The Austrian populist radical right party FPÖ is consistently deciding on policies that are disadvantageous for the working class – yet the party can count on workers’ votes in elections. The same is true across Europe, and has been for a while. How can we explain that workers seem to be inclined to vote against their own economic interests? In short, the radical right is successfully deploying their own political version of the ‘Chewbacca Defence’ – a red herring argument deployed to distract the electorate from the inability of the radical right to improve the socio-economic conditions of the working class.
The Radical Right –Party of the Workers?
The populist radical right is habitually portraying itself as the defender of the ‘common man’ that is oppressed by an out of touch ‘elite’, one central feature of the populism of the radical right. This frame works well in elections, and populist radical right parties (PRRPs) are drawing considerable support from the working class. In Austria, for example, the FPÖ already overtook the social democrats in that segment of the electorate and is portraying itself as the worker’s party. The party has been successful in convincing the ‘native’ working class that the FPÖ is their only defender against the influx of cheap foreign labour, portrayed as the main threat to their economic well-being.
However, this rhetoric does not translate into worker-friendly policies or initiatives since the party joined a coalition government with the conservative ÖVP in 2017 (or, for that matter, during their first stint in government from 2000-2006). On the contrary, the party caved in the debate on the legally allowed maximum work hours per day, contradicting its own earlier opposition to an extension. The party is in agreement with the ÖVP’s neoliberal agenda of ‘optimizing’ the social insurance system in Austria, which is primarily focussed on weakening the power of worker representatives. The party also consistently argues in favour of industry and employers in parliament, undermining the Austrian Sozialpartnerschaft (social partnership), a delicate system of compromise in employment relations.
Nevertheless, these anti-worker policy decisions by the FPÖ has not led to a significant decrease in support for the party (between 22-25%) or the government (consistently over 50% satisfaction), with only slight fluctuations. How can this paradox between support for radical right parties, particularly by the working class, and PRRPs’ consistent anti-worker oriented policies be explained?
Smoke and Mirrors
The reason why this Janus-faced approach by the FPÖ towards the working class is not resulting in dwindling support for the party is that it is using a very simple tactic—distraction of audience. A very recent example is the debate at the end of March in the Austrian national assembly on the planned reform of the Austrian Mindestsicherung (minimum guaranteed income scheme). The coalition government sees the need to reform this instrument, which offers financial aid to those without sufficient resources to meet basic needs. The argument for the reform is to drastically cut federal costs. However the scheme at present only amounts to 0,94 per cent of the total expenses for social services, which means that the actual economisation is very small. The FPÖ minister for social affairs, Beate Hartinger-Klein, argued that the reform is necessary to prevent ‘hard earned tax money’ from ‘being distributed to economic migrants’. By doing so, she painted the picture of the native destitute being robbed of the benefits by locust-like foreigners. She zeroed in on ‘clans’ with ten or more kids from Africa and the Arab countries, who are reaping benefits unimaginable to Austrian workers.
This is the cornerstone of the radical right Chewbacca Defence: whenever the party pushes forward legislation that is to the detriment of workers or the ‘average Joe’, the strategy is to immediately divert attention towards the ‘other’. This works because the radical right ‘owns’ the issue of immigration, at least partially, since the three to four decades since the ‘third wave’ of radical right parties swept over Europe. In the example above, the FPÖ minister is playing into the frame of welfare chauvinism, but is at least keeping the argument within the general topic of debate. In other instances, the party focusses its propaganda on a completely unrelated topic or offers a diversion, usually connected to immigration, and is almost always successful. The Austrian public is subjected to a relentless stream of anti-migration propaganda, which helps the government in diverting attention from the cuts to the very same social system that also benefits the FPÖ’s voter base.
Learning from the Past
The radical right is winning votes in national elections across Europe because their campaigns focus on a small set of issues that get over-emphasized, pushed onto and conflated with other issues (like the social benefit system issue mentioned above) and constantly pushed if they reach national government. And over the last decade, PRRPs’ Chewbacca Defence has improved and professionalized. Comparison between the first stint in government of the FPÖ and their performance now shows that the radical right has gotten significantly better in deploying defensive tactics and diverting attention away from their anti-worker policies. The goal is to get voters concerned with identitarian/cultural issues so that their economic interests become less imminent to them. In this way, they can afford policy-making that is disadvantageous to the working class that votes for them. For the sake of sticking with the metaphor: as long as workers are preoccupied with the question of why Chewbacca can live happily on Endor, they are unlikely to realize that the government is pushing policies that will harm their economic interests. And as long as the opposing parties are preoccupied with being outraged at the populist radical right’s cultural/identitarian radicalism, instead of pinning down the parties’ inability to offer anything advantageous to the working class, the Chewbacca Defence will continue to work.
Mr Georg Plattner is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR, and a Doctoral candidate at the Institute for European Integration Research (EIF), University of Vienna. See his profile here.
© Georg Plattner. 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).