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Facing Down the Far Right

Facing Down the Far Right in Europe: A challenge for progressive politics

Originally submitted June 2011


Table of Contents


  1. Abstract                                                         3


  1. Introduction                                                  4


  1. Section 1: Challenges of Typology                                    5


  1. Section 2: Complications of Grand Narratives                           10


  1. Section 3: Difficulties of Systematic Analysis                            14

–        Society, attitudes and voters                           14

–        Opportunity structures                          17

–        Interplay with the mainstream                       19

–        Media                                          21



  1. Conclusion                                                    22


  1. Bibliography                                                 24



The recent resurgence of parties considered to be on the far right of the political spectrum has led to a growth in interest among academics, policymakers, the media and the wider public. While there is much received wisdom on the causes and effects, analytical literature often remains inconclusive.

Ultimately, there are numerous reasons why far right parties are more difficult to categories than other political families. This paper therefore proposes a subjective narrative and aims to provide a framework for socialist and social democratic parties. To this end, the paper offers a “ladder of abstraction” in which parties beyond a certain threshold on the nationalist spectrum are conceived as “far right”.

Contrary to commentary which indicates that far right parties have adopted a left wing economic narrative, it is argued here that far right parties use economics as a tool to attain support among their perceived “in-group” while excluding perceived outsiders. Therefore, in this context, the left-right spectrum reflects one’s perspective on (in)equality, seen differently by left and right.

Finally this paper argues that social democracy needs to rediscover an adequate narrative on both globalisation and nationalism to offset the populist flag-waving and fear mongering of the far right. It also presents a difference of approach depending on the level of organisation and institutionalisation of the far right party in question. Thus, newer and less organised parties invite the cordon sanitaire approach while more case-based qualitative research is required to discern the best way of facing down more “established” far right parties.



The emergence in the 1980s of seemingly new tendencies at the far right of the political spectrum presented analysts and policy makers with a problematic series of challenges. Researchers were challenged to form hypotheses to explain these phenomena and it became incumbent on politicians to respond. Yet no single theory has come to dominate the academic literature (Jesuit et al, 2009: 279). Political scientists, sociologists and historians cannot even agree on the appropriate term with which to describe these parties, with “far right”, “extreme right”, “populist radical right” and “new radical right” among the many efforts.

Theoretically speaking, the study of far right parties (FRPs) has often been conflated with particular phenomena associated with the broader changes that have taken place since the 1980s. The end of the bipolar order associated with the Cold War heralded a whole new swathe of literature on globalisation and the way in which the world might be ordered henceforth. Economically, this led to speculation about the displacement seen in post-industrial Western society as new labour markets continued to open up outside Europe and the emergence of a new type of identity politics amidst new migratory patterns. To be true, there is much received wisdom in the commentary on the far right, even if huge efforts have been put into empirically testing these assumptions. Still, the often inconclusive results of such empirical analyses place policymakers in a quandary about the correct approach to take. Furthermore, the absence of a unifying foundational doctrine or philosophy among these parties and movements makes comparative analysis more difficult.

The paper which follows seeks to present a sound analytical framework for discussion of the far right and will endeavour to keep to rigorous academic standards. However, this paper is intended to serve the needs of the political left, of the socialist and social democratic parties of Europe. The analysis does not seek to meet some foregone conclusions, but will, however reflect the particular preoccupations of socialist policymakers as opposed to their conservative, liberal and green counterparts. Furthermore, since so much of the discourse on the far right is based on perception, we are faced with additional difficulties from an analytical perspective.

Thus, the structure proceeds as follows: Section 1 will attempt to establish a relevant typology based on the existing literature. Section 2 will deal in a broad sweep with the problems posed by a meeting of two grand narratives: nationalism and globalisation both of which have proven difficult for socialists in terms of response. Section 3 will proceed to look at the breeding grounds, opportunity structures, and the role of other actors and of far right parties themselves.

Section 1 – Challenges of Typology

We noted in the introduction the difficulties inherent in defining parties of the far right. In media commentary and amongst political actors, there is sometimes a tendency to treat analysis of the far right as American Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart treated his description of pornography in 1964: “I know it when I see it”. Given recent high profile successes of far right parties, such a lax approach is no longer affordable for either policymakers or analysts. At the same time, this particular field of study has become victim to the proliferation of different sub-fields in the social sciences, each vying for credit in the stakes of academic originality. It is surprising to find such a relatively new field so crowded and it also complicates the process of analysis. Furthermore, studies run the risk of holding definitions of this particular political family to higher standards than analyses of their major ideological counterparts. The sui generis nature of this family, with its focus on national specificity, limits our ability to follow its self-definition – as we can do with the Party of European Socialists or the European People’s Party. Therefore, we must approach our definition of the far right from the subjective and pragmatic perspective of one party family seeking to assess another.

The broadest possible definition of this family is that they subscribe to a nationalist worldview. We will define nationalism using John Breuilly’s definition:

“The term ‘nationalism’ is used to refer to political movements seeking or exercising state power and justifying such action with nationalist arguments. A nationalist argument is a political doctrine built upon three basic assumptions:

(a)    There exists a nation with an explicit and peculiar character.

(b)   The interests and values of this nation take priority over all other interests and values.

(c)    The nation must be as independent as possible. This requires at least the attainment of political sovereignty” (Breuilly, 1993: 2)

This typology of nationalism aids our understanding of the nation’s self-identification through time and the socio-political circumstances in which a given nation finds itself.  Breuilly’s thesis focuses predominantly on cases of oppositional nationalism and can be usefully applied to the oppositional discourse of far right parties. Note that the definition tacitly implies that nationalism has an aspirational character and the prominence given to the interests of the nation allow the nationalist perspective to change given certain exigencies and circumstances. Breuilly also outlines a series of ‘classes of nationalism’, among which irredentism and a drive for unification are prominent. He names separatist nationalism as a discreet class and argues that government nationalism is more difficult to define, perhaps reflecting the dichotomy between the mainstream and the fringe (Breuilly, 1993: 12).

