Non-Voters and Right-Wing Populism

"Voting" (CC BY-SA 2.0) by justgrimes

The fact that an increasing number of citizens are feeling disaffected with democratic politics is particularly worrisome against the backdrop of the rise of right-wing populism. This article presents a differentiated analysis of this notoriously difficult-to-study group, and envisions strategies to fight right-wing populists.

Multiple Crises and Monocausal Explanations

When talking about democratic crises, several things come to mind: the post-democratic degeneration of democracy (Crouch 2008); the dysfunctionality of political systems; the dangers of the return of nationalism, extremism and fundamentalism; the financial crisis, debt crisis and currency crisis, which have had a lasting effect on our democracies; and, last but not least, citizens’ dissatisfaction with the functioning of democracy and a deep-rooted confidence crisis in politics.

We have reached a point where we are confronted with fundamental questions. Firstly, the question is whether democratic systems and democratically legitimate actors have the capacity and the will to defy the forces of global markets and to re-implement the primacy of politics. ‘The global firm’, as Crouch names the centre of economic power, overcame national borders long ago, whilst spheres of activity and the power of democratic institutions remain comparatively limited. Secondly, global migration movements raise the question of who should have access to political rights. Thirdly, the decline in electoral participation and the lack of confidence in the establishment and its institutions challenges the quality of democracy in general. The last issue may seem the least pressing one, but is of fundamental importance. Hence, this article focuses particularly on disaffected citizens and the linkage to the rise of right-wing populism.

With regards to explaining the rise of right-wing populism, simple answers are widespread

There is a problematic tendency in current political and scientific discussions: all undertakers of serious participatory research know that it is extremely difficult to explain citizens’ political preferences and decisions. People with similar socioeconomic characteristics in terms of age, education and income choose de facto different political options and vote for different parties. We are confronted with complex interdependencies and hence monocausal explanations do not work. If, however, we discuss symptoms of the current crisis in democracy and, in particular, right-wing populism, such simple answers are widespread. The growing strength of right-wing populism in Germany is often explained, for example, by the so-called ‘refugee crisis’, the policies of Chancellor Merkel, the diffuse fears of anxious citizens, or the failure of the established parties. Yet even if these answers are of a certain plausibility, they ultimately fall short.

Standby and Unplugged Citizens

Political research has coined the term standby citizens for a specific group of non-voters. These citizens do not participate actively, but rather, according to Ekman and Amnå (2012), they use latent forms of political participation. “This notion of latency is based on the simple observation that citizens actually do a lot of things that may not be (…) classified as ‘political participation’, but at the same time could be of great significance for future political activities” (Ekman/Amnå 2012: 287). They are attentive to political processes, are politically well informed and have a sense of belonging to a collective with a distinct political profile or agenda. Currently, we cannot quantify how many non-voters are in standby mode. And we also do not know how many of them are receptive to right-wing populist ideas. Yet it is clear that the media plays a central role for standby citizens. Media discourses and reports influence whether they remain in their standby mode or decide to “switch on”, i.e. to actively participate in politics in a specific situation.

Media discourses influence whether standby citizens decide to ‘switch on’

At present, there is much discussion of so-called post-truth politics (Keyes 2004), which designates the phenomena of facts in political discourse being replaced by illusions, falsehoods, partial truths, subjective perceptions and lies. In addition, a ‘right to one’s own facts’ is claimed by equating facts with opinions. This dangerous mix for democracy and political culture ultimately results in the emotional recharging of these illusions, lies and pseudo-facts, and causes increasingly destructive hatred instead of positive emotional passions. In this respect, I believe that standby citizens are a potential target group for post-truth politics, conspiracy theories and the claims of the so-called “Lügenpresse” (fake news).

In my comparative analysis on non-voters in Europe, I identified another specific type of non-voter: the unplugged citizen (de Nève 2009). Despite being electorate citizens, they renounce any form of political participation and let others decide on all relevant policies. In fact, unplugged citizens are not only politically apathetic, but retreat into the private sphere and do not participate in surveys. However, my preliminary results suggest that this is not a group characterized by a stronger tendency towards antidemocratic attitudes when compared with active citizens.

The greatest danger arises from having economically, socially, culturally, and politically suspended citizens

However, when unplugged citizens are also socio-economically disadvantaged, this creates a dangerous mix for liberal democracies. There exists a relatively clear-cut group of citizens excluded from political participation by means of informal exclusion and self-exclusion mechanisms. This presents the danger of a gap in representation accruing, which in fact minimizes the quality of democracy and the legitimacy of the political system. In our current political discourse, it is often said that citizens feel suspended. This framing is wrong. It is not a mere feeling of being suspended; rather, the unplugged citizens are in fact economically, socially, culturally, and politically suspended.

New strategies to face new challenges

In order to formulate sound mid-term to long-term strategies against right-wing populism, researchers and politicians should take the different types of political abstinence into account. We are hence in need of new or different methods of empirical research, as conventional survey research has reached its limits. Right-wing populism cannot be combatted with short-term political campaigns and a demonisation of the political opponent. Its success is based on the combination of different political strategies on the one hand and the acceptance of a right-wing populist agenda amongst the people on the other. Established instruments for fighting right-wing populism, such as political education, marginalisation, ignoring and discrediting, observation, or criminal laws are currently either not effective, of limited success, or even dysfunctional.

Progressive politics must focus on the issues that right-wing populists successfully claim for themselves, such as direct democracy and politics and religion

Which strategic points of intervention for progressive policies against right-wing populism can be identified? A successful fight against populism must break the growing populist hegemony in relevant discourses both qualitatively and quantitatively. We need to create spaces for counter politics. Political institutions and actors must actively support the political opponents of right-wing populism. An agenda for progressive politics must be established, which focuses on the issues that right-wing populists successfully claim for themselves. This applies above all to the issues of direct democracy, politics and religion, immigration, gender and LGBTIQ*. We need to set the agenda for forgotten minorities such as singles and non-religious citizens. We urgently need ideas and strategies to solve problems in relation to social inclusion, Eastern Germany, unemployment insurance, pensions etc. We need new measures to build long-term, sustainable trust. And beyond simply criticising the status quo, we need new visions for our society to successfully push back right-wing populism.



CROUCH, C. (2008). Postdemokratie. Berlin, Suhrkamp.

EKMAN, J., & AMNÅ, E. (2012). Political participation and civic engagement: Towards a new typology. Human Affairs : Postdisciplinary Humanities & Social Sciences Quarterly. 22, 283-300.

KEYES, R. (2004). The post-truth era: dishonesty and deception in contemporary life. New York, St. Martin’s Press.

NÈVE, D. D. (2009). NichtwählerInnen – eine Gefahr für die Demokratie? Opladen, Budrich.