Immigration Fuels the International Rise of Populist Right-Wing Parties


In the last five years, populist right-wing parties have been elected to rule or effectively control major legislatures in these six stable European democracies: Italy, Netherlands, Slovakia, Spain, and Sweden. In every instance, the ruling liberal and conservative party coalitions lost seats and the control of their legislative bodies. 

Opposition to what was characterized as “excessive” immigration was a consistent theme in the rise of right-wing governments. Other issues, varying by country, also contributed to their victories, but all parties trumpeted a strong anti-immigration message.

Spain’s Vox Party has just become its third-biggest party. After 42 years of government controlled by the center-right Popular Party and the center-left Socialist Workers’ Party coalitions, support from the far-right wing Vox Party is now necessary to pass national policies. Vox strongly opposes Muslim immigration, even though the number of actual Spanish Muslims is relatively low. Nevertheless, Vox ran a video of an imaginary news report on the imposition of sharia law in southern Spain and the conversion of the cathedral of Cordoba into a mosque.

Italy’s recent elections saw the Brothers of Italy emerge this fall and have their leader, Giorgia Meloni, become the Prime Minister. She is militantly anti-migrant, calling for a naval blockade against illegal migrants and saying the battle against immigration is “an epochal battle for Italy and Europe.”

Holland’s anti-immigration Party for Freedom (PVV) won the most seats of any party this November, though not a majority. All four parties of the incumbent coalition government suffered substantial losses. Geert Wilders, leader of PVV, says Holland should “stop the immigration to our societies — because we have had more than enough Islam in our societies.” He called for “a total halt to accepting asylum-seekers.”

Sweden’s far-right party, Sweden Democrats (SD), became the second largest party in their legislature after the 2022 general election. The country’s ruling center-right coalition needs SD to stay in power. In return, SD wants to exclude Sweden from the European Union’s process of relocating asylum refugees. Their party leader, Jimmie Akesson, says that Sweden’s “extreme immigration policies” have “shattered” Swedish society.

Slovakia’s right-wing populist SMER party won the largest vote in their October general elections, making its leader, Robert Fico, the country’s Prime Minister. He calls the EU’s migration policies a failure and says that the majority of EU citizens fully disagree with them.

Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign attacked migration as mostly illegal or unnecessary, and his subsequent victory was seen as a model for other right-wing leaders to emulate. Spain’s Vox leader even ran under the banner of “Make Spain Great Again.” 

This recent round of right-wing victories seems to have energized Trump to rev up his attack on immigration. Will it drive enough conservative populist votes for him to win in 2024? He told the Republican Jewish Coalition that on day one of his new administration, he would revive the ban on seven Arab nations to stop terrorists from entering the U.S.  

However, Trump did not include Saudi Arabia, which provided 15 of the 19 men affiliated with the Islamist jihadist organization al-Qaeda that executed the September 11 attacks on America. None of the other terrorists from that attack came from the seven countries being banned. 

Just as Trump’s banning of Muslim immigrants misses the mark in providing effective security, so too is his attacking South American immigrants as conveyors of fentanyl. The Libertarian-conservative Cato Institute notes that the Mexican Border Patrol found only 0.02 percent of migrants illegally crossing possessed fentanyl. That would be 279 out of 1.8 million migrants.

Given the above facts, it’s evident that banning Mexican or Arab immigrants to make America safe does not work. So what are these demands supposed to accomplish?  The answer can be found in every country where citizens vote right-wing parties into power. Such demands focus on a visible enemy to blame for the public’s discontent with their political and social conditions. 

Trump and the European right-wing parties have generated popular support by championing easy solutions and a clearly defined scapegoat group responsible for their problems. Within a democratic republic, this has been a good strategy for winning votes regardless of the lack of proof in identifying the enemy’s guilt. 

Stopping the surge of immigrants has been at the forefront of this strategy in these countries.  There are accompanying messages highlighting that families are being ignored or threatened. All the right-wing electoral victories in Europe and the U.S. blame the established parties for endangering families. Protecting family values means passing laws that strip away the individual’s right to abort births, change their sexual identity, marry a person of the same gender, or practice a non-Christian religion. 