Yet the fact that there are in existence several types of mainstream nationalism as well as extremist versions means that this is not a sufficient definition on its own. This paper holds the view that all nationalists are to some extent in accord with Breuilly’s typology. The difference is a matter of extent. Therefore, it makes sense that extremist nationalists would take the aforementioned aims to their logical extreme, placing particular emphasis on point (b), which states that “the interests and values of this nation take priority over all other interests and values”. Thus, the range of policy platforms of extremist nationalists is defined by their perception of the national interest. There have been various attempts to describe these various levels of nationalism, beginning with Hans Kohn’s (1955) typology of ethnic and civic nationalisms: the former corresponding to the ius sanguinis or ‘Volk’ conceptions of an organic and essentialist national identity; the latter representing the ius soli characterisation of holding nationality as a representation of a community of solidarity – the more liberal and inclusive version. Most characterisations of FRPs place them in the first category.

However, there is no pure version of either ethnic or civic nationalism, and most conceptions of national identity contain elements of both. Therefore, this is not a sufficiently refined instrument for delineation between FRPs and other nationalists and we must go further. This finds favour with the analysis provided by Cas Mudde in his 2007 book Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. We will adopt his classification method to distil our definition of this party family beyond a broadly defined ethnic nationalism. For this, Mudde makes use of a concept mainly used in American literature but which has utility in European cases too: “nativism”. His generic definition of nativism is:

 “An ideology, which holds that states should be inhabited exclusively by members of the native group (“the nation”) and that non-native elements (persons and ideas) are fundamentally threatening to the homogenous nation-state. The basis for defining (non) “nativeness” can be diverse, e.g. ethnic, racial or religious, but will always have a cultural element” (Mudde, 2007: 19) 

He expresses preference for this term over the likes of “anti-immigrant” which risks reducing this political family to a single-issue concern, or “racist” which precludes radical parties on the right which contain non-racist elements. This paper will accept Mudde’s ascription of nativism as a core feature of the ideology of the populist radical right.

From here it is possible to move on to more precise definitional parameters. In his earlier work Mudde (2000) identified four core ideological features among what he then still called the “extreme right”. These were nationalism, xenophobia, welfare chauvinism and law and order. He has since found this characterisation unsatisfactory and has since sought to establish an ideological hierarchy within the worldview of the party family. In this sense, welfare chauvinism becomes less important and becomes a reflection of a nativist vision of the economy (Mudde, 2007: 21-22). While this is a debatable assertion, it does at least serve a useful function in terms of our analysis of the manner in which the far right positions itself on economic issues.

Thus, his revised core features are nativism (nationalism with xenophobic tendencies), authoritarianism (as a by-word for law and order issues) and populism. While populism is normally considered as a political style, here it is conceived as an ideological feature. As such, it divides society into ‘two homogenous and antagonistic groups, “the pure people” and “the corrupt elite”,’ and argues that democratic politics is conceived as an expression of the general will of the people (ibid. 23). Populism is, however, an appendage to the nativist and authoritarian tendencies and it serves these purposes.

In an effort to aid the construction of a conceptual framework, Mudde provided us with a “ladder of abstraction” to delineate the various stages of nativist ideology. This begins with nationalism which, when supplemented with xenophobia, becomes nativism. Nativism with an authoritarian streak is defined as “radical right”, while the anti-democratic radical right is defined as “extreme right”.


Fig. 1: Ladder of abstraction of Nativist ideologies

Ideology Key additional feature
Radical right  
Extreme right  

(Mudde, 2007)


Mudde is careful in his choice of terms. “Extreme right” in this instance is used to refer to the anti-democratic, post-fascist and neo-Nazi parties and organisations which have very little political traction in 21st century European politics. Of more interest to our discussion is the type of party which does nominally accept the rules of democratic politics, Mudde’s “populist radical right”.

As Mudde admits, the above ladder of abstraction does not accommodate populism. The term “radical” as applied to right-wing politics, is held to reflect opposition to key features of liberal democracy, such as political pluralism and the constitutional protection of minorities (ibid. 25). While “right” has traditionally been defined on the basis of socioeconomic criteria, this is not so easy with the political family under review. Indeed many eschew laissez-faire free market economics and present themselves as the real defenders of the welfare state. Yet Mudde, holds that economic policy is not central to their ideology. He follows a line of reasoning taken from Bobbio in his efforts to align such parties to the right. It is in their relationship to inequality. Therefore, while “the left considers the key inequalities between people artificial and wants to overcome them by active state involvement”, the right “considers the main inequalities between people to be natural and outside the purview of the state”. By describing these parties as radical right, we imply opposition to fundamental values of liberal democracy. Mudde adds populism to this mix to reach his definition of “populist radical right” (ibid 26).

This paper is grateful to the tools supplied by Mudde in helping us to define the populist radical right family. He is meticulous in his delineation of the party family and his avoidance of confusion. This gives us the advantage of knowing that the tools of analysis are sound from an academic perspective. However, the present study is written with the express purposes of facilitating socialist parties in dealing with a specific political phenomenon. While Mudde’s analysis is sound, we can not be certain of the perspective from which he approaches the study of right-wing radicalism and extremism. The even-handed manner in which he treats those parties which are not at the outermost extreme of the spectrum is academically admirable. However, it would be foolhardy for this paper to pretend that there is no subjective bias to how it approaches these parties.

