Dr Helen De Cruz puts the pieces of the Brexit jigsaw puzzle together. On Austerity, the far-right and the Brexit Party.

To understand how the Brexit Party and other far-right movements work, it is really crucial to read this classic paper by Susan Fiske, psychologist at Princeton. It is short, readable, and it explains so much.

Susan Fiske and her lab have been studying how people in various countries react to outgroup members, particularly in how they perceive them in terms of ‘warmth’ (warm feelings) and competence.

The Fiske Lab's English Map.

The Fiske lab has studied bias and prejudice against outgroups and minorities (e.g., foreigners, Muslims in mostly Christian countries) in many countries. They found that “only a small minority of extremists, harbor blatant biases that are more conscious” and commit hate crimes.

Fiske estimates that in Western countries, about 80% of people live in relatively homogeneous communities, with people like themselves, and they display subtle biases to outgroups. There are only 10% or so blatant racists who are out-front – dangerous and vocal though.

This is really important to keep in mind. People who commit hate crimes, draw swastikas, etc, are really only a minority – a minority that can be emboldened if they think many others think like them (cue: Brexit, Trump), but a minority all the same.

So, while outgroup biases are latent in most people (80% of any country’s population), the Brexit Party and other far-right movements have been very savvy in making them more explicit. How? Fiske and her colleagues identify two causes for far-right sentiment increase.

Cause #1

The threat to economic security makes people more sympathetic to far-right. Now, this is often misunderstood as in “the left behind” voting for Trump and Brexit. While austerity and being left behind does increase the Brexit Party and other far-right support, it is more complex... According to Fiske, counterintuitively, typically people who show most bias against outgroups are NOT the most socially/economically deprived, but better-off people who perceive a threat to their ingroup (e.g., white British).

This is a really important observation and it can explain several apparently contradictory findings about Brexit, namely on the one hand, austerity has exacerbated and contributed to the Brexit vote:

But on the other hand, people who voted for Brexit were also better-off pensioners in South-East England, and the Brexit Party is making bigger gains there. They felt the squeeze, but aren’t the most deprived, as Fiske’s research predicts:

Austerity created this picture of the UK as a dog-eat-dog world where you have to protect “your own”. If immigrants were bettering themselves coming from EU-27 countries to the UK, that must somehow mean things are worse for the UK population. Not win-win but zero-sum.

Cause #2

Next to the perceived threat to economic security, the perceived threat to traditional values also tends to embolden the far-right and encourages extremist views. As Fiske puts it:

This importance of traditional values in support for Brexit and the Brexit Party can be seen in several key features, for example, the very strong support of the Church of England members for Brexit, higher than any other religious affiliation:

The importance of perceived threat to traditional values also explains the strong support of older people for Brexit. Age correlates with Brexit even when controlling for factors such as education:

More globally, increasing inequality and the failure of nation-states to stop the super-rich from channeling their money away from national governments, has contributed to austerity and threadbare public services, making a fertile ground for far-right sentiments to flourish.

Febrile ethno-nationalism is not a sign of health of nation-states but a sign of nation-states in crisis and decline. People get upset as they feel let down by governments.

Read this fascinating analysis and global perspective by Rana Dasgupta:

But instead of pointing the finger at oligarchs, the far-right (Bannon, etc) are having global networks in which they can use ads and campaigns to shift the blame to immigrants and other governments. That is how pluto-populism comes to be.

How to solve this? Fiske says that education helps, because it can make us more cognizant of other people’s values and can help people see that outgroup members (e.g. Muslims, foreigners...) are not as different and stereotypical as they were led to believe.

Also, the importance of “constructive intergroup contact that increases mutual appreciation. When contact features (a) equal status within the immediate setting, (b) shared goals, (c) cooperation in pursuit of those goals, and (d) authorities’ support.”

And this would provide “a basis for intergroup friendship. Genuine intergroup friendships demonstrably do reduce stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination.”

This reminds me of Hannah Arendt, who said that people who were fragmented were most vulnerable to far-right propaganda. As I argued in this piece back in 2017, Arendt suggested that people who are isolated and atomized can get lured by the far-right because it gives them a “sense of having a place in the world – it offers a quick fix, a return to traditional values.”

Notice how the Brexit Party, like other far-right parties, does not offer realistic solutions. It offers a fantasy no-deal Brexit, just as unreal as the cakeist Brexit promised in the runup to the Referendum. But it does appeal to threats to economic situation and values (also interesting to note is how the Brexit Party did not want to campaign on a blatantly racist platform either, as they probably did not want to alienate the majority of their voters). Instead, their racism is the subtle racism of policy (no deal, return of hard border, etc.)


The far-right has been more savvy about using psychological research, international platforms and global communication than the left in winning political support everywhere. But the failure of nation-states to honour the social contract plays into their hand.🔷

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[This piece was first published as a Twitter thread and turned into the above article, with the author’s consent, with the purpose of reaching a larger audience. It has been minorly edited and corrected. | The author of the tweets writes in a personal capacity.]

(Cover: Pixabay.)