What we are reading: Legislative Strength, Government Participation & Protest Voting

Something new about protest voting and the radical right?

The debate about the role of discontent/protest for the radical right vote is somewhat stale, to say the least. For literal decades, van der Brug/Fennema/Tillie (2000) and van der Brug/Fennema (2003) have been my go-to references.

Their story is roughly this: yes, radical right voters are dissatisfied, but their unhappiness is ideological. They crave even tougher immigration policies (and possibly a more generally illiberal setup of politics and society).

While Wouter and friends were writing about West European countries of the 1990s, their core findings have been confirmed time and again with newer data. End of story.

So I was quite intrigued when I saw this new paper:

Cohen, D. (2020). Between Strategy and Protest. How Policy Demand, Political Dissatisfaction and Strategic Incentives Matter for Far-Right Voting. Political Science Research and Methods, 8(4), 662–676. http://dx.doi.org/10.1017/psrm.2019.21

Cohen’s argument is that both policy demands and discontent are relevant motives, whose relative importance depends on the circumstances, i.e. radical right representation in parliament and government participation. What’s also novel is that the students tasked with introducing the text got in touch with Cohen, who sent us a video showcasing the article’s highlights and some of his other research. That’s pandemic political science for you.

What we liked

We found the model/method slightly demanding, but quite elegant and intriguing. The main attraction is that the author tries to factor in the incentives and opportunities arising from the political context in which the radical right tries to mobilise their potential voters.

Picture of Marine Le Pen
Jérémy-Günther-Heinz Jähnick / Lille – Meeting de Marine Le Pen pour l’élection présidentielle, le 26 mars 2017 à Lille Grand Palais (069) / Wikimedia Commons

This is something which is often talked about but that is rarely implemented in practice. Perhaps the most obvious distinction is between situations where the radical right is in office/opposition (the latter still very much the rule).

What we did not like so much

Students were not sure whether the (changing) indicator for disaffection is really valid, and pointed out that one should distinguish between mere dissatisfaction and demands for a fundamentally different political system. They also argued that propensity to vote is a useful indicator in general, but that an argument about strategic considerations really should be tested based on (reported) electoral choices.

Our main criticism was that legislative strength is measured by seat share in the last national (first order) election, whereas the dependent variable is voting behaviour in European (second order) elections. This seems conceptually dubious and also transforms parties operating under non-proportional national electoral systems (think UKIP and Rassemblement National) into outliers.

But even so, we liked the focus on the political context and opposition/government party status.

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