Beginning in the post-enlightenment era, a new generation of politics brought together a uniquely democratic, egalitarian structure of government. This new type of governance emerged to create new political dimensions that had not been seen before in the monarchical structures that were omnipresent in the Western world — the Left-Right axis.¹ This political axis began to shape politics from the very onset of democratic governance. Though these political dimensions may not have encompassed the same ideological overlap in different contexts, left and right parties began to diverge over which outlook was most beneficial for society.
On the left, equality, social justice, and civil liberty evolved as foundational values; conversely, the right has been shaped by moral universalism, individualism, and European Exceptionalism. As these two philosophically-warring counterparts tugged at each other at various points in history, the fringes of both umbrella-ideologies began to develop into movements and organizations that were seen as divergent from mainstream thought. Throughout the ebb and flow of history, these groups fluctuated in their power and influence over the political system. In the twenty-first century, a notable dearth of extreme-left parties has given way to a meteoric rise of extreme right-wing parties all over the Western world. Industrialized countries, such as the United States and France, all have shown significant increases in radical-right vote-share.²
Why is the radical right so much more appealing than the radical left in today’s society? Multiple factors are catalyzing the growth of this ideology worldwide, such as structural weaknesses in democratic governance, contemporary societal conditions, and the historical legacies which are omnipresent in certain societies. By looking at the United States and France, analysis of right-wing movements show rapid growth in popularity due to these underlying factors, as well as current trends that impact the way that people understand the world around them.
While there has been a plethora of literature surrounding the proliferation of right-wing parties and ideologies in the twenty-first century due to external societal factors, specific weaknesses of governmental structures of industrialized democracies are another issue that has catalyzed the growth of populist right-wing movements. One of the most important aspects of democracy is its ability to cultivate citizens, institutions, and a public sphere that are conducive to democratic thought.³ Inherently, democracy requires certain prerequisite assumptions about societal arrangements. Dahl theorizes that, at a fundamental level, citizens must be able to formulate coherent preferences, be able to signify these preferences to other citizens and government structures through individual and collective action, and to have these preferences weighted evenly among citizens.⁴ These fundamental citizenship skills are contradictory to the far-right populism that has weaved its way into many societies.
The radical right thrives on divvying up the populace into different groups, and is disinterested in debating the merits of their relative position in society and dividing resources equitably. Through a self-interested lens, they are fundamentally contradicting Dahl’s classifications.⁵ Though these democratic values are not inherently partisan, it is clear that the most intense ideological challenge to this hegemonic governing-philosophy in the Western world has come from the extreme-right. To understand how radical parties can proliferate under such universal democratic norms, one has to examine the individual.
Uniquely in democracies, the citizen has immense power to shape the system to their interpretation of the world; however, citizens’ interpretation of the world could be lacking important prerequisite ability to make rational decisions in the democratic context. Democracy is fundamentally difficult: it demands participants to respect those on the opposite side of the political spectrum and evaluate complex information in the context of an obtuse web of institutional frameworks. Democratic elite, using their civic awareness and gatekeeping power, have been able to successfully maneuver the expansive responsibilities of self-rule for hundreds of years.⁶ However, this democratic elite has been losing control of these valuable institutions (such as the media, political institutions, and economic power) to competing ideologies that offer simple solutions, often in the form of authoritarian or populist action. This breakdown, as Rosenberg describes, is due to “incompetent” democratic citizens who “lack the requisite cognitive and emotional capacities to assimilate its cultural definitions and norms, to function in its institutional organizations and to participate in its public sphere.”⁷ Rosenberg is not the only one to make this observation about individual citizens. In a similar but less explicit categorization of the modern US-American psyche, Greven describes right-wing populism’s appeal in the United States along a similar construction — promises for easy solutions to intricate and multi-faceted dilemmas without the need for compromise or negotiation are only workable in a “fantasy world.”⁸
