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The Relationship between Immigration and Nativism in Europe and North America
  • Cas Mudde, DePauw University

Mass migration is thought to be a major factor behind the rise of the radical right. But while there clearly is a relationship (particularly in Western Europe), the connection is not as straightforward as is often assumed. Higher levels of immigration in the three regions examined in this report —North America, Western Europe, and Central and Eastern Europe — do not automatically correlate to more votes for radical-right parties.

The success of radical-right parties has been uneven in Europe. Since 1980, there have only been a handful of radical-right parties in Western Europe and in Central and Eastern Europe which have had “moderate” electoral success (that is, gained over 15 percent of the vote in two or more elections). Even parties with huge recent gains, like the Movement for a Better Hungary (Jobbik), have yet to prove their longevity and thus do not confirm the long-held stereotype that the region is a “hotbed” of nationalism. There is no strong evidence that the recent economic crisis has led to a clear rise in extremist politics; while some like Jobbik have made striking gains in recent elections, others have lost (as in Belgium’s Flemish Interest [VB] or France’s National Front [FN]).

Immigration is also not the only salient issue for the radical right. In Central and Eastern Europe, where there is still relatively low immigration, radical-right parties tend to focus on indigenous minorities (notably the Roma). And in Western Europe, where immigration is central to political

discourse, the ideology of radical-right groups is also linked to fears of crime and corruption.

Immigration, however, does play a critical role, and is seen as a multifaceted threat on the cultural, religious, security, economic, and political fronts. The discourse on immigration is similar in the United States, although Islam plays a less dominant role than in Western Europe.

Nativist groups have had a marginal effect on immigration policy in all three regions. The main reason they lack direct policy influence is simply because they are rarely part of government. However, in the three Western European countries where nativist parties have made it into

government (Austria, Italy, and Switzerland), they have been instrumental in introducing more restrictive immigration policies. In Central and Eastern Europe immigration is simply a nonissue; although the region has seen more radical-right government participation, the focus has been on national minorities rather than immigrants. In the United States, nativist actors have had indirect effects on policy at best, as the nativist voices within the Republic Party, for example, have not made it into prominent positions in government.

Political parties are not the only relevant actors, as several Eastern and Central European countries have strong nonparty groups such as neo-Nazis and extreme-right skinhead gangs. Nonparty organizations are also relevant in the United States and Canada, neither of which have significant nativist political parties. While these groups may have a discernible effect at the local and community levels, they do not have a direct effect on policy. And in the United States and Canada, nativists confront strong pro-immigration forces in the political and public debates.

The relationship between immigration and extremism is unclear and complex. Many assumptions are based upon feeble empirical evidence — suggesting the need for more cross-national data projects. Rising numbers of immigrants do not automatically translate into increasing extremism; immigration has to be translated into a political issue, which has not happened everywhere.

While nativist sentiments and organizations have played a role in the tightening of immigration laws — particularly those regarding asylum — they have lost the big battle, as both Western Europe and North America are increasingly true multicultural societies.

Publication Date
Citation Information
Cas Mudde. "The Relationship between Immigration and Nativism in Europe and North America" (2010)
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