It is one of life’s great mysteries why other people vote the way they do, particularly when their favored candidates embrace policies that appear so obviously detrimental to them. ‘The forest was shrinking’, runs an ‘old Turkish proverb’ that has been circulating on the internet in recent months, ‘but the trees kept voting for the axe as its handle was made of wood and they thought it was one of them’. Are the trees really that stupid? Are they exhibiting what Frederick Engels called ‘false consciousness’; having believed fairy tales like ‘trickle-down economics’ or ‘immigrants are taking our jobs’, do they then vote for people who disempower them even further? There is some great research taking place on why Americans voted for Donald Trump, which suggests that racism and sexism and a desire to establish white dominance were overwhelmingly important for Trump supporters in the 2016 elections. But we still know too little about why people vote for right-wing extremists in other contexts.
My own research focuses on the rise of fascism in 1930s Romania. Scholars such as Oliver Jens Schmitt have argued that both ignorant peasants and urban elites embraced ‘mysticism’ in the face of the global economic crisis. The Legion of the Archangel Michael, as Romania’s largest and most successful fascist movement was known, espoused religious rhetoric about creating ‘new men’ alongside antisemitic programs designed to drive ‘Yids’ out of the country. One of their leaders, Constantin Papanace, taught that ‘love is the single Christian weapon’, while encouraging legionaries to murder their enemies in barbaric ways. At a mass funeral in 1937, the crowds swore on the graves of two fascist martyrs that ‘I swear before God and your holy sacrifice for Christ and the Legion to forsake my earthly joys, to sever my ties of human love and, for the sake of the resurrection of my Nation, to be ready at any moment to die!’ So long as historians imagined that Romania was a backward society, easily swayed by Jew-baiting and charismatic leaders with messianic slogans, arguments about antisemitism, superstition, and false consciousness made sense. But the more we learn about interwar Romania, the less convincing such explanations are.
Analyses of the national election results of 1937, in which legionaries recorded their highest levels of support, show that regions with large numbers of Jews and which were known as centres of organized antisemitism did not vote for the Legion. Instead, these regions voted for the National Christian Defense League, another anti-Semitic party with a more entrenched party apparatus and deeper regional ties in these areas. Antisemitism did shape voting patterns in 1930s Romania, but fascists were not the beneficiaries. The areas with the strongest legionary support were ones where (i) legionaries campaigned the most intensively, and (ii) there was greatest dissatisfaction with political corruption. The introduction of universal male suffrage in 1918, together with the incorporation of large swaths of new territory — including Transylvania with its powerful Romanian National Party — had destroyed the Conservative Party and realigned the political landscape for the next twenty years. But the politicians who ran as candidates for these parties belonged to the same dynasties of political elites who had governed the country for decades. Many were corrupt, and their legislative programs benefited their own interests at the expense of those of ‘ordinary’ people. The mainstream parties had few authentic connections with their electorates and failed to convince voters that they represented them in parliament. With its rhetoric of ‘anti-politicianism’, legionaries appealed to populations who were sick of political corruption.
But when sociologists surveyed peasant voters, they discovered that by and large most peasants did not believe that legionaries had their best interests at heart, either. Romanian villages exhibited the same political divisions that characterized the country as a whole, and peasants voted according to patronage networks. If I lived in rural Romania in the 1930s, that is, and my friend’s uncle had a loose connection to the National Liberal Party, then I would vote for the party in the expectation that a Liberal government would give my friend’s uncle a job in its administration, thereby providing me with access to patronage networks (known in Romanian as pilă) that I could exploit for my personal advantage. The parties that won elections in rural areas were those that could promise voters the most pilă. For their part, legionaries won the most votes in places where political corruption had so alienated the electorate that the patronage system had effectively broken down. Legionaries won votes in 1937 – and not before – because only by then had they built up a sufficient movement apparatus that a legionary government could reasonably be expected to benefit individual voters.
By and large it was younger voters who supported the Legion in rural areas. Their elders already had patronage ties with the major parties, whereas young people had developed relationships with legionaries while away at university or working in factories where the Legion had strong cells. Moreover, it seems that very few people voted for the Legion who were not already activists or close sympathizers. The Legion was first and foremost a social movement with a wide activist base. Membership statistics are notoriously difficult to pin down, but it is likely that most legionary voters were already members and that the party attracted few swinging voters who were not committed to its program. The same pattern occurred within ethnic minority communities such as the Aromanians. Recent immigrants with tight-knit communities and specific grievances, Aromanian elders cultivated patronage networks with the major parties. As mainstream politicians increasingly failed to deliver on their promises to Aromanian communities and their young people spent more time at universities and in factories or the army, legionaries swung more and more Aromanian voters towards extremist politics. Similarly, whereas radical left-wing parties appeared to have gained some support among Romanian workers in the early 1920s, over the next ten years government persecution of Communists and corruption among union leaders effectively eliminated them as serious political contenders. Unable to vote for the left and brutally exploited by the same industrialists who patronized the major parties, factory workers were increasingly willing to listen to legionaries who dedicated significant amounts of time and energy to building personal relationships with alienated voters.
Personal relationships mattered, and grassroots movements such as the Legion of the Archangel Michael were well-situated to benefit from a politically disillusioned population. Romanian voters were not duped by anti-Semitic hate-speech or swayed by messianic stories and superstitions. They voted for extremist parties because legionaries had taken the time to build relationships with them in ways that none of the other parties had done.
Dr Roland Clark is a Senior Fellow at CARR, and a Lecturer in History at the University of Liverpool. See his profile here:
© Ronald Clark. 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).