voters to impose high-tax transfers to the affected groups (Boix, 2019).

In sum, the rise of populism is not so much due to citizens having populist attitudes, but rather to the loss of collective bargaining (social protection) resulting from deindustrialization. 

However, let us consider the second postulate-namely, that the increase in international political integration, (i.e., deeper European integration) is partly driving citizens’ dissatisfaction with democracy, leading them to populist alternatives.

Mesežnikov et al. (2008) suggest that there is a falling trust toward liberal parties across Europe, with such parties consistently losing vote share over time. However, when populist parties and leaders are seen as a real threat, liberal parties manage to mobilize more voters (Mesežnikov et al., 2008).

This sheds light on several challenges regarding responsiveness and responsibility uncovered by Mair (2009) -namely, governments are finding it increasingly challenging to be both responsive to voters and persuade them to back their policies. Subsequently, much of public policy today is delegated to state agencies and institutions, which constrains the responsiveness of governments (Mair, 2009). This problem is destined to increase given the integration within the EU and the internationalization of policy parameters (Mair, 2009).

Strøm has pointed out that these constraints can even obstruct representative politics because international parameters (e.g., the UN, the EU, etc.) either prohibit certain forms of agency or force behavior that otherwise would not have been freely chosen (Mair, 2009). Moreover, governments are limited by prior policy commitments, which can be enshrined in national legislation or international treaties. 

It is in this context of constraints to deliver solutions that populist parties have influence. Populism tries to occupy the vacuum left by traditional parties unable to provide adequate responses (Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012). Kaltwasser and Van Hauwaert (2020) show that citizens in Europe want to both express their dissatisfaction, and impact decision-making albeit without upending democracy. That means that this current gap between policies, democratic ideals, and their implementation eventually strengthen the rise of populist ideas and influence (Rovira Kaltwasser & Van Hauwaert, 2020)

At this stage, it can be observed that government constraints prevent citizens’ satisfaction and their impact on decision-making. The increasing European integration is working at the cost of the popular will. Rather often, official bodies ratify proposals made by public bureaucracies after these have been discussed with representatives of organized interests without the engagement of the average citizen (Rovira Kaltwasser, 2012).

As Dahl had already explained, the shift from city-states to nation-states meant fewer participatory opportunities in the decision-making for engaged citizens (Dahl, 1992: 271). Similarly, by shifting from nation-states to member states, parties have become less representative of the societies. Conversely, they now rely on regional integration as their source of legitimacy and authority (Bickerton et al., 2015).

As a result, policies are justified in terms of European obligations (Bickerton et al., 2015). Thus, to rule in Europe is to rule through transnational networks of governance. It could be said, therefore, that in Europe, bureaucracies external to the state intervene and assist societies (Bickerton et al., 2015). Consequently, to mobilize against national governments equals to mobilize against Europe. It is in these terms that the rise of Euroscepticism and anti-Europe populist parties can be understood (Mair, 2009). Moreover, by placing their legitimacy on regional integration rather than national sovereignty and citizen participation, nation-states in Europe are challenging the basic notions of democracy. In other words, political internationalization reduces citizen participation and influence in the political process (Lavenex, 2013: 108) and, consequently, undermines state institutions, political accountability, and the like. 

Despite the horizontal intergovernmental organization of the EU, where power and authority are established in their relations with one another (Bickerton et al., 2015), there is a great deal of power delegation which increases the verticality between EU states, institutions, and ordinary citizens. Importantly, democratic institutions should prevent the delegation from becoming a total and permanent alienation of control from the electorate (Lavenex, 2013: 133). However, this is what is happening, and this helps explain the growing gap between what citizens want their government to do and what the government can do, given constraints (Mair, 2009: 17).

In all the empirical examples mentioned above, populists have targeted dissatisfied voters with mainstream politics and the EU. For instance, the discourse of Greece’s Syriza emphasized a policy of ending the impositions of the EU and the IMF (i.e., the Troika) to carry out the will of the Greek citizens (Henley, 2015). Thus, Syriza carried out a campaign with different electorates and demands, yet, with a common enemy: the EU. Similarly, Spain’s Podemos came to prominence in 2014, adopting a discourse against the EU’s top-down fiscal rules and in favor of an open government where people can take direct control of major governmental decisions (BBC News, 2015). and more fiscal national sovereignty from the EU (Kadner, 2014).

Conclusion

In the light of what has been argued before regarding the initial two postulates, deindustrialization and deeper European integration seem to be two of the several hazardous factors leading to the development of populism in Europe. 

On the one hand, deindustrialization disrupts political stability and harms the middle and working classes. On the other hand, since the political and economic crisis of the 1970s, post-war Keynesian cooperation between business and labor was increasingly abandoned in favor of a neoliberal structural adjustment, thus, weakening national constraints (Bickerton et al., 2015). In doing so, citizens were taken away the promised protection from capitalism’s dangerous consequences that enabled in the past, democracy to flourish (Berman & Snegovaya, 2019)

Furthermore, as political parties become more integrated into Europe, they become less connected to civil society, which questions their authority as they are not able to fulfill their demands satisfactorily. This situation explains the rise of populism as a democratic alternative to either punish traditional parties or avoid liberal solutions. 

Finally, this essay’s findings suggest that both deindustrialization and European integration are interconnected when it comes to the development and rise of populism. Not only is deindustrialization caused by the advancement of the economy but also by international economic integration, trade openness, industrial relocation, and the financialization of the economy (Araujo et al., 2021). All these factors have been generated by deeper European political cohesion. Therefore, considering that neither deindustrialization nor European integration is expected to cease, populism will likely remain on the political spectrum.


 

Daniel H. B. Gamez is a final-year student enrolled in a bachelor’s degree program in Latin American Studies at Stockholm University, Sweden. As an undergraduate, he has developed research interests in political stability and social movements within Latin America and Europe. Being an active student involved with his university, he is editor-in-chief of the Stockholm Journal of International Affairs, a student magazine of the Stockholm Association of International Affairs (UF Stockholm or SAIA). Previously, he has been vice-president of the student council and student representative at the Department of Humanities at Stockholm University.


