In recent years, the academic literature on radical right-wing populism in advanced liberal democracies has grown at an exponential rate. Major political science journals have dedicated special issues to the phenomenon; leading scholars throughout the social sciences—from sociology to economics, from communications to gender studies—have taken note of its importance and made significant contributions to the burgeoning literature; and the media have done their part to disseminate their findings among the general public. As a result, radical right-wing populism is currently one of the most closely examined and most profoundly explored and scrutinised phenomena in contemporary comparative politics.
Several reasons account for this development: most importantly—and most often mentioned in recent studies—the election of
Donald Trump and the outcome of the Brexit
referendum; secondly, the upsurge of support for radical right-wing populist parties in the aftermath of the financial crisis of 2008, particularly in France, Italy, Austria and the Scandinavian countries; thirdly, the emergence of radical right-wing populist parties in Western European countries previously thought to be immune to radical right-wing
mobilisation, i.e., Germany and Spain. Last but not least, the diffusion of a political climate of democratic distemper, which has become a breeding ground for a
“politics of backlash”, “
illiberal democracy” and a yearning for authoritarian leaders. And in the same context, and arguably most troubling, the advance of a political culture of “shamelessness” reflected in expressions of open
racism, anti-Semitism and the disparaging of sexual minorities (Wodak, 2019).
In the remainder of this paper, I set out to develop a comprehensive analytical/interpretative framework for the study of contemporary radical right-wing populism in advanced liberal democracies, based on the extant state-of-the-art
literature on the subject. In Western Europe, radical right-wing populism is a relatively new phenomenon. Its genealogy, however, is much longer, going all the way back into the nineteenth century. Historically, instances of radical right-wing populist mobilisation have always advanced two ideational narratives—a populist indictment of the
elite, however defined, and a nativist claim to stand for the legitimate aspirations of the native-born. It is this ideational amalgam which accounts to a large extent for the success of radical right-wing populism in advanced liberal democracies today.
What sets radical right-wing populist parties and movements apart is their deliberate elicitation of a panoply of emotions, such as anxiety, anger, rage and nostalgia. The history of radical right-wing populism is a history of hysteria, hyperbole and conspiracy narratives filling numerous tracts and pamphlets that could cover a whole section of a university library. Radical right-wing populist narratives tend to evoke a nostalgic vision of “the good old days” when men were still men, women knew their subordinate place in society and foreigners stayed were they belonged, namely far away. These were the years of the post-war economic miracle (the famous German Wirtschaftswunder and French trente glorieuses), marked by rapid economic growth, full (male) employment, expanding welfare programmes and growing mass prosperity. These were the years when the belief in progress was still intact and the future was still positively defined. These were the years when the social democratic left was at its most potent, in terms of both popular support at the polls and policy impact.
This is certainly no longer the case in contemporary Western Europe. Western European societies today are suffused with a combination of negative emotions, ranging from anxieties, fears and indignation to outright rage, in response to a multitude of crises, threats and uncertainties, for which the political establishment does not seem to have any realistic and sustainable solutions. For large parts of the population in advanced liberal democracies, the future is negatively defined, particularly when it comes to the future prospects of their children. The upsurge of Western European radical right-wing populism in recent years has to be seen in this larger context. It is for that reason that an explanation of the phenomenon needs to take into account the whole range of input from across the social sciences, from political science to economics, from sociology and social psychology to cultural studies, from political geography to gender studies and, last but not least, legal studies.
This, however, is only half of the story. Contextual conditions favourable for
populist mobilisation remain latent as long as there are no credible and persuasive
political entrepreneurs capable of translating vague popular unease and apprehension into a terse, trenchant narrative. This explains, for instance, why Germany and Spain for a long time appeared relatively immune to the sirens of radical right-wing populism—a fact that was erroneously attributed to the lasting impact of the lessons learnt from history. The dramatic gains of the Alternative für Deutschland
AfD)—particularly in the eastern part of Germany—in recent regional and national elections as well as the sudden upsurge of electoral support
in national and regional elections in Spain have gainsaid this notion. They have demonstrated once again that the political appeal to resentment is a wide, open field ready to welcome any political newcomer savvy enough to take advantage of the opportunities offered by popular political disenchantment, disaffection and rage. The dramatic resurgence of the radical populist right in Flanders (Vlaams Belang
) and the sudden upsurge of support for a relative newcomer in the Netherlands (Forum voor Democratie
) in the most recent European election are prominent cases in point.
