Research Suggests Globalization Doesn’t Drive Nationalism
Dr. Maureen Eger is an American sociologist, associate professor at Umeå University in Sweden, and a senior fellow at the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right.
According to the backlash hypothesis, it is globalization that has fueled the resurgence of nationalism and electoral gains by the radical right. This explanation of contemporary politics is relatively uncontroversial. Not only do radical right parties claim globalization has gone too far, this concern exists even among longtime proponents of globalization. The gist of the thesis is that globalization has left behind segments of society, specifically members of the ethnic majority whose economic prospects suffer due to economic globalization. As the radical right aims to mobilize these so-called losers of globalization, these politics are seen as somewhat inevitable.
There is some evidence to support this notion. For example, research shows that anxieties about globalization are associated with support for radical right parties, and support for Brexit in the U.K. was higher in regions with globalization-related economic decline.
However, there are also reasons to be skeptical of the backlash hypothesis. First, levels of globalization have flattened worldwide – during the same period of time when radical right parties experienced electoral gains throughout Europe. Second, prior to this, when globalization was increasing more rapidly, the radical right as a party family was not as electorally successful. Third, research finds that these so-called “losers of globalization” are not consistent supporters of radical right parties. Fourth, research also shows that indicators of globalization, such as trade openness and immigration, are inversely related to nationalist sentiment.
Does globalization actually make politics more nationalist? In a recently published book, Religion and Neo-Nationalism in Europe edited by Florian Höhne and Torsten Meireis, I provide an empirical test of the backlash hypothesis by examining the relationship between objective levels of globalization and the salience of issues related to nationalism in Europe.
To do this, I rely on two data sources. I use election manifesto data from the Manifesto Project, which includes parties that won any legislative seats in a democratic election for 56 countries since 1945. Based on content analysis, the dataset reports parties’ policy positions as a percentage of space in electoral manifestos, which approximate the relative importance of issues for each party in an election year. My sub-sample includes 410 national elections across 43 European countries between 1970 and 2017.
To capture the prominence of nationalism in manifestos, I use a measure of its economic, political, and sociocultural dimensions developed in my previous research. The nationalism score is the sum of nationalist statements (social, political, and economic dimensions) minus the sum of globalist statements (social, political, and economic dimensions) contained in a party’s electoral manifesto. Positions indicative of nationalism include, for example, opposition to multiculturalism (sociocultural dimension), opposition to the European Union and promotion of national sovereignty (political dimension), as well as economic protectionism.
As I am interested in the salience of nationalism at the country-level, I aggregate from parties to elections by calculating the average score weighted by political parties’ share of the national vote, meaning that the nationalism scores of more popular parties contribute more to the average level of nationalism in an election. It also means that the electoral success of radical right parties is incorporated into the measure.
I combine this with globalization data from the KOF Swiss Economic Institute, which reports scores for countries based on three dimensions of globalization: economic (e.g., free trade and financial flows between countries) political (e.g., membership in international organizations, international treaties, and number of embassies) and sociocultural (migration, tourism, and information flows). Possible scores range from 0–100, but for this European sample scores fall between 31 and 91.
The figure below summarizes the relationship between globalization and the prominence of nationalism. Positive values on the y-axis represent the average share of election year manifestos devoted to nationalist positions net of globalist positions, while negative values indicate that the average stance is globalist. To differentiate between the 20th and 21st centuries, I use hollow circles to identify elections between 1970 and 1999, and solid circles to identify elections since 2000. The wide distribution of these data points suggests that the prominence of nationalism is only weakly associated with actual globalization. Moreover, as indicated by the slope of the line, this relationship is the opposite of what the backlash hypothesis predicts.
So is the backlash to globalization related to actual levels of globalization? This analysis – and others not reported in this summary – suggest no. I find that despite increasing levels of nationalism across European countries, objective levels of globalization do not systematically account for the increase in nationalism. In fact, it appears politics are less nationalist in countries with higher levels of globalization. This relationship holds even when the parties’ share of votes is not weighted in the election averages (i.e., all parties, including radical right parties, count equally in the election average).
To be clear, this does not mean that globalization is unrelated to challenges facing countries or specific segments of society. This also does not mean that people’s anxieties about globalization are unfounded or unrelated to how they vote. However, the fact that the salience of these issues does not increase as countries become more globalized demonstrates that nationalism is not an inevitable outcome of processes associated with globalization.
Other scholarship suggests that nationalism, populism, and radical right voting are more likely when domestic social policy arrangements are unresponsive to structural changes stemming from globalization. For instance, a recent study shows that while unemployment does not directly correlate with radical right voting, it is associated with support for radical right parties in countries where and when unemployment benefits are relatively low. Findings like these suggest that countries can combat globalization backlash, at least in part, by adopting social policies that combat economic insecurity and inequality.
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.