There are ample quotes from the leaders of these parties and politicians who lament the growth of liberal policies threatening family values.  In the past, these liberal policies were often accepted by conservatives as necessary changes to protect individual rights. However, the opposition to these policies has grown among conservatives and independents.  This is due to media campaigns buttressing radical actions to guarantee that a nation’s traditional Christian family values are not displaced. 

For example, liberals are blamed for permitting school libraries to carry books and teachers to teach topics concerning sex, gender, and racial issues. Extracts from new and classical schoolbooks are used to show how the youth are being corrupted by writing about these issues in a secular manner without referencing moral values.

The most recent example is Florida Governor DeSantis’s growing list of books banned in public schools. According to a new report by the national free speech group PEN America, Florida has more than double the bans of No. 2 Texas. DeSantis defends these bans as protecting students from “woke indoctrination in schools.”

The right-wing populist movements begin with opposing migration but also imbed the protection of Christian values, and the third element is identifying the protection of personal freedoms being dependent on protecting a free-market capitalist economy from government intervention. Every one of these movements attacks government interference that hinders the freedom of businesses to prosper.

In the case of Italy, Georgia Meloni, leader of the Brothers of Italy, suggests that the government colludes with corporations and financial speculators to initiate “wokeism.” She believes big businesses make money from wokeism while the government expands its control over its citizens.  

Each of the right-wing political movements identifies three evils that are ruining their wholesome, tradition-bound societies. First, migration reduces the services and security of the current residents. Second, Christian family values are being weakened by emphasizing individual rights that often conflict with those values. Third, the expansion of government leads to families, communities, and businesses losing their freedom to exercise their traditional rights and advantages. 

These right-wing populist concerns are not undemocratic in themselves. However, frustration in resolving these concerns tips the public toward a more authoritarian solution, such as concentrating power in the government’s executive office. Popular support builds for wanting a leader who halts societal changes and returns the country to a prior time when these evils did not exist.

We are seeing in the rise of right-wing populist movements demanding political power a conflict between their demands to reverse societal changes and the nature of democratic institutions. Democracies move slowly in making radical adjustments, whether to the left or the right.  These movements seek to halt the government from carrying out its function to deliberate and compromise objectives from competing social groups and institutional organizations. That is a slow and tedious exercise. 

Lastly, one group takes advantage of the far-right populist movements to achieve their own agenda: those with the greatest wealth concentration. On one hand, they do not seek radical changes because it could disrupt the marketplace and endanger their investments. On the other hand, they can use the leverage of this large voting constituency to trim government regulations that restrict their profits.

The wealthiest sector has no practical affinity for Evangelical or Fundamentalist Christians; in fact, they may personally be secularists. But they are willing to fund them to the extent that they help shrink the government’s oversight over businesses or wealthy investors.  Case in point, we see Christian Fundamentalist politicians, like House Speaker Mike Johnson, stripping funds from the IRS to collect tax evasion from the most affluent, as I have previously described in Eliminate some Tax Laws.

Dismissing discussions and rushing to unsupported judgments will curtail citizens’ constitutional rights. The problem of immigration must be resolved. That will necessitate some dramatic compromises from both sides of the political spectrum. Unless Democrats remove this issue from the clutches of right-wing Republicans, they will lose elections in the fall of this coming year. 

Liberals cannot dismiss the rise of the right-wing populist movements in Europe and the U.S. as a conspiracy of the wealthy few, although they often fund them. Nevertheless, these movements magnify concerns that are already present.  And they must be addressed within the existing democratic laws and institutions. 

Failing that task, the right wing will continue to push for overturning the democratic norms of tolerating diversity in thought, ethnicity, and personal practices. It will take pragmatic and bold leadership to halt this slide into a society that will not be seen as a land of the free. 

Nick Licata
Nick Licata
Nick Licata, was a 5 term Seattle City Councilmember, named progressive municipal official of the year by The Nation, and is founding board chair of Local Progress, a national network of 1,000 progressive municipal officials. Author of Becoming a Citizen Activist. Subscribe to Licata’s newsletter Urban Politics


  1. Nick,

    Why don’t you offer some practical solutions from the Democratic side instead of simply complaining that the Right is winning?

