The extreme right’s new clothes

Elisabeth Carter

Right-wing extremists have made electoral gains across Europe in recent years. A new-found professionalism, coupled with an emphasis on culture rather than race, has given these parties greater credibility and legitimacy. 

The massacre of dozens of innocent people in Norway in July last year reminded the world that right-wing extremist violence continues to exist in even the most peaceful corners of the globe. Yet the shock, confusion and outcry at the atrocities perpetrated by Anders Breivik also illustrated that, thankfully, violent attacks by ultra-right extremist ‘lone wolves’ remain relatively rare. By contrast, non-violent and organised right-wing extremism, which operates within the boundaries of the democratic system, is much more widespread. Indeed, over the last three decades, we have witnessed the emergence and growth of extreme right political parties across a large number of European countries. 

At present, Marine Le Pen is riding high in the polls ahead of this year’s French presidential elections: a survey conducted on 23-24 November suggests that the leader of the Front National will gain 18 percent of the vote in the fi rst round contest. Whether she will make it through to the second round, as her father and former party leader, Jean-Marie, did in 2002, remains to be seen of course, but she is sitting in a very strong third place, only 8-10 percentage points behind President Sarkozy. Meanwhile, the Swiss People’s Party once again attracted more votes (26.6 percent) than any other party in the recent federal elections, and Geert Wilders’ Freedom Party won 15.5 percent of the vote in the 2010 Dutch contest – it now lends legislative support to the minority Liberal-Christian Democrat government. Further north, the True Finns and the Danish People’s Party gained enough support (19.5 percent and 12.3 percent respectively) in general elections last year to make them the third largest party in their national parliaments. The extreme right continues to post a strong showing at the polls in Austria and Italy too, and in Sweden and Hungary right-wing extremist parties now have sizeable representation in parliament. 

To be sure, extreme right’s electoral success has not been a feature of all European democracies. The British National Party (BNP), for example, continues to be a marginal electoral force, and its prospects for success look bleak given its deep internal rifts and precarious financial health. Similarly, despite sporadic gains at regional level, German extreme right parties remain relatively unsuccessful. Yet, the lack of success of these parties does not mean that there is a lack of potential for extreme right policies and ideas. Indeed, recent research on the British case suggests that one in five electors in England would consider voting for the BNP in the future. 

So what accounts for the emergence of these parties, and what ideologies do they espouse that appeal to such large numbers of voters? Many sociologists and political scientists explain the emergence of contemporary extreme right parties with reference to the processes of post-industrial modernisation of the 1960s and 1970s. Across most democracies, the growth of welfare states, increased levels of education and greater employment opportunities brought social mobility to many. In turn, those who benefited from these changes became less anxious about material well-being (food, shelter and security) and instead began to attach more importance to non-traditional issues such as equality, minority rights and environmental protection. For others, however, this transformation was less welcome because it was seen as precipitating a decline in traditional moral values, a weakening of communities and an erosion of social order. As well as progress then, modernisation brought uncertainty, displacement, alienation and resentment. With mainstream parties unable or unwilling to respond to such feelings, a new type of party emerged that sought to offer reassurance and that promised a restoration of identity and pride, and a return to traditional values and authority. 

In catering to such concerns, contemporary extreme right parties have moved away from socially unacceptable ideologies that included biological racism (i.e. the notion of one race being superior to others), anti-Semitism and an outright rejection of democracy. Instead, they combine a mix of xenophobic, culturist and anti-establishment ideals. They call for an immediate end to (and a reversal of) immigration and they do so on economic and on cultural grounds. They portray immigrants as a severe threat to national resources (jobs, housing, social services), and they argue that all social benefits should be restricted to members of the national community. These policies are presented as part of a broader scheme of ‘national preference’ that safeguards the living standards and economic future of the host community. 

