The New Assault On Gender By The Radical Right

While racism and xenophobia are central to radical right ideology, there is a wave of gender discrimination sweeping radical right groups around the globe.
Anti-Gender protestors rally in Poland.

Anti-Gender protestors rally in Poland.

The electoral success of the radical populist right in Western Europe is almost exclusively associated with one policy field – (im)migration and the various issues tied in with it (such as asylum, multiculturalism, the future of the welfare state, and particularly Islam). The recent negotiations between Vox and the Partido Popular (PP, Spain’s major center-right party) in the Spanish region of Andalucia suggest that this might be too a simplistic a view. They took place following Vox’s spectacular breakthrough in last December’s regional election which left both the center-left (the socialist party, which had traditionally dominated the region) and the center-right (the PP) without a clear majority. This put VOX, a relatively new party on the far right of the Spanish political spectrum, in a pivotal position, which it was more than eager to exploit.

To be sure, during the election campaign, Vox appealed to familiar anti-migrant hostility and anti-Islamic anxieties – in addition to widespread and profound ressentiments against Catalan independentism. What emerged during the negotiations between Spain’s new populist radical right and Spain’s traditional center-right as the most crucial issue, however, was what Vox has called the “ideology of gender business.” The concrete issue triggering Vox’s objection was Spain’s law against gender violence (Ley de Violencia de Género), which, as the party has asserted, represents an ideological construct that unfairly singles out and systematically discriminates against men, particularly via the legal system.

Vox’s campaign against the gender violence law has been part of a larger anti-gender agenda, which seeks to reverse secular societal developments that have brought Spain in line with its northern neighbors – from women’s rights, including the right to terminate an unwanted pregnancy, to the recognition of LGBT rights. Against that, Vox has promoted itself as the advocate of a pre-modern “natural” conception of the family, defined as the fundamental nucleus of society. In concrete political terms, this has meant a call for the creation of a Family Ministry, meant to protect the traditional family.

This was one of the demands the Andalucian PP accepted as a condition for Vox’s support of the new center-right minority coalition government. Another one was acceptance of Vox’s insistence that parents have the ultimate say with regard to their children’s education allowing them to shield their children from “all kinds of interference on the part of public authorities in their ideological formation” if they go against their wishes. Given Vox’s strong hostility to the theory of gender, the intention of the passage was clear.


A New Wave Of Gender Discrimination Around The Globe

Vox’s assault on the notion of gender is just the most recent example of a new trend on the populist right, both in Europe and elsewhere. Brazil’s newly elected president Jair Bolsonaro, for instance, vowed in his inaugural speech earlier this year that he would combat “gender” (a central focus of his campaign) while upholding respect for “our Christian values.”

In many European countries, radical right-wing populist parties have latched onto the notion of gender to win over conservative voters, fretting over what they see as the progressive erosion of traditional values. Ukip is a case in point. Although primarily concerned with regaining Britain’s sovereignty, the party also spoke out against the nefarious influence of “damaging and confusing fringe ideologies which sexualise children at an early age and confuse their natural development as boys and girls” while branding as “politically incorrect” if not “a hate crime” any attempt “to call children boys or girls, to call parents mothers or fathers” or “to say there are two biological sexes determined by your chromosomes rather than 40 or 50 or 60 different genders.”

This type of hyperbolic language bordering on hysteria is characteristic of the radical right’s general discourse on gender. The German AfD, for instance, has spent considerable time and effort to denounce what the party’s leaders refer to as “gender delusion” denounced as the “political-bureaucratically dictated leveling of the difference between men and women” designed to indoctrinate children against the “classical understanding of the role of men and women” and with it, against the traditional family.

In Italy, the Lega Nord started its campaign for the defense of the traditional family, composed of a mamma and a papà, against the teaching of the theory of gender in public schools and the recognition of gay couples several years before the inauguration of the current government. Under the new minister of the interior, Matteo Salvini, the Lega is finally in a position to translate its anti-gender views into concrete administrative measures designed to turn back the clock. This is reminiscent of the Trump administration’s visceral disdain for LGBT rights, informing its transgender military ban, bathroom bills, and efforts to eliminate transgender as a classification.

