Voices in Opposition: Political Participation of Xenophobes and the Ethnically Discriminated in Europe

by Irina Tomescu-Dubrow, Polish Academy of Sciences and Kazimierz M. Slomczynski, The Ohio State University

In an inclusive and tolerant society that values political equality, expression of political voice is supposed to be open to everyone.

Let’s consider those who feel discriminated for their ethnicity and those who espouse anti-immigrant attitudes, i.e. xenophobes – two groups at the heart of the socio-cultural cleavage common in European democracies. We define the ethno-discriminated as people who feel they were discriminated against based on their culture, ethnicity, religion or language. We define xenophobes as individuals who express the views that immigrants damage the economic, cultural and social fabric of the receiving country.

Ethno-discriminated and xenophobes can be seen as extremes, and form, in principle, minorities in opposition to each other. Yet, scholars have analyzed these groups’ political behaviors separately, that is, either for ethnic minorities, or for persons with anti-immigrant attitudes. Moreover, far more attention is given to ethnic minority participation.

We used the European Social Survey 2012 to examine how these groups engage with two complementary expressions of political voice: attitudes toward key democratic institutions, and political participation.

To understand how the ethno-discriminated and the xenophobes behave politically, we argued that marginalization theory and group conflict theory should be synthesized. We argued that the two groups are similar in some civic domains while quite different in others.

We found clear empirical support for these two hypotheses:

1. On trust in democratic institutions, the effect of belonging to either of these two groups is negative and relatively strong (net of other factors).

2. On political participation, those who feel ethno-discriminated tend to participate more, while xenophobes tend to participate less (in comparison with the wider society).

We found mixed results for a third hypothesis:

3. Feeling discriminated based on ethnicity has a positive influence on working with political parties or other organizations. We also predicted that xenophobes would differ significantly from the ethno-discriminated, but not from the wider society. Yet, we found that, other things equal, xenophobes are engaged in this kind of activity significantly less than the society’s majority.

Other political contextual factors likely influence the democratic engagement of these groups. We suspect that a substantial presence of right-wing parties and the strength of the multicultural environment are key factors that would determine how the ethno-discriminated and the xenophobes participate.

In political campaign seasons, right-wing parties hold political rallies that attract the xenophobic and repel the ethno-discriminated. Once in government, right-wing parties use legitimate democratic platforms – parliamentary debates, for example – to publicly express their worldviews. Both situations attract media attention and thus right wing parties can use newspapers, television, radio and Internet to broadcast xenophobia. This environment would likely encourage expression of relatively unpopular, anti-immigrant policy preferences in either forums of public discourse – such as lawful demonstrations – or to work directly with the right-wing political organizations.

The extent to which this environment discourages the democratic engagement of the ethno-discriminated depends on the countervailing multiculturalist forces that already exist in the political environment (e.g. the strength of pro-immigrant left-wing parties and the country’s recent history in promoting multiculturalism and fighting xenophobia).

This article is based on the chapter, “Democratic Engagement of Xenophobes and the Ethno-Discriminated in Europe,” in Political Inequality in an Age of Democracy: Cross-national Perspectives, edited by Joshua K. Dubrow (Routledge 2015).

Irina Tomescu-Dubrow is an Associate Professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Kazimierz M. Slomczynski is Professor Emeritus at The Ohio State University.

xenophobia