Therefore, please find below an original effort at a ladder of abstraction which is hoped to serve the needs of European socialists and others who are suspicious of the phenomenon of right-wing radicalism and extremism. In the interest of simplicity, those parties and organisations which go beyond “nativism” will be henceforth described as “far right”. While we respect the manner in which Mudde arrived at his conclusion that those who are not anti-democratic should be called populist radical right, the bulk of the literature and media commentary recognises these terms as appropriate for all parties which range from populist radical right to the most extreme right of the political spectrum.

Fig 2: Ladder of Abstraction for ideological spectrum of nationalism

Ideological spectrum Key additional feature Policy perspective
  Ius sanguinis conception of nation  
    Cultural criteria for citizenship
Ethnic nationalism    
    Retrenchment; suspicion of integration model
High risk nationalism    
    Welfare chauvinism; links crime with immigrants & minorities
    Antagonism towards liberal democracy
Populist radical right*    
    Proto-revolutionary, racist
Extreme right *    

 *All of these come under the umbrella term “far right”


The above table provides a loose chain of development which should hopefully be of use to social democrats in efforts to characterise the far right. It begins with mainstream liberal or inclusive nationalism and adds elements of ius sanguinis characterisations of the nation which would result in citizenship criteria related to blood, culture or background. The result is “ethnic nationalism” which, we said earlier, doesn’t exist in its pure form. However, the addition of populism to ethnic conceptions of nationalism can breed quite unhealthy discourse in the media and encourage elements of retrenchment and efforts to roll back earlier efforts at multicultural integration. In Mudde’s characterisation, populism comes as an appendage to nativism and authoritarianism. However, the tendency towards populism is present among mainstream parties too. Thus, we characterise the combination of ethnic nationalism, populism and the malevolent discourse which ensues as “high risk nationalism”, i.e. parties at the edge of the mainstream which risk encroaching on the far right.

From a social democratic perspective, xenophobia must place these parties beyond the pale in terms of the political spectrum. Thus, nativists are included in our analysis. Nativism with authoritarianism is characterised as “radical right” by Mudde. However, as we have argued that populism can come into play at any point on the ladder, we will add this element to call them “populist radical right”.  Finally, at the most extreme end of the spectrum, we have those linked to the inter-war fascist movements, the marginalised types who deny the holocaust and still subscribe to notions of biological racism. They also fail to accept the norms of democracy itself, let alone liberal democracy. For the purposes of this paper, all parties considered as nativist, populist radical right or extreme right fall under the umbrella term “far right”.


Section 2 – Complications of Grand Narratives

Given the amount of commentary dedicated to globalisation in discourse on the far right it seems appropriate to discuss the effect it has on the growth, or otherwise, of these parties. Similarly, in the absence of a foundational doctrine for the far right “party family”, nationalism has been defined as the “lowest common denominators that unites all populist radical right parties” (Zaslove, 2009). If, for argument’s sake, we are to assume that FRPs are a product of both of these processes, then we begin to see the difficulty in developing a coherent corpus of theory with which to analyse these parties.

The field of globalisation is a hugely intractable area of study where academic disagreement has become a matter of entrenchment. Yet such disagreement has not rested with the academy as the assumptions of writers such as Huntington and Fukuyama in the 1990s fed into the geopolitical calculations of neoconservatives and neoliberals, with concomitant effect on domestic policy. This time also saw a revival of the field of nationalism studies as scholars sought to explain the resurgence of new nationalist movements in post-communist Europe. At the same time, there were those who saw in this advancement of globalisation the beginning of the end for the nation state, not least among the parties of the far right. Thus, it seems appropriate to provide a brief analysis of the interplay of these phenomena.

Much of the discourse on the interplay between globalisation and nationalism is necessarily focused on the global economy and its effect on the nation-state in terms of macro-economic planning, culture and national identity. History tells us that the interplay between nationalism and the geopolitical order has never been quite as neat as proponents of globalisation theory imply. Speaking of those who herald the death of the nation-state in a new globalised order, Michael Mann writes of these ‘enthusiasts’: “With little sense of history they exaggerate the former strength of nation-states; with little sense of their plurality they downplay international relations” (Mann, 1997: 494). National unity had never been assured in the past despite the manner in which the past is perceived and presented by nationalists. Yet in view of the greater interdependence and intermingling brought by advances in communications technology, globalisation theorists point to “global cultural hybridity” as a force undermining national identification.

With an increase in the movement of goods and images across borders comes a homogenised Western culture: a ‘MacWorld’ in which people are reduced to individual consumers by the onslaught of US dominated corporations. While the implication that this is a new phenomenon is misleading, as a diffuse concept based on perception it can easily be used by political entrepreneurs for the purposes of fomenting fear. Some intellectual traditions have even sought a new narrative of multiculturalism, with the likes of Bruno Megret (of FN and later MPR) taking from the “ethnopluralist” ideology of nouvelle droite philosopher Alain De Benoist. Thus, they describe “multiculturalists and other leftists” as the real racists, forcing the mixing of cultures and their supersession by a materialistic and hedonist commercialism (Guibernau, 2010: 13; Mudde, 2009: 191-2).

Of the various approaches to globalisation, the “hyperglobalist” thesis holds that we are dealing with a primarily economic phenomenon. Thus, as the borderless economy and institutions of global and regional governance develop, the nation-state is to experience a terminal decline (Guibernau, 2001: 245). In this kind of world, the nation-state becomes an anachronism. The far right approaches this from various perspectives, normally adopting a critical stance. A global market means that foreigners can have influence over the national economy and destroys the capability of states. This argument is operationalised through localised definitions of the national interest, whereby globalisation causes the export of jobs to the Third World, an influx of immigrants and suppression of wages, increasing unemployment and penury to native populations. This is a particular hobby horse of the British National Party (Mudde, 2009: 187).

