The Declining Importance of the Left/Right Spectrum and its Consequences for Left Parties

Two weeks ago, liberals and progressives around the world breathed a sigh of relief as Emmanuel Macron defeated far-right nationalist Marine Le Pen by a healthy margin in the French Presidential election. The victory of a pro-European, pro-immigration centrist re-assured many concerned that last year’s Brexit referendum and American Presidential election were harbingers of a global rise in far-right populism. While Macron’s victory is indeed reassuring, it is also notable that the run-off portion of the French election was fought not between a traditional centre-left candidate and centre-right candidate but between a centrist globalist and a far-right nationalist, neither of who came from France’s traditionally strong political movements. This fits with a broader trend in politics in which the traditional left-right divides that have structured politics in industrialized countries since the second world war have declined in importance. As this has occurred, issues surrounding national identity and globalization have become more important. This has presented a significant challenge to traditional left parties.

Like all political movements, left parties are a coalition of groups with somewhat different interests. Many left parties are alliances of working class and socially progressive voters. They have been able to appeal to working class voters by championing wealth redistribution, promising increased funding for a wide range of social programs, strong minimum wage laws, and protection of unions’ rights. They have been able to appeal to socially progressive voters by supporting feminist, multicultural, LGTBQ, and anti-racism movements. When traditional left-right issues have dominated politics this coalition has been stable.

The increase in the salience of immigration and globalization, however, threatens the left coalition’s stability. Significant numbers of working class voters see increased immigration as a threat to their jobs and access to social services. Far-right parties have been able to take advantage of this perceived threat. Both Donald Trump and Marine Le Pen had success in working class areas that had previously supported left parties. These working class voters perceive globalization as a threat to their well-being. On the other side of left parties’ traditional alliance, socially progressive voters are largely supportive of immigration and, in many cases, stand to benefit from increased global integration. The British Labour party, in particular, faces a challenge when it comes to finding a balance between the positions its pro-globalization and anti-globalization voters support. Both a significant number of Labour ridings that voted to leave the European Union and a significant number voted to stay.

Left parties that have to compete on both the traditional left-right and the immigration/globalization dimensions of politics end up caught between a rock and a hard place. If they take strong anti-immigrant and anti-globalization positions they risk losing their socially progressive pro-immigrant voters as well as moderate urban voters that benefit from globalization. Increasingly these voters have options beyond traditional left-wing parties. Across Europe, green parties have emerged as socially progressive pro-immigration and multicultural parties that stand ready to benefit if left parties fail to defend issues important to their socially progressive voters. The success of the Dutch Green-Left party in this year’s election (they finished 5th with more votes than any of the other left parties) highlights this. Increasingly, moderate liberal parties such as Emanuel Macron’s En Marche or the Dutch D66 appear to be viable options for moderate left voters unhappy with a traditional left parties’ opposition to globalization.

If, however, left parties take strong positions in favour of globalization or free trade, they risk losing significant numbers of working-class anti-immigrant anti-globalization voters to far-right nationalist parties. It is not an accident that far-right parties from France, to the Netherlands, to Sweden link their anti-immigrant views to concerns over employment or over a country’s ability to continue to fund generous social programs. These claims, however misguided they are, are attempts to win over working class voters that have traditionally supported left parties. Recent elections in Europe and in the United States suggest that they have been successful in doing so.

The difficulty of holding their traditional electoral coalition together can explain why left parties have been struggling in recent elections. Neither of Europe’s most recent elections were kind to left parties. In the Netherlands the Labour party finished in 7th with only 6% of the vote, a decline of 19 percentage points from their total in the prior election. In France, the Socialist party Presidential candidate failed to win more than 7% of the vote and was never considered a serious threat to win the Presidency. In Britain, there is little indication that the Labour has much of a chance of winning government. This is all part of a broad trend that I wrote about earlier this year where left parties’ vote shares have be declining steadily of the past four decades. The more important to elections immigration and globalization become, the more difficulty left parties are likely to have holding their traditional electoral coalitions together, and the more likely the decline in left support is to continue.

The changing political environment will force left parties into some difficult decisions about what they want to be. They will have to face a choice about what side of immigration and globalization issues they want to come down on. Whichever side they take, they are likely going to lose a significant group of voters. This will make it more difficult for left parties to try to challenge for government on their own. Rather, they will have to build alliances with other, and in many cases, stronger parties. Left parties that decide to hold on to their socially progressive positions will have to work with moderate liberal parties. These moderate liberal parties are winning pro-immigration and pro-globalization voters from both left and right parties, and will likely force the traditional left parties that collaborate with them to move somewhat to the right in order to accommodate some of their voters. Traditional left parties that decide to take anti-immigrant or anti-globalization are likely to lose some of their more socially progressive and moderate urban voters to green and moderate liberal parties, and will struggle to find allies amongst other parties. If left parties are going to maintain their socially progressive values and continue to influence government, they are likely going to have to work with moderate liberals such as Emmanuel Macron.

