Countering the Radical Right

How the far right took over the mainstream

While white male voters tend to still make up a large proportion of far-right parties and right-wing extremist organisations in Europe, a more worrying problem exists.

James Downes
24 September 2020
Rassemblement National President Marine Le Pen. 1 May 2020
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Picture by Lafargue Raphael/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images. All rights reserved
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The ‘mainstreaming’ effect of far-right discourse on key issues such as immigration in global politics, particularly by ‘mainstream’ centre right parties has important implications for the future of liberal democracy in global politics.

In European politics, extensive statistical research has demonstrated that male working class voters tend to hold a much stronger propensity to vote for far-right political parties. While we need to be worried by disaffected white male voters in both modern far-right parties and in extremist political organisations, it is also important to note that the contemporary far-right in Europe (particularly the populist radical right) has sought to become more ‘diversified’ in attracting a wider section of voters in society, and in focusing on different issue areas.

This ideological ‘moderation’ can be seen with the National Rally Party under leader Marine Le Pen in France. Balsa Lubarda, from the Ideology Research Unit at CARR, recently explored how a number of far-right parties have also begun to focus on socio-economic issues such as environmentalism.

Defining the Far-Right

Far-right is an ‘umbrella’ term that covers both populist right parties and the extreme right wing. Populist radical right parties (PRR) such as the National Rally Party in France, the Alternative for Germany Party (AfD), the Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and The League (Lega) in Italy tend to seek to be electoral via democratic means yet are often opposed to the ‘liberal’ component of democracy.

The extreme right wing (ERW) parties in contrast, tend to wholly reject liberal democracy and seek more ‘extreme’ and alternative means to taking power. The modern extreme right includes parties such as Golden Dawn (Greece), Jobbik (Hungary), the NPD (Germany) alongside Kotleba (Slovakia).

The twilight of democracy & the ‘mainstreaming effect’ in global politics

In her recent landmark book, “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism”, the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Anne Appelbaum has harrowingly outlined the ‘rise’ of authoritarianism in Poland, Hungary, the United Kingdom and the United States, amongst other countries. Applebaum presciently points to how her former allies and even friends on the centre right have now become “sycophants to authoritarians” and have hollowed out or largely rejected key liberal democratic values.

Like Applebaum I argue that we should be deeply worried about (a) what scholars such as Cas Mudde term, both the ‘mainstreaming’ and (b) ‘normalisation’ of radical right discourse in global politics, particularly by ‘mainstream’ parties. This is a worrying trend that arguably serves to legitimise populist radical right parties by bringing their discourse into the mainstream and therefore making it publicly acceptable amongst voters. Recent examples of this ‘mainstreaming effect’ can be found in Hungary, Poland, the United States and Brazil where democratic institutions have been eroded.

Centre-right parties may have opened up a ‘Pandora’s box’ and brought the ideology of the far right into the political mainstream

Recent examples in Central-Eastern Europe (Poland and Hungary) also illustrate how key democratic institutions, such as the rule of law and the judiciary have been undermined, alongside non-governmental organisations and political parties in Hungary. The latest Freedom House Report from 2019 further demonstrates the bleak picture from Hungary, with declining scores for freedom of speech and the press. At the same time, the polarising and divisive rhetoric adopted by Presidents Trump in the United States and Bolsonaro in Brazil further highlight the rising pattern of authoritarianism, within modern democratic countries.

The centre right: immigration & identity politics

In a recent article, my co-authors and I argued that ‘mainstream’ centre right parties in Europe sought to benefit electorally from the 2015–2018 European refugee crisis through contesting the key issue of immigration with radical right parties and adopting more right-wing anti-immigration positions. In contrast, we also found that mainstream centre left parties do not tend to adopt such a strategy during this electoral period.

In Western Europe, centre right parties such as the People's Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD) in the Netherlands under Prime Minister Mark Rutte, the recent Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP) coalition government with the PRR Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) and the New Flemish Alliance Party (N-VA) in Belgium (Flanders) highlight how some centre right positions have shifted further right on the political spectrum, particularly on key socio-cultural issues such as immigration and integration. A similar electoral strategy was also adopted by ‘mainstream’ centre right parties during the 2008–2013 economic crisis in Europe.

However, by shifting further right on immigration, centre-right parties may have opened up a ‘Pandora’s box’ and brought the ideology of the far right into the political mainstream. This strategy could benefit the centre right in the short-term, but it will more likely aid the far-right more in the long-term.

The future of liberal democracy is under threat

The future of liberal democracy in the West appears to be under threat, from both ‘mainstream’ political parties and far-right insurgents alike. My colleague from CARR, Dr. Valerio Alfonso Bruno and I recently wrote in Rantt Media that:

“Despite political leaders such as President Trump being a Republican and arguably part of the ‘political establishment’, the President’s language and policies have often come under criticism for resembling far-right discourse (with a focus on nativism, authoritarianism, and populism) particularly that of anti-political establishment rhetoric, since entering the Oval Office in January 2017. President Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic and his presidency to date have also arguably led to a significant erosion of liberal democracy. Paradoxically, this ‘reverse wave’ has been brought about by traditional ‘mainstream’ parties on the centre right and not by far-right parties themselves.”

Therefore, former ‘mainstream’ centre right parties such as Fidesz in Hungary alongside the Law and Justice Party (PiS) in Poland have shifted further right and now resemble fully-fledged populist radical right parties in their ideology. This so-called ‘reverse wave’ of liberal democracy is an alarming problem that goes beyond advanced democracies such as the United States and is symptomatic in global politics, particularly in Central-Eastern European countries that have newer democracies, such as Hungary and Poland, alongside Brazil in Latin America.

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