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A few months ago, I managed a focus group exploring attitudes towards climate with young Spanish progressives from urban centers. Whenever I manage focus groups, I like to begin with the question “what are the most important issues facing the country today?” An open question to see what topics, concerns, and issues emerge. What is the mood and what is moving people, without us guiding the conversation? As a group of young men and women, most of them with university degrees, living in Madrid, Barcelona, Valencia, Sevilla, etc., what worried them the most was what I expected: jobs, decent pay, access to decent housing. They feared the rise of the far right. They worried about the war in Ukraine.  

And then, someone brought up the “MENAs,” just using the acronym, no further explanation needed, which stands for “menores no acompañados,” unaccompanied minors in Spanish. They shared their concerns around MENA criminality, acknowledging this as an issue that needs to be addressed.

At first, I didn’t make anything out of  this common (and unfortunate) reflection. And then it dawned on me. This rhetoric, connecting MENAs to crime in an association that becomes automatic, embodies the biggest success of today’s far right. You don’t need a far-right actor to express far right ideas. Some of their ideas have become so embedded in the collective imagination that they do not require us to engage our rational mind. It’s felt in the body. Your mind goes there immediately.

If migration is the key topic of modern authoritarian populists, the Spanish far right party has not been an exception in promoting anti-immigrant sentiment. Rhetorically, they have unrelentingly framed unaccompanied minor migrants as criminals in insistent and odious campaigns. Now, for many not on the far right, including some young progressives, this acronym immediately brings up fears rather than compassion or solidarity. 

This is the frame that dominates, whether the far right is in the room or not. Far-right ideas have become detached from far-right actors. 

[As a side note, this strategy of tying a group to a threat can be effectively transposed, as we now see it utilized to scapegoat the trans community. Through repetition, the far right has managed to situate the conversation on transgender rights within the terrain of criminality. In a perverse twist, the security of trans people has become a conversation about the threat that they pose to the security of the nation.] 

Far Right Ideas Go Mainstream

According to renowned populism scholar Cass Mudde, we are currently in the fourth wave of populism, which is characterized by the mainstreaming of far-right ideology, politics, and organizations, and has made “the borders between the radical right and the mainstream right–and in some case left, as in the Czech Republic and Denmark–more and more difficult to establish.” In his words, “radical right politics has become largely detached from populist radical right parties.” Many other political actors now advance authoritarian, nativist, populist discourse and adopt othering as a recursive strategy. 

We see this at different levels, but nowhere as clearly as within European immigration policy,  including events that have developed over recent weeks.

Migration Discourse and Policy Gone Far Right

Immigration has been the gateway issue for far-right discourse into the mainstream. In Europe, the far right has been so successful in shaping narratives that they have fundamentally altered EU discourse and the philosophy that underpins its migration strategies. 

Migration policy in the EU is now anchored in securitization (foregrounding a migration-threat nexus) and outsourcing (shifting responsibility to third countries), both of which have severe implications for the lives of migrants but also for the future of democracies, which are increasingly abandoning their commitment to human rights (see this piece by Hans Kundnani on the myths that underpin European identity). As a result of this approach, the central Mediterranean is now considered the deadliest migratory route in the world. And not by nature but by design. EU policies by action or omission lead to death. 

One of the pillars of the new European approach to migration consists of closing deals with authoritarian regimes—but hey, in a “Team Europe spirit” (their words, not mine). In July, the EU concluded a “political agreement on a comprehensive partnership package” with Tunisia, whose government does not hesitate to promote the great replacement theory (but instead of migrants, they target Black Africans) and is increasingly expelling migrants into the desert without food or water and using police brutality against activists. The disregard for migrants’ lives is not concealed.  

In the coming months, we can expect similar deals with other authoritarian governments. In late July, Italian far-right leader Giorgia Meloni, “has invited authoritarian rulers from across the Middle East and North Africa to gather in Rome on July 23, alongside some European governments and representatives of international financial institutions” to “lay the groundwork for similar deals to the one struck with Tunisia, hailed by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen as a “blueprint” for the region.”

In the same way that the far right’s migration frames get refashioned and recycled for the mainstream, the same seems to occur with far-right leaders. In late August, the Italian government blocked the OpenArms rescue vessel “with a 20-day administrative embargo and a fine of 10,000 euros for rescuing 196 people in 3 rescue operations in international waters of the central Mediterranean. Despite having rescued and provided assistance to more than 1,274 people in dozens of interventions, now they apply the Meloni Decree, which limits rescues to one and hinders the protection of lives in danger at sea.” After outcry before the Italian election, Meloni is being rebranded into a perfectly palatable politician (including by the Biden administration, which decries similar policies when it comes to Trump). 

