Ignorance Fuels Europe's Anti-Immigration Victories

Countries with strong anti-immigrant parties aren't the ones with the most immigrants.

Goodbye, and best of luck with that coalition.

Photographer: Odd Andersen/AFP/Getty Images

Yet another anti-immigration party has performed unexpectedly well in a European parliamentary election. Official election results today show that the Danish People's Party is now the second-biggest in the country, capturing 37 seats in parliament, the most it has ever won. It will soon be the junior partner in a center-right ruling coalition, now that Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt has stepped down.

It's certainly part of a trend, and it's easy to assume a connection with the growing influx of immigrants to the wealthier European nations and the worsening global refugee crisis

The assumption would be wrong. The parliamentary representation of anti-immigrant parties is not correlated with the share of non-native-born residents in a country:


Only in Switzerland, where the federal parliament is not particularly powerful, and perhaps in Sweden, do high levels of immigration appear to justify the popularity of limiting it.

In France and the U.K., where there are lots of immigrants by European standards, anti-immigration parties are relatively weak, despite the disproportionate amount of noise they make and, in the case of the French National Front, their strong showing in polls and minor elections. 

In Finland and Denmark, with a small share of non-Finnish and non-Danish residents, there is no rational justification for the electoral performance of anti-immigration forces.

European cities turned multi-colored and multi-ethnic in the 1980s and 1990s. Like a chemical reaction, this process quickly revealed the percentage of xenophobes. According to Hans-George Betz's 1993 paper about the rise of radical right-wing parties in Europe (yes, the trend existed even then, and the same countries exhibited it), "between 11 and 14 percent of the population in the European Communities was troubled by the presence of people of other nationality, race, or religion." The medium parliamentary representation of anti-immigrant parties today, 12.8 percent, falls in that range.

More than two decades ago, Betz identified two groups that tended to back right-wing populists. The first one is the disenfranchised, who are "driven by diffuse fears of encirclement and invasion and by growing resentment over the fact that they have been abandoned by the rest of society." The second one consists, strangely enough, of winners -- individualistic "new professionals," young people who have created their own jobs. They might be expected to back left-libertarian parties, Betz wrote, but many of them vote for the populist right because of its opposition to bleeding-heart socialism.

The same two groups still vote for the anti-immigrant parties today. It is probably representatives of the second one who lie to pollsters because they're ashamed to admit they're going to vote for a far-right party. Before Thursday's Danish elections, most polls predicted 17-18 percent for the People's Party, but it won 21.1 percent of the popular vote.

Most countries with a high representation of anti-immigrant parties in their legislatures don't have an immigration problem; they have a social alienation problem (even the happiest countries do these days), but also an ignorance problem. According to a 2014 German Marshall Fund study, people are far more inclined to say there are too many immigrants in their country if they're not given the relevant statistics:


If mainstream parties want to beat the right-wing populists in elections, they need to step up efforts to educate voters about immigration, starting with the simplest facts about the actual prevalence of immigrants. Hardcore xenophobes won't care, but populist parties won't make much progress if that's their only source of support. Charismatic populist leaders may even realize they are stuck and seek less distasteful affiliations, or shift their agendas to more real problems.

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