chapter  13
28 Pages

Social class and the radical right: Conceptualizing political preference formation and partisan choice


Introduction A sensible discussion of the strategic opportunities for growth as well as containment of the radical right in post-industrial democracies and those surrounding them (i.e., Central and Eastern Europe) requires an adequate conceptualization of social structure that makes “locations” (asset endowments, competences, experiences) relevant for the formation of politically relevant “preferences” and “interests.” Moreover, it calls for a sophisticated analysis of supply configurations of policy alternatives on the playing field of partisan competition. Only where demand and supply meet will socio-structural dispositions translate into actual vote choices. I will try to make this concluding essay controversial with some bald and incompletely backed assertions (no empirical evidence provided here!). Think of its heuristic value as one of stimulating further research, even if some of its assertions are overdrawn or turn out to be plain wrong. When it comes to demand-side considerations, I will be the champion of intellectual innovation against the majority of the contributions in this volume: the old theory, of understanding political preference through class structure, as provided by the EriksonGoldthorpe-Portocarero (EGP) framework, simply will not do to account for political preference formation and the demand-side explanation of radical right party support. Moreover, I will claim that we have to go beyond the ad-hocism of two dimensions of political preference formation and analytically think in terms of three dimensions. While two dimensions have been sufficient to map relevant party positions empirically in the past, strategic options for the radical right and its competitors are now beginning to unfold in a three-dimensional space. In the end, my proposals will be at odds with every contribution in this volume, either because (1) I object to the papers’ occupation-based conception of social structure, and/or (2) because I begin to stray away from a twodimensional rendering of the relevant preference space in post-industrial politics. Relatively few papers in this volume venture into supply-side considerations, to which I will devote a bit of space in my response paper. Here I will be the champion of theoretical conservatism and restraint. I prefer to stay as close as

possible to an old-fashioned spatial-positional conceptualization of party competition and vote choice, albeit with some behavioral extensions. Once these behavioral extensions have been taken into account, special additive theoretical frameworks that invoke valence, salience, and issue ownership as genuinely distinct considerations and rationale in party competition may contribute too little to be worth the effort, or may appear to be plain wrongheaded. All of this sets aside, of course, non-rational vote choice considerations, which clearly do play a role in citizens’ empirical choices among parties. They involve, however, psychological mechanisms available to strategic manipulation by all partisan competitors and therefore do not uniquely reward the radical right. Or they involve mechanisms that are just not strategically manipulable by politicians at all (such as party identification due to socialization and/or religious devotion), and therefore have to be accepted as simple facts of life (“constraints”) by the various partisan contenders. My earlier work on radical right parties (Kitschelt and McGann 1995 specifically) has been blamed, also on the pages of this book, for proposing a “winning electoral formula” that either never was winning or made itself obsolete for the radical right by the time my work appeared in print, just as Hegel’s Owl of Minerva embarked on its flight only at dusk. Against the backdrop of these earlier considerations, my paper here will conclude by speculating on whether there ever was and currently still is a “winning electoral formula” (or shall we say: “equilibrium strategy”?) for the radical right and its competitors, and what may be its implications for the future of the radical right’s conventional competitors. As a corollary to this discussion, I conclude by seconding Kay Arzheimer’s empirical conclusion that the conventional European center left will not be able to win back their erstwhile core electorate, i.e., the bulk of the remaining manual skilled and unskilled blue-collar workers. Instead there will be a multiplicity of partisan lefts in European party systems, only some of which will be able to attract bits and pieces of the working class; while the plurality, if not majority, of what can still be conceptualized as “working-class” voters-and some-will decisively opt for non-leftist parties, and particularly radical right parties. Political entrepreneurs will try to construct a “progressive political coalition” beyond a working-class support base. Since my piece has more the character of a polemic with analytical, but heuristic, objectives, it will include few references. Moreover, I will not take up definitional issues of what is or is not “radical right” or “right” with different adjectives.