Public Policy

Discourse and the Politics of Fear Public Policy
Ruth Wodak

Discourse and the Politics of Fear

October 8, 2015

Ruth Wodak

Ruth Wodak

In Europe, populist right-wing politics are moving to center stage, with some parties reaching the very top of the electoral ladder. Why, and why now?

Ruth Wodak is a distinguished professor and chair in discourse studies at Lancaster University whose new book, The Politics of Fear – What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, traces the trajectories of populist right-wing politicians across Europe. From the margins of the political landscape to its center, Wodak examines these trajectories in order to understand and explain how they are transforming from fringe voices to persuasive political actors who set the agenda and frame media debates.

Politics of Fear cover

The Politics of Fear: What Right-Wing Populist Discourses Mean, by Ruth Wodak. SAGE. 2015

In this post, originally published at SAGE Connection as part of its ‘Connecting With the Community’ series, Michael Ainsley, a senior marketing manager for SAGE, spoke to Wodak to gain further insight into the dynamics that are re-shaping the political sphere. (SAGE is the parent of Social Science Space.)

What do you think is behind the rise in popularity of right-wing parties across Europe? Is this part of a global trend or something unique to Europe?

I believe that this is part of a global trend, related to many insecurities which people are facing and do not have any adequate answers to – such as climate change, migration, unemployment, financial crisis, and so forth. Political parties which offer simple answers and create scapegoats (who are then perceived as being the reason for all the current woes and thus to blame for them) easily attract voters. Moreover, we can observe strong renationalizing tendencies, an urge to protect a nation state, imagined as homogenous (“Us”) which would guarantee protection from strangers (“Them”) and other perceived dangers. Of course, such homogenous nation states no longer exist in our globalized world, despite the ever more walls being literally erected in order to keep ‘others’ out.

How are right-wing parties and the media interdependent?

There is a strong interdependence which I label the ‘right-wing populist perpetuum mobile’. Many media (and also politicians) continuously fall into the traps set by such parties in the form of discursive strategies of provocation, exaggeration and scandalization. Thus, some provocative utterances, slogans or posters are launched, and then all media immediately react and report about this scandalous event. This reporting then puts the right-wing populist parties’ agenda on every front-page and into the news, effectively fulfilling their goal of framing the agenda. Such scandals often escalate further through new scandals, conspiracy theories, and, when the whole process has run its course, the initiators lastly construct themselves as victims of imagined campaigns of ‘the establishment’ or ‘the media’ directed against them. Once the provocative statement (or poster) has been proven wrong or exposed as untenable, some kind of ambivalent apology follows (which I label as discursive strategy of calculated ambivalence). The apology, precisely because it is insincere, may then start the entire dynamic anew. In this way, media and mainstream politicians are constantly re-acting instead of advancing their own programs and agenda.

In the UK we have recently seen the Labour Party shift decidedly left under Jeremy Corbyn. Do you think that this is a deliberate move to counter the rise of popular right-wing parties we have seen elsewhere?

In any case, it is a deliberative move back to a politics with some principles and away from the unsuccessful attempts of accommodating to and trying to overtake the populist right-wing with their own right-wing agenda. It is certainly an attempt to position the Labour Party very clearly with its own agenda, thus framing the debates in a new way, in both form and content.

You talk of the normalization of nationalist and racist rhetoric that is used as a framework to spread right-wing populist discourse. What are the consequences of this?

The consequence of normalization can be seen very clearly, for example, in many European states: Policies, programs and slogans which were still regarded as extreme, racist, or far right in the 1990s have become acceptable and mainstream, including approaches to such topics as migration, asylum, and integration. Many such taboos were first breached by right-wing populist parties in carefully hedged ways and even so caused scandals, whereas now they can be stated quite explicitly and from within the political ‘center’ or mainstream. Beyond that, many such positions have been implemented as actual policy – which the right then sees as a retrospective exoneration of their position (‘We told you so’). For example, holding referenda to ban minarets have been conducted in Switzerland; Roma have been deported from France, Italy, and Ireland; borders have been closed by walls to keep refugees out of Hungary, although asylum seekers should be treated according to the Geneva Convention, and so forth.

What do you envision will happen within the political sphere in the next five years?

I lack a clairvoyant’s ability and a politician’s willingness to risk predicting the future. However, what is obvious right now, is that the EU is experiencing a major crisis related to the absence of any common EU asylum strategy, based on the EU treaties, the Geneva Convention and the so-called European values. Europe is also experiencing polarization due to the financial crisis and extreme youth unemployment in the South of Europe; globally, a growing cleavage between rich and poor, and nationalism has become stronger as have anti-EU sentiments. It is also obvious that the normalizing policies of the political mainstream have failed to counter or even halt the politics of fear of right-wing populist parties. Hence, new alternative political programs, new values and new frames must be found and formulated to adequately cope with the many complex problems facing all of us.


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SAGE Publishing, the parent of Social Science Space, is a leading international publisher of journals, books, and electronic media for academic, educational, and professional markets. An independent company, SAGE has principal offices in Los Angeles, London, New Delhi, Singapore, Melbourne and Washington DC.

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