The agenda of the right-wing forces will likely move to the left, not through the betrayal of their basic ideological principles, but because they will have to respect the requirements of their electorate and supporters, writes Daniil Grigoryev, expert of the Institute of Globalization and Social Movements (IGSO), Moscow.
The COVID-19 pandemic, which has been top global news for months now, has resulted in a thorough revision of the seemingly inviolable rules of the game in budgetary policies, social infrastructure priorities and many other fields too. It has also provoked deep changes in collective consciousness, which is slowly rising from ruins amid the unexpected changes and pessimistic mid-term forecasts. What effect will this have on the public and, in particular, on the views that set the tone on the global political stage? To try answering this question, we really need to take a good look at the situation preceding the surprise pandemic.
Something that predominantly sticks out in global history over a period of the past decade was the “increased turbulence,” or a series of conflicts and crises that shook many countries around the world. Flabby economic growth in the United States, a large-scale crisis in the European Union (in particular, in southern Europe), ever decreasing growth rates in the periphery countries, and a shocking plunge of oil prices have created a material basis for social instability. On the other hand, they have launched a powerful process of political and cultural transformation. The military component of international relations, although very important, is not something to be brought up in this commentary.
The largest and most significant of these processes is the rise of political influence of various populist forces, which are gaining ever more attention by sharply criticising the existing social system, from its monetary policies to immigration laws and mainstream media. Populist leaders are famous for speaking simply, so that their slogans easily appeal to the general public, appealing to everyday experience, and offering simple solutions to the majority of current problems. [СНОСКА: There are very many books and other literature on populism, for example, “The Global Rise of Populism” (2016) by researcher Benjamin Moffitt and its latest contribution, “Populism” (2020).]
There are several dimensions of the rising populism. One is represented by the so-called left-wing populists, such as Pablo Iglesias Turrion (Podemos, Spain), Alexis Tsipras (former SYRIZA, Greece), Bernie Sanders (Democratic Party, US), Jeremy Corbyn (Labor Party, UK), Jean-Luc Melenchon (La France Insoumise or France Unbowed), Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (member of the US Congress), and Andres Manuel Lopez Obrador (President of Mexico). Despite their social media popularity, most of them did not have much luck when it came to fighting for power.
At the same time, right-wing populists seem to be more successful in this pursuit, for example, leader of the Brexit Party Nigel Farage, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, President of the National Rally (formerly National Front) political party Marine Le Pen, US President Donald Trump, President of Brazil Jair Bolsonaro, and the collective leadership of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party in Germany. They have won elections and were more successful in attaining their other goals, such as Brexit. It is therefore not surprising that the attention of political analysts, commentators and academics was focused on these and other right-wing politicians.
Despite a rapid rise during the crisis period, the New Right politicians do not resemble their predecessors of the 1930s or even the 1970s in structure, ideology, or even presentation. A new term has been coined to denote them, alt-right, alternative right, to stress their unique status. The heyday of the alt-right coincided with Donald Trump’s victory (Data source: Google Trends), who was widely supported by many speakers of the alt-right, related media resources and other celebrities, including many online communities.
Trump’s political victory promised a bright future for the alt-right, and many people thought that the alt-right would determine the development of the world’s largest countries in the next decade. We are well aware now that these forecasts never materialised. The seeming unity of the alt-right started eroding exceedingly fast. Public figures claimed that they had no relation to the movement, including conservative youth leaders, such as Ben Shapiro and Milo Yiannopoulos, let alone Donald Trump himself. Trump’s chief strategist and the co-founder of the far-right website Breitbart News, Steve Bannon, left the White House, although according to the grapevine it looks like he might be on his way back again. Many Western politicians slammed the door in the face of the alt-right after a series of thunderous scandals and suspicion of racism. In fact, alt-right supporters are now active predominantly in culture (gender identification, same sex families, and inclusiveness) and the environment, mostly climate change. The COVID-19 crisis has accelerated the gradual demise and degeneration of the alt-right movement, with the remaining few alt-right public figures only on rare occasions coming out with some statement or other.