There is a certain irony in the fact that the radical populist right would spend so much energy on a question that has little to do with the pressing problems of our times which negatively affect the vast majority of “ordinary people” – job insecurity, stagnating wages, growing inequality, corruption and mismanagement, , to name but a few. It is these problems – and the political elite’s apparent inability, if not unwillingness, to resolve or at least alleviate them – that has led a growing number of voters to abandon the traditional parties and turn to the radical populist right. Yet instead of focusing on material issues, the latter have largely followed the established parties and engaged in symbolic politics – aka identitarian politics – rather than confronting the very real challenges posed by globalization and rapid technological change.

Why Is Gender Discrimination Sweeping The Radical Right?

There are several reasonable explanations for this. Conjuring up apocalyptic scenarios of societal disintegration caused by Muslim subversion and feminist indoctrination/re-education is way easier than taxing the rich and reigning in the financial markets, today’s ” most powerful force on earth” (Financial Times). This makes a mockery of populism, which has its roots in the revolt against the powerful and rich, for instance, the American agrarian populist revolt in the late nineteenth century and Latin American populist movements such as “Gaitanismo” in early twentieth-century Colombia.

Focusing on issues associated with gender is also a convenient way to cater to a dwindling minority of religious voters who consider anything that deviates from the “natural order” as an abomination. Again, this is quite ironic given these parties’ past animosity against religious institutions, such as the Catholic Church, which more often than not showed little understanding for the radical populist right’s position on immigration. But it makes strategic sense, particularly in nominally Catholic countries such as Spain, Italy, and France.

Finally, there is the dominant constituency of these parties. Radical right-wing populist parties have traditionally been “men’s parties.” Despite considerable inroads among women voters in recent elections, they continue to attract more male than female voters. Vox supporters, for instance, according to the most recent survey, are predominantly middle-aged males from relatively small towns. The German AfD is, to a large extent, a “men’s party for men.” The fact that in many of these parties women hold leading positions (most prominently, Marine Le Pen in France and Siv Jensen in Norway, but also Alice Weidel in Germany, who lives in an openly lesbian relationship), has not significantly altered the radical right-wing populist gender gap.

Under the circumstances, the radical populist right’s symbolic politics with regard to gender makes considerable strategic sense. Two recent papers published by the National Bureau of Economic Research (NBER) provide a hint at the rationale. Both have suggestive titles which summarize the gist of the findings: One, co-authored by David Autor, famous for his studies on the impact of Chinese import competition on the US labor market, investigates the connection between disappearing work, manufacturing decline and the “falling marriage market value of young men.” The second paper, a collaborative study by researchers from Europe and Canada, bears an equally provocative issue – the “end of men” and the “rise of women” in high-skilled labor markets.

Both studies reconfirm with empirical data what has been known for some time now – the progressive decline of men’s structural position in the labor market and, with it, men’s relative loss of social status and privilege. The result has been growing male resentment, reflected most recently in the literature on the “angry white male,” and in growing support for the radical populist right. The AfD is a particularly drastic case in point. The party has done particularly well in the eastern parts of the country. This is the territory of the former GDR which witnessed a dramatic loss of jobs following unification. Diminishing life chanced, in turn, induced a large number of East Germans to leave for the west. Symptomatically, among those who left were particularly young well-educated women, resulting in what a recent article in a leading weekly has termed a “province full of men” with dim prospects of finding a partner.  Ironically enough, intra-German migration patterns resemble those observed with respect to developing countries, which have seen a dramatic increase in south-north emigration among highly skilled women, way above those of men’s.

To be sure, eastern Germany is an exceptional case in Western Europe. Given the expected impact of new technologies and automation, however, it is not unreasonable to suspect that it might be a harbinger of things to come throughout the advanced capitalist world. Under the circumstances, the radical populist right’s assault on gender can only get worse.

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.

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Global Outlook // CARR / Europe / Gender / Human Rights / Transgender People / World