Europe’s economic crisis in 2008 was socially disruptive. This might have been expected to lead to increased support for left-wing populist parties that promised to look after voters’ material needs. But instead, it was far-right populists who have won over voters, by promising to restore national sovereignty and govern in the name of the people. This has been true of the National Rally (RN) in France (formerly the National Front), the Dutch Freedom Party (PVV), the Austrian Party for Freedom (FPÖ), the Alternative for Germany (AfD) and the Italian Northern League, among others.

Why did an economic crisis help right-wing parties that stress values rather than left-wing parties that address pocketbook issues? Some argue that increasing immigration and freedom of movement have created value-driven grievances. Others say unemployed and low-income groups see immigrants as a threat to employment or access to welfare. Both of these accounts miss something important. A key factor in explaining the rise of the far right is how citizens view the state. When citizens are content with how the state is doing, they are less likely to support far-right protest parties.

Citizens are unhappy when the government isn’t working well

Citizens interact with state institutions every day. They need to navigate public benefits. They worry about the quality of local hospitals and schools, corruption, neighborhood crime levels, and the conditions determining job security. When citizens see these institutions as legitimate and working well, they are less likely to be discontent with society. These routine interactions with the state shape both the economic and cultural dimensions of discontent.

The far right has risen in Europe because of changes in how citizens view the government. When citizens are critical of the state’s capacity to deliver, they tend to resort to protest. Protest voting implies punishing those who are held responsible, and therefore accountable, for poor policies that lack legitimacy. The “punished” tend to be the incumbent or mainstream parties, associated with existing state policies. When citizens vote for protest parties, they are saying they are unhappy with how the state is working.

This has complex implications for views on immigration

This explains why populist parties appeal to voters who are unhappy with the system. It does not explain how so many far-right parties have successfully appealed to anti-immigrant positions. Some citizens have cultural and economic fears about immigration: They worry about the viability of national “culture” and about unemployment; they worry about crime and terrorism, the welfare state, the quality of the public goods they receive and who may have access to them. Immigration policy therefore affects multiple dimensions of social life and serves for many voters as a litmus test for whether the government is working.

However, not all voters are equally skeptical of immigration. Voters with strong anti-immigrant views are the far right’s core electorate, but to win elections they also need to appeal to voters with more-moderate anti-immigrant views. This is where perceptions of the state come in. Our research shows that as the electorate becomes more content with the government, those with more-moderate views over immigration are less likely to support the far right and have fewer incentives to cast a protest vote. However, even if improving the government drives moderate voters away from the far right, it makes strongly anti-immigrant voters more likely to vote for extreme right-wing parties. This seems like a puzzling finding, but it may suggest these anti-immigrant voters want to restrict access to state benefits so that they are provided only to their own in-group.

Unpopular state institutions make far-right nationalism more appealing to those with both moderate and extreme views on immigration. However, when citizens trust the state, immigration moderates are less likely to support far-right parties. That makes it harder for these parties to appeal to voters outside their regular voting base.

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Daphne Halikiopoulou is associate professor in comparative politics at the University of Reading.

Sofia Vasilopoulou is senior lecturer in politics at the University of York.