However, Mudde (ibid.) has argued that economic globalisation itself is not a major issue in the propaganda of the far right. Given that these parties come from differing ideological backgrounds (e.g. the economically liberal origins of the FPÖ as opposed to the likes of Jobbik who seek discursive continuity with the interwar extreme right), their economic perspectives are numerous. Indeed, many are vague and use economic arguments to serve particular nativist ends. The French FN is the most vocal opponent of economic globalisation but this perhaps reflects the greater prevalence of anti-globalisation discourse in French politics in general.

The collapse of the USSR heralded speculation about the ‘end of history’ as liberal democratic values and a capitalist economy would pervade globally (Fukuyama, 1992). However, the post-communist era has left an ideological vacuum into which nationalists of various hues could step. During previous waves, nationalism often came as a response to breakdowns in prior forms of community, based on religious, dynastic or imperial rule (Halliday, 2001:450). It appears that 21st century globalisation has done little to alter this tendency. The originality of the post-Cold War situation lies in, among other things, “the importance of the global economy that deprives many of the actors of traditional instruments of control”, which can exacerbate nationalistic reactions of a defensive nature (Hoffmann, 2000: 209). Thus, the far right in Eastern Europe often conflates economic globalisation with ills associated with marketisation and privatisation and links these with some older anti-Semitic and pan-Slavic conspiracy theories. This is seen in Polish, Slovak and Hungarian FRPs and extends beyond post-communist Europe to parties such as the Greek LAOS who see a broader Jewish conspiracy behind economic globalisation (Mudde, 2009: 188).

The economic basis for globalisation theory holds that capitalism is now global in a geographical sense. As global capitalism intensifies, borders become more porous and the “classical nation state”, it is alleged, loses its monopoly over the economy, media and culture. The rising interdependence wrought by global capitalism moves the locus of real political decision-making away from the nation-state. This has caused the nation-state to recast its classical nature to meet the changes it faces, but does not indicate any imminent demise (Guibernau, 2001:242). Depending on their own particular context, ERPs either play to the fears wrought by this weakening of nation-state power (such as the FN, BNP and Jobbik) or will suit it to their own sub-national agendas (VB and LN).

As the national economy moves towards global concerns in seeking foreign investments, invariably other aspects of domestic policy are affected. Capital moves to where it finds the most attractive home, thus seeking low-tax economies which places pressure on national macro-economic policy as the state’s tax-raising capacity is reduced by the tendency towards attracting investment. This weakens the state’s capacity to provide public services, fostering dissatisfaction among the citizenry and reducing national cohesion (Day & Thompson, 2004: 175). As Tønnesson highlights:

What determines a state’s capacity for spending on welfare and culture is the gross national product and the level of taxation that the government can impose on its citizens. If there has been a shift in state functions from economic to social and cultural spheres, then there are other institutions than the state itself who decide how much each state can use on welfare and culture (Tønnesson, 2004: 181).

As such, saying “It’s the economy, stupid!” can mean different things to the electorate and the elected. Furthermore, a general shift in focus of national policy to cultural and identity issues could serve to favour the far right. While politics at elite level concerns transnational and international matters, for the citizenry, local and domestic affairs are still to the fore. Therefore, the nation-state, in whatever form it takes, will have resonance at some level of political discourse. The populist tendencies of FRPs encourage them to attack cosmopolitanism as an elite concern and to invoke the idea that the present political elite have been corrupted by the machinations of global capitalism. The recent growth of parties like the True Finns and the Sweden Democrats reflects this process.

As a process, globalisation has its fair share of opponents across the political spectrum. While there is no evidence that globalisation will herald the destruction of nation-states, it does at least alter the manner in which they operate as administrative units. Interestingly, FRPs rarely refer directly to globalisation in their party literature, except for sporadic references to the danger posed to their respective national cultures or to criticise the elitist cosmopolitanism of their political class. It is, after all, an abstract concept and these parties appear happy to leave it that way. In this sense, FRPs manage to have their cake and eat it. As they are, for now, predominantly oppositional forces, they do not have to address whether it is even possible to counter mass immigration or the relative loss of sovereignty which comes with globalisation (Mudde, 2009: 197).

Mainstream parties do not have the luxury of indulging in idle pontification, yet the conflation of globalisation and nationalism by the far right does present numerous problems for other parties. FRPs provide answers to globalisation with simplistic recourse to essentialist, ethnic and nativist modes of nationalism. They present a populist narrative whereby the mainstream parties have betrayed the national in-group through acquiescence in the processes of global capitalism. Plenty of parties on the centre-right and centre-left have shown discomfiture with the consequences of globalisation but are restrained in their responses by the realities they face as potential parties of government.  In numerous countries, there are significant crossovers between the conservative right and the far right in terms of cultural references and nationalist grandstanding, as we will discuss later.

The far right’s use of nationalism as a response to globalisation presents a particular problem for social democrats. The value narrative of social democracy is founded upon equality, internationalism and respect for cultural diversity both within the state and in international relations. However, it is also the mandate of progressive parties to defend the welfare state, the public goods and social protections that have been built since World War II (Judt, 2010). The dilemma which emerges is that the welfare state itself was predicated upon the administrative structures of the nation-state. With increased immigration, social displacement, unemployment and the extension of consumerist capitalism, the far right attempts to claim the mantle of true defenders of the welfare state and the protectors of the “modernisation losers”. The mainstream left is portrayed as elitist and cosmopolitan and represents a betrayal of the nation, as conceived along nativist lines. In FRPs which seek a working class vote, anti-establishment sentiment is often directed at the main left-wing party rather than their conservative rival (Goodwin, 2010: 47).

