The Shifting Norms that Threaten Our Democracy

What is behind the shift in norms around racism and the politics of immigration in recent decades?


Although many are focused on the daily onslaught against norms under the current US president, from a broader perspective, norms around issues of race and the politics of immigration have clearly shifted since I began studying the radical right in the mid-1990s. In 1999, when Jörg Haider’s Freedom Party came in second place in the Austrian legislative election, the other 14 EU countries at the time considered his positions on immigration and the EU to be beyond the pale. Although they could not change the outcome of the vote, they took measures to indicate their stand on these issues, including passing the Racial Equality Directive(RED) in 2000, as a show of support for anti-discrimination policy.

There was clearly a norm up until that point that called for the condemnation of racist appeals. However, those norms began to crumble as conservative parties took over from the left-leaning governments that had supported the passage of the RED in the early 2000s. As voters began to increase their support for anti-immigrant parties like the National Front (now National Rally) in France, conservative politicians shifted strategies from a norm of condemning anti-immigrant and often racist appeals to using “dog whistles” of their own.

This trend accelerated after the 2008 fiscal crisis. Austerity measures soured the role of the EU in the eyes of many voters (especially in countries like Greece and Spain), but also had the same effect on those who were less impacted but felt burdened by the bailouts these countries needed. In Britain, frustration with immigration was on the rise. Concern about keeping his more anti-EU party members in line led British Prime Minister David Cameron to call for a people’s vote on EU membership if his party won the 2010 parliamentary elections. Meanwhile, Cameron had also been unable to keep promises to hold intra-EU migration to a low level as part of a manifesto pledge to reduce net migration to the “tens of thousands.”

In October 2010, German Chancellor Angela Merkel would declare that “multiculturalism had failed utterly” in Germany, blaming social unrest on immigrants who were unable to assimilate into German society. Of course, it was not clear what she meant by multiculturalism in this context, given that Germany had few policies one could consider “multicultural.” In a seemingly coordinated effort, Merkel’s fellow conservative allies, Nicolas Sarkozy and David Cameron, would follow in her footsteps in February of 2010 and 2011, also declaring multiculturalism a failure. Many in France were confused by Sarkozy’s declaration, since France had never really tried it.


It seemed clear that these politicians were concerned about the appeal of the radical right and hoped to undermine their support by taking tough positions on immigrant integration and, in the case of the EU, to take positions that would appeal to voters who were beginning to turn against the broader project of European integration. Radical-right parties in Europe tend to use a populist appeal, arguing that they are for the “common man” and against the elite. They often lean authoritarian in their call for security to protect against outsiders and blind loyalty to the party or leaders.

Another component is the racism and fear of minorities and immigrants that is being used by politicians — both in the US and in Europe — to mobilize voters who fear a loss of privilege and, ultimately, political dominance.

In the past few years, even before the 2016 elections in Europe and the United States, it was clear that a growing number of nativist voters were willing to support more extreme politicians. There is no doubt that immigration and demographic shifts are having an impact on the willingness of nativist, nationalistic voters to choose political parties that represent a challenge to existing norms and democracy itself. I often refer to Ruth Wodak’s book The Politics of Fear as an important resource for understanding the discourses of the radical right, but underlying those discourses are an undermining of many of the norms that have undergirded the path toward equality for ethnic minority groups in the US and Europe.

These politicians are working across borders and across the Atlantic in order to pursue their agendas. For example, Congressman Steve King of Iowa has been working with radical-right politicians like Geert Wilders of the Netherlands for many years, including inviting him to the 2016 Republican National Convention. King was recently stripped of his committee assignments for blatantly racist statements in the media.


In general, the EU experiences a flow of 1-2 million legal immigrants per year, which is similar to flows of legal migrants into the US. More recently, war and unrest in Africa and the Middle East have led to a very significant increase of refugee flows, again. For example, from 2014 to 2015, over a million refugees entered Germany alone. However, the overall number of foreign-born residents in Germany has been consistent at around 11 million people since 2005. France has 7 million, and the UK has gone from around 6 million in 2006 to nearly 9 million in 2015; many of these are also refugees.

In Germany, the media has reported that 3,500 far-right attacks on refugees and refugee homes were carried out in 2016, leaving hundreds injured. Alternative for Germany won 13% of the vote in the 2017 German parliamentary elections. The party went from being Euroskeptic, calling for a return to Germany’s national currency, the Deutschmark, to an anti-immigrant party, calling for the detention and deportation of immigrants. It has capitalized on growing anxiety that immigrants — especially Muslim immigrants — could fundamentally change German society.

Governments that once condemned the radical right discourses of the Austrian Freedom Party have now seen those discourses move into the mainstream. But it is not only the discourses that matter — it is the changing norms that have a negative impact on the acceptance of people from different cultures and religions. It will be difficult to find support for the kinds of anti-discrimination policies that would help with the process of integration, ensuring that racial and ethnic minorities have access to jobs, housing and educational opportunities. These approaches will need to find support if there is hope for the kind of equality that is expected in a modern democracy.

Professor Terri E. Givens is a Senior Fellow at CARR and a leading commentator and analyst of the radical right, party politics in Europe, immigration and anti-immigrant sentiment, and anti-discrimination policy.  Her profile can be found here:

© Terri E. Givens. 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).

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