 

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Reclaim Australia Rally against Islam in Australia held in Newcastle CBD leading to multiple arrests in Newcastle, Australia in 2016. Photo: Man Down Media

Islamophobia and the pandemic: How these two salient public issues have invigorated the contemporary Australian far-right

The anti-Islam groups have played a significant role in the trajectory of far-right activity in Australia. However, the way these groups operate signifies a shift away from traditional far-right tactics. By casting themselves as part of a populist defence against a threatening Islam they have sought to legitimate their ‘supposedly righteous action’. Thus, they have been able to connect with mainstream concerns, bringing these groups and their ideologies closer to the Australian public. Since these groups have tended to attack Muslims under the guise of liberal ideals and the ‘protection’ of Australia, they experienced a level of success in escaping being written off for being too extreme.

By Chloe Smith*

Far-right activities are influenced by prevalent mainstream discourse in society. This article will analyse how two highly salient contemporary public issues —Islamophobia and the COVID-19 pandemic —have functioned as catalysts for the evolution and visibility of far-right actors and groups.[1] Two distinct and arguably crucial phases of growth in the Australian far-right over the past decade are identified.[2] The first occurred in the mid-2010s when a number of anti-Islam groups and movements formed in response to widespread Islamophobia. The second phase encompasses the current surge in far-right activity and cohesiveness due to the COVID-19 global health crisis. 

The Australian far-right is quite disparate and has often been described as difficult to categorise because of the complexity and diversity demonstrated in its ideologies and organisation (The Australia Institute, 2021). Nevertheless, far-right groups and members in Australia share some fundamental ideological commitments[3] while tending to be, as Dr. Mario Peucker (2021) notes, in ‘fierce disagreement and competition with each other’. Consequently, the two aforementioned public issues are interesting to study because they have evidently triggered renewed far-right activity in Australia and have created a point of ideological convergence between traditionally disparate and contentious actors. 

Public discourse about Islam and Muslims in the mid-2010s (and more recently about the impacts of the pandemic) have also offered windows of opportunity for the far-right in Australia to connect with people and narratives in the mainstream. The global and domestic rise of populism has been a crucial factor in mainstreaming far-right narratives over the last decade. Populist politicians in Australia like Pauline Hanson[4] have demonstrated a capacity to popularise far-right ideas that were once discredited as ‘naive, taboo, backward, unscientific, isolationist or unethical’ (Fenton-Smith, 2020). 

This article employs the definition of populism as a ‘style’. Defining populism in this way is best suited to the Australian context, because of its ability to capture the range of political leaders, movements, and parties who use populism in the nation (Moffitt, 2020).[5] Moffitt writes that populism as a style encompasses appeals to ‘the people’ and the dichotomous division of society into ‘the people’ and ‘the Other’ (usually a racial or racialised minority) as well as claiming to be distinct from (or in total opposition to) the ‘establishment’ or ‘elite’ (Moffitt and Tormey, 2014). Importantly, this view of populism specifies the ways in which appeals are stylised via the performance of crisis, breakdown and threat, attempting to elicit emotions among the public (mostly anger and fear) that can be used to construct binaries of ‘us’ and ‘them’ (Yilmaz and Morieson, 2021). The weaponisation of heightened public emotions (e.g., fear of Muslims and distrust of the government) by populist politicians helps create and fuel the type of polarisation in society that bolsters far-right ideologies (McNeil-Wilson et.al, 2019).

This article will study each of these public issues in turn and demonstrate how members of the far-right are able to become more visible during these times because their objectives intersect with widespread anxieties and populist politics (‘us’ versus ‘them’, anti-establishment sentiment, and the purposeful elicitation of crisis).

The Formation of Anti-Islam Groups

In the first phase of growth identified in this article (the mid-2010s), many new anti-Islam groups formed in Australia. This was a time when the mainstream discourse was heavily invested in perpetuating fear about Islam and Muslims in Australia.[6] This discourse was intensified by national and overseas developments, including the increased securitisation of Muslim communities, the rise of ISIS, and domestic developments such as the 2014 Sydney Martin Place Siege,[7] an event that was immediately followed by the creation of new far-right groups in Victoria and New South Wales (Peucker and Smith, 2019). Pauline Hanson, Australia’s best-known populist politician,[8] has exploited these fears about terrorism, extremism and threats to dominant Australian culture as a way to spread the ‘rhetorical tropes’ of the global far-right and legitimise broader exclusionary politics (McSwiney and Cottle, 2017 & Fenton-Smith, 2020). For instance, during the height of anti-Islam activity, she claimed, ‘We will be living under sharia law and treated as second-class citizens with second-class rights’ if Islam is allowed to spread (Fenton-Smith, 2020). This statement was an extension of her party’s anti-Islam and anti-Muslim policies that revolved around an ‘absolute opposition to any more mosques, Sharia law, halal certification and Muslim refugees’ (Akbarzadeh 2016).

The perpetuation of Islamophobia in Australian mainstream discourse peaked with the opportunistic formation of new far-right groups such as Reclaim Australia, United Patriots Front, Rise Up Australia, Stop the Mosque in Bendigo and Aussie Angels against Shariah, which all define themselves in terms of explicit anti-Islam and anti-Muslim ideas and objectives, and disseminate narratives that position Islam and Muslims as a threat to the culture and/or safety of Australians (Peucker and Smith, 2019). For these groups, Muslim immigration and increasing visibility in Australian public life function as a metonym for broader cultural and demographic change (Pertwee, 2020). These groups hold much more extensive (and radical) ideological views, including opposition to immigration and multiculturalism and cultural and racial superiority. However, they have cunningly leveraged mainstream discourse about the rise of ISIS and the widespread vilification of Muslims to justify and legitimise their rhetoric (Lewis et.al, 2017). Even though the overwhelming majority of Australians have no direct experience with the types of physical harm that extremist groups like ISIS perpetuate, these far-right groups have gained traction because of global and domestic fears about terrorism, extremism and foreign fighters[9](Lewis et.al, 2017).

The anti-Islam groups formed in this period have played a significant role in the trajectory of far-right activity in Australia. The way these groups operate signifies a shift away from traditional far-right tactics to what Kristy Campion describes as a ‘more concerned citizen persona’ that is achieved via a reframing of stated objectives. Thus, by casting themselves as part of a populist defence against a threatening Islam, these groups have sought to legitimate their ‘supposedly righteous action’ (Campion, 2019). In other words, because they have mobilised around a salient public issue, the far-right has been able to connect with mainstream concerns, bringing these groups and their ideologies closer to the Australian public. Finally, because these groups have tended to attack Muslims under the guise of liberal ideals and the ‘protection’[10] of Australia, they experienced a level of success in escaping being written off for being too extreme (AMAN, 2021). 