Thus, while the far right provides its own vague answers to globalisation with recourse to essentialist nationalism, the left has its own questions to answer. In the face of the neoliberal and neoconservative onslaught since the end of the Cold War, and the obvious failure of the totalitarian regimes which for a time claimed the mantle of socialism, the left has not been able to offer a coherent alternative answer to globalisation. Similarly, with the reduction of the power of the nation-state relative to financial markets, socialists have yet to clarify their relationship with the nationalist paradigm. For a time, the process of European integration allowed for a level of social democratic internationalism to be realised. However, this is currently under strain due to the recent tendency towards national retrenchment among numerous governments in Europe.


Section 3 – Difficulties of systematic analysis

Society, attitudes & votes

It is from the discourse on globalisation that much of the received wisdom on the far right emerges. Globalisation has been given the status of originator of the breeding ground and source of the “opportunity structures” (Arzheimer, 2009: 264) which have allowed the current wave of far right parties to come into existence. Globalisation represents the shift in Western society from industrial to post-industrial economies and a move from materialist to post-materialist politics. The concomitant economic displacement, migration and unemployment, the crisis of identity and “anomie” all contribute to a search for self-esteem in the national collective (Guibernau, 2010). It is now necessary to analyse if such a breeding ground and the opportunity structures that go with it are sufficient to bring a surge in far right support or if other variables are necessary. Thus, we will now approach the issues of immigration, unemployment, economics and the far right’s conception of democracy. We note at the outset that many of the analyses presently available have produced contradictory findings. There is an evident divide in terms of methodology too, with quantitative and qualitative analyses often producing quite divergent conclusions.

One of the truisms which come up from time to time in the literature is that people vote for far right parties because they share some opinions with these parties. Thus, plenty research has gone into the salience of attitudes considered to be part of the far right narrative. Jessica Sprague-Jones provides one example of this in her analysis of attitudes towards multiculturalism and the far right vote. As one would expect, she finds that people are supportive of multiculturalism when they see it as benefitting the group to which they belong and oppose it when they feel it might hurt the interests of their group (Sprague-Jones, 2011: 537). One interesting point she makes is that majority groups who favour assimilation over diversity-based forms of integration see it as a form of cultural validation. Sprague-Jones finds that most independent variables have statistically significant effects on multicultural attitudes in the expected direction. Multicultural attitudes increase with education and decrease with age, and men are less likely than women to embrace multiculturalism. Interestingly, unemployment is the only individual level variable which does not have a significant effect. The one exception is Sweden, where unemployment has a significant effect on such attitudes. However, she makes the proviso that Sweden was coming out of an economic crisis when these statistics were taken (ibid. 545). As such, a further line of enquiry should be the effect of crisis situations (like the present one) on such attitudes. It is noteworthy that Sprague-Jones’ analysis focuses primarily on attitudes rather than vote share.

Other analysts have reached quite counter-intuitive conclusions when it comes to contextual variables. Most now avoid analysing individual variables alone and opt for combinations. Arzheimer found a ceiling effect when it comes to “ethnic competition”. As such, the interaction between unemployment and immigration is statistically negative. At higher levels of either they do not reinforce each other in their effects. Thus, if immigration is high, unemployment no longer matters statistically (Arzheimer, 2009: 269). The ability of the welfare state to mitigate far right attitudes is also contested. Under certain circumstances the welfare state appears to moderate such attitudes but it depends on how it is administered. Arzheimer argues that the “lowest levels of extreme right support are predicted for a system with minimal benefits, low unemployment rates and minimal immigration” (ibid. 273).

Jesuit et al provide a further explanation of this when they find some empirical support for the “welfare chauvinist hypothesis”. To put it in context, there is a conditional relationship wherein regions with greater redistribution have a higher far right vote where there are immigrants present to secure benefits (Jesuit et al, 2011: 281). Analysing statistics taken at regional level across Western Europe they respond to various hypotheses as follows. They reject the “ethnic prejudice” hypothesis, arguing that greater inflows of immigrants do not automatically lead to corresponding levels of FRP support. They also reject the “economic security” hypothesis and propose that regions with better labour markets actually have a higher FRP vote. Their interpretation of this is that people who are most concerned with jobs will not waste their votes on marginal parties or, alternatively, that those in employment seek to protect gains they have already made (Jesuit et al, 287-288).

In an effort to clarify this situation, Jesuit et al bring in the tools used in the typology of sociologist Robert Putnam, and propose social capital as a variable in itself. Again, social capital alone is not considered sufficient as an explanation but is seen as a vital link to how ethnic prejudices and economic insecurities engender far right support. For their analysis, social capital is a measure of (in)equality, and there is a difference between “bridging” and “bonding” social capital in terms of the effects they have on in-group-out-group relations and social fragmentation. They then test a number of assumptions about the effect of social capital in different contexts. The findings raise some issues of concern. When unemployment is over 11.7% and the Gini index more than 21.0, immigration promotes far right support. This corresponds to Putnam’s “anarchic society” wherein societies with low social capital and high insecurity seek scapegoats. In regions with low unemployment and high social capital immigration has no effect thus supporting the idea that Putnam’s “civic community” curbs FRP support. The “individualistic society”, which has low social capital, even low unemployment can foster FRP support, but may not explicitly do so.  (ibid.).