Immigration is also linked to social unrest, criminality and a refusal to conform to the host country’s laws, and it is framed as constituting a threat to national cultures, ways of life and identities. In recent years (and especially since 9/11), this culturist element in the ideologies of extreme right parties has become more important, and Muslims have been particularly targeted. Whether voiced via debates on the wearing of veils and headscarves, the construction of mosques or the consumption of halal meat, Islam is portrayed, at worst, as aggressive and dangerous, and at best, as fundamentally incompatible with Western cultures. The parties point to inter-ethnic conflicts and ghettoised communities as evidence that multiculturalism is a liberal experiment that has failed and as proof that policies of assimilation have not worked. Racism then is still present in the ideologies of these parties, but it is of a new kind, where the emphasis is on culture rather than race, and on incompatibility and dilution rather than superiority. 

The contemporary nature of right-wing extremism is also reflected in these parties’ attitudes towards democracy. While ‘old school’ neo-fascist and neo-Nazi parties rejected pluralism, and hence saw no need for parliaments, parties, interest groups or trade unions, today’s extreme right parties work within the democratic system and are very quick to declare their commitment to it. However, they have a particular conception of how the system should function and how parties and governments should interact with the populace. They favour a strong state that is able to look after the national community from all possible threats, be these immigration, criminality or foreign interference. At the same time, they advocate a populist vision of democracy in which politics should work for and express the views and interests of the ‘ordinary people’. On one level, this includes more citizens’ initiatives, referendums and direct elections. Yet on another, this conception of democracy entails an ‘us versus them’ model in which the ‘ordinary people’ are pitted not only against immigrants, but also the corrupt, self-serving and inept elite. This outlook is accompanied by fervent anti-establishment rhetoric (reflected, for example, in the BNP’s use of the label ‘LibLabCon’ to describe the major UK parties, or in Jean-Marie Le Pen’s reference to the main French parties as the ‘Gang of Four’) that enables extreme right parties to present themselves as the real alternative, to argue that the elite cartel has lost touch with ordinary people, and to generally fuel dissatisfaction with established politics and parties. 

Notwithstanding this anti-establishment rhetoric, extreme right party voters are not simply protest voters. Rather, they have the same motivations that other party voters have: they cast their ballots on the basis of ideology, and often do so in the hope of being able to influence policy. So, as research has shown, extreme right parties attract support from people concerned that high immigration is a threat to jobs, a drain on social services and benefits, a source of crime and a danger to national identity. These voters are also disillusioned with the established parties’ inability or unwillingness to tackle these pressing concerns. 

The archetypal extreme right voter is male, is either young or old, has only basic educational qualifications, and tends to be lower middle or working class. Academics are still at a bit of a loss to explain why these parties are so over-represented among men, but they have suggested that the paternalistic nature of some of their policies (e.g. on abortion, or concerning a woman’s role in the family) might be rather unappealing to female voters. As for age, the young and the old are more likely to be attracted to extreme right parties because they depend on social benefits more than other groups, and policies of ‘national preference’ may therefore be rather attractive. 

Policies that promote jobs for natives particularly appeal to younger cohorts because of their greater likelihood of being unemployed. On a political level, younger voters are also less likely to have firm party loyalties and so will be more willing to support an ‘outsider’ party such as an extreme right one. With regards to education and class, the profile of extreme right voters is explained in large part by their economic situation: these voters are more likely to be in low-skilled and low-paid employment with little job security, and so policies that safeguard national jobs through protectionist means and through limits on immigration are rather appealing. 

Given this last point, we might assume that the current financial crisis represents fertile ground for extreme right parties. Such a conclusion would ignore two important points, however. Firstly, research has repeatedly found that contemporary right-wing extremist parties have actually performed less well in times of rising unemployment. It seems that, in economically tough times, voters return to the experienced mainstream parties. Secondly, this assumption downplays the role that the parties themselves have played in their growing electoral success. In the last decade in particular, extreme right parties have become more organised, more professional, more credible and more legitimate. Their persistence and future success therefore appear to lie very much in their own hands.

About the author:

Elisabeth Carter is senior lecturer in Politics at Keele University and is author of The Extreme Right in Western Europe: Success or Failure?


Post a comment

Leave a comment

You must be logged in to post a comment.

Amnesty International