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Radically Going Right

  • Dr. Maureen
  • Apr, 2019
  • 1001
  • Opinion



What animates the politics of the radical right today? My colleague Sarah Valdez and I identify neo-nationalism as the common denominator of contemporary radical right parties. Nationalism is a political ideology concerned with congruence between the nation (people) and the state (government). Real or perceived threats to this principle may mobilise nationalist sentiments to advance or defend a nation-state. We define neo-nationalism as a form of nationalism occurring within a context where national boundaries are settled and accepted domestically and internationally but are nevertheless perceived to be under threat. Thus, neo-nationalism is a subset of nationalism aimed at boundary-maintenance rather than nation-building.

The study of the radical right began in the 1950s as social scientists attempted to explain McCarthyism, which was seen as a lapse from the American political tradition. A framework for description was developed primarily in Richard Hofstadter’s ‘The pseudo-conservative revolt’ and Seymour Martin Lipset’s ‘The sources of the radical right’. These essays, along with others by Daniel Bell, Talcott Parsons, Peter Viereck and Herbert Hyman, were included in The New American Right (1955). In 1963, following the rise of the John Birch Society, the authors were asked to re-examine their earlier essays and the revised essays were published in the book The Radical Right. Lipset, along with Earl Raab, traced the history of the radical right in The politics of unreason (1970).

The central arguments of The Radical Right provoked criticism. Some on the Right thought that McCarthyism could be explained as a rational reaction to communism. Others thought McCarthyism should be explained as part of the Republican Party’s political strategy. Critics on the Left denied that McCarthyism could be interpreted as a mass movement and rejected the comparison with 19th-Century populism. Others saw status politics, dispossession and other explanations as too vague.

In a recently published article in European Political Science, we show that nationalism not only increasingly characterises these parties but also increasingly distinguishes them from other major party families.

We rely on data from the Manifesto Project, which uses content analysis to code and report political parties’ policy positions as a percentage of space in electoral manifestos. This data allows for comparisons of party positions and their salience over time. Our sample includes election manifestos from all party major families between 1970 and 2015 in 18 Western European countries. Most of these countries have had electorally successful radical right parties during this period (exceptions being Iceland, Ireland, Portugal, and Spain). In total, our sample consists of 1497 party manifestos in 225 elections. 134 of these are radical right party manifestos.

From the dataset, we identify issues theoretically indicative of nationalism or globalism.

To generate a nationalism score for each party in each election year, we subtract the sum of globalist statements from sum of nationalist statements made in a party’s election manifesto. A positive number, therefore, indicates that a larger share of the manifesto is devoted to nationalist statements than those consistent with globalism. A negative number means that a larger share of the manifesto is devoted to positions consistent with globalism.

The figure below, which is adapted from figure 7 in the article, shows the average score by party family by decade. In every time period, radical right parties have made, on average, more nationalist than globalist claims. However, the size of this difference has grown substantially over time. (The article reports in greater detail changes in the social, economic, and political dimensions of nationalism.) It is clear that nationalist sentiments increasingly characterise radical right platforms and increasingly set them apart from all other major party families. While most other party families make some nationalist claims, on average, globalist positions make up a larger proportion of their manifestos.

We argue that contemporary radical right parties are best conceptualised and described as neo-nationalist. First, this label recognises these parties as fundamentally nationalist. Contemporary radical right parties cite external threats to the sovereignty and autonomy of nation-states to frame their policy positions and garner electoral support. ‘Neo’ implies a form of nationalism occurring within the context of settled boundaries. Unlike earlier nationalist movements in Europe, these parties operate within the framework of consolidated nation-states. Thus, this...

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