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Keep Government Responsible: Citizens of Parliamentary Democracies Should be Working to Inoculate Their Institutions Against Trumpism

The election of Donald Trump and his flouting of the liberal and democratic norms that underpin society has much of the world worried. These fears are made worse by the increasing strength of far-right parties in much of Europe, and the presence of Trump-like candidates Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary in the Canadian Conservative leadership races. The rise of the far-right should raise concerns about the concentration of power with positions such as the Prime Minister or President. When a far-right candidate, such as Trump, wins control of executive office they have a great deal of power to affect policy. In parliamentary systems, parliament is supposed act as a check, holding the Prime Minister and cabinet accountable for their decisions, and removing them from office when they put forward or implement policy ideas that are at odds with elected MPs.  In practice, however, the ability for parliament to do this is constrained by the power the Prime Minister has over MPs. Two measures, the adoption of proportional electoral systems and increased MP control over leadership selection, offer important counter-balances to a potential far-right Prime Minister.

Parliamentary systems, in contrast to Presidential ones, rely on a fusion of power between the legislature and the executive. The Prime Minister only remains in power so long as she has the approval of parliament. If the PM and cabinet put forward legislation or enact policy that parliament dislikes, parliament can remove the PM from power through a confidence motion. In theory this practice ensures that PMs and their cabinets act in a way that reflect a country’s broader interests. In practice this can hand the PM a great deal of power to implement their policy. The PM can reward those MPs that support her with promotions to cabinet positions and punish those that do not by limiting their opportunities to rise beyond the backbenches. The power that the PM wields over MPs, especially when she leads a majority government, can prevent parliament from acting as an adequate check.

The adoption of a proportional electoral system, though it would make it easier for a far-right party to enter parliament and even to become a junior coalition member, would limit the ability for a far-right party to lead a government. Because proportional systems rarely produce majority governments, parties that win office in such systems have to share power, either through coalition governments or through minority governments that make significant concessions to opposition parties. The need to obtain the cooperation of other parties can make it difficult for a far-right party to gain control of government.  Because a PM’s power over MPs is usually limited to those in her own party, forcing the PM to work with other parties weakens the power of the PM and strengthens parliament.

The current Dutch election illustrates how PR can constrain the far-right.  In the Netherlands Geert Wilders’ Party For Freedom looks poised to win the more votes than any other party in March elections but is unlikely to win a majority. Wilders, however, is unlikely to become the Dutch Prime Minister because, to this point, no other party has expressed a willingness to join him in coalition. It is more likely that other parties will form an alternative coalition that keeps him out of power. Even if Wilders does manage to become PM, he will need to temper his extremism in order to maintain power. The threat that parliament can remove a far-right leader from power immediately through a confidence vote should prevent a far-right PM from acting in the same way that Trump has since becoming President.

Allowing MPs more say over their leaders would also empowers them to act as a check on the take over of mainstream parties by far-right candidates. One of the reasons that Trump was able to win the 2016 election was that he was able to win the support of loyal Republicans- individuals who might not have supported Trump had he run as an independent. In Canada, Kellie Leitch and Kevin O’Leary serve as similar examples of populist candidates seeking to take over a mainstream party. Allowing MPs a greater say over leadership selection or the power to remove leaders could serve as a check against this. MPs come from a diverse group of ridings and need reasonably broad support to win office. Leadership candidates often need only a subset of party members in order to win leadership election. Because many MPs need broad support to hold on to their seats they have an incentive to push back against leadership candidates that may be well-liked by a subset of the party’s base but have little appeal to the broader national electorate.

The extent to which MPs were able to push back against more extreme candidates was illustrated in the recent British Conservative leadership race. To become leader of the British Conservatives one must finish first or second on a vote of the parliamentary party (Conservative MPs) and then win a majority vote of the broader party membership. A third place finish on the parliamentary party ballot took candidate Michael Gove (who had campaigned to leave the EU during the Brexit referendum) out of the race. Indeed the other leave campaigner, Andrea Leadsome who had finished second, ended up dropping out because she did not feel she had sufficient support amongst Conservative MPs. MP’s ability to exert control over the leadership selection process helped the moderate Theresa May defeat more extreme rivals. Either increasing MPs’ ability to affect leadership races or giving them the ability to remove leaders they do not support would give MPs much greater power to check a far-right leaning leader of a mainstream party.

The way democratic institutions are set up affects the ability of individuals to win power and the ability of elected bodies to check those that wield it. Robust democracies do not grant a single individual the ability to rule by fiat, they force those that exercise executive power to be accountable to elected bodies such as parliaments. In the wake of Trump’s election victory and the threat that similar candidates could rise to power in parliamentary systems, there is a need to consider ways in which parliaments can be empowered to check such candidates. Proportional electoral systems and increasing MPs’ ability to choose or recall their leaders offer two ways through which this can be done.

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Could It Happen Here? What it Would Take for a Trump-Like Candidate to Win in Canada

The election of Donald Trump in the United States has raised important question for Canadians about whether such a candidate could be successful here. Neither Trump’s policy positions, nor his rhetoric, are unique to the United States, far-right parties now exist and are relatively successful in most European democracies. The Conservative leadership race has also seen the emergence of two anti-multicultural candidates in Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney. In light of the rise of far-right parties across Europe and North American, it is important to ask to what extent Canada is different from these countries and what the warning signs might be for a rise in a Canadian far-right party. Canada’s political institutions and demographics make the success of far-right candidate or party less likely, but not impossible.

A Party or A Candidate?

