On conventional left-right measurements, there’s not much distinguishing America’s Republican party from mainstream conservative movements in Europe. In fact, when it comes to economic left and right, there are governing parties on the right in Europe who are more “extreme”.
On attitudes towards ethnic minorities and respect for liberal democratic values, however, it’s a different story.
The Global Party Survey (GPS), a project authored by Harvard University’s Pippa Norris, has sought to allow international comparisons between political parties on a variety of issues by surveying almost 2,000 academic experts on their relative positions on various spectrums. Those include the social and economic views of those parties, as well as whether they are populist or pluralistic in outlook.
The survey’s findings suggest America’s Republican Party remains “mainstream” in many respects (on a scale of conventional liberalism-conservatism, the GOP sits comfortably near Britain’s Tories and the French Republicans) – but not when it comes to its defending the rights of ethnic minorities and standing up for liberal principles.
On those issues it is far more extreme than Europe’s centre-right governing parties and sits closer to the likes of Austria’s Freedom Party, Turkey’s Justice and Development Party, and India’s Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) – the governing movement often accused of inciting hatred against the country’s Muslim minority.
Trump’s GOP is one of the most extreme western parties when it comes to both undermining liberal democratic principles and opposing rights for ethnic minorities
The survey was based on an extensive questionnaire completed by political scientists and experts in the field of particular political parties. Respondents were asked to place each party in its current state on a scale of 0-10 in a number of categories. These include “social leaning” – whether a party was socially liberal or conservative – and then moved on to more detailed positions, such as a party’s attitude to women’s rights or liberal democracy.
The survey pointed towards something commentators have long suspected: conservative and right-wing parties have increasingly embraced populism over pluralism, and populist parties are increasingly negative towards liberal democratic principles.
If we redraw our graph grouping parties by their left-right orientation (according to ParlGov classifications), it is parties of the right and radical right that dominate the top-right quadrant.
Not all parties that employ populist rhetoric are opposed to liberal democratic principles
Greece’s Coalition of the Radical Left, more commonly referred to as Syriza, is one of the only major parties of the radical left in the west to favour populist over pluralistic rhetoric.
Though an overwhelming majority of western parties described by ParlGov as ‘liberal’ and ‘conservative’ are likely to be positive towards ethnic minorities, the same cannot be said for their attitudes towards immigration.
Not all liberal parties are liberal about immigration
There is no simple left-right formula, however: Emmanuel Macron’s En Marche movement, which swept France in a wave of anti-politics pluralism in 2018, is now seen by political scientists to have a more negative attitude towards immigration than Australia’s Liberal Party. That might partly reflect the tone of the political debate over immigration in France, where the presence of Marine Le Pen and her National Rally (formerly National Front) has to some extent forced opponents to appease as well as confront.
Parties favouring populist rhetoric are more likely to be nationalistic
What do we know of populism? Populist movements are typically nationalistic, critical towards immigration and cynical about liberal democratic principles.
The above chart illustrates a pretty clear trend: the more multilateralist you are, the less populist you will be. There are, however, some quite clear outliers. Both Syriza and New Zealand’s National Party are classed as multilateralist populists. And then,of course, there are Denmark’s Social Democrats. Sensitive to the collapsing support for the hard-right Danish People’s Party, the Social Democrats tacked right on migrant’s issues in their 2019 election campaign as they sought to tempt voters to their side. Party leader Mette Frederiksen told one televised debate: “You are not a bad person just because you are worried about immigration”. The party topped the poll – albeit with a reduced vote share – and Frederiksen became prime minister.
Since this is the first year the survey has been carried out, we cannot measure change. We cannot say, for example, to what extent Trump has changed the way the Republicans are positioned. We can only say that – right now – the world sees his party as highly populist, poor on ethnic minority rights, and prone to undermining basic democratic principles. That might be a concern for us, but it’s probably not for him: insular populists tend not to care what the rest of the world thinks.