Many pundits and politicians blame the left's neglect of white working-class voters for the success of far-right parties in Europe and the U.S. But sidelining or deriding diversity isn't the answer, writes political science professor Terri E. Givens. Instead, mainstream left parties must build broad-based support for a multiethnic approach to governance that addresses inequality, strengthens unions, and develops sustainable immigration policies.

Mainstream left parties are in retreat. In Europe and the U.S., far-right populism has been quietly ascendant since the 1990s, but this past year—with the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump, and the candidacy of Marine Le Pen for the French presidency—the right’s successes have revealed just how much ground the left has ceded. Some, like Sen. Bernie Sanders and Frank Bruni of The New York Times, have faulted the left for neglecting white working-class voters, who have been attracted to anti-immigrant, anti-globalization candidates. But sidelining or even deriding diversity isn’t the answer. Countries are multiracial and multiethnic, and parties need to—and ought to—attract a broad spectrum of voters to win elections and govern responsibly.

Yet many politicians and candidates in Europe and the U.S. have rejected these multicultural values and cast immigrants and foreigners as a threat. President Trump justified his executive order calling for a wall along the Mexican border by saying, “We are in the middle of a crisis on our southern border: The unprecedented surge of illegal migrants from Central America is harming both Mexico and the United States.” The night of the U.S. presidential election, CNN’s Van Jones famously called Trump’s victory a “whitelash,” or a backlash by white voters against the legacy of Barack Obama and the Democratic Party. Available survey data bears this out. One study of the 2016 election concluded that about two-thirds of Trump’s advantage among white Americans without a college degree can be explained by racism and sexism.

Center-left parties must build broad-based support for a multiethnic approach to governance that prioritizes social welfare. The focus must be on addressing inequality, strengthening unions, and developing immigration policies that include burden-sharing agreements and support for those caught in conflict areas. If the left concentrates on these three areas, it will be able to beat back the threat of far-right populism across Europe and the U.S.


After World War II, large numbers of immigrants came to the U.K., Germany, and France. At the time, few understood the cultural impact these immigrants would have or how they would transform their new homes. In the U.K., hostilities between the newcomers and native communities emerged in the late 1940s, when immigrants from the nation’s former colonies obtained citizenship and settled in Britain permanently. By the late 1950s, riots were common, and in 1968, the conservative MP Enoch Powell predicted “rivers of blood” if immigration continued. This was, of course, hyperbole. Racial tensions and racist incidents never disappeared, but racially motivated violence declined until the 1990s, when far-right populism began its resurgence. As I describe in my book on anti-discrimination policy in Europe, violent attacks on ethnic minorities increased in tandem with the development of the far-right British National Party and haven’t abated since.

The story of immigrants in France and Germany is a bit different. After World War II, both countries needed manpower to rebuild their infrastructure and maintain economic growth. Temporary immigration policies were adopted to fill the need for manual workers, but many of these migrant laborers—from Italy, Greece, and Turkey—stayed.

Labor recruitment into Europe slowed in the 1970s after the oil crisis and global economic downturn, but immigration picked up a decade later, when many national courts ruled in favor of family reunification. Settled communities developed, and immigrants began to forge group identities. Still, it would not be until the late 1990s that Muslim immigrants across Europe began to associate themselves with a community that transcended nationality.

As birth rates declined in the late 1990s and early 2000s, many politicians, economists, and social scientists argued that for Europe to maintain its generous welfare system, particularly its pay-as-you-go pensions, the continent would have to open its doors to more young, tax-paying migrants. But this academic consensus came just as anti-immigrant far-right parties gained traction in countries like Austria and Denmark.

Another important development in the mid-to-late 1990s was the success of center-left politicians like U.S. President Bill Clinton, U.K. Prime Minister Tony Blair, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder. These leaders embraced neoliberal economic policies that reflected a more individualistic approach to governance. They cut welfare benefits and forced those receiving support to find jobs, as in Clinton’s “welfare to work” scheme, which limited benefits to a maximum of five years and required recipients to participate in work “activities.”