The commentary by Jesuit et al on welfare is of grave concern for social democrats. Given their support for the “welfare chauvinist” hypothesis, they find no evidence that fiscal redistribution reduces FRP support which is troubling for defenders of the welfare state. Yet they maintain that this is a neutral finding as it “suggests that government redistribution that narrows income inequalities may promote the accumulation of social capital, which we have found to reduce support for extreme right parties across Western Europe” (ibid. 289). In a more qualitative analysis, Montserrat Guibernau proposes that FRPs respond to voters’ concerns by advocating a “national preference principle” whereby “citizens should enjoy priority access to social welfare and to the protection of their own culture and language, compared to foreigners” (2010: 12). Here we can see the manner in which economic concerns can be wrapped up in language of cultural protectionism. Citizenship itself is marked by sharp boundaries in this conception. Guibernau encourages the use of social policy to counteract the far right’s exploitation of these fears. She advocates concentration on white working class and lower middle class citizens who feel threatened by cheap foreign labour and that labour legislation should be tightened to avoid exploitation of both immigrants and local citizens (ibid 18).Of course there will be plenty of reasons to debate findings with serious ramifications for welfare provision and social protection. The two analyses presented here indicate that the focus should be on income distribution and labour legislation, but other factors will obviously need to be accounted for too.

Returning to the issue of crises, it is difficult to provide conclusive findings. We have already outlined some of the discourse on variables associated with crisis situations. While attitudes might harden in such periods, FRPs do not seem to profit so much from the salience of socioeconomic issues on the political landscape as they have not always considered overly competent in this area (Mudde, 2007: 206). However, the recent successes for FRPs in Finland and Sweden perhaps indicate a certain economic chauvinism at national level as the True Finns, for example, objected to participation in the Portuguese bailout. Of course, the Finnish case was in part reflective of a political crisis too. Macro level analyses go in different directions as to whether political crises increase the FRP vote. However, more ethnographic studies do seem to indicate that a drop in political trust can have the effect of either apathy or a turn towards more radical parties. Matthew Goodwin, in his analysis of the BNP, points to such a tendency with activists who came from a Labour Party background but had moved away from the party (Goodwin, 2010).

Yet anti-establishment sentiment is not enough to explain why people vote for the far right. For one thing, there are other anti-establishment parties for whom they can cast a protest vote ranging from the far left to other fringe populists. FRP voters tend to be the most alienated from the liberal democratic political system and much of their discourse appears around efforts to lay claim to the definition of “real democracy”. In this sense, they seek a radical regeneration of democratic institutions; a “hyperdemocracy” which regularly uses referenda and open lists, and removes the moral and political legitimacy from elites (Guibernau, 2010: 10). Thus, they instrumentalise their populism to direct it towards target issues which they consider elitist, such as multiculturalism, political correctness etc. However, to be successful a far right party cannot survive on protest votes alone and this type of voter mobilisation is most associated with the earlier phases of the party. Those parties which have achieved relative success have very high levels of voter loyalty as seen in the astoundingly high voter retention rate (of 75-90%) for the Austrian FPÖ, the Belgian VB, the Danish DFP and the French FN from 1986-99 (Mudde, 2007: 229).


Opportunity structures

We pointed out earlier that attitudes which we associate with the far right do not always translate into far right votes. Social democratic parties have a challenge to fight the development of such attitudes in the first place, but the prevention of the transposition of such attitudes into votes is a practical concern too. The failure of the far right to reach its full voting potential is one that every party can recognise. However, this presents a second challenge for parties of the left in offsetting the transfer of xenophobic attitudes into far right voter mobilisation. The third challenge presented by the above findings is to prevent the protest vote from developing into a supporter’s vote. For this, we shall look at the structural set-up, ranging from the opportunities created by the political system to the behaviour of other parties and the media. In some cases, it may already be too late as FRPs have become a recognised part of the political system. In other countries, we can learn from the mistakes of the past to ascertain if a given approach will have any success in facing down the far right.

“Political opportunity structures” consist of short-, medium-, and long-term variables which capture the “openness or accessibility of a political system for would-be political entrepreneurs” (Arzheimer, 2009: 261). Much of the focus in such discussions invariably becomes directed towards the electoral system and the institutional design of the state. This takes account of factors like the degree of proportionality of the electoral system and the extent of political decentralisation. Again, here there is some received wisdom that less proportional systems serve to “keep the rascals out” but this does not hold true in full. Successes at local level are still possible and it seems that sub-national elections can offer a safety valve for dissent which is not always expressed at national level (Arzheimer, 2009: 264). Plurality systems (like first-past-the-post) tend to conspire against far right parties at national level while majority two-tier systems (as in France) provide an important institutional hurdle to polarising candidates as seen in the run-offs in the Presidential elections in 2002. Highly centralised states support the development of effective party organisations in general and would this aid the far right in improving its own party structures. Federal systems see a higher proportion of FRP votes at state level but at federal level this appears rather limited. This seems to correspond to the local safety valve hypothesis. Finally, it appears that consensual, consociational and corporatist systems facilitate anti-establishment parties in general but not the far right in particular (Mudde , 2007: 235-236).

There have been targeted approaches towards electoral institutions aimed at reducing the opportunities available to the far right. The most widely known is the use of electoral thresholds (usually of 4-5%) as policymakers point to the success of this measure in keeping the far right out of the federal parliament in Germany. Another example is the use of specific prerequisites to contest elections in the first place. In the Netherlands in 1998, the number of signatories required to contest districts was increased from 190 to 570 nationwide. As such, the Centre Democrats could only contest 17 out of 19 districts and failed to make the very low electoral threshold of 0.67% to enter the Dutch parliament (Mudde, 2007: 235). However, such measures cannot succeed forever as we have seen in recent successes of the PVV under Geert Wilders.