Greven continues by pointing out that this “fantasy world” is highly appealing to a “disaffected section of the American public,” in defense against a “supposedly hegemonic political correctness.”⁹ Greven does draw similarities to Rosenberng in his connotation of a “disaffected public,” but his theory is more nuanced in terms of this democratic consciousness in society; rather than being a characteristic inherent in humans, this characterization of the “disaffected public” is limited to a certain subset of the citizenry who feel as though they need to push back at the elite. Prooijen suggests that extreme actors in society view the social world in a simplistic binary, when in fact it is much more complex.¹⁰ This mirrors the “incompetent citizen” and creation of a “fantasy world” described by Greven and Rosenberg. These views illustrate a particular pattern that is appearing in the United States and Europe that values simplistic systems of thought being constructed in the place of complex democratic ideals.¹¹
The breakdown of democratic societies has left a void that has increasingly been filled with right-wing populists who, converse to democratic citizens, do not possess the ability or will to do the diligent work that democracy requires. These citizens are asked to comprehend that what holds them together is not their shared objective attributes, but rather their legal definition and integration into an intricate system of societal and governmental relationships.¹²Due to the failure in the implementation and fostering of these civic values over the last forty years in American education systems,¹³ there are citizens who are unable to interact with the system properly, and thus inevitably, they will turn toward more radical-right figures who make issues more “readily comprehensible, morally sensible and personally satisfying.”¹⁴ This idea that democracy is unnatural and humans will inescapably resist democratic values leaves the more personally-fulfilling ideologies like right-wing populism to proliferate in democratic societies.
In addition to Rosenberg’s examination of the structural weaknesses in democracy and its vulnerability to right-wing populist appeals, current economic and social situations lead such parties to have further appeal in developed Western countries in the twenty-first century. Trends clearly show increases in immigration in the United States and France.¹⁵ Moreover, there is a significant increase in the interconnectedness of modern societies (“globalization” is the term for this trend).¹⁶ These factors trigger societal reactions that lead to an increase in right-wing support.
In an analysis by Hogan , it is posited that external factors such as immigration and increasing globalization are some of the most salient issues that the far-right use to gain power and legitimacy.¹⁷ The demonization of the other and “parasites” in society sets up an “us versus them” populist message.¹⁸ This understanding lets these populist leaders delegitimize political opponents who side with the given “other” in a society. Aligning with Hogan’s demonization of external factors like immigration and globalization, Shmuck argues that a combination of anti-neoliberal globalization and anti-cultural diversity allows right-wing populist parties to make simple moral judgments in line with an imagined socio-cultural hierarchy that is perceived to be under threat.¹⁹ These symbolic threats about the “loss of Western civilization”²⁰ are far more salient than perceived economic threats that have been the backbone of moderate parties of both dimensions.²¹
To participate in mainstream politics, these radical-right groups do not want to be considered racist or exclusionist outright. Instead, they cloak their exclusionist policies under the guise of platitudes such as security and freedom.²² This guise allows far-right groups to engage in mainstream politics, even while sending a dog-whistle message to their constituents that the selected outgroup will be combated. This allows them to garner more support and continue making electoral gains. From a psychological standpoint, especially among people on the political right, socio-cultural fear can lead to a growing salience of extreme political ideologies.²³ Often, this fear of the outgroup is projected onto immigrants or elites who are perceived to threaten the base of the populist right (working-class whites in post-industrial societies).²⁴ This notion of the “other” is vital to the success of these right-wing populist movements. Through the identification of the “enemies” in a polity, and attributing any ill in the community to them, extreme-right groups can raise the political saliency of these societal conditions to mobilize support for their cause. This process is how right-wing groups can galvanize support out of external societal factors like immigration or globalization.
