When Ethnic Minorities Vote For Right-Wing Populism

President of the National Rally Party, Marine Le Pen launching the European elections campaign of May 2019. | Liewig Christian/PA. All rights reserved.

From Marine Le Pen to Donald Trump, a common claim among right-wing populists is that they represent true democracy. This is based on the idea that an allegedly corrupt elite, usually the established government, does not justly represent “the people”. More often than not, “the people” is defined in narrow ethnic terms, making such populist discourse a nationalist and even nativist one. Inevitably, right-wing populist narratives tend to employ exclusionary conceptions of what is seen as the homogenous nation. It thus should come as no surprise that right-wing populism has been described as the “rejection of pluralism”, and that ethnic minorities have been commonly perceived as the main victims. This could easily lead to the conclusion that ethnic minorities must be naturally opposed to right-wing populism. However, that is not always the case.

Even though polls repeatedly show US President Donald Trump remaining very unpopular among ethnic minorities, the fact of the matter is that support among these groups not only exists but might be on the rise. While it is commonly assumed that ethnic minorities disapprove of Trump, it also implies that ethnic groups are perceived as a monolith. Hispanic-Americans, for example, are diverse and more are politically identifying with non-Hispanic white Americans. This is partly due to the fact that two thirds of the Hispanic electorate is now American-born, and illegal immigration has become a concern to them as to non-Hispanic Americans, including Indian Americans and African Americans. Besides, factors other than ethnicity may encourage support for right-wing populism. Religious affiliation, for example, is one of them. As Politico reports, roughly fifty per cent of Hispanic-Americans are Catholic, a religion whose dogma has frequently been associated with its conservative views on social issues such as abortion or LGBT rights, views that may encourage support for right-wing populism such as that endorsed by Trump.

In Britain, although a large percentage of the population of ethnic background other than white voted Remain, both the ethnic and socioeconomic diversity of the Leave vote has largely been overlooked. For instance, opposition to EU freedom of movement played a critical part in encouraging ethnic minorities, particularly those from South Asia, to vote Leave. This opposition is often related to fears of labour competition, but it is also linked to a sense of “unfairness” based on the idea that the EU too easily facilitates migration for white Europeans while imposing more restrictions upon non-(white) European migrants. Moreover, for British Indians specifically, the idea of common cultural belonging and a shared sense of Britishness (different from the merely “political” nature of the European project) were also relevant in determining their Leave vote.

Another concern among British ethnic minorities is the idea that the EU is composed by mono-racial societies characterised by “widespread and entrenched prejudice” against non-white groups. According to the EU’s Agency for Fundamental Rights, the UK has one of the lowest levels of reported race-related harassment and violence; it seems plausible to consider fear of discrimination on the basis of race a contributing factor for ethnic minorities to be Brexiteers. But national rather than ethnic identity can also play a part in favouring right-wing populism. In Britain, the Remain campaign focused on appealing to “a sense of European identity”, but first-generation immigrants have long been encouraged to integrate by adopting “British values”. Consequently, appeals to their European identity constituted an ineffective method to mobilize them for Remain.

Similarly, in France the xenophobic National Rally of Marine Le Pen has been defined as anti-Semitic and hostile to immigrants, yet there is a non-negligible part of French ethnic minorities who vote for the party. As is the case for South Asian Britons, French minorities who voted for Le Pen understand Frenchness not in terms of ethnicity but in terms of common values. “The defense of national identity”, explained a French citizen of African descent, “has nothing to do with race”. This statement resonates with Le Pen’s right-wing populist discourse for the defense of “French workers of all races” against a “globalized elite” that allows for the supposedly uncontrolled influx of European immigrants like Romanians or Poles. Another supporter explains that he voted for Le Pen because becoming French is to him a symbol of freedom against the repressive dictatorships he fled from. Frenchness is to him “the ways of their country of residence” rather than a certain ethnicity. In other words, “we’re in France: love it or leave it.”

These cases in the US, UK, and France demonstrate that ethnic minorities might not necessarily see themselves (exclusively) in ethnic terms, taking into consideration practicality as well as beliefs. Similarly, it shows that ethnic minorities might perceive right-wing populism not necessarily as an exclusionary form of politics, but as a way to protect or even expand a particular sense of belonging. Analysing how right-wing populism can appeal to ethnic minorities may allow us to identify the ways in which these groups feel discriminated by seemingly democratic structures, thereby allowing us to better define the way forward. As French Algerian philosopher Albert Camus said, democracy is not the law of the majority but the protection of the minority.

Ms Barbara Molas is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate in Department of History, York University, Toronto. See her profile here.

© Barbara Molas.  Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).