One of the notable things about Trump’s success in the United States is that, unlike most of the European far-right movements, Trump did not form his own party. Rather, he co-opted the existing Republican party. This raises questions as to whether a Canadian far-right challenge would likely to manifest itself in the form of a new party or an attempt to take over an existing one. Canada certainly has seen the emergence new parties, particularly of protest parties. In the 1990s the Reform Party and Bloc Quebecois gave voice to concerns that the interests of the West and of Quebec were being ignored by existing political parties. Similar sentiment regarding the exclusion of Western interests served as the basis for the emergence of the Progressive Party in the 1920s and 1930s. It is certainly possible for new parties to emerge in Canadian politics.

To be successful, however, a new party has to have a strong base of regionally concentrated voters. Canada’s first past the post electoral system severely punishes parties that have a small number of geographically dispersed voters. This has been a problem for emerging parties, such as the Green party, that do not have a strong regional base. Notably, lack of geographic concentration has been a problem for far-right parties in both Australia (which uses an alternative vote system) and the United Kingdom (which uses a first past the post system). Australia’s One Nation Party managed to win 8% of the vote in 1998, but did not win a single seat and subsequently saw their share of the vote decline substantially. The UK Independence Party was has also been hurt by that country’s electoral system. The first time it won a seat in a general election was in 2015, and in that election over 10% of the vote got the party just one seat. Provided Canada continues to use a first past the post (or even if it changes to an alternative vote) system, a far-right party would likely face similar difficulties in Canada. Unless it could find a strong regional base, and a comparison to Australia and the UK suggests that is unlikely, a far-right party would have great difficulty converting votes into seats.

The other option for a far-right movement would be to take over an existing party’s leadership and try to use that party’s resources and brand to win office. In my last post I wrote about how this contributed to Trump’s victory in the United States. It is possible that this could happen, but such a movement would face greater difficulty in Canada than in the US. The most likely target of a far-right take-over would be the Conservatives. Unlike the Republicans, however, the Conservative party uses a ranked ballot to decide its leader. This poses a problem for a far-right candidate. It means that a candidate such as Leitch or Blaney would have to win an absolute majority of leadership votes. This is a higher threshold than Trump needed to win the leadership. It is important to note, that with 45% of the vote (even counting votes that were cast after many candidates dropped out), it is not clear that Trump would have been able to win the nomination under such a system. A ranked ballot allows any coalition of anti-far-right voters to keep a far-right candidate from the leadership provided they make up a majority of the voters in the leadership contest and all rank the far-right candidates lower than any other candidates. Unlike in the Republican party, anti-far-right Conservatives do not need to agree on an anti-far-right candidate, they just need to agree not to rank the far-right candidate highly. It is not impossible for a far-right candidate to win a majority of votes (or to pick up a majority of second choice votes) but it is harder than winning the plurality needed for the Republican nomination.

Ridings and the Election

Even if a far-right candidate won control of the Conservative party, they would still need to win a general election. This would be more difficult than in the United States because the way that electoral institutions combine with demographics to give immigrants a great deal of voting power. Canada has a large immigrant population with a foreign born population of around 20%. Further, immigrants in Canada tend to be geographically concentrated in electoral districts, largely in urban and suburban areas. Many of the seats with large immigrant populations, particularly those in suburban Toronto and Vancouver, are swing seats that the Conservatives need to win in order to win government. One of the reasons that the Liberal party was able to hold on to majority governments through the 1990s was their ability to win large numbers of immigrant votes in these battleground ridings. Under Harper, the Conservatives realized this and made a concerted effort to win over ethnic minority and immigrant voters. It is not an accident that the Conservative majority in 2011 coincided with them reducing the gap between themselves and the Liberals amongst ethnic minorities voters. A Conservative party led by a far-right candidate would have difficulty winning key swing ridings, and therefore would have difficulty winning elections.

It is difficult to see how a far-right led Conservative party would off-set these losses. There are less diverse ridings in rural Atlantic Canada and Quebec outside of Montreal. However, these are not ridings where the Conservatives have been traditionally strong. It is not clear that campaigning against multiculturalism would change Conservative fortunes in these regions either. Notably the Parti Quebecois attempted to mobilize voters along multiculturalism and identity issues when they introduced the Charter of Values (which would limit the ability of public servants to wear religious symbols such as hijabs or kipahs) in 2014. The PQ lost that election with their vote share falling by 6.5 percentage points and their seat share falling by 24 seats. There is some evidence to suggest that the Charter of Values did the Parti Quebecois more harm than good. One could imagine that under the right circumstances it might be possible for a far-right led Conservative party to pick up enough non-diverse seats to off-set losses in more diverse areas of the country. It is not clear, though, that taking positions against multiculturalism would help them do so. A far-right led Conservative party would have a very difficult path to victory.

In Parliament

The Canadian parliamentary system would present two hurdles to a far-right led Conservative party. First, the party would have to win a majority government. While coalition governments are rare in Canada, a far-right led Conservative campaign may be enough to force the Liberals and New Democrats to work together to keep such a party for governing in a minority situation. In Ontario the Liberals and NDP cooperated after the 1985 election to replace a Progressive Conservative party that had won a minority government. Coalitions have their perils, as was demonstrated during the 2008 federal government coalition crisis, but it is hard to believe that the Liberals and NDP would not cooperate to keep a far-right led Conservative party espousing Trump-like or European far-right views from power.