This phase is defined by the construction of Muslims as the racialised ‘Other’.[11] However, anti-establishment messaging played an equally important role during this phase of mobilisation. The Australian far-right has used populism to attack the government, claiming that they allowed the interests of minority and religious groups to override the interests of the majority (‘the people’) (Lewis et.al, 2017). Because of this framing, these groups were able to convey anti-establishment ideas without being dismissed as anti-democratic (Rydgren, 2005). Although intense hostility towards those ‘above’ has become a more defining feature of the far-right in recent years, these anti-Islam groups were sowing seeds of distrust through their insistence that Australia’s national interests are being diminished by international treaties about refugees and immigration (Lewis et.al, 2017).

The formation and then dismantling and splintering[12] of these anti-Islam groups has played an instrumental role in the contemporary landscape of the Australian far-right. The recent CARR-Hedayah Radical Right Counter-Narratives (RRCN) project report highlighted the movement of members of anti-Islam protest movements to more extreme ‘fight clubs’ and neo-Nazi cells (Allchorn, 2021). The report also noted the radicalisation of narratives from the populist anti-Muslim rhetoric described in this article to more explicitly white supremacist and chauvinist narratives witnessed in recent years. One demonstration of the evolution of these groups can be seen in the 2017 formation of the Lads Society, from members of the disbanded anti-Islam protest group the United Patriots Front (UPF) (Allchorn, 2021). Although the UFP’s discourse was centred around the supposed threat that Islam and Muslims posed to Australian society, the CARR-Hedayah report noted that the Lads Society expressed a more overtly white supremacist and neo-Nazi ideology. In 2020 the Nationalist Socialist Network formed as an offshoot of the Lads Society (led by former UFP and Lads Society member Tom Sewell) and incorporates known members of the far-right group, Antipodean Resistance), promoting explicitly racial supremacist, anti-democratic and antisemitic ideas. (Besser and Whalan, 2021 & Allchorn, 2021). 

The study of these formal groups is important. However, it is also important to reiterate that the Australian far-right has characteristically diverse and disparate, particularly between these periods of mobilisation. A recent assessment of the structure explains that in Australia (even more so than the United States and Europe), far-right organisation is increasingly based on the leaderless resistance model, a framework of small, disparate cells and a large number of ‘loosely connected individuals, online communities and connections that occasionally spill into the offline world’[13] (Grossman et.al, 2021). These highly networked, interconnected cells and individuals include populist politicians, alternative news representatives, and international movements (Gregoire, 2021). The discussion that follows will examine how the far-right have mobilised around the COVID-19 pandemic. It seeks to offer clear evidence of an evolution of the far-right from the formal groups of the mid-2010s to a more connected framework of small groups and leaderless networks. 

The COVID-19 Pandemic

The preceding discussion identified widespread Islamophobia as having created a conducive environment for far-right activity. Similarly, a range of disparate far-right ideas, groups and supporters have come together during the pandemic and attached themselves to fears and hostilities expressed in the mainstream. Civil agitation combined with dissatisfaction with government measures has ‘elicited a keen reaction by the Australian far-right’, with actors demonstrating a willingness to take these anti-establishment sentiments and exploit them to promote their own political agendas (Jones, 2021).

Australia’s intelligence organisation ASIO assessed that ‘COVID-19 restrictions are being exploited by extreme right-wing narratives that paint the state as oppressive, and globalisation and democracy as flawed and failing’ and further that the pandemic has ‘reinforced an extreme right-wing belief in the inevitability of societal collapse and a “race war”’ (Christodoulou, 2020). The far-right have opportunistically exploited government measures (such as closing borders and enforcing isolation) to support narratives that promote ethnic segregation and extreme immigration restrictions (Khalil and Roose, 2020). This is a fascinating and complex period of mobilisation and demonstrates a noticeable expansion from a predominant focus on the nativist-constructed ‘other’ (Muslims, people of African descent, and those of Asian appearance)[14] to also incorporating attacks on ‘The System’. Dr. Mario Peucker’s recent work (2021) details this shift clearly, noting that these new far-right narratives encompass attacks on the global elite, agencies and sources of information such as the United Nations, the World Health Organisation, as well as national ‘tentacles’ including the Australian government and the political elite, mainstream media and universities.

Populist politics have been re-energised by the circumstances of the pandemic and have mirrored the far-right in combining nativism with attacks on the government and ‘system’. An example is Hanson’s recent claims that COVID-19 was created in a Chinese laboratory and then ‘unleashed’ on the world (Sengul, 2021). She has also exploited the pandemic to further her populist rejection of the ‘elite’, attacking international organisations such as the World Health Organisation and the United Nations, claiming they are ‘corrupt globalist bureaucracies’ that are using the pandemic to‘squeeze more money from “struggling Australians” (Sengul, 2020). In addition, the promotion of distrust towards the national government has been evident in Hanson’s condemnation of introduced measures to counter the pandemic (e.g., lockdowns and social distancing laws) (Sengul, 2020). Political contemporaries have similarly been pushing similar ideas. For instance, the One Nation Party’s NSW leader Mark Latham claims that ‘our country’ has become ‘a dictatorship of the health bureaucrats’ (Sengul, 2020). 

During the pandemic, conspiracy theories have been a vital ideological and discursive tool. Different conspiracy theories have been recycled that convey antisemitic tropes of a global Jewish cabal running the world (Peucker, 2021) or promoting distrust and hatred towards Muslims and people of Asian descent (Macklin, 2020). The far-right has also been observed strategically expanding their narratives online, and consequently merging with existing conspiracy theorists and their subscribers in a way they had not before – such as QAnon, ‘anti-vaxxers’, anti-5G activists, and ‘sovereign citizens’, a broad membership that proclaim independence from state laws and regulations (Khalil and Roose, 2020). This expansion of narratives was demonstrated by the far-right Australian Protectionist Party—a group established on standard far-right ideologies of anti-immigration and white supremacy. A recent study found that the APP held one of the most active Australian Gab[15] accounts. Recent activity on this platform found that the group was combining its established ideological narratives with other QAnon, anti-vaccination and pandemic-related conspiracy theories, including the idea that global elites are supposedly seeking to annihilate large parts of the global population and that vaccines contain microchips (Guerin et.al, 2021).