A comprehensive analysis of contemporary radical right-wing populism has to take account of all of these features. Given the vast amount of literature on the topic—and the sensitive nature of the phenomenon under investigation—any attempt to advance such an analysis obviously poses a particularly significant challenge. The choice of literature, as well as of supporting evidence, must necessarily be selective, informed by the idiosyncratic predispositions of the interpreter. In what follows, I will sketch the outlines of a broad-based interpretative framework for the analysis of
contemporary radical right-wing populism in advanced liberal democracies largely based on the extant literature on the topic. The discussion is divided into three parts. The first part addresses questions of taxonomy. It deals with the main features of radical right-wing populism, with a particular emphasis on genealogy. The second part addresses the question of what accounts for the protracted staying power of radical right-wing populist parties. The third part briefly addresses the question of what these parties have concretely done when in a position of genuine power to respond to the concerns and interests of the “
ordinary people” they purport to represent.
1.2 What do we mean when we speak of radical right-wing populism?
1.2.1 The basics
Most discussions of radical right-wing populism start with the assertion that populism is a “contested concept”, difficult, if not outright impossible, to clearly define. As the author of a widely cited work on populism has recently maintained, it is
far from obvious that we know what we are talking about. We simply do not have anything like a theory of populism, and we seem to lack coherent criteria for deciding when political actors turn
populist in some meaningful sense.
Anyone who has followed the rise of radical right-wing populism in Western Europe over several decades will find this statement rather puzzling. Like Justice
Potter Stewart, who once famously quipped that he knew pornography when he
saw it, we instinctively know whether or not a new party belongs to the radical right-wing populist
family when we come across it. This is not only because of the particular way these parties promote themselves in the political market place. It is also because of the tropes and idiosyncratic formulations they instinctively adopt, most significantly anti-multiculturalism, climate change denial, anti-genderism, historical revisionism and, last but not least, more or less subtle anti-Semitism and intense Islamophobia.
Stripped down to its most basic core, radical right-wing populism is a fusion of two ideational elements: populism and
nativism. Populism is political doctrine that holds that society is divided into two antagonistic blocs: the vast majority of ordinary people and a relatively small
elite that acts in its own interest. Populism is essentially about mobilising ordinary citizens—the “low”—around a common set of grievances and resentments that provide them with a shared notion of identity and pit them against “those above” held responsible for all their grievances. Populism claims for itself to restore voice to the people and thus ensure that politics once again becomes the authentic reflection and expression of the popular will, derived from the
“common sense” of ordinary people. At the same time, populism advances a discourse that “valorises
ordinary people” and claims to accord them the respect they deserve (Jansen, 2011).
Nativism is informed by the notion that the material and cultural interests of the “native-born” should be accorded absolute priority over those new to the community—and that solely on the grounds that the former are natives. Nativism is closely linked to infrahumanisation, that is, the “subtle denial of the humanity of out-groups which is then expressed in the differential treatment of outgroup members (relative to in-group members)” (Banton, West and Kinney, 2019, p. 3). Politically, it involves a variety of measures on the part of the “indigenous” population designed to defend, maintain and revive the cherished heritage of their culture. In the American contest, where the concept originated, it has centred upon the “demand that citizens come before noncitizens, Americans before foreigners, and that we take care of home first before abroad” (Greenberg and Zdunkewicz, 2017, p. 6).
In short, nativism fundamentally rejects the progressive extension of “moral boundaries”—i.e., the “distinction between those entities that are deemed worthy of moral consideration and those that are not”—which has been one of the central characteristics of modern societies (Crimston, et al., 2016, p. 1). Instead, it advocates a narrow conception of solidarity on the grounds that only a narrow conception will sustain solidarity in an age of progressive individualisation (de Beer and Koster, 2009). In practical policy terms, nativist doctrine holds that governments have as their primary duty the promotion and protection of the well-being and welfare of its own citizens, more often than not defined in ethnic terms. At the same time, nativist doctrine demands from governments the active demonstration of a “reasonable partiality towards compatriots”, particularly with regard to employment and social benefits (Miller, 2005).
In today’s radical right-wing
populism, nativism is closely aligned with the notion of national sovereignty. It is this combination, which is at the heart of the
radical right’s “neo-nationalist” appeal, which
Maureen Eger and
Sarah Valdez have shown to constitute the defining characteristic of the contemporary radical right in
advanced capitalist democracies (2015, 2019). At the same time, neo-nationalism represents a certain degree of common ground between the radical populist right and the radical populist left. Both are vehemently anti-establishment (take, for instance, Podemos
’s attacks against la casta
), and both explicitly seek to regain national sovereignty—if for quite different reasons (Eger and Valdez, 2015, p. 127). Where they diverge is on the question of nativism—even if the radical populist left occasionally appears tempted by nativist appeals (a prominent example is
Sahra Wagenknecht of Die Linke
who adopted nativist lingo in an attempt to regain frustrated and disillusioned
AfD voters) (Schuler, 2018).
Populism has a long and illustrious history, going all the way back to ancient times. However, in this paper, I am primarily interested in populism as a discourse of contestation within the context of representative political systems, geared to/aimed at mobilising