In addition to the democratic and contemporary societal explanation for the radical right, another suggested reason for its prevalence in society today is the unique historical context that characterizes most Western nations today. Former colonial powers — like France — or racially-hierarchical societies — like the United States — in the West leave a lasting residue in the fabric of society that is difficult to fully scrub from today’s psyche. Specifically in the case of France, Veugelers argues that the relationship between the colonizers and the colonized creates a legacy that contributes to support of the far-right.²⁵ Using the country case of Algeria, a former French colony, Veugelers touches upon a palpable reverence for the “old world” among the former Algerian colonizers who now make up a considerable coalition in far-right parties. Values like nativism, nationalism, and xenophobia accompany a sense of frustration with France’s historical decline.²⁶
This amorphous subtext that Veugelers identifies can be viewed through the lens of certain historically-privileged members of society experiencing a sensation of relative loss in social standing. This can be damaging because it can distort how an individual engages with democratic politics if relative social standing in society is misjudged. This could further lead to erroneous assumptions made about outgroup members, a factor upon which right-wing populist parties thrive. However, these feelings alone do not garner enough support for far-right parties; rather, Veugelers posits that under certain conditions of voluntary self-isolation in a subculture of homogenous like-minded individuals, these historical attitudes breed supercharged identities that support right-wing parties more reliably.²⁷
Drawing a parallel to Veugelers’ southern French constituencies, the party migration of conservative, southern, white members of the US Democratic party to the Republican party offers a similar outcome. A new analysis by Kuziemko found that after the mid twentieth-century, a backlash to Democratic-led Civil Rights legislation and a reverence for a traditional racial-caste system, proved even more important than economic interests, leading them to migrate to the Republican party.²⁸ Moreover, these racially-conservative views accounted for virtually all of the Democratic voter-loss in the former slave-owning regions during that period.²⁹ This shows a distinct pattern of admiration of previous social hierarchies similar to the ones which Veugelers discussed in southern France. Due to the contemporary demographics of the United States, this white southern coalition is the base of the radical right-parties which exist in the country today. This further supports the theory that reverence for unequal racial or ethnic hierarchies of the past is at least one determining factor of support for the radical right.
These three theories, explaining some of the conditions that make the radical right popular today, interact with each other in important ways. Specifically, the connection between Rosenberg’s paper that outlines a need for a civically educated elite to maintain a democratic “liberal” system and the modern aspects of ingrained ethno-racial superiority brought on by changes in modern society that are present in some citizens. Attempting to understand why people adopt these views about immigration or historical legacies comes back to the inability of certain citizens to properly identify their position in society comprehensively, which is a fundamental requirement of liberal democracies.³⁰ This dislike of the outsider could be deeper than just animosity toward other races and nationalities — rather, it could be a new electoral expression of white peoples’ relative loss of power through colonization or racial constructions collectively.³¹ This new expression could lead to dangerous effects in the political realm, such as the appeal of more ideologically-extreme parties or the erosion of democracy itself. These specific economic and social conditions together, coupled with the analysis of the “incompetent citizen,” create a nuanced framework for understanding right-wing radical appeals and why they are thriving in our world today.
About the Author
Zak Schneider is a third year student at Boston University completing a double major, in Political Science and International Relations with a regional track of Europe, and a functional track of Cultural Anthropology. His interests lie in democratization, contemporary political polarization, and foreign relations.
¹ “The Enlightenment,” Discovering Literature: Restoration & 18th Century, British Library, June 21, 2018, https://www.bl.uk/restoration-18th-century-literature/articles/the-enlightenment#.
² “Europe and Right-Wing Nationalism: A Country by Country Guide,” News, BBC News Services, November 13, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/news/world-europe-36130006.
³ SW Rosenberg, “Democracy Devouring Itself: The Rise of the Incompetent Citizen and the Appeal of Right Wing Populism,” in Psychology of Political and Everyday Extremisms, [editor, (city: publisher, year) page numbers].
⁴ Robert Dahl, Polyarchy Participation and Opposition, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1971).
⁵ G Charalambous & P Christoforou, “Far-Right Extremism and Populist Rhetoric: Greece and Cyprus during an Era of Crisis,” South European Society and Politics 23, no. 4, (2018): 451–477, http://doi.org/10.1080/13608746.2018.1555957.
