Right-wing terrorism costs anti-immigration parties conservative votes

February 4, 2021
Right-wing parties linked to violence lose backers. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magano)

Right-wing parties linked to violence lose backers. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magano)

Hyper-conservative individuals who are opposed to immigration are far less likely to support a conservative party after an increased threat of right-wing terrorism, a new European study showed, suggesting that voters’ focus on security outweighs anti-immigration sentiment and other policy desires.

The paper, published Jan. 23 in the International Journal of Public Opinion Research, found that voters in general were no less likely to reverse their support for an anti-immigration party when exposed to right-wing terror threats, but variations appeared when accounting for a preference for conservative ideals.

Though more research is needed to further generalize these findings, it’s quite possible they can help interpret former U.S. President Donald Trump’s drastic dip in approval ratings — driven by disaffected Republican voters — after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, said Laura Jacobs, lead author of the paper and a postdoctoral political science researcher at Université Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels.

“This drop in approval rating could be evidence that association of a party with political violence does not do a party any good, not even an anti-immigration party,” Jacobs told The Academic Times.

“We would argue that in this case, the link between the Republican Party and the terror or political violence should be obvious, as otherwise, the association may not be strong enough to yield ramifications for voting behavior,” she added.

Existing terror research has covered a range of effects on societal outcomes like economic performance and conservative attitudes, but few have explored the electoral fallout from terrorist attacks, the authors wrote. Furthermore, academic research on the impact of right-wing terror has been limited compared to the ocean of work on Islamist terror, despite its growing salience in the west.

Jacobs and her coauthor, Joost van Spanje of the University of London, took a rare experimental approach to discover whether the threat of right-wing terror can reduce their propensity to vote for an anti-immigration party in the context of their political beliefs and other characteristics.

In a web experiment, the pair showed mock news reports about a recently thwarted terror attack to more than 1,100 participants from the Netherlands, Germany and Sweden. The reports were presented as real and were perceived as such by 89% of the respondents. Participants were then asked to rate major anti-immigration parties from their countries, like Alternatives for Germany and the Sweden Democrats.

The authors also asked questions based on American psychologist Bob Altemeyer’s six-item scale for measuring right-wing authoritarianism — “a cultural worldview” that emphasizes protecting dominant social norms, strong national leadership and social order, Jacobs explained.

“We did not find an effect for all participants, but that the electoral effect was conditional on participants’ level of right-wing authoritarianism,” she said.

On a scale from 0 to 10, participants’ propensity to support anti-immigration parties after exposure to a simulated Islamist terror threat averaged at 3.38, versus 3.34 after exposure to a right-wing terror threat, contrary to the assumption that right-wing threats would significantly decrease support for right-wing political groups. Within a control group that was shown unrelated news items, the average propensity to vote for anti-immigration parties was 3.45.

The authors were somewhat surprised, however, to find that the negative effect of right-wing terror on anti-immigration support was much greater for voters with high levels of right-wing authoritarianism relative to those with low or intermediate levels, Jacobs said.

The average rating for anti-immigration parties among highly authoritarian individuals was 4.83 after exposure to a right-wing terror plot, or 1.44 points lower than those who were shown a mock Islamist terror threat. Right-wing threats resulted in an average decrease of 0.87 points among low-authoritarian respondents, while having a smaller inverse effect in those with intermediate authoritarian leanings. Right-leaning voters in the control group rated the parties at 5.63, versus 3.14 for those with intermediate and 1.70 for low authoritarianism.

Since the experiment simulates a potential terror threat rather than an actual attack, it may be eliciting fear rather than anger in the respondents, the latter of which is known to conjure a more potent response to terrorism, the authors wrote. In other words, there could be more room for conservative support for right-wing parties to drop further.

Additionally, the minimized effect of right-wing terror on people with low levels of right-wing authoritarianism could be attributed to their already lower levels of support for right-wing parties.

“While more research is needed to disentangle the origin of this effect, our hunch is that this can be explained with the effect of being associated with violence,” Jacobs said. “A defining characteristic of right-wing authoritarianism is these individuals tend to value order … It could thus be that when these participants sense an association between violence and right-wing beliefs, this could result in lower support for anti-immigration parties, which are the main political advocates of the same extremist belief system.”

There are, of course, myriad other variables that may be at play influencing this dynamic, such as a country’s particular history with immigration policy as well as the racial and ethnic makeup of its people, Jacobs said. It’s possible that any effect conferred from a perceived threat may also wear off over time before an election takes place.

“However, what I would argue is more important is the type of immigrant group that is present in society, especially for the electoral effects of Islamist terror,” she said. “The presence of a large Muslim community allows anti-immigration parties to exploit a situation and benefit from it by creating fear and mobilizing on the prejudice.”

The paper, “Not All Terror Is Alike: How Right-Wing Extremist and Islamist Terror Threat Affect Anti-immigration Party Support,” was published on Jan. 23 in International Journal of Public Opinion Research. It was authored by Laura Jacobs, a postdoctoral researcher at the political science department of Université Libre de Bruxelles in Brussels, Belgium, and Joost van Spanje, a professor of politics at Royal Holloway, University of London, and an associate professor of political communication at the University of Amsterdam. Their project was funded by a Vidi grant from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research. The manipulation procedure was reviewed and approved by the Faculty Ethics Review Board at the University of Amsterdam.

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