Recent anti-lockdown protests in various Australian cities have also resulted in different groups in society intersecting. Although there are many ties between the protests and the far-right, senior research fellow in extremist Joshua Roose explains that these protests have attracted people from a broad section of society (Knaus and McGowan, 2020). Widespread fear, the impacts of long-term precariousness to income and business, and distrust in the government and medical industry have resulted in significant overlap between frustrated citizens, conspiracy theorists and far-right actors (Knaus and McGowan, 2020). This overlap is not accidental. For example, the Australian chapter of the Proud Boys became more active during the pandemic and engaged in anti-lockdown protests and vigilante-style activism against left-wing opponents[16] (Allchorn, 2021). Leaders of the Nationalist Socialist Network[17] have also been reported as being in attendance and attempting to recruit new members at a recent anti-lockdown protest in Melbourne  (Kelly, 2021).

There is also evidence of extremist far-right members using anti-lockdown protest groups to mobilise an online community[18] and gradually introduce more radical ideas. For example, known far-right actor Harrison McLean used an alias to run an anti-lockdown and ‘freedom’ group on the encrypted messenger app Telegram, gaining more than 2,000 followers and attracting hundreds of people to street protests (McGowan, 2021). The activities of this group may seem to revolve around democratic concerns about lockdowns and freedom rights. However, this group—and others like it[19]—operate in a space where conspiracy theories, anti-establishment messaging, antisemitism, Islamophobia, Sinophobia and other expressions of racism are readily shared (McGowan, 2021).[20]

Conclusion

This article tracked the ways in which salient public issues have granted the Australian far-right opportunities to become more cohesive in its activity, mobilise a broader audience, and converge with mainstream narratives and populist politics. Islamophobic and anti-Muslim discourses continue to be a significant component of far-right ideology. However, they are not the primary source of mobilisation, as witnessed in the mid-2010s. With the passing of time, research has been able to identify the impacts of this period of mobilisation, notably the splintering of these groups into more extreme cells and the normalisation of racial supremacist—and (to a lesser degree) anti-establishment—narratives. 

This article was written during the second salient public issue identified, the COVID-19 pandemic. It and the heightened anti-government and anti-establishment rhetoric around it, continues to unfold. The longer-term consequences of this period of far-right activity and increased interaction with the mainstream public will become more apparent with time and the intensified focus on the Australian far-right. 


 

(*) Chloe Smith recently attained a Master of Islamic Studies from Charles Sturt University, Australia. She also holds a bachelor of counterterrorism, security and intelligence from Edith Cowan University. Chloe’s research interests include radicalisation and extremism studies, Islamophobia, and populism.


 

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Footnotes

 

[1] The ‘far-right’ is applied in this analysis as an umbrella term that captures a range of populist political, radical and extremist ideas, narratives and actors.

[2] Dr Mario Peucker, referenced in this paper, has also identified these two periods of mobilisation as highly salient. He views the public debates (first around Islam/Muslims and then the pandemic) as providing new discursive opportunities for the far-right. 

[3] Similar to international groups, the Australian far-right mobilise around anti-Muslim, populist, ethno-nationalist, white supremacist and chauvinist narratives (Allchorn, 2021).

[4] Pauline Hanson is a good case study because of her strongly populist style – however the Australian political system is recognised as housing a number of controversial, populist figures that have current or former ties to the major parties (Dorling, 2020).  Ben Moffitt (2017) describes populism being diffused into mainstream discourse, because the nation is an ‘accepting home of populist, populist style, discourse and issues.

[5] Other well-established definitions of populism such as the ‘ideational’ and ‘strategic’ approach are more limited in their ability to describe the widespread presentation of populism in Australian politics. These definitions are recognised to be more accurate at describing populist parties like those in Europe (using the ‘ideational’ approach) or populist leadership prominent in Latin America (using the ‘strategic’ approach) (Moffitt, 2017). 

[6] The far-right has proven to be adept at mobilizing around a range of public fears and resentments, and this has been most noticeable in different nativist, exclusionary discourses towards ethnic and culturally defined ‘Others’ in recent history (Peucker, 2021). For instance, prior to the widespread targeting of Muslims in the 1990s, there was a growth in far-right political parties, social movements and groups that formed around anti-Asian immigration narratives, correlating with higher levels of immigration from Asian countries at the time Macquarie University, 2020). More recently, people of African descent have also been targeted because of media-led moral panics around ‘crime gangs’ (Peucker, 2021).  Far-right hostility towards Islam and Muslims in Australia (and globally) is recognised to be a distinct topic of research because of the prolonged nature, institutionalisation and normalisation in public discourse, and the unique opportunities it has afforded the contemporary far-right to grow Poynting and Briskman, 2018). 

[7] A hostage situation by a self-styled Islamic State supporter that gained a huge amount of media and political attention (Macquarie University, 2020). 

[8] Pauline Hanson re-emerged in 2016 after a long break from politics, re-energized by the global rise of populism, and a political environment that was becoming increasingly more tolerant of the xenophobia that is characteristic of her politics. Hanson’s populist style is also characterised by her claims that she speaks on behalf of the ‘everyday’ Australian, her unsophisticated and transgressive ’plain speak’, and using this style of communication to prove she is unlike other politicians (Fenton-Smith, 2020).  Hanson is a highly visible fringe politician – it was recently recorded that she has 340,000 followers on Facebook, which is the second highest following of any Australian political leader after the current Prime Minister Scott Morrison (Sengul, 2021).

[9] Australia’s media organisations have heavily influenced the public perception of fear and distrust towards Muslims. For instance, One Path Media observed five Australian media outlets during 2017 and found 3,000 news articles linking Islam or Muslims with words like ‘terrorism’, ‘radicalism’ and ’violence’ (Esposito and Iner, 2018). 

[10] For instance far-right groups and politicians stoked fears of an ‘Islamisation’ of society, a collection of conspiracy narratives that claim the visible manifestations of Islam (e.g., headscarves, halal products and mosques) are a threat to dominant Australian culture and the physical security of Australians (e.g., from terrorism) (Akbarzadeh, 2016). 