⁶ This is not to suggest that a conservative cannot be a democratic elite. It is just that Right-Wing ideology is more vulnerable to be radicalized and taken over by populism recently.
⁷ Rosenberg, “Democracy Devouring Itself,” 17.
⁸ Greven, Thomas. “The rise of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States.” A Comparative Perspective [The emergence of right-wing populism in Europe and the United States. A comparative perspective]. Friedrich Ebert Foundation, Washington DC Office (2016): 1-8.
¹⁰ JWV Prooijen et al., “Fear Among the Extremes,” Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 41, no. 4 (February 2015): 485–497, http://doi.org/10.1177/0146167215569706.
¹¹ Additionally, while both the extreme left and right have been responsible for this decline in democratic thought, the right-wing coalition is much more effective and organized today’s societies. For more information, please visit the following site: https://fpif.org/sieg-heil-deja-vu-understanding-the-global-rise-of-the-extreme-right/.
¹² Rosenberg, “Democracy Devouring Itself.”
¹³ Quigley, Charles N. “Civic education: recent history, current status, and the future.” Albany Law Review 62, no. 4 (1999): 1425-1426.
¹⁴ Rosenberg, “Democracy Devouring Itself,” 4.
¹⁵ “The numbers that tell the story of immigration in France,” The Local,October 8, 2019,https://www.thelocal.fr/20191008/the-numbers-that-tell-the-story-of-immigration-in-france.
¹⁶ P Ghemawat & SA Altman, “The State of Globalization in 2019, and What It Means for Strategists,” Harvard Business Review, February 06, 2019, https://hbr.org/2019/02/the-state-of-globalization-in-2019-and-what-it-means-for-strategists.
¹⁷ J Hogan & K Haltinner, “Floods, Invaders, and Parasites: Immigration Threat Narratives and Right-Wing Populism in the USA, UK and Australia.” Journal of Intercultural Studies 36, no. 5 (2015): 520–543, http://doi.org/10.1080/07256868.2015.1072907.
¹⁸ Jan-Werner Müller, What is populism? (London: Penguin Books, 2017) ; Hogan & Haltinner, “Floods, Invaders, and Parasites.”.
¹⁹ D Schmuck & J Matthes, “Effects of Economic and Symbolic Threat Appeals in Right-Wing Populist Advertising on Anti-Immigrant Attitudes: The Impact of Textual and Visual Appeals,” Political Communication 34, no. 4 (May 2017): 607–626, http://doi.org/10.1080/10584609.2017.1316807.
²⁰ WS Smith, “NATO’s Real Existential Threat: The Surrender of Western Values,” The American Conservative, February 07, 2018, https://www.theamericanconservative.com/articles/natos-real-existential-threat-the-surrender-of-western-values/.
²¹ Shmuck & Matthes, “Effects of Economic and Symbolic Threat Appeals in Right-Wing Populaist Advertising on Anti-Immigrant Attitudes.”
²² Hogan & Haltinner, “Floods, Invaders, and Parasites.”.
²³ Prooijen et al., “Fear Among the Extremes.”
²⁴ R Heis & J Matthes, “Stuck in a Nativist Spiral: Content, Selection, and Effects of Right-Wing Populists’ Communication on Facebook,” Political Communication 37, (2020): 1–26, http://doi.org/10.1080/10584609.2019.1661890.
²⁵ Veugelers, John Welly Peter. Empire’s Legacy : Roots of a Far-right Affinity in Contemporary France. Oxford Studies in Culture & Politics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2019.
²⁸ I Kuziemko & E Washington, “Why did the Democrats Lose the South? Bringing New Data to an Old Debate,” American Economic Association, (November 2015), http://doi.org/10.3386/w21703.
³⁰ Rosenberg, “Democracy Devouring Itself.”
³¹ The demographics of radical Right-Wing movements across the world are overwhelmingly white; for more information, please visit the following site: https://ifstudies.org/blog/the-demography-of-the-alt-right.