Even in a majority situation, a far-right led Conservative party would have to keep control of its caucus. Unlike the American President, Prime Ministers can only remain in power if they have the support of the legislature, and in a majority situation that means having the support of their parties’ MPs. While backbench revolts in Canada are extremely rare, they are serious problems for party leadership when they happen. The emergence of the Democratic Representative Caucus as a break-away group from the Canadian Alliance in 2001 ended up playing a significant role in forcing Stockwell Day to resign as party leader. A far-right leader would have to ensure that their MPs, even the moderate ones highly skeptical of anti-multicultural ideas, fell in line with the party. If the John McCains and Lindsey Grahams of the Canadian Conservatives would be willing to forgo the cabinet and committee positions a leaders uses to keep her party in line, they could cause significant problems for a far-right Conservative leader trying to hold on to the leadership of the party.

Could it Happen Here?

The path to a far-right Prime Minister in Canada is a very difficult one. The far-right candidate would first have to win control of the Conservative party on a ranked ballot- requiring the candidate to win at least 50% of the leadership vote. The candidate would then have to find a way to win in Canada’s diverse electorate and in an electoral system that strengthens the voting power of immigrant and minorities. Such a candidate would have to find some way to off-set her inability to win in diverse suburban ridings around Montreal, Toronto, and Vancouver. This candidate would also have to win a majority government and would have to maintain control of their party, finding some way to stave off caucus revolts from moderate backbenchers unwilling to accept anti-multicultural or anti-immigrant rhetoric. It is not a impossible that a far-right candidate could win power in Canada. The outcomes of the Brexit referendum and the American election certainly suggest that it is a mistake to underestimate far-right anti-immigrant and anti-globalization movements. At the same time, the institutions and demography of Canada would make far-right success here very unlikely.

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A Trojan Elephant: The Election of Trump Demonstrates the Dangers of Allowing the Far-Right to Take Over a Mainstream Party

The election of Donald Trump as President of the United States has shocked Americans and people around the world. Many question how a candidate who was so far beyond was thought to be acceptable in American politics could end up winning an election. Two things are important to remember when reflecting on Trump’s victory. The first is that he is not unique. Far-right parties are present in almost every European democracy and they take substantial numbers of votes. Second, is that partisan loyalty can be a powerful force, it is often the case that when voters find out they disagree with their party that they change their views instead of changing the party that they support. The election of Trump offers an important lesson to Brits and to Canadians about the dangers of allowing a mainstream conservative party to be co-opted by far-right leadership.

During the American primary I wrote about how Trump’s candidacy was not particularly original. The extreme anti-immigrant rhetoric and the cult of personality are all things that are strikingly common amongst Europe’s far-right parties. The opposition to globalization (for the European parties this comes in the form of opposition to European Union integration, while for Trump this ends up being opposition to trade agreements such as NAFTA and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) nor the anti-elitism set Trump apart either. While there are certainly some differences between Trump and the European far-right, Trump is more socially conservative than a number of European far-right parties, his campaign looked very much like an Americanized version of a European far-right one.

Trump’s primary win also fits with success of far-right parties across Europe. Trump won about 45% of the vote in a Republican party which between 40% and 45% of Americans identity with. That’s the equivalent of winning somewhere between 18% and 20% of the vote, not a stretch at all for a European far-right party. Indeed, when I wrote my earlier post on Trump’s likeness to the European far-right I noted that his poll numbers were right where one expect them to be, given the rise of other European far-right parties over the last 20 years. Up until the end of the American primaries there was little that was unique about Trump. He was running the same kind anti-immigrant, anti-elite, anti-globalization campaign that is common in Europe and was winning about the same percentage of the vote with that campaign.

The crucial difference between Trump and the European far-right, however, is that Trump was not leading his own party, he was running as a candidate for leadership in an already established party. This gave Trump two major advantages over most far-right candidates. The first is that he could use the resources of the Republican party when running in the general election. Even though he did not have the support of the entire Republican establishment he could count on many of established Republican campaigners to help him to run his campaign. This gave him a level of election expertise that most far-right parties simply do not have. As my colleague, Adam Coombs, points out in his piece on voter turnout, Trump was able to benefit both from the Republican party’s get out the vote efforts and from voter suppression laws that Republican governors put in place to provide an advantage to Republican candidates. Unlike most far-right parties, Trump was able to take advantage of all of the work that mainstream conservatives had done to try to give their party an advantage in elections.

Second, and more importantly, Trump was able to use the Republican brand. There is an extensive literature in American political science that shows that Americans have a high level of partisan loyalty. There is also a great deal of work, summarized in Achen and Bartels’ recent book, Democracy for Realists*, that shows that when voters find out they disagree with their candidate on an issue, they change their views on the issue not on the candidate that they are supporting. The confluence of American partisan loyalty and voters’ tendency to adopt the views of their candidate meant that as soon as Trump became the Republican nominee he had access to voters that no European far-right party does. Because voters tend to fall in line with their candidates, many of the Republicans who remained loyal to their party were likely to adopt the kinds of far-right anti-immigrant and anti-globalization views that Trump campaigned on. The fact that Trump ran as a Republican and not as third party candidate meant that he could reach loyal Republican voters who are willing to accept the views and arguments of a Republican candidate, but who may be reluctant to consider those same views and arguments when offered by someone running under a different party banner. No European far-right party has been able to take advantage of mainstream conservative party loyalties in the same way.