[11] As Laura Cervi (2020) explains, racialisation entails ‘ascribing sets of characteristics viewed as inherent to members of a group because of their physical or cultural traits. Islamophobia has emerged as ‘racial’ because it amalgamates all Muslims into one group and ascribes a set of characteristics supposedly associated with Muslims to the entire Muslim population’. 

[12] These groups are noted to have splintered into different, often more extreme, groups. For instance, in 2015 alone, Reclaim Australia formed then splintered into the United Patriots Front, which in turn splintered into the True Blue Crew. Similarly, the Australian Defence League (founded in 2009) later splintered into the Sons of Odin and also remained strongly anti-Muslim during this time (Macquarie University, 2020). 

[13] The authors of this report note exceptions to this model, such as the aforementioned National Socialist Network.

[14] This is not to suggest that racialised minorities and non-white groups have become less of a focus for the far-right. For example, the pandemic has been used to reinforce anti-Chinese, anti-Muslim, and broader anti-Asian agitations. (Peucker, 2021). 

[15] Gab is an alternative social networking platform with a reputation for hosting the far-right and being permissive of far-right content. 

[16] Far-right extremist researcher Dr Kaz Ross noted that the Proud Boys have become increasingly active during 2020 – growing in members on their encrypted channel on the Telegram app, and becoming more brazen in their protesting at anti-lockdown rallies (with some members being pepper-sprayed, arrested and fined at a particular event) (Ross, 2020). 

[17] In his detailed analysis of Australian far-right groups and networks, William Allchorn (2021) recorded the Nationalist Socialist Network to have a combined platform followership of 3,231 users. They have also gained some notoriety for offline activities including camping, burning crosses and Nazi symbology (Besser and Whalan, 2021).

[18] The globalization of violent white supremacy has been accelerated by social networking sites like Twitter, Gab, Minds, Telegram and message boards like 8chan, 4chan and Reddit, which have created an echo chamber where racist and anti-Semitic ideologies are seen, repeated and reinforced by like-minded people (‘Hate Beyond Borders’, 2021). 

[19] Such as the Telegram Account ‘Australia Awakens,’ which describes itself as a channel ‘designed especially for your friends who are either on the fence or questioning the mainstream narrative’ about the pandemic. On the surface this may imply the activity on this channel is relatively benign, the content shared (memes, videos and posts) is often exclusionary, extreme, and racist (Sparrow, 2021).

[20] There are indications that these protests and groups have connected themselves to a global movement and agenda; recent anti-lockdown protests were not only branded as an opposition to Australia’s pandemic restrictions, they were also presented as a ‘World Wide Rally for Freedom’ (Bogle and Zhang, 2021). 

Group of people protesting and giving slogans in a rally. Photo: Jacob Lund.

Resentment and populism: A philosophical inquiry

In periods characterized by difficulties and worries, it is easier to get discouraged and look for a scapegoat to blame for the wrongs one believes one has suffered. The “forgotten men” and the “losers of globalization” turn toward their common enemy — the elites. After all, those who have not benefited from the fruits of progress and who feel forgotten by institutions see the origin of their ills in the power of “experts.” The “forgotten men” not only envy elites because they constitute the class of the “winners of globalization,” but they are also resentful because the elites chosen to deal with the crucial national challenges have seemingly failed.

By Luca Mancin

Anger, resentment, and rancor characterize the present. As hate speech, violence, and discrimination—which are a natural consequence of discontent, distrust, and disillusionment—invade our societies, politics seemingly mirrors such behaviors. After the 2008 financial and economic crisis, several social groups manifested their dissatisfaction and intolerance toward the “system” and “powers that be.” Consider, for instance, movements as the Indignados (a Spanish anti-austerity movement), the Gilets Jaunes (a protest movement for economic justice in France), and the V-Day protestors (an Italian political and civic initiative to “clean up” the parliament). They are forms of protest that claim general and generic changes but are animated by the desire for revenge against those in power and therefore held responsible for the their current malaise.

Such groups’ quest for revenge reflects an elite legitimacy crisis that stems from experts’ (purported) failure to guarantee social well-being and security. For instance, the challenges faced by virologists and scientists in getting a handle on the Covid-19 pandemic (at least in the beginning) have heightened the risk that messages that epistemic elites are useless and that the costs of their existence outweigh the benefits will become more entrenched and widespread.

Thus, social frustration, originating from socio-political and socio-economic problems, has been channeled by the populist parties, which feed and sharpen social polarization. Populist parties exploit discontent stemming from a perceived elites’ failure, and they find fertile ground in times of crisis. Such tendencies increase tribalism among ordinary citizens and the political establishment and originate from social resentment. Therefore, it is essential to understand the political importance of social resentment and investigate it from a philosophical perspective.

Resentment and Populism

I decided—among several alternative interpretations—to focus on the resentment dimension of populism by adopting the ideational approach, which considers populism a thin-centered ideology. Consequently, following Mudde (2004: 543), I define populism as: “an ideology that considers society to be ultimately separated into two homogeneous and antagonistic groups, ‘the pure people’ versus ‘the corrupt elite,’ and which argues that politics should be an expression of the volonté générale (general will) of the people.”

I believe such a definition helps better define the polarization and dichotomy that populism entails and the tribalism it promotes. Indeed, I consider social and collective resentment a crucial factor in the development of populism. Current democratic societies feature internal contrasts and tensions, and social opposition and the search for culprits to blame for unsatisfactory circumstances are widespread. Besides, as a recent report from the Nordic think tank Timbro (2019) shows, in times of crisis, populism gains ground —from 2008, the year of the global financial crisis, to 2018, voter support for authoritarian populists in Europe expanded significantly. Tonello et al. (2016) suggest the most recent wave of populism in Europe has emerged from voters’ desire to communicate a clear “rejection” of incumbent governments (deemed unable to cope with the challenge to the economic crisis).

The research and statistical surveys conducted by Algan et al. (2017, 2019) stress how three types of crisis—political, economic, and cultural– stimulate the rise of populist forces. The political crisis manifests itself in the form of distrust of national and international political institutions. In particular, the data show a sharped relationship between voting in favor of anti-system forces and citizens’ distrust of institutions. The economic crisis, one of the triggers of political resentment, is instead produced by the economic upheavals that have resulted in income erosion and unemployment. Statistics confirm the relationship between the economic crisis and the success of populism. Here, according to the authors, a 1 percentage-point increase in the unemployment rate leads to an average increase of 2–3 percentage points in favor of anti-system parties. Finally, the component of mistrust also returns in the cultural crisis because the unfulfilled promises have caused broad disillusionment to spread among the citizens.

