Populist movements depend on inventing narratives that cast white working-class citizens as victims of immigration and free trade policies, creating an economic case for nationalist policies and shifting general political discourse away from substantive policy, according to a recent analysis published in British Politics.
The paper, which focuses primarily on the United Kingdom's Brexit Party, says this performance of victimhood is a way of giving voice to a group’s political anxieties about being marginalized in their home country and is a “precondition” for these voters to back nationalist ideals.
The Brexit Party, founded in late 2018 by populist politician Nigel Farage, is a successor to the 2016 campaign to leave the European Union; late last year, the party relaunched as Reform UK, backing a policy of "focused protection" from the coronavirus for only the most vulnerable.
Kostas Maronitis, the paper’s author and a senior lecturer at Leeds Trinity University, highlighted how the Brexit Party uses symbols and language of victimhood to court voters, a departure from other researchers' work around the wider Brexit movement and how economic grievances like unemployment guide voting behavior.
By crafting an ethnocentric ideal of British national identity, the Brexit Party was able to appeal to white voters in former mining and manufacturing towns who felt they were disadvantaged by globalization while neglecting to offer long-term solutions to underlying domestic issues like economic inequality, Maronitis said.
“The Brexit Party, and by association the Leave campaign, constructed a type of victimhood … by systematically avoiding the structural problems of contemporary capitalism such as income and housing inequality, low wages, and a waning welfare state,” Maronitis told The Academic Times.
“While most, if not all, of [the voters’] grievances are rooted in economic factors, they gain traction and electoral appeal by tapping into the problematic discourse [about] ethnic communities and corporate multiculturalism,” he added.
Previous research that ties the populist trend in the U.K. to underlying economic causes is “limited,” Maronitis wrote, as researchers often overlook the ways in which politicized notions of victimhood help to give rise to white working-class voters as a group.
“My research does not assume that these voters as a homogeneous group preexisted the campaign, but [are] culturally constructed by the agents and political actors of the Brexit campaign,” Maronitis said.
Maronitis further suggested that this racialized strategy has helped shift general political discourse in the U.K. away from debate over policy and toward broad, symbolic gestures meant to promote the interests of white working-class voters.
“The political strategy of the two major parties, the Conservatives and Labour, focuses on persuading the ‘left behind’ that they are on their side,” he said. “There is more of an emphasis on the cultural signifiers of tradition and identity at the expense of addressing material living conditions.”
Adapting a passage from L.P. Hartley’s classic novel The Go-Between, Maronitis said narratives that give legitimacy to grievances of disaffected voters present the illusion that the “present is a foreign country” in which working-class white Britons are both culturally and economically marginalized because of policies promoted by Conservative and Labour.
“Inevitably, the white working class competes with other communities for the recognition and preservation of their culture,” he said. “The problem here is the racialization of class as a category and analytical tool. … Black and ethnic minorities working in the gig economy and living in cities are excluded from the modalities of the working class and are deemed responsible for the present being a foreign country.”
Such ways of courting votes by way of ethnocentrism mark a rhetorical evolution in the British nationalist movement, which prior to the early 2010s had primarily presented itself as a hardline libertarian alternative to Conservatives.
“As soon as Nigel Farage and his backers realized that libertarian arguments against the EU have a limited electoral impact, their new strategy was to present the EU and its supporters as responsible for the loss of tradition and national identity,” Maronitis said. The new strategy “targets traditional Labour voters who lacked the means to navigate their lives in an environment of globalized finance and immense labor mobility.”
Maronitis analyzed the Brexit Party’s official campaign videos and broadcasts on Twitter and YouTube in the lead-up to the 2019 EU Parliament Election, which the party won with 30.7% of the votes. The language and imagery used in these videos, he said, framed a binary conflict between “elites and the people” — the Labour Party as the former and white working-class voters as the latter.
One video, titled “Labour was the party of the working class,” contrasts the Labour Party's reliance on working-class voters with images of former U.K. Prime Minister and Labour leader Tony Blair at the World Economic Forum in Davos, creating an illusion that Labour “betrayed” the working class in favor of the elite establishment and foreign interests.
Another video, called “Labour is the party of Dalston, not Doncaster,” accentuates the geographic divide between the working class outside major cities and the perceived elite class in London, with Brexit Party leader Farage talking to white, elderly, working-class people in an attempt to show that the group is filling a perceived cultural void left by the Labour Party.
Some of the most frequently used terms in Brexit Party ads draw binary lines between voters, such as “The North” versus “London,” “cultural homogeneity” versus “cultural diversity,” and “tradition” versus “modernity,” Maronitis found.
Other campaign materials made frequent use of symbols of British tradition, such as flags bearing the historic Cross of St. George; the red poppy, which symbolizes the Royal British Legion; and images of British Royal Navy to accentuate the party’s emphasis on preserving British heritage from increased ethnic and cultural diversity.
The use of cultural symbolism is echoed by the Conservative Party’s vague commitments to “level up” the country and Labour’s attempts to position itself as a supporter of the armed forces and demonstrate affiliation to the monarchy.
“However, the point of convergence between those two approaches is the lack of detail concerning taxation, state investment and welfare,” Maronitis said.
Though his research focused on British nationalism, Maronitis said his frame of analysis works in other parts of the world where candidates tell voters that the country they once knew has been lost to out-group and elite group interests.
“As long as a narrative of prosperity and decline can be constructed, the sentiment of the present as a foreign country can be applied to diverse national and cultural contexts,” he said. “From ‘Make America Great Again’ and Brexit’s ‘Take Back Control,’ to Marine Le Pen’s ‘France for the French’ and Matteo Salvini’s ‘Italians First,’ there is a strong desire to depict the present as hostile and the past as a time of common purpose, prosperity and most importantly of cultural and social homogeneity.”
The paper, “The present is a foreign country: Brexit and the performance of victimhood,” was published on Jan. 7 in British Politics. It was authored by Kostas Maronitis, a senior lecturer in politics and international relations at Leeds Trinity University in Leeds, England.