Global shocks in human history usually encourage the spread of numerous popular theories and explanations of their origin, for example, the Zionist conspiracy theories of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Cold War spy mania, and the mystic theories that appeared during the Soviet Union’s collapse. Collectively, they can be described as conspiracy theories that include many issues related to the alt-right and, in general, the right/conservative agenda.
Conspiracy researchers point out the features of many conspiracy theories:
Numerous interpretations and versions (the advocates of conspiracy theories claim that the COVID-19 pandemic originated in China, or the United States, or Russia);
Secretiveness and incomprehensibility (almost all conspiracy theories suggest the existence of private elite clubs and shadow governments)
Technophobia (the narratives of the digital concentration camp, forced human microchipping, 5G radiation, the dangers of vaccinations, and many other theories that are popular in Russia as well).
Another attractive feature of conspiracy theories is their rationality, according to which everything that takes place in the world can be explained by the existence of a small group of players with clearly mercenary objectives and effective instruments for attaining them. By this logic, unpredictability, chance, coincidence and uncontrollability only play a very insignificant role in these processes. Taken together, this shows that conspiracy thinking is a natural response of the public to frightening, unpredictable and dangerous events.
It is no wonder then that people who can be tentatively described as advocates of right-wing views have taken part in many events organised by COVID dissenters and the opponents of the lock-down regime. Overall, the right-wing politicians’ love of conspiracy theories is not a liberal presumption. For example, Infowars founder Alex Jones promoted a campaign that disputed the need for social distancing, shelter in place, and quarantine efforts. According to recent surveys, Republicans believe twice as often as Democrats that Chinese scientists engineered the coronavirus and that Bill Gates wants to use a mass vaccination campaign against COVID-19 to implant microchips in people to track them with a digital ID. However, the conspiracy-based agenda is not popular everywhere. For example, AfD is getting rid of unpopular marginal party members in an attempt to dissociate itself from such views
Government response to the coronavirus was so divided in many countries that this has not really helped to create and maintain a stable group of government supporters. Within a matter of a few months, the US and UK authorities moved from denying the danger of the coronavirus infection to calling for self-isolation, taking nationwide medical measures, and spending the largest ever amount of funds since WWII on financial support for the people, which reached double-digit percentage points of GDP. At the same time, far from all members of the right-wing parties have changed their views when it comes to the coronavirus, which is deepening the internal split in the not very popular movements and organisations.
Of course, the right-wing movement includes not only the alt-right and party groups in parliaments, but also conservatives, religious fundamentalists, and all manner of “patriotic” movements. The ultimate effect that they have on society is no easy task to assess, because the economic views of this movement vary from ultra-paternalism to anarcho-primitivism, and taking into account their fundamental ideologies that range from the political philosophy of the 19th century to the Scriptures.
So, what conclusions can we make from the just mentioned information?
First of all, when the COVID-19 crisis erupted, the alt-right had not developed as an integral movement with recognised leaders, ideologies (manifests), universal policy proposals and functioning political organisations.
Secondly, the coronavirus crisis is eroding the initially amorphous and unstable basis of the right-wing/conservative movement backed by numerous supporters of conspiracy theories, fringe politicians, anti-government forces, as well as the advocates of flat Earth theories.
And lastly, the overwhelming majority of the proponents of right-wing views are strongly influenced by changes in the public mood, the growing popularity of paternalism, the government programmes aimed at rapidly bringing the national economies back to pre-crisis levels, as well as ensuring (or introducing) the principle of universal access to modern, high quality medical services regardless of what people earn or where they live.The already mentioned does not mean that the right-wing movements will lose all of their influence in the near future, ceding their place to the “alternative left.” It is much more likely that the agenda of the right-wing forces will gradually move to the left, not through the betrayal of their basic ideological principles, but because they will have to respect the requirements of their electorate and supporters. In fact, we inherited the very division into right-wing and left-wing views from the age of neoliberal reforms, the New Consensus and the Great Moderation. There is nothing unusual in the fact that a change in conditions is changing the political mentality as well as the identification and objectives of sociopolitical trends.