The success of the populist right in Europe tends to come as something of a surprise. This is in part because the political establishment and the press cannot believe that tolerant, open-minded Europe – having surely learnt the lessons of the twentieth century – would allow parties typically described as ‘far right’ to do so well.
It is shocking to find what were once seen as fringe and single-issue parties plunge into mainstream politics. But the surprise is also due to a more tangible confusion: the polls often find it hard to predict the extent of the populist right’s support.
The populist right vote is often slightly underestimated in surveys. Pollsters often weight their results by past vote, thereby mitigating this problem, but this can still be ineffective. Calculating the size of the populist right vote becomes a real challenge. Jean-Marie Le Pen’s first round success in the 2002 French presidential election was described as shocking because earlier polling never indicated he would make second place.
One explanation for the low figures for the populist right vote in surveys (before weighting) is that often voters do not opt for the populist right until they reach the ballot box. It is at this point that they abandon the mainstream. This would suggest that a vote for the populist right is less considered than a vote for other parties.
Then again, maybe not. Analysis of data from the European Social Survey and the French Political Barometer suggests that the populist right vote is underestimated even when the question asked is who they last voted for, not who they will vote for:
Share of Vote in Last Election
In France, Hungary and Norway the differences are particularly significant (though notably not with respect to the French 2007 parliamentary elections). Interestingly, the True Finns buck the trend. Given this analysis, it seems only one option remains: some voters are lying.
This could be a case of strategic lying – populist right voters know they will be seen as pariahs if they tell the truth and see this is not in their interest. But these answers are given anonymously, with no threat of a backlash if a response is seen as reprehensible.
More likely is that the lies are provoked by shame. A substantial proportion of populist right voters are ‘closet’ radicals, embarrassed to admit their voting behaviour, just as those who commit crimes are ashamed to respond honestly to offending surveys.
If this shame-based theory is correct, it is both a bad thing and a good thing. It is a bad thing because it means that polls will continue to have trouble accurately determining the populist right vote.
This has an immediate relevance for the first round of the French presidential elections in April. Marine Le Pen, the Front National leader, is currently polling at just under 20 per cent, slightly behind Sarkozy. If her vote is underestimated, she may be closer to repeating her father’s 2002 success than it may look. If her vote is overestimated, then the polls may cause unnecessary scaremongering.
On the other hand it is a good thing that shame underlies the underestimation of the populist right vote. It means that a good number of supporters of the populist right on one level perceive themselves as doing something wrong.
If this shame-based theory is correct, it is both a bad thing and a good thing.
An important question then arises: if shame can change how populist right voters record their voting behaviour, can it change voting behaviour itself? That is, does shame stop people from voting for the populist right?
This would signal that the invocation of shame undermines the populist right vote; that shame is a device of social control. This is core to Ruth Benedict’s concept of a ‘shame culture’, which she used in describing Japanese society. It is also crucial in understanding how to respond to the threat of the populist right.
As part of our ‘Recapturing Europe’s Reluctant Radicals’ project, over the coming months we shall examine whether shame has a role in determining voting behaviour.