Turning to Climate?

Far right frames have triumphed on migration, undeniably. What I wonder is: will the same happen on climate?

I thought it was much harder. Now I’m not so convinced. 

Having done research across Europe on climate attitudes, I retained cautious optimism, as the public generally has views supportive of tackling climate change.

Living in the UK for five years, the conservative mobilization for climate—shortcomings and all—made me feel hopeful. David Attenborough is considered a national treasure. Environmentalism has always been a cause close to King Charles’ heart. Though far from perfect (and who is?), conservatives wanted to lead on climate change action. I thought that maybe that model of non-partisan climate leadership, or rather, political competition based on who’d be better for the environment, rather than on pro- and against-, would be improved upon and replicated elsewhere (it is my personal belief that there is no confronting the climate crisis without bridging across ideologies).

In Europe, the European Union has been hyperactive on climate legislation (again, shortcomings and all). Until recently, as reported in the Financial Times, “Europe’s largest political party [the center-right European People's Party] fought the last election almost as environmentalists, championing the EU’s ambitious plan to cut emissions and nourish nature. The bloc’s Green Deal was its ‘man on the moon moment’,” said the centre-right European People’s Party in 2019.”

But now, things have started to shift.

In 2019, the UK was the first wealthy country to adopt a net zero target under the Boris Johnson administration. But today, the current conservative government is abandoning that landmark conservative goal, while the British Prime Minister grants new licenses for oil and gas drilling and reframes his parties’ stance on climate through a binary lens of climate versus the economy. 

In June 2022, EU Commission president Ursula Von der Leyer proposed the Nature Restoration Bill as part of Europe’s Green New Deal. But a year later, the Nature Restoration Bill was opposed by her own party, the EPP, which promoted the idea that the bill “would threaten the traditional livelihoods of European farmers and fishers, disrupt long-established supply chains, decrease food production, push prices up for consumers and even wipe out urban areas to make way for green spaces.” This discourse, widely discredited by the scientific community, very much parrots the divisive speech the far right is using in several European countries to exploit tensions between urban and rural dwellers on climate mitigation policies. The EPP is now leaning more towards a moratorium on new environmental regulations. 

While European conservatives are taking steps back, the far right still does not have a unitary position on climate, but the different actors that fall within this movement continue making moves. 

On August 14th, Le Monde opened its Sunday newspaper with the title “L’écologie, ce nouveau clivage politique que le Rassemblement national compte exploiter,” or “Ecology, the new political divide that the National Rally intends to exploit.” The French far-right party Rassemblement National’s (National Rally in English) is leaning heavily on creating a fracture between urban and rural areas and espousing what they call a climate policy of common sense as opposed to a “punitive climate policy” (« écologie du bon sens », which is also the sentence that the leader American Conservative Climate Caucus kept repeating in this interview). This idea of common sense is core to populist ideology. As scholar Catherine Fieschi writes in her book Populocracy, “populism singles out the ordinariness of the people” and “the extraordinary powers come from ordinary common sense.”

Further south, the far-right Spanish party Vox is struggling to find its way on climate. In their 2023 general election manifesto they had an entire section dedicated to “Green Spain,” which emphasized that nature needs to be subjugated to humans and that industry has precedence over climate, in line with its rhetoric against the “climate lobby” that is trying to impose upon the interests of the people. 

Are the changes amongst mainstream conservatives indications of a change of minds on climate? Will the mainstreaming of ideas emerging on the far right become the norm, as it happened with migration? And how does that happen?

Meaning Makers 

A common mantra in campaigning and organizing—especially since the Brexit and Trump election—is that you need to meet people where they are at. No doubt about that (I recommend this piece on the matter). But what happens when most people are in no specific place? Or have loose, ambiguous ideas? Most people go on about their days, not thinking about net zero or the many steps involved in an asylum procedure. And yet these topics can become the center of heated discussions. 

How does that happen? 

Disentangling whether it is a bottom-up phenomenon, where far-right leaders can capture existing sentiment, or top-down, where they drive opinion, is perhaps a worthwhile but futile exercise, the reality too complicated to disentangle with a bunch of regressions. But through a multipronged strategy, the far right makes sure that there are intellectuals and cultural entrepreneurs that further its project. Meaning-makers in action. 