This is not to suggest that Trump did not win the support of some Democrats and independents, or that some Republicans did not vote against Trump. Far-right parties in Europe have demonstrated an ability to win the support of traditionally left leaning working class voters who oppose immigration and are fearful of globalization. There were also certainly some Republicans who voted against Trump, not all voters are blindly loyal to their parties. Trump was able, however, to build a coalition of far-right anti-immigrant anti-globalization voters (Republican or otherwise) and loyal Republicans unwilling to desert their party. Most European parties cannot build the same coalition because they are only able to win the first group voters- those who hold anti-immigrant or anti-globalization views strong enough to lead them to desert one of the mainstream parties. To get the support that Trump needed to win the American election he needed both strongly anti-immigrant and anti-globalization voters and loyal Republicans.

Trump’s ability to co-opt the Republican party should worry moderate conservatives and progressive in Britain and Canada. In both countries, like in the United States, a first past the post electoral system makes it difficult for the kind of far-right party that is common in Europe to succeed. It is notable that while the UK Independence Party now holds a single seat in British parliament, it took them over 10% of the vote nationally to win it. It is not the emergence of far-right party that these countries have most to worry about, it is the co-opting of one of the mainstream parties by far-right movements. In the UK there are a growing number of Conservative MPs that hold views of immigration and globalization strikingly similar to UKIP. In Canada the Conservative party has two leadership candidates, Kellie Leitch and Steven Blaney, who hold anti-multicultural views that are similar to the ones found in far-right parties in Europe. Leitch, in particular, has made efforts to associate herself with Trump’s success.  There is a serious danger that the far-right may become significant to British and Canadian politics not through the emergence of a far-right party, but rather through the take over of a mainstream conservative party.

The election of Donald Trump in the United States shows that far-right candidates can be particularly powerful if they can co-opt a mainstream party. Like in most of Europe, there is a constituency in Britain, Canada, and the United States that will support candidates opposed to immigration and globalization. British and Canadian conservatives should take careful notice of what happened in the United States. There is a real danger that their parties can be turned into vehicles to put prejudiced and once thought unacceptable candidates in power.

*Achen, Christopher H. and Larry M. Bartels. (2016). Democracy for Realists: Why American Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

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Political Diversity in a Two Party System: Trump and Sanders Show What Happens When Political Diversity is Crammed Into a Two Party System

The American Presidential primaries have produced surprising results. Donald Trump’s victory in the Republican primary has shocked followers of American politics, many of whom expected the nomination process to lead to the nomination of a moderate candidate. Bernie Sanders, while not having the same success as Trump, has managed to turn what was supposed to be an easy contest for Hillary Clinton into a reasonably close race. Both Trump and Sanders are outsiders to their parties. Trump is very clearly not a traditional Republican while Sanders was not a member of the Democratic party until he made his Presidential bid. The success of both Trump and Sanders mirrors a widening of the political spectrum that is occurring across North American and Europe. The difference between the United States and most other developed democracies, is that American political institutions force new political movements into existing party structures while most other countries’ institutions allow for the formation of new parties. As a result, it is harder for candidates from new movements to make political break-throughs in American politics, but when they do, they can leverage the resources of traditionally strong parties in order to increase their likelihood of winning government.

The United States is not the only country that has seen a large shift in its politics over the last decade, indeed the emergence of Trump and Sanders as strong non-traditional candidates for office has happened relatively late compared to other developed democracies. As I noted in a previous post, the far-right has been making substantial gains across Europe that go back to the early 2000s. In 2002 French far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen made it into a run-off for the top two candidates vying for the French presidency and far-right parties from the UK, to the Netherlands, to Poland have been making steady gains over the past two decades. Even Germany is likely to see a far-right party in the form the Alternative for Germany enter their parliament in the next election. The rise of these parties looks very similar to the rise of Trump in the United States, and suggests that politicians outside of the United States capitalize on xenophobia at least as much as Trump has.

The increasing diversity in European democracies is not unique to the far-right though. In Germany the Left party (previously knows as the Party of Democratic Socialists) went from around 5% of the vote in the 1990s to 8%-11% of the vote over much of the 2000s and 2010s. In the Netherlands the Christian Democrats have been replaced by the Liberal VVD as the leading right of centre party, in France the communist presidential candidate took 11% of the vote in the 2012 election, in Spain a brand new party called Podemos emerged in 2015 to take 21% of the vote, and the UK has seen first the Liberal Democrats and then the Scottish Nationalist Party take significant seat shares in their most recent elections. Most party systems in developed democracies now feature a diverse array of parties that represent a broad range of political opinions. Countries that did not see much of an increase in the diversity of their parties often already had diversity amongst their political parties by the early to mid 1990s. This was the case in countries such as Belgium, Italy, and Sweden. Given that partisan diversity is now normal across most developed countries, it should not be a surprise to see insurgent campaigns in both the Democratic and Republican primaries.

The American political system, however, treats insurgencies very differently than most other democratic institutions do. In most countries third and fourth parties can be quite viable electorally. In the United States two factors combine to force new political movements into the two existing parties. The first is the electoral system used to select the President. The preeminent national political contest in the United States, the Presidential race, is a winner-take all contest in which only the party with the most votes get anything. This places strong pressure on voters to back one of the two major parties because it is unlikely that a vote for a third party will have an impact on the election result. Absent a serious Presidential candidate, third party and independent candidates often face a significant disadvantage in Congressional races. This makes it difficult for new parties to enter the American political system.