    Your entire article is about laments that the Right and yet you don’t offer & advocate any Democratic suggestions.
    Maybe no wonder that the Right wing is doing so well.

    What IS the Democratic position?

    You may not intend it, but your article is a vivid example of the Democratic Party’s failure. You don’t even articulate a Democratic program. Is there one? That’s a sincere question.

  2. I came here to ask somewhat the same question, though my context is different because I read the article as a sort of hint to the … let’s say Jayapal wing of the Democratic party. More bluntly than he put it, they aren’t going to get what they want on immigration, because Americans don’t want that.

    Or … do they? Do they have a practical, workable policy direction that Americans could confidently support as a sustainable way forward? Maybe some readers could weigh in on this.

    In my view, the current situation at the border with Mexico is not a short term problem. South and Central America are going to continue to slide downhill, the US and Canada aren’t going to do anything significant about it, and there will be a constant massive hemorrhage of refugees taking a chance on migration.

    I think in most people’s view, the US already has enough people. It isn’t in our interest, practically speaking, to absorb all the world’s huddled masses yearning to breathe free. I think the popular perception of Jayapal’s direction is that we ought to, anyway, on humanitarian grounds. That is sure to boost the Republicans’ popularity. I think that’s how it has been going in Europe. People see France struggling with their immigrant population, just for example, and they don’t need this.

    If there’s more to it – a way to deal with the massive flow of migrants to the Mexican border and from other parts of the world, that will not just put a burden on the country, then we should hear about it in those terms, and maybe that will make it easier to isolate the racism and the like that lies behind some of the anti-immigration sentiment.

  3. This is a frightening catalog of fear-induced discrimination against non-white, non-Christian immigrants being scapegoated for America’s social problems, which are few and less severe than in most of the developed world.

    Blaming immigrants and Muslims and nonbinary citizens for Western democracies’ social ills is reminiscent of Hitler’s demonizing of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and other marginalized groups for Weimar Germany’s economic woes. We know where that led.

    We are a nation of immigrants, except for the indigenous who are woefully underrepresented at all levels of leadership. Our country’s needs fresh injections of multicultural and religiously diverse communities to stay competitive, creative and economically prosperous.

    I couldn’t disagree more with the previous comments suggesting anti-immigrant bias is a reaction to failure of liberal government to stem the tide of those fleeing oppression and dysfunctional societies. I think few of us can look back more than a couple generations to claim a right to citizenship and opportunity that we now want to deny to others similarly driven out of their native lands.

    • And in the larger picture, what do Western refuges do for the oppression and dysfunction in the world?

      Not to discount the horrors of many of these societies and the plight of those stuck there, but there is such a thing as consent of the governed. For example, would Russia be any different today if everyone had to stay? Young conscriptable men, people in general who can’t stand what’s going on there? As people flee, who’s left to bring about any change, or is it supposed to get better on its own so everyone can come back?

  4. Nick, I may have been overly harsh. The problem is not so much yours as the editors’.

    Rather than a conclusion — and I bet very few people actually read all the way through — your article should have started this way:

    “The problem of immigration must be resolved.…Unless Democrats remove this issue from the clutches of right-wing Republicans, they will lose elections in the fall of this coming year….Liberals cannot dismiss the rise of the right-wing populist movements in Europe and the U.S. as a conspiracy of the wealthy few…”

    Written that way your article makes tremendous sense, though I still would like to hear your specifics.

  5. Nick, I may have been overly harsh. The problem is not so much yours as the editors’.

    Rather than a conclusion — and I bet very few people actually read all the way through — your article should have started this way with the exact words you use:

    “The problem of immigration must be resolved.…Unless Democrats remove this issue from the clutches of right-wing Republicans, they will lose elections in the fall of this coming year….Liberals cannot dismiss the rise of the right-wing populist movements in Europe and the U.S. as a conspiracy of the wealthy few…”

    Written that way your article makes tremendous sense, though I still would like to hear your specifics.


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