Consequently, it is plausible to consider resentment as a cause of populism. According to Foa et al. (2019), the Brexit referendum and Donald Trump’s presidential election were political events driven by resentment. The article’s data show social cleavages that create a socio-political identikit of pro-Leave voters or Trump’s electors. What such people had in common was deep anger toward the political establishment and social resentment toward elites (the European Union in the Brexit case, and the Democratic Party in Trump’s).

Mudde’s definition of populism allows us to highlight the importance of resentment in populism’s origins. After all, populism is an ideology (albeit a thin-centered one) and so evokes a vision of how the world is and how it should be. Being thin-centered reflects “the empty heart of populism that gives it both weakness and potential ubiquity” (Taggart, 2004: 275). It is, therefore, an incomplete and chameleonic theoretical approach because the terms “people” and “elite” are in turn shaped on other ideologies, representing empty categories fillable in different ways depending on the context. Such a solution allows populist politics to stir up the crowd’s anger toward ever new and diverse scapegoats. For this reason, it is now opportune to focus our attention on resentment—particularly on its philosophical dimension—to better understand current social problematics.

A Philosophical Genealogy of Resentment

Resentment (or ressentiment) is defined as the indignation that an individual feels toward someone or something due to behavior considered harmful or unfair. Such a feeling is a combination of resentment, hatred, envy, humiliation, and helplessness. The resentful person hatches hatred and anger in an almost pathological way, envies the goods and qualities of others, suffers from his weakness and inadequacy.

Concerning the aim of the commentary, it is worth focusing on Friedrich Nietzsche’s (1994) conception of resentment, exposed in his On the Genealogy of Morality (first published in 1887). The work in question theorizes how the “good”—that is, noble and strong individuals—have defined themselves as such, arrogating the right to forge their values ​​and emphasizing their peculiar superiority. Thus, the crucial contrast for the entire Nietzschean moral theory emerges—between knights and priests and between nobles and slaves. The former are physically thriving and the latter utterly powerless. As a result, the “bad” harbor a certain degree of resentment, which in turn feeds a desire for revenge over the nobles and the brave. The men of resentment, thirsting for revenge despite wearing the clothes of judges, are guided by the “ascetic priest” and are the enemies of life because they desire another world; in so doing, they demean their will to power. Nietzsche describes men of ressentiment, worn out by envy and prey to frustration, as follows: “These worm-eaten physiological casualties are all men of ressentiment, a whole, vibrating realm of subterranean revenge, inexhaustible and insatiable in its eruptions against the happy, and likewise in masquerades of revenge and pretexts for revenge” (1994: 91).

Nevertheless, it is essential to consider Max Scheler’s reworking of the Nietzschean ressentiment. Indeed, it provides the best theoretical basis for making the transition from personal resentment to social resentment. Scheler understands ressentiment as the ethos of the bourgeoisie. To occur, resentment requires “repression,” the failure to vent negative emotions. The origin of resentment consists in the repression of hatred, hostility, and aggression in stifling their outburst. Generally, the Schelerian ressentiment involves powerlessness and passivity but also a diminishing of others’ success and Schadenfreude. Scheler (1912: 4) describes this sentiment as a: “…self-poisoning of the mind which has quite definite causes and consequences. It is a lasting mental attitude, caused by the systematic repression of certain emotions and affects which, as such, are normal components of human nature. Their repression leads to the constant tendency to indulge in certain kinds of value delusions and corresponding value judgments. The emotions and affects primarily concerned are revenge, hatred, malice, envy, the impulse to detract, and spite.”

Therefore, ressentiment is a reaction whose natural consequence is the impulse to revenge. However, it manifests itself only and exclusively when the feelings of hatred, rancor, envy are not followed by a moral overcoming (as forgiveness can be) nor by a physical overcoming (violence or threat, for example). The ground of resentment is especially limited to those who find themselves in conditions of servitude or domination, unable to rebel against such harassment. Such a condition is identifiable as “existential envy,” the bitterness deriving from the fact that one person cannot be similar to another. Thus, it is apparent that Schelerian ressentiment is always the result of the confrontation between the self and the other that is not disciplined but instead results in a self-conviction of weakness and ineptitude.

A constant reciprocal competition emerges here, as men compare themselves with others to obtain feedback on their value. Such a dynamic conducts us to the “mimetic theory” developed by the French anthropologist René Girard. Mimesis is defined as the desire of an individual to be like the other. According to mimetic theory, the model is both admired/imitated and envied/hated because it always occupies the place one would like for oneself. A triangular relationship then emerges between subject, model, and object, in which both the subject and the model desire the same object, but the latter almost loses its importance in light of the conflict between the two parties. Therefore, resentment for Girard is the feeling that the imitator feels toward the model he wants to imitate, which constitutes the impediment to taking possession of the object on which both focus their desires.

Existential envy and social mimicry, which are based on comparison and competition with others, are essential theoretical presuppositions for the analysis of social and collective resentment, which is currently widespread in populist and political rhetoric. Understanding the philosophical origins of resentment allows us to read contemporary political life through the lens of an emotive dichotomy between people and the elite.

The Cultural Politics of Resentment

The phenomena of existential envy and social mimicry on a collective level feature liberal democracy because citizens tend to look at those who enjoy greater power and wealth with rancor and anger. Moreover, resentment is a natural component of democracy precisely because it stimulates and fuels reactions in the face of any injustice and inequality. However, resentment is often added to the envy of inequalities, dictated by the belief that they have suffered harm. Crisis and uncertainty exacerbate such a provision. This happened after the Great Recession of 2008, as was the case following the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s. And it is happening today with the Covid-19 pandemic underway.

In periods characterized by difficulties and worries, it is easier to get discouraged and look for a scapegoat to blame for the wrongs one believes one has suffered. The “forgotten men” and the “losers of globalization” turn toward their common enemy — the elites. After all, those who have not benefited from the fruits of progress and who feel forgotten by institutions see the origin of their ills in the power of “experts.” The “forgotten men” not only envy elites because they constitute the class of the “winners of globalization,” but they are also resentful because the elites chosen to deal with the crucial national challenges have seemingly failed.