In contrast, parliamentary systems usually ensure that third parties get some representation and therefore give voters a reason to back these parties. In proportional systems parties are almost guaranteed representation in parliament provide they can marshal a modicum of support. Even in first past the post systems though, third and fourth parties can win significant parliamentary representation if they are regionally concentrated (e.g. the Bloc Quebecois, the Reform party, and the Scottish National Party) or can win enough of the vote nationally to become competitive in a significant number of ridings (e.g. the Liberal Democrats and the NDP). Finally in Presidential systems that use an Alternative Vote or Run-off electoral system (which the United States does not) third and fourth parties can be reasonably competitive because their voters are secure in the knowledge that if their first choice does not end up being viable they can express a second choice preference for a party more likely to win office.  They can vote for a third party candidate for President without losing their chance to vote against a strongly disliked candidate in a future round of voting.

The second factor that pushes new political movements into the existing American parties is the openness of both parties to a wide range of views. This results from the incredibly lax (compared to most other countries) party discipline in Congress and the openness of the nomination processes for both parties. It is easy for well organized political movements to win Congressional primary races and to compete in Presidential races. Unlike in most countries, voters in the United States do not have to be paid members of a political party in order to vote on who the party nominates for different political offices and there is very little pressure on elected members of a party to conform to leadership’s interests in order to advance their political careers. If a Canadian Member of Parliament tried to exercise the kind of independence that American congress people often do they would never be promoted to cabinet, risk having the party leader refuse to allow them to run for the party in future elections, and could face expulsion from the party. Unlike Canada and much of Europe, new political movements in the United States do not need to form their own parties in order to gain representation in government. This creates space in both the Democratic and Republican parties for new movements to express themselves and to influence policy.

The ability of new political movements to advance their interests through existing parties has important implications for the likelihood of success of new movements in the United States. Outside of the United States new political movements often have to compete as new parties. They have to develop their own campaign resources and expertise and develop their own party loyalties. They have to do this while competing with more established parties that already have significant resources and have developed their own loyal bases of voters. In the United States candidates for new political movements can compete in the primaries of major parties. In primaries, no candidates has the full support of the party and therefore no candidate can rely on the parties’ resources to campaign. Additionally, since there are no parties in primary contests there are no long-held party loyalties that new candidates have to overcome in order to be successful. In any other country Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump would have had to form their own parties and compete with the Democrats and Republicans to try to win office. In contrast, the American political system allows candidates such as Sanders and Trump to compete to win control over the Democratic and Republican parties and, if they are successful, to use each parties’ resources and voter loyalties to further their own campaigns. This makes it more difficult for new candidates to establish themselves in American politics because they have to convince members of one of the two major parties to support them. At the same time, once a new candidate establishes themselves as competitive they can grow in support quite quickly because they can co-opt the resources of one of the major parties in a way that third and fourth parties in other democracies cannot.

If the United States had Canadian or European political institutions the five longest lasting primary candidates, Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, John Kasich, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, would have all had their own political parties. Rather than competing in primary races, they would have had to compete against each other in a general election. Rather than seeking to co-opt the resources of a well-established major political party, Sanders and Trump would have to run against both of the major parties. This would likely ensure that each is represented in political institutions, third and fourth parties are often well represented in Canadian and European politics and most European candidates have seen Trump-like parties emerge over the past decade. At the same time though, these institutions make it difficult for candidates like Sanders and Trump to win power once they gain a foothold in the political system. American politics would likely be much better off if Trump had to face a Republican candidate in the upcoming general election instead of being able to use Republican resources and capitalize of Republican party loyalties in order to try to win the Presidency.

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Just Another Nationalist Far-Right Candidate: The Rise of Donald Trump fits with the Rise of Far-Right Parties Across Europe

In the United States the rise of Donald Trump in the Republican primary has surprised many. Though there is still some uncertainty over whether Trump will win a majority of delegates, he is all but certain to enter the Republican convention with more delegates that remaining candidates Ted Cruz and John Kasich. Trump’s rise, however, is not unprecedented. Anti-immigrant nationalist parties have been gaining support across the developed world. Far-right parties across Western Europe, including in Austria, Denmark, the Netherlands, and France are all taking significant shares of the vote in parliamentary and presidential elections. In Switzerland the anti-immigrant Swiss People’s Party (SVP) has won more seats than any other party in the last three elections. Trump’s success in the Republican primary mirrors the rise of the far-right in Western Europe. Both his rhetoric and the share of the vote that he has won are very similar to the rhetoric and vote share of Western European far-right parties.

Trump’s policies and rhetoric are very similar to the policy and rhetoric of other far-right parties. Like most of the European far-right, he takes extreme anti-immigrant positions and defends them with strong and largely offensive rhetoric. His claims that immigration leads to crime and unemployment echo similar claims by parties such as the Dutch Party for Freedom or the Swiss SVP. When it comes to globalization and trade, his concerns about free trade are very similar to the concerns that many far-right parties, particularly the UK Independence Party (UKIP), express over European integration and the European Union. Additionally, like most of the European far-right, Trump does not take extreme right economic positions. Although he favours large and likely unfeasible tax cuts, he is also unique as a Republican who opposes cuts to social security or medicare. In doing so Trump is trying to court anti-immigrant nationalist voters on both the right and the left of the economic political spectrum. This is not unlike efforts made by parties such as the French Front National and Sweden Democrats to do the same. In 2010 a Sweden Democrat ad that was banned from television for its racism, tried to suggest that Swedes had a choice between accepting Muslim immigrant and providing adequate funding for retirement pensions. Finally, like much of the the far-right, Trump’s success is built on his personal appeal. The identification of Trump with the far-right is not unlike the high profile that Pim Fortuyn, Geert Wilders, and Marine Le Pen had as leaders of far-right movements in the Netherlands and France. The Sweden Democrats were so reliant on their leader Jimmie Åkesson that he had to take sick leave as a result of exhaustion after the 2014 election. Trump’s campaign for the Republican nomination, thus, looks a lot like the campaigns of far-right parties in Europe.

