The Return Of Nationalism And The Rise Of The Radical Right

This the first in a series of articles from the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right

27 May 2018, Germany, Berlin: Supporters of the party Alternative for Germany (AfD) gather at Brandenburg Gate to protest under the slogan ‘Zukunft Deutschland ‘ (lit. ‘Future Germany’). (Photo by: Kay Nietfeld/picture-alliance/dpa/AP Images)

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 mobilize 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 issues most important to contemporary radical right parties are consistent with the notion that the sovereignty and autonomy of modern nation-states are under threat from external forces. When framing their opposition to globalization, supranational organizations, and multiculturalism, radical right parties cite negative economic, socio-cultural, and political consequences for the nation-state.

For example, opposition to immigration is consistent with the idea that diversity erodes the traditional national culture of a country or undermines an ethnic conception of nationhood (versus one that is based on citizenship). However, parties also frame opposition to immigration using economic arguments about immigrants either taking jobs from native-born workers or abusing the welfare state due to long-term unemployment. Radical right parties also articulate opposition to the European Union, citing the supranational body as a threat to member states’ political sovereignty, ethnic and cultural homogeneity, and national economies. Parties argue that membership weakens the capacity of nation-states to control its own borders and preserve national institutions, such as welfare states.

In a recently published article in European Political Science, we show that nationalism not only increasingly characterizes 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 characterize 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 conceptualized and described as neo-nationalist. First, this label recognizes 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 term identifies them as different from nationalist parties that promote state-building.

Second, the label helps make clear how these parties are similar and/or different from other party families, including radical right parties from earlier decades. Although the descriptor “right-wing” may be used to refer to authoritarian or conservative social positions, it is more traditionally used to indicate placement on an economic scale, where right-wing means economically liberal or neoliberal. The label neo-nationalist is consistent with the nativist, anti-immigrant policy preferences of both contemporary and early radical right parties, but, since it does not label them “right,” it distinguishes them from the parties of the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s that were actually economically right-wing.

The term neo-nationalist is also consistent with welfare chauvinism, or the notion that welfare benefits should be restricted to native-born, while distinguishing these parties from traditional left-wing parties that favor inclusive or universal social policies. Neo-nationalist parties do not seek to dismantle national welfare states or minimize the role of government in the economy. Instead, they campaign to defend the institution from outsiders. For example, they often seek to increase spending on pensioners while decreasing benefits to asylum seekers.

We find neo-nationalist a more accurate descriptor for the radical right parties of today. Advocating for a change in terminology is not to divorce these parties from their historical context, but understanding the underlying ideology of contemporary parties is important if one wants to understand their recent electoral gains. Because different constellations of policy preferences imply different political ideologies (not to mention the capacity to compete for different types of voters) it is important to clarify the nature of this message and how it has changed over time.

This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.

Global Outlook // CARR / Europe / Far Right / Nationalism / Radical Right