Journalist Fareed Zakaria, in his weekly program in the CNN and his article in the Washington Post, established last Sunday a positive correlation between immigration and the right wing populist vote. He cited as evidence a scientific article which is an "empirically motivated theoretical model" presenting it as if it were real empirical evidence. The article is an interesting simulation where the units of analysis are member-states of the EU, and Zakaria supplemented it with examples. Thus he said that in Japan there is minimal immigration and no far right surge, and in Spain immigrants are mostly from Latin America so that they are not felt as really alien and as a consequence there is no far right populism. Although the article by Podobnik et al. cited by Zakaria is interesting because it raises the issue of the importance of non-linearities and tipping points, I am not sure that the same conclusions would be reached with real empirical evidence if we used as units of analysis regions or metropolitan areas. For example, London is the region (or metropolitan area) of the UK with the highest proportion of immigrants, but it has a mayor of Pakistani origin and is a stronghold of the anti-Brexit vote. In Spain, in my city, Barcelona, there are important concentrated groups of Pakistani, Romanian and Chinese migrants, and, although there have been minor racial tensions and some attempts to take political advantage of them (for example by a local leader of the ruling Popular Party, later promoted to regional leader, in the suburban city of Badalona), there is no big surge of racist parties. Therefore, although it is true that right wing racism is not salient in Spain, the main reason may not be that most migrants are from Latin America. Another reason may be that the mental instincts conducive to racism are satisfied by other proposals in the supply side of politics in Spain. Spanish nationalists in the Popular Party (although not exclusively) that inherited a culture of uniform centralized identity satisfy part of these instincts to many voters. Other voters are satisfied by radical nationalism in Catalonia or the Basque Country. Although Basque nationalism has moderated in the recent past, Catalan nationalism has radicalized (with a tipping point around 2012) and has the support of right wing populist parties such as the Northern League in Italy (soon to be renamed as the Nationalist League) or the right wing populists in Finland. The picture that illustrated the last article by Zakaria in the Washington Post had the leader of the Northern League holding a banner with the slogan "Voto Subito" (Vote Now), which is also a usual demand of nationalists and populists in Spain, in our case asking for a referendum of self-determination of some Spanish regions. The emphasis of the neo-populists on direct democracy is also another potential explanation of their modern appeal (and their danger). I completely sympathize with the conclusions of Zakaria in his "take" last Sunday (we should come to accept immigration and manage it wisely), but the details matter if we are serious about making globalization compatible with democracy.
And this is what Aditya Chakrabortty has to say about the Brexit referendum today in The Guardian: "One of the canards about the referendum is that the decisive swing came
from working-class voters furious at high immigration, and that
therefore the primary issue that needs to be resolved in the next few
years is who gets to stay in Britain and how. Whenever I hear that, I
think of the voters I spoke to in south Wales just before the vote.
True, all the leavers volunteered immigration as their main
justification. But the longer we talked, in this area that remains
almost exclusively white, the more it became clear that they were angry
at something else – not the invisible refugees, nor far-off Brussels.
One, Gareth Meek, told me: “I’m angry at the British government. They
sold the country out. There’s nothing we own any more.” A multitude of
frustrations, pushed through a binary vote."