What Nietzsche, Scheler, and Girard describe is expressed today in populist rhetoric. Marlia Banning (2006) defines such behavior as the “political culture of resentment.” Her meaning here is that this rhetoric aims to divert attention from socio-economic issues such as job loss, underemployment, and growing economic insecurity. The political culture of resentment is a “smoke machine” that diverts attention and public discussion from the changes taking place in society toward minority or immigrant groups. In this way, the ressentiment conveys insecurity, fear, and anger against an indeterminate “Other.”

Besides, according to Banning, the political culture of resentment favors the development of identity politics, or rather an identity alliance necessary to cement a group that shares a series of values, diverting attention from material difficulties and socio-economic changes. In this way, a “politics of division” is created, which increases polarization and bias within society. Attitudes of tribalism are sufficiently heightened that all critical thinking fails—it is enough to be part of the so-called “other” to become the target of insults and political attacks.

Populist rhetoric, thus, manages to manipulate and exploit the resentment of citizens and direct it against a common enemy by satisfying the thirst for social revenge by identifying a scapegoat for this purpose. Society needs to channel the resentment and suppressed anger of its citizens toward an external enemy, as Girard illustrated in The Scapegoat (1986) and James Frazer did in The Golden Bough (1890). Today this “Other” is often represented as a threat to the individual mass and can take on different features—the establishment, the financial elite, or migrants—and is an essential element of the rhetoric typical of the populist style. The populist political forces leverage the resentment that arises against the elites in conditions of fear and uncertainty when security expectations are disregarded. By doing so, populisms channel citizens’ anger by obtaining voters’ support and cementing the sense of value-ideological belonging.

The examples of Brexit and Trump I gave above are crucial in describing the practical developments of the phenomena of social resentment. The Leavers have directed their discontent toward the European Union, convinced by politicians that the problem was external to Great Britain (as with the issue of migrants). Trump, for his part, has incited with his tweets to protest against the alleged electoral fraud, thus channeling the discontent that snaked online toward the center of American power par excellence, in a plastic and material representation of the contrast between the people and the elite.

After all, Nietzsche was clear about it: every sufferer looks for the cause of his affliction, convinced that there must be someone responsible for his suffering. The problem is not the pain itself but the origin of the pain. If you suffer, then someone must be the cause. In On the Genealogy of Morality, the ascetic priest cares for and ministers to the sick flock. Similarly, today, the politician must heal the resentment of citizens. As Nietzsche (1994: 93) wrote, “the priest is the direction-changer of ressentiment.” Today the populist leader does the same, directing the resentment of the “pure people” against “the corrupt elite.”

References

Timbro (2019). “Authoritarian Populism Index.” https://populismindex.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/02/TAP2019C.pdf (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Banning, M. E. (2006). “The Politics of Resentment.” JAC. 26(1/2): 67–101

Foa, Roberto Stefan & Wilmot, Jonathan. (2019). “The West Has a Resentment Epidemic.” Foreign Policy. September 18, 2019. https://foreignpolicy.com/2019/09/18/the-west-has-a-resentment-epidemic-populism/ (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Frazer, James George. (1890). The Golden Bough.

Girard, R. (1986). The Scapegoat. Baltimore, Johns Hopkins University Press

Nietzsche, Fredrick. (1994), On the Genealogy of Morality [1887]. Cambridge, Cambridge University Press

Mudde, Cas. (2004). “The Populist Zeitgeist.” Government and Opposition. 39(4): 541–563

Scheler, Max (1912). Ressentimenthttps://hscif.org/wp-content/uploads/2018/04/Max-Scheler-Ressentiment.pdf (accessed on July 5, 2021).

Taggart, Paul. (2004). “Populism and representative politics in contemporary Europe.” Journal of Political Ideologies. 9(3): 269–288

Tonello, F. & Morini, M. (2016). “Alternanze di governo e grandi coalizioni nell’Unione europea. 2008–2015.” In: Urbinati, N. (edited by). Democrazie in transizione. Milan, Feltrinelli

Climate activists joining 16-year-old Swedish Greta Thunberg for school strike against climate change in Stockholm, Sweden on April 12, 2019. Photo: Per Grunditz

Snowflake Resistance: Protecting the Paris Agreement Against Populism

With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this commentary will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation by illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions, as well as resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance within the framework of climate activism.

By Iysha Arun

Informally referred to as “snowflakes” by populists and the far-right, youth have been leading a proactive resistance against populist attempts to undermine democracy and discredit formal institutions. The impact of the so-called snowflakes may, at first sight, be seen as minor; however, their mounting influence should be seen as the beginning of a new era in understanding civil-society engagement with politics. Succinctly put by Wiliscroft-Ferris (2017), “snowflakes can become blizzards, and blizzards often become avalanches.” 

With a concentrated focus on climate activism and the Paris Agreement, this short discussion will explore the juxtaposed trajectories of populism and institutional degradation, specifically through illustrating the interwoven nature of populism and institutions. The paper will also explore resistance to populism and institutional degradation by exploring intersectional and intergenerational resistance to populism, specifically within the framework of climate activism.

The United Nations (UN) was established post World War II and modelled after its forerunner, the League of Nations. The UN is a reflection of globalisation, upholding the idyllic vision of prevention war and “to keep peace throughout the world” (UN, 2020). Although initially maintaining this peace was perceived through traditional understandings of war, the climate struggle has highlighted the possibilities for new understandings of war.

Referred to as a “catalyst for conflict” (UN, 2020), the disruptive scope of our current climate emergency is vast, from increased global food and water insecurities and allergy and health risks, (Cho, 2019), to mass displacement (IDMC, 2019). In a moving speech delivered at the Climate Action Summit (2019), Secretary-General Guterres summarized the crisis: “Our warming earth is issuing a chilling cry: ‘Stop.’ If we don’t urgently change our ways of life, we jeopardize life itself.”