These policies contributed to economic growth as a whole, but they widened the wealth gap and did little to help the working class. Wages stagnated, and, in the U.S., union membership continued to decline, from nearly a third of workers in the 1960s to only 10 percent today. If the center left’s economic policies had instead improved the standard of living for blue-collar workers, these voters might not have been as receptive to the messages of the radical right.

In France, many were surprised when, in 1995, the National Front (FN) won control of three municipalities in former Communist strongholds—Marignane, Orange, and Toulon. Two years later, the party triumphed in the town of Vitrolles. By characterizing themselves as the party of “the people” against “the establishment,” the far right offered an alternative, particularly to those uncomfortable with cultural shifts caused by immigration. An August 2016 poll found that the city of Calais, once dependably Communist but now home to an informal refugee camp, had seen support for the FN increase by nearly 20 percentage points in less than two years. Another example of this backlash is the French uproar over grocery stores that sell only halal foods. Last year, the municipality of Colombes ordered a Muslim storeowner to sell pork and alcohol. The mayor’s chief of staff, Jérôme Besnard, told The Telegraph, “We want a social mix. We don’t want any area that is only Muslim or any area where there are no Muslims.”

Conservative politicians have tended to turn inward when faced with the challenges of multiculturalism, taking steps like U.K. Prime Minister Theresa May’s proposed restrictions on immigration as part of the Brexit process. But pandering to such intolerance is a short-sighted strategy that poisons community relations.


This accommodation to racism by the right leaves an opening. First, the left should curb growing inequality by pursuing policies like a guaranteed minimum income and regulating corporations to reduce the disparities between workers and high-level managers. Second, it should strengthen unions to improve workers’ wages and benefits and help build a strong left-leaning voter base. In the U.S., this means fighting policies like the so-called “right to work” laws, which disincentivize employees from starting or joining unions. Much damage to the labor movement has been done, but the push for a $15 minimum wage across the U.S. indicates that there is support for organizing workers. Third, Western European countries and the U.S. should enact common-sense immigration policies, like increasing the number of visas available for workers, rather than relying on undocumented workers to fill vacant jobs. Countries need to reaffirm their commitment to refugees, while mitigating the potential consequences of large-scale migration. Migrants should be provided with social supports, including language and job training to ease the transition into a new society.

White working-class voters have increasingly turned to right-wing populists who scapegoat migrants and ethnic minorities, rather than grapple with the rise of automation or the cuts to public programs. Unsurprisingly, ethnic minority working-class voters have rejected these populist appeals. According to the author John Judis, “Right-wing populists champion the people against an elite that they accuse of favoring a third group, which can consist, for instance, of immigrants, Islamists, or African-American militants. Right-wing populism is triadic: It looks upward, but also down upon an out group.”

Support for populist politicians, however, is not the inevitable result of large-scale immigration. The Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde notes, “Rising numbers of immigrants do not automatically translate into increasing extremism in a country; immigration has to be translated into a political issue, which has not happened everywhere.” The defeat of Austria’s Freedom Party candidate, Norbert Hofer, by independent candidate Alexander Van der Bellen, in December’s presidential election, is a welcome sign—although Van der Bellen’s narrow margin of victory indicates that there is still much work to be done.

Although the Trump administration clearly represents a step backward on issues related to equality, it is not a given that European countries like France and Germany will move in the same direction. Countering the trend will take smart leadership and grass-roots support for progressive policies capable of uniting people across race and class.

French presidential candidate Benoît Hamon said in January, “I believe that faced with a conservative right that represents privilege and a destructive extreme-right, our country needs a left that thinks of the world as it is, and not as it was, a left that can bring a future people want.” Politicians in California and New York have pursued bills that help undocumented students attend college, protect LGBT rights, and increase the minimum wage. These local policies take into account the actual demographics of America. Support for a multicultural society that is welcoming to migrants and refugees is not antithetical to economic success. Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a recent speech to the U.N. that diversity is “a source of strength, not weakness. Our country is strong not in spite of our differences, but because of them.”


These approaches work if voters are empowered to imagine a better future for themselves and their children. It is imperative that the left find commonalities among the white working class, ethnic minorities, and immigrants—not just to save itself but to create a more equitable future for all.