Given the similarities between Trump’s and European far-right parties’ campaigns, it is worth comparing Trump’s poll support to far-right parties’ vote support. The graph below shows Trump’s late March poll numbers along with the trend in support for a number of far-right parties in Western Europe. To estimate Trump’s support I multiplied the support that the Trump has been receiving in national level polls (found at Real Clear Politics) by the number of individuals identifying as at least leaning Republican (found in this Gallup poll). This is not a perfect measure, but it provides a ball-park estimate of the level of support that Trump has within the broader American electorate. It is better than estimates of hypothetical races between Trump and Clinton or Trump and Sanders because those polls compare only two candidates, and most European far-right parties run against multiple parties. A primary where Trump has to compete with moderate Republicans as well as with Democrats is a closer approximation of the electoral circumstances of far-right parties than polls examining a hypothetical Presidential contest between Trump and either Clinton or Sanders. A list of parties with their acronyms and the country they are from is also included below the graph.

Far-Right Parties and Candidates

Far-Right Party Abbreviations

The graph shows that Trump’s support falls in line with the general rise in far-right party support occurring across Western Europe. The estimated 17.2% of national support that Trump has is right on the trend line for far-right support, very close to the level of support that the True Finns won in the most recent Finnish election. His support is higher than support for parties such as the Sweden Democrats and UK Independence party, but is lower than for the Danish People’s Party and the Swiss People’s Party. Trump’s appeal to American voters is no greater than the appeal of many far-right parties to Western European voters. Trump does do better than the Western European far-right parties have when he is paired against either Clinton or Sanders in a hypothetical Presidential race. This suggests that Trump may be able to use the Republican brand to gain support that extends beyond the far-right parties in Europe have, and may as a result make him a greater electoral threat than most of Western European far-right parties.

Trump is not original, and his success should not be surprising. It fits into a disturbing trend of growing support for far-right anti-immigrant parties and candidates that is occurring across Western countries. He is capitalizing on concerns over immigration and disaffection with elites on the right on the political spectrum in much the same way that far-right parties across Western Europe are. Given that there is a vote block willing to support the far-right in most countries it should not be surprising to see a Republican candidate for President running such a campaign. The similarities between Trump and the European far-right also suggest that it is likely that the United States will see candidates like Trump in the future, even if he loses this election. Trump has demonstrated that there is a far-right anti-immigrant voting block in the United States that is as capable of sustaining a far-right candidate as many of the far-right groups of voters in Western Europe are.

It is important to note, however, that the electoral and party institutions in the United States will treat Trump as very differently than most Western European electoral institutions treat far-right parties. The fact that the United States is a two party system with primaries gives Trump a unique opportunity to co-opt a major party and launch a Presidential bid that takes advantage of that parties’ resources and its brand. The 17% of the vote that Trump has nationally would not make him much more of a contender for power than his Western European counter-parts, but it does make him competitive in primaries. 40-45% of the support of Republican voters is enough to win a primary even if that equates to only 17%-25% of the American electorate nationally. This means that, unlike many of the Western European far-right parties, Trump can co-opt one of the existing major parties in American politics and use its resources and brand in order to grow his support. Few far-right parties or candidates in Western Europe have the ability to co-opt a party like the Republican party and use its resources to try to win power. The far-right Front National managed to make it to a run-off in the 2002 French Presidential election, but in that race it was competing against a well-established centre-right Rally for the Republic. As a result, the Front National lost the run-off in a landslide. The polling comparing Trump to hypothetical Clinton or Sanders Democratic campaigns suggests that Trump could use the Republican party to expand his support well beyond the support won by most Western European far-right parties. The American primary system may, as a result, makes American politics more vulnerable to a far-right challenge than the Western European multi-party and largely parliamentary systems are. This may have very troubling implications for the future of far-right anti-immigrant politics in the United States.

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Trump is Not an Original: Donald Trump’s Success Looks a Lot Like the Rise of the Far-Right in Europe

Perhaps the biggest story of the American Presidential primaries has been the rise of Donald Trump. The billionaire candidate has made headlines by leading the Republican polls while espousing a number of xenophobic and racist policies that have many concerned for the Republican Party and for American politics. Trump is being cast as a new type of candidate who the more conventional Republican candidates cannot figure out how to deal with. Candidates like Trump are not new to liberal developed democracies though. Trump’s mix of nationalist xenophobia and populist distrust for mainstream politicians mirrors the politics of the far-right parties that have been gaining popularity in Europe over the past two decades. Trump’s policies and rhetoric look very similar to those of the French Front National, the UK Independence Party, The Dutch Party for Freedom, and the Sweden Democrats. Like those parties he can build a substantial base of support by relying on xenophobic voters alienated by mainstream candidates and parties, but also like those parties, Trump’s likelihood of being able to grow his support to the extent needed to win a national election is limited.