As the title of this sub-section indicates, institutions are not determinants of the success of the far right but they do provide opportunities. As we will see, the actions of the political mainstream and the media can also have a significant effect on the success of the far right.

Interplay with the mainstream

Discussion on the far right becomes more challenging and uncomfortable when looking at the actions and declarations of those parties legitimately considered on the mainstream. The actions of these parties can lead to the marginalisation of FRPs or alternatively to an increasing salience of issues associated with the far right. Returning briefly to structural issues, it is evident that parties in power can use legislative methods to alter electoral systems and requirements to the detriment of the far right, as seen in the Netherlands. Equally, the actions of mainstream parties can provide far right parties with breakthroughs they would not otherwise have. Such was the case in 1986, when French Socialist President François Mitterand changed the electoral system in an effort to bolster the Front National and, in the process, weaken the mainstream right (ibid). This was obviously for short-term electoral gain for the incumbent government but the perception of increased legitimacy which the FN gained by a stronger performance would pose severe problems in future years. These are still causes for concern today.

As with discourse over whether certain systems favour the growth of FRPs, the manner in which mainstream parties place themselves within that system also comes in for discussion. The “convergence thesis” holds that holds that the ideological convergence between the main parties (of both left and right) favours the far right. In more polarised systems, there is less space on the fringes for the far right but this is perhaps because the mainstream right party holds some of the views of their more extremist counterpart. However, it is not always clear which of the mainstream parties suffers more from convergence. Looking at the British case, a significant proportion of BNB activists claimed to be from Labour backgrounds and objected to the addition of “New” to the name of the Labour Party (Goodwin, 2010). This undoubtedly depends on national context and the manner in which a FRP can operationalise a given concern that was previously dominated by one of the mainstream parties. Thus, FRPs which seek to take votes from social democratic parties will use discourse on welfare for nativist ends, while on the right they will seek to claim ownership over the conservative nationalist narrative.

Responding to successes of FRPs, mainstream parties take a variety of approaches. Some are encouraged to respond directly to issues raised by the far right. Guibernau argues that mainstream parties fail to explicitly address voters’ concerns for fear of being labelled “fascist”. She continues:

So far they have not even attempted to understand why the radical right has been able to strike a chord with the electorate. By emphasising the “politically incorrect” and “un-presentable” discourse in the ideology of the new radical right, mainstream parties have underestimated the eytent to which their arguments resonate with the public and have tended to reject the possibility of these parties becoming real contenders for political power (Guibernau, 2010: 16)

She continues that governments have already restricted the migration flow but have not sufficiently informed the public, allowing the far right to talk of “open door policies”. Furthermore, the failure to offer an alternative narrative which balances respect for human rights with rational acknowledgement of limited resources.

There is a clear danger in applying this argument in a blanket manner. Much of the discourse over the far right is based on the salience of given issues and the manner in which the mainstream responds to this can be crucial. In May 2009, for example, the British Labour government held a briefing for MPs on the BNP. Responding to data that the BNP received votes from those who were against immigration and who disliked benefits cheats, MPs were told to demonstrate in public how the Labour Party is not soft on migration or cheats. The government even suspended the movement of asylum seekers to areas of Lancashire which had shown an increased BNP vote. However, such measures represent a knee-jerk reaction and fail to take account of more systematic analyses. Furthermore, Arzheimer argues that once the mainstream begins “talking tough”, far right issues gain greater legitimacy in the eyes of the public and are no longer seen as taboo (2009: 264). Indeed, stigma appears as a significant factor in inhibiting an initial break through for FRPs.

As the salience of far right issues increase, there is no guarantee that the mainstream will be able to direct the debate. Here, the question of ownership is crucial. Copy-cat tendencies are particularly noticeable among the centre-right and the effects vary from limiting the success of the far right while providing them with a pyrrhic policy victory or in bolstering the party itself. The centre-right cites a few examples where successful copying has been used to limit the electoral success of the far right. By this rationale, Margaret Thatcher’s British Conservatives limited the success of the NF in the 1970s, while the VVD did the same with the CD in the Netherlands, as did FIDESz-MPS with MIÉP in Hungary. This is contrasted with the French case in which Le Pen responded to Chirac that “voters prefer the original over the copy”. Mudde argues that ownership is crucial to whether copy-cat strategies work. Therefore, as an issue becomes more salient, the party which has established a perception of competence in a given field will reap the rewards. Thus, the FPÖ benefitted from the increased salience of immigration as an issue (Mudde, 2007: 241-242).

Yet history weighs heavily on copy-cat strategies. It is worth recognising that it is a success in itself for the far right to have its issues increase in salience and legitimacy on the mainstream. The British example provided above is illustrative of the success of right-wing parties in shifting the terms of the debate on immigration without achieving power (Sprague-Jones, 2011: 549). Furthermore, if the objective was to limit the success of far right parties in general, none of the above examples have succeeded. Britain, the Netherlands and Hungary have all witnessed relative successes for parties of the far right in the intervening years under the auspices of the BNP & UKIP, the Dutch Party of Freedom and Jobbik respectively. Thus, as a strategy, it is short-termist and empirically unjustifiable.



