Across Europe and the UK, women and minorities are increasingly populating the top ranks of far-right and far-right parties. The next Italian prime minister will be Giorgia Meloni, leader of the populist Italian Brotherhood, a party with fascist roots. British Prime Minister Liz Truss fancies herself an even tougher version of Margaret Thatcher, but so far with limited success. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally is now the largest opposition group to the French National Assembly.
Truss’ cabinet also contains a remarkable number of people of South Asian or African descent, including Chancellor of the Exchequer Kwasi Kwarteng, whose parents came to Britain from Ghana. Labour’s shadow cabinet, by contrast, includes just one person of color – David Lammy, who oversees Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs.
As in the US, left-wing parties in Europe and the UK pride themselves on standing up for underrepresented groups. So why do so many notable politicians from these groups gravitate to the right?
In part, they seem to have been drawn to populist messages from the right. They believe they represent the common people and are hostile, at least rhetorically, to urban and educated elites. Meloni grew up in a popular area of Rome. His father abandoned their family and was later sentenced to prison. Truss prides herself on her public school education, unlike many British Conservative politicians (but not Thatcher) who attended expensive private schools. Although Le Pen comes from a wealthy political family, she has spent a lot of time in the industrial dreary of northern France, where she claims to feel most at home.
Women and minorities who enter right-wing politics also tend to insist that they have worked hard to overcome social obstacles and expect others to do the same. Such claims are sometimes a little less than honest. Truss is the daughter of a math teacher. The only social obstacle Le Pen had to overcome was the stain of his father’s fascist tendencies. And Kwarteng was educated at Eton, Cambridge and Harvard. Yet this is not an unfamiliar point of view. Often, successful immigrants and other minorities like to attribute their rise to personal merit and hard work. They may have a limited tolerance for people who haven’t done as well.
Older immigrants aren’t always nice to newcomers either. Once people move out of relative poverty in immigrant-heavy areas into wealthier suburbs and their children join the upper middle classes, their politics often shift to the right. It is not for nothing that many South Asians voted for Brexit, drawn by the Conservatives’ opposition to a more generous immigration policy.
The exceptions to this rule, in the United States at least, were American Jews, who for the most part remained staunch Democrats. This is probably due to an instinctive distrust of any hint of nativism, a belief which, to say the least, has never been kind to Jews. But even Jews have been unsympathetic to newcomers in the past, especially poorer and less educated Jews from Eastern Europe, who they feared would cause trouble for more established citizens.
All of this poses a challenge to left-wing parties that rely on the support of women and people of color. A significant part of the problem is ideological. Progressives tend to treat minorities as social and economic victims who need to be helped by the state. The idea is that less privileged people need preferential treatment to succeed.
As progressive parties increasingly rely on highly educated urban elites, and less on unions and industrial workers, this type of thinking has become more prevalent. Union leaders fought for workers’ rights and better conditions. Left-wing ideology today is more concerned with combating prejudice against racial and sexual minorities.
Fighting prejudice is a good thing. And it is commendable to provide people who experience racism with better opportunities in education and other areas of life. But there is a political risk that minorities will react badly to what is perceived as condescension. People don’t necessarily like to be treated like victims. Preferential treatment can be badly perceived when it results from a feeling of guilt among the most privileged.
This, along with social conservatism on sexual and religious issues, is one of the reasons why more and more Latinos and even black people in the United States voted for Donald Trump, why the conservative cabinet is filled with women and people of color, and why women lead the far right in Italy and France. The left can no longer take the “rainbow coalition” of race and gender for granted. If they fail to learn this lesson, the far right is bound to grow stronger, and we will all be worse off.
More from Bloomberg Opinion:
• Here is the Conservative party recess: Adrian Wooldridge
• Meloni’s Ship of State Heads for Troubled Waters: Rachel Sanderson
• Republicans have a lot to fear in November: Ramesh Ponnuru
This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Ian Buruma is Professor of Human Rights at Bard College. His latest book is “The Churchill Complex”.
More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion