Those Were the Days: Welfare Nostalgia and the Populist Radical Right

This blog is based on an article in the Journal of International and Comparative Social Policy by Sven Schreurs. Click here to access the article.

With the ascendancy and normalisation of populist radical right parties (PRRPs) in Europe and beyond, the significance of these parties for social policy has come into the spotlight. The key notion in this field of study is ‘welfare chauvinism’, which denotes a preference for (high) social protection for ‘deserving’ native citizens and opposition to welfare provision for outsiders, e.g. immigrants and ‘lazy’ benefit recipients. Since being first identified in Norway and Denmark in 1990, this tendency has been echoed by PRRPs of all stripes, which have dropped their earlier neoliberal rhetoric and adopted positions that are (ostensibly) more pro-welfare.

What is striking about the welfare chauvinist rhetoric that these parties use is that it seems to be underpinned by a shared nostalgic view of the past, present and future of the welfare state: a somewhat vague but recurrent notion that social policy used to be fair, effective and well-organised, but has ‘gone to the dogs’ in recent years. This resonates, and indeed ties in easily, with a broader nostalgic interpretation of (national) history; as many commentators and academics have highlighted, PRRPs single out the perceived loss of national sovereignty and declining moral values as key political problems facing their societies.

But how much do these parties actually have in common in their nostalgic understanding of the welfare state and its history? There is virtually no literature that systematically examines their historical ‘vision’ of welfare policy; most claims about the subject are based on casual observations. My paper provides an in-depth analysis of the nostalgic frames and claims in the manifestos, campaign videos and speeches of three PRRPs: the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), the Sweden Democrats (SD) and the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ). While these are all committed to a welfare chauvinist agenda, they operate within different social policy regimes, which might entail different memories of the welfare state.

As expected, my analysis finds that the parties converge in their nostalgic ‘diagnosis’ of the welfare state and its problems. All of them suggest recurrently that the collective provision of social welfare has deteriorated in recent decades. In this view, the postwar decades represent the glory days of the welfare state, marked by reciprocity, cohesion and trust among citizens. Through hard work and cooperation, these societies achieved ‘a welfare and a solidarity that did not know its equal’, as the PVV put it in 2010. SD is most vocal in its nostalgia for this ‘solidaristic’ past, relying heavily on the powerful trope of the folkhem or ‘people’s home’.

In the same narrative, the ‘good old days’ end around the 1980s. Career politicians – and social democrats especially – are blamed for this turnaround. Allegedly, they have prioritised their own interests and favoured multiculturalism and European integration over the well-being of ‘our own people’. In particular, they have betrayed the ‘reconstruction generation’, i.e. the present-day pensioners who ‘built up’ the welfare state after the war.

However, there are marked differences in the ‘prognosis’ the parties put forward: how can the ‘welfare paradise lost’ be reclaimed for current and future generations? I identify three ways in which the parties frame the connection between the past and the future in their rhetoric:

SD invokes the frame of nostalgic modernisation: the idea that welfare state institutions must be adapted to the demands of the current age, even if the achievements and ambitions of past generations provide a source of inspiration. Calling for a ‘modernised’ people’s home, the party advocates a legal and administrative overhaul of the welfare state, including the private delivery of care, a relaxation of employment protection and reform of the employment services.

In contrast, the PVV frames its welfare agenda from a purely retrospective perspective, which I term nostalgic reaction. The party does not talk about policy reform and concentrates on the maintenance of social provisions in their ‘original’ form. Its social policy plans are limited to a reversal of recent cuts and reforms.

The welfare nostalgia of the FPÖ – designated as nostalgic conservation – takes a middle position between SD and PVV. While the party does emphasise the preservation and expansion of pensions and family allowances, it less explicit about its desire to return to the past. It appears to suggest that the best way of preserving the welfare state is to keep things (largely) as they are. The FPÖ does not indicate the need for welfare state reform, except for excluding ‘those who can help themselves, but do not want to do so’ from collective social provisions.

The observed variety in welfare nostalgia does not seem to track national differences in welfare policy, but rather to reflect parties’ positioning in the domestic political landscape. SD’s commitment to ‘modernisation’ cannot be understood in isolation from its efforts at political normalisation, seeking to establish itself as an affiliate of the bloc of centre-right parties. In contrast, the PVV has operated at the margins of Dutch politics since ending its support for a right-of-centre government following a conflict over pension cuts. The FPÖ again takes a more ambiguous position, wavering between radicalisation and office-seeking.

In short, PRRPs in Sweden, Austria and the Netherlands have expressed their welfare chauvinist agenda through a common ‘welfare-nostalgic’ rhetoric, yet they provide different prescriptions with regard to the future of collective welfare provision. In other words, the fact that a party is nostalgic about the welfare state tells us little about its policy commitments. Thus, we should not understand welfare nostalgia as a social policy agenda, but as a discursive repertoire on which parties can draw to ‘sell’ welfare chauvinist positions to their public.

This nostalgic language might resonate well with the electorates which PRRPs target. Yet we  know little about how citizens imagine the ‘welfare past’ and interpret the nostalgic rhetoric of politicians. Nor is welfare nostalgia likely to be unique to the populist radical right; the mainstream parties and left-wing challengers may also rely on a romantic reading of welfare state history. It would thus be fruitful to further study the production and reception of welfare nostalgia and its impact on social policy-making.

About the author

Sven Schreurs is a doctoral researcher at the European University Institute.


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