To a large degree Trump is the beneficiary of multi-dimensional politics. In a Washington Post article Doug Ahler note and David Brookman note the difficulty of trying to place Trump on the left-right political spectrum. On immigration and foreign policy Trump is a candidate of the far-right, but on issues such as taxation and social spending Trump is actually quite moderate (especially when compared to the rest of the Republican Party). This mix of policies is strikingly similar to those of far-right parties such as the Sweden Democrats or Dutch Party for Freedom that wrongly argue that voters face a choice between well funded social programs and accepting immigrants. Trump’s policies underline the extent to which politics can be more complicated than the left-right spectrum that candidates are often placed on makes it out to be. There are several different dimensions (or political spectrums) on which candidates can be organized, and being an extreme candidate on one political dimension does not necessarily mean being an extreme candidate on another. It is not clear that candidates or voters that are supportive of high levels of government spending, for example, will always be supportive of liberal immigration policies and multiculturalism. Conversely, it is not clear that supporting low taxes and limited government intervention should mean that a candidate or voter should favour restrictive immigration policies. On immigration issues the views of welfare chauvinists’ (who support a strong welfare state but want to limit immigrants’ access to it) and social conservatives’ views are likely to align. On the other side of the immigration spectrum, the views of economically left-wing social liberals and economically right-wing neo-liberals (to the extent that many neo-liberals support open immigration policies in order to create a freer labour market) are likely to align.

Traditionally parties and candidates in the United States and in Europe have competed on left-right issues. They may have positions on immigration issues, but they often are less prominent in their platforms and in their rhetoric than their positions on taxes, social programs, or foreign policy. This is important to traditional parties because they often have voters who favour more liberal immigration policies and voters who oppose such policies. Moving too far to one side of the immigration spectrum risks costing the party supporters on their side of the left-right spectrum. This is something that far-right candidates like Donald Trump are able to take advantage of. The need for mainstream candidates to take moderate positions leaves many voters on both the left and right at odds with their parties’ immigration positions. By taking extreme positions on immigration and moderate positions on other issues candidates like Trump or parties like the Sweden Democrats and Dutch Party for Freedom are able to win the support of xenophobic voters on both the left and the right of political spectrum. This gives them a substantial base of support from which they can compete in elections.

The same extreme positioning of immigration that allows far-right candidates and parties to win a substantial portion of the vote also limits their growth potential. Extreme positions may appeal to significant numbers of anti-immigrant voters on both the left and the right, but they also alienate significant numbers of voters who are have moderate views with respect to immigration. A large number of voters on both the left and the right of the political spectrum are willing to vote for pretty much anyone other than a far-right party or candidate because of the party or candidate’s extreme positions on immigration. This was most apparent in the 2002 French Presidential and 2015 French regional elections. In 2002 far-right Front National Presidential candidate Jean Marie Le Pen finished second in France’s first round of elections just 3 percentage points behind centre-right candidate Jacques Chirac (Le Pen won 16.9% of the vote to Chirac’s 19.9%). In the second round of elections Le Pen increased in vote share to just 17.8% while Chirac’s share of the vote jumped to 82.2%. The same thing happened in regional elections this month in France. In the first round of elections (in which all candidates run) the Front National finished first, ahead of both the centre-right Republicans and centre-left Socialists. In the second round of elections (in which only regional President candidates winning at least 10% of votes in the first round are allowed to run) the Front National fell to third. The Front National gained only 800 000 votes from the candidates that dropped out between the first and second round of elections, going from 6 million votes to 6.8 million votes. By contrast the Socialists went from 5 million votes to 7.2 million votes, which was good enough for a second place finish in the second round of elections. The Republican almost doubled their number of votes, going from 5.7 million to 10.1 million and a first place finish. When faced with a strong far-right challenger in a Presidential race, non-far-right voters will tend to consolidate their support amongst whichever party looks most likely to defeat the far-right. Far-right parties in the Europe can win concerning numbers of votes, but they have yet to demonstrate enough growth potential to challenge mainstream left and right parties for government.

The same is likely to be the case for Donald Trump. There is good reason to believe that his ability expand his vote share beyond his current numbers is quite limited. Trump lacks the endorsements which are often strong predictors of primary success, his net favourability numbers are at best middling, and he has less support in the polls than candidates from past elections that have been able to gain the same amount of media coverage as he has had in this election. As with far-right parties across Europe there is a ceiling on the support that Trump can win, and he is likely getting close to it (or has even reached it). Trump’s ability to win the Republican primary is likely contingent on other candidates splitting the non-Trump Republican vote (it is worth noting that vote splitting played a major role in Jean Marie Le Pen’s second place finish in 2002) and he certainly is going to have difficulty expanding his appeal enough to gain the close to 50% of the national vote needed to win a Presidential election. Trump is far more likely to be the United States’ version of Jean Marie Le Pen than he is to be President.

The success of Trump in the early stages of the Republican primary has been a surprise, but it should not have been. Trump’s success looks much like the rise of the far-right in Europe. It is likely that if the United States had a multi-party system or Presidential primaries that were less permissive to candidates with a broad range of opinions that Trump would be running as part of his own American version of the Front National, Party for Freedom, or UK Independence Party. These parties have had an important (and concerning) impact on politics in their respective countries, but they have yet to demonstrate the ability to win the kind of support needed to lead a government. Like the European far-right, Trump is unlikely to be able to build the kind of support needed to win a Presidential election.

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