Some make no secret of their goal to interpret reality to further the far-right agenda. To cite US individuals, Steven Bannon or Tucker Carlson are prominent examples who have been in the limelight (and notably, they both make efforts to internationalize the nativist project and exchange practices, even if they do not succeed entirely). Yet others come to mind who may shape the far right movement moving forward in the US and—given the country’s cultural prominence—also abroad.

Christopher F. Rufo is a self-described writer, filmmaker, and activist who has an incredibly prolific blog dedicated to “leading the fight against the left-wing ideological regime.” He recently spent some time in Hungary to learn how the country is “attempting to rebuild its culture and institutions, from schools to universities to media” as “a model for a new conservatism that asserts national sovereignty and uses state power to support families, civil society, and national identity.” 

Others, such as Candace Owens, find success as political and cultural commentators through a personal brand that relies on inserting their ideas amongst non-political content that many find attractive. As reported in this profile at the Bulwark:

“It is this duality of Candace—the softcore life advice intertwined with hardcore cultural warfare—that makes her more disquieting than your median MAGA podcaster. Her show is not targeted at hyper-attuned political nerds who want to follow the latest poll movements. It’s not for fully formed ideologues who know their way around Hayek. She doesn’t do talking points about the outrage of the day for boomers who want to win arguments on The Facebook.”

Candace will go from sharing tips on how to wake up earlier to sharing her reactions to Trump's mugshot (he looks cool! Punk rock!) and sharing with her audience how Black Americans are (according to her) reacting to Trump’s latest indictment (he’s a brother now! The justice department has been making up charges against innocent Black men for years, they are doing it to Trump now, he’s one of us!). 

Ideas travel, resonate, and evolve, especially when promoted by charismatic actors. Events always have cultural translators, sensemaking

Anti-immigrant sentiment has been nurtured, cultivated.  

The role that meaning-makers have in other domains has also been studied. For example, scholar Philip Ayoub published a paper in 2014 examining how LGBTQ norms came to be perceived as a threat in Poland but not in Slovenia through the role and cultural influence of the Catholic church. In Poland, where the Catholic church has a significant role, the church helped promote the notion that LGBTQ rights undermined the nation and traditional families. In the same vein that this religious institution acted as a meaning maker of norms that were quickly evolving, other institutions can help make sense of other issues and events. 

What will happen to climate change policies and narratives? And who will be the most important meaning-makers? 

I want to have hope, but I also know that it cannot be left to luck.

In Other News…

How committed to democratic values are Europeans, really?

The far-right German party Alternative fur Deutschland is now second in the polls. In this newsletter, Adam Tooze unpacks what’s behind the surge. In summary: “There has not been a general shift to the right. In addition to a base of far-right wing support, which makes up 15 percent of the population, the AfD is attracting a protest vote that takes it to slightly more than 20 percent support. This is driven by dissatisfaction with migration policy and a general fear of societal crisis.”

Elon Musk’s profile at the New Yorker. Highly recommend reading “Elon Musk’s Shadow Rule”.

Some days I feel I am living in a dystopian world: “Contested memory in Giorgia Meloni’s Italy: how her far-right party is waging a subtle campaign to commemorate fascist figure.” Apparently now the category of “fascism” is now a weapon of mass exclusion. RIGHT. “Since its foundation a decade ago, Brothers of Italy has made the memory of the Italian far right and commemoration of its victims a priority. The party advocates for a broad national memory culture that even honors former fascists, dissolving the fascist-antifascist binary upon which the democratic republic was built.” As an aside, the Italian Social Movement that she wants to praise in Italian has the acronym MSI, which is actually said to stand for Mussolini sei immortale.

I just learned about the concept of Cognitive Liberty and it makes a lot of sense to me. 

And for the Soul…

From “brain drain” to “brain gain” and “brain circulation”, “Kofi Ansah left Ghana to become a world famous fashion designer - how his return home boosted the industry.”

Connecting the Dots: Musings on Bridging and Belonging is a monthly column by Míriam Juan-Torres. In it, Míriam reflects on current events, connecting the trends and considering the specificities across countries, applying a bridging and belonging lens and translating concepts from academia for a wider audience. In Connecting the Dots, Míriam carefully curates readings and resources to further expand our understanding and shed light on the complexities of our time. Join our mailing list to stay up to date on the latest of the Democracy & Belonging Forum's curated analysis from Miriam and more.

Editor's note: The ideas expressed in this blog are not necessarily those of the Othering & Belonging Institute or UC Berkeley, but belong to the author.