Faced with such a crisis, the UN acted swiftly, and the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) (effective since 1994) established the Paris Agreement of 2016. Binding to all its signatories, the Paris Agreement undertakes strategic decisions to combat climate change, with the commitment to “hold warming well below 2 °C in global mean temperature (GMT), relative to pre-industrial levels, and to pursue efforts to limit warming to 1.5 °C” (Vicedo-Cabrera et al, 2018). Such policy and global unity are necessary to prevent the catastrophic possibilities of runaway climate change.

However, the prospective success of the Paris Agreement is being curtailed by the rise of nationalist populist leaders from around the world. Under President Donald Trump, the US formally withdrew from the Agreement in 2017; in 2013, British populist Nigel Farage warned the European parliament, “We may have made one of the biggest and most stupid collective mistakes in history by getting so worried about global warming” (Todd & Parker, 2019); and in 2016, former French president Nicolas Sarkozy denied human impact on the climate, claiming, “you have to be arrogant like man to think that it is we who have changed the climate” (Goulard, 2016; Reuters, 2016). These are just a few examples of a concerning global trend.

In Come the Snowflakes, an Intersectional and Intergenerational Resistance

Set to re-write the narrative, climate change activists have been at the forefront of climate politics, taking to the streets and organizing school strikes and virtual protests (Bugden, 2020). Following the US pulling out of the Paris Agreement, Robert Bullard, a professor of urban planning and environmental policy at Texas Southern University, reminded that youth involvement has the potential to “demand actions over and beyond the general population” (Draxler, 2020)

Climate disasters have had a disproportionate impact on poorer citizens and Black and brown populations. In the US especially , this illustrates the intersection of race and class, as John Magrath, a researcher at Oxfam, emphasises that ethnic minorities “tend to live in the more marginal areas, exposed areas, that seem to be seeing more climate changes and are more susceptible to climate impacts because they have got less, and get less from governments.… It is a characteristic of all the studies that I have seen, that the ethnic communities are the people who suffer most from climate impacts and are the most vulnerable” (Baird, 2008)

Friends of the Earth, an environmental NGO, has further reiterated the relevance of race and class in the lived experiences of the victims of the climate crisis, emphasising the people least responsible for climate change are likely to be amongst the first impacted: “People who are socially, economically, culturally, politically, institutionally or otherwise marginalised are often highly vulnerable to climate change” (Friends of the Earth, 2020)

Youth have therefore narrowed in on intersectionality as a critical transformative element for the climate advocacy movements. Climate justice is also an issue of racial justice and economic justice. Through unifying racial justice and economic justice within a framework for environmental justice, the youth engaging with climate movements are shifting the way climate change activists engage in the political realm. When looking at increased youth voter participating in the 2020 US elections, it’s possible this played a major role in voting Trump out of office. And, as Bullard summarizes, “there’s a lot of knowledge built up in experience, and there’s a lot of energy that’s stored in young people … when you put the two together, you have … an excellent recipe for potential success” (Draxler, 2020). Professor Bullard highlights how older generations now play a role in “mentoring, assisting, and supporting” as well as lobbying and voting, “standing with, not in front of, youth.”

Consequently, intersectional and intergenerational climate activism has not just re-written the United States’ engagement with the climate issue in domestic politics, but with Joe Biden in office and returning the US to the Paris Agreement just hours after becoming president, this form of hybrid-activism may just have saved our global institutions for peace.


References

— (2016). “France’s Sarkozy says population bigger threat than climate change.” Reuters. September 16, 2016. https://www.reuters.com/article/cnews-us-france-politics-sarkozy-climate-idCAKCN11L2UD (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2017). “Climate change adaptation: our position.” Friends of the Earth. November 27, 2017. https://policy.friendsoftheearth.uk/policy-positions/climate-change-adaptation-our-position#:~:text=The%20Intergovernmental%20Panel%20on%20Climate,members%20of%20society%20can%20benefit (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2019). Global Report on Internal Displacement 2019. IDMChttps://www.internal-displacement.org/global-report/grid2019/  (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2019). “Remarks at 2019 Climate Action Summit.” United Nations Secretary-General. September 23, 2019. https://www.un.org/sg/en/content/sg/speeches/2019-09-23/remarks-2019-climate-action-summit#:~:text=Our%20warming%20earth%20is%20issuing,rising%20and%20oceans%20are%20acidifying (accessed on May 8, 2021).

— (2020). Climate Change Exacerbates Existing Conflict Risks, Likely to Create New Ones, Assistant Secretary-General Warns Security Council. United Nations. July 24, 2020. https://www.un.org/press/en/2020/sc14260.doc.htm (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Baird, Rachel. (2008). “Briefing: The Impact of Climate Change on Minorities and Indigenous Peoples.” Minority Rights Group International. https://minorityrights.org/wp-content/uploads/old-site-downloads/download-524-The-Impact-of-Climate-Change-on-Minorities-and-Indigenous-Peoples.pdf (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Bugden, Dylan. (2020). “Does Climate Protest Work? Partisanship, Protest, and Sentiment Pools.” Socius : Sociological Research for a Dynamic World6https://doi.org/10.1177/2378023120925949

Cho, Renee. (2019). “How Climate Change Impacts the Economy.” State of the Planet. June 20, 2019.https://news.climate.columbia.edu/2019/06/20/climate-change-economy-impacts/ (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Draxler, Breanna. (2020). “The Power of Inclusive, Intergenerational Climate Activism.” YES! September 21, 2020. https://www.yesmagazine.org/environment/2020/09/21/intergenerational-climate-activism (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Goulard, Hortense. (2016). “Nicolas Sarkozy says climate change not caused by man.” Politico. September 14, 2016. https://www.politico.eu/article/nicolas-sarkozy-says-climate-change-not-caused-by-man-cop-21/ (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Todd, Eloise & Parker, Laura. (2019). “Facing up to climate change means facing down the European far right.” The Independent. May 14, 2019. https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/brexit-party-farage-european-elections-climate-change-far-right-eu-a8912821.html (accessed on May 8, 2021).

Vicedo-Cabrera, A. et al. (2018). “Temperature-related mortality impacts under and beyond Paris Agreement climate change scenarios.” Climatic Change150(3), 391–402. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10584-018-2274-3

Williscroft-Ferris, Lee. (2017). “Sustained Intersectional Resistance Can Defeat The Rise Of Right-Wing Populism.”HuffPost UK. January 24, 2017. https://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/lee-williscroftferris/intersectional-feminism_b_14343214.html (accessed on May 8, 2021).