Of course political parties do not operate in a vacuum. In order to communicate with voters, parties have to interact with the media. Some on the far right will present themselves as victims of an elite conspiracy when it comes to media relations, while many on the left decry the manner in which the tabloid press fan the flames of populism. As usual, the picture is far from crystal clear. While publications in the tabloid press and programmes on commercial radio and television may sometimes pander to stereotypes of immigrants and others from outside the in-group, most will refrain from explicitly associating themselves with the far right. This might be in part due to commercial concerns which could be damaged through stigma by association. Among the media of the “liberal elite” (as the far right would have it), coverage is significantly more hostile. However, this appears to be one of those occasions in which any publicity is good publicity. The exposure given to FRPs provides them with an air of legitimacy in the eyes of their voters, who would most likely be suspicious of elite discourses anyway. This exposure is most important in the early stages of party organisation (Mudde, 2007: 260).

It is difficult to test empirically the extent to which media exposure aids the far right. However, in publicising FRPs beyond those voters who explicitly sought out such parties in the first place, they provide the parties with an opportunity to present an image of themselves beyond the previously held stereotypes. The issues covered by the media and discussed by mainstream parties are the nuts and bolts of political discourse. If greater attention is given to issues “owned” by the far right, this will invariably increase their exposure. Furthermore, attempts by mainstream parties to take ownership over such issues do not guarantee that the far right will be kept underfoot in the long term. Nor does it mean that these issues will eventually go away. There is a difference between being responsive to the concerns of voters and increasing the salience of far right red herrings for the sake of a few votes, as already said.  Having previously marginal issues brought into the mainstream represents a success in itself for the far right.



Cas Mudde’s use of demand-side and supply-side analyses of the prevalence of the far right indicates that once a FRP has achieved electoral breakthrough, its destiny is ultimately down to its own actions. Thus, the quality of its leadership and internal organisation, its ability to deal with factionalism and to “institutionalise” itself will all play a role in whether the FRP is a “flash in the pan” protest vote or one which can rely on continued support. Crucially, this will also determine how the FRP handles strategies adopted by other parties. Once a FRP has reached a certain critical mass of votes, the rest of the political class – but most particularly the mainstream parties – is forced to confront the decision of how to react. Is it more appropriate to opt for a cordon sanitaire or to bring them into the mainstream through cooperation?

The most well organised parties will be strengthened by both. Exclusion allows well organised FRPs to eschew concerns with tactical considerations like compromise through coalition and therefore enables them to keep their pragmatic and more extreme wings together, as seen in the Belgian VB. Alternatively, parties such as the FPÖ and LN have thrived in coalition (Mudde, 2007: 289-290). There are further examples of less well organised parties which have suffered under both approaches. Thus, it is crucial that the mainstream recognises the need to face FRPs down when they first come to notice and before they have become institutionalised.

It is both interesting and worrying to note the manner in which relatively minor parties can succeed in setting the agenda for the mainstream. Of course, socialists cannot control the reactions of the centre right to the far right but it is important to have a narrative which reflects our perspective. This paper has borrowed heavily from the other literature available and attempted to establish a typology which can be used to identify what we should characterise as extreme right. This study takes the perspective that the left should not do the far right any favours in terms of increasing the salience of issues over which it claims ownership. Furthermore, it recommends a cordon sanitaire approach to FRPs in the early phase of mobilisation.

Dealing with more “established” FRPs is a more difficult proposition as we have seen that both exclusionary and inclusionary approaches can help them depending on their capacity for modernisation and organisation.  This type of FRP is ultimately a challenge for the left. As the forces of market liberalism undermine the achievements of 20th century social democracy, the far right encroaches on social democratic electoral territory and claims to be defenders of these institutions when it suits them. Furthermore, their populist discourse allows them to proclaim that they reflect the views, wishes and aspirations of “the people”. Yet they are demagogic forces who use the resources available to them to play on fear and insecurity, and they undermine democratic discourse through mimic and parody and relieve themselves of the burden of real leadership (Judt, 2010: 172). It is worth reminding voters that the far right’s version of the economy is instrumental rather than ideological. They will eschew the welfare state if it no longer suits their needs.

A more fundamental challenge is rebuilding trust so that European electorates will listen to the social democratic narrative. Responding effectively to the challenges and insecurities of globalisation will be absolutely necessary. At nation-state level, this will require another alternative narrative and a defence of the agenda and role of the state as a protector the whole population beyond the divisions of in-groups and out-groups. The challenge is to articulate these fears in a coherent and reasonable manner. In his final book, Tony Judt turned to history in writing the following about the place of social democracy amidst the threats that exist today:

We must revisit the ways in which our grandparents’ generation handled comparable challenges and threats. Social democracy in Europe, the New Deal and the Great Society here in the US, were explicit responses to them. Few in the West today can conceive of a complete breakdown of liberal institutions, an utter disintegration of democratic consensus. But what we know of World War II – or of the former Yugoslavia – illustrates the ease with which any society can descend into Hobbesian nightmares of unrestrained atrocity and violence. If we are going to build a better future, it must begin with a deeper appreciation of the ease with which even solidly-grounded liberal democracies can founder. To put it quite bluntly, if social democracy has a future, it will be as a social democracy of fear (Judt, 2010: 221)

This is not to say that the left should engage in populistic scaremongering like the far right. Rather, it is to remind voters that it was social democracy that tamed the onslaught of previous waves of market-driven insecurity and that xenophobic and parochial nationalisms exacerbated its effects.

Beyond the grand narratives, it is apparent from the literature that indexed quantitative analysis produces complex and contradictory results which can sometimes muddy the water in research on the far right. To be sure, it has its uses but from a policy perspective it is evident that more qualitative and ethnographic studies are necessary. Given the oft secretive nature of far right parties, this could prove difficult. However, the key to understanding any increase in the far right vote beyond an initial breakthrough is in looking at the parties themselves.



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