“The Global Rise of Nativism and Illiberalism: A Conversation on the Contemporary Political Pathology.” Part 2 – Defining and Interpreting the New Radical Right

In my last CARR blog, I highlighted the rise of the radical right in various parts of the world. In this blog, I tackle key definitions in the literature, including what we mean by the radical right, populism, nativism, and illiberalism respectively. I also offer some interpretations of these terms and underscore some of the links between them.

Key Definitions and Interpretations

Following the German model, the radical right can be distinguished from the extreme right. The latter is constitutionally banned because it uses violence in order to advance its ultra-nationalist goals. The radical right does not use violence; plays by the parliamentary rules of the game; it favors direct over representative forms of democracy; it is against imperialism; it supports ethnic above civic nationalism; it views cleavages as illegitimate; and it advances the ideal of welfare chauvinism. The radical right tends to be nativist, sometimes illiberal and populist.

According to Mueller, populists claim that they alone represent the whole people. The people are seen as one and homogeneous. The people are viewed as fighting against a corrupt elite. The values of the people should be consistent with those of the elites. Populists come in all political stripes and hence must be linked to another ideology, whether nationalism, fascism, socialism, etc. It is what Mudde and Rovira Kaltwasser call “a thin-centered ideology.”

Let me now define nativism and illiberalism. For Cas Mudde, nativism is mostly a concept used in the USA and rarely discussed in Western Europe. In Western Europe, the terms ultra-nationalism, xenophobia, racism, or ethnic nationalism are often used. Nativism’s origins lie, writes Uri Friedman, in “mid-19th century political movements in the United States—most famously the Know Nothing party—that portrayed Catholic immigration from countries such as Germany and Ireland as a grave threat to native-born Protestant Americans.” Nativism is essentially “xenophobic nationalism.” It is “an ideology that “wants one state for every nation and one nation for every state. It perceives all non-natives…as threatening.” This nativism, argues Mudde, is based on “the belief that states should be inhabited exclusively [emphasis added] by members of the ‘native’ group,” while “non-native elements (persons and ideas) are fundamentally threatening to the homogeneous nation-state.” Nativists are more likely to see multiculturalism as a threat to national identity; minority religions or cultures as dangerous for the nation; and favor national preference in welfare benefits, jobs, corporate support, or citizenship. Nativists will also demand more of immigrants than natives in terms of duties, such as value-testing or testing their loyalty (as they are often accused of dual loyalties) to the nation.

Nativism is gaining support in the Western world because ethnic majorities feel that they are under demographic pressure. As fertility rates fall and populations age, the need for immigration increases. Moreover, there is malaise in Europe in particular as the continent sees its diminishing geopolitical power in relation to Asia and even Latin America. In 2010, Wallerstein noted that “xenophobic nationalism” (or he could have said nativism) is on the rise in which the majority ethnic group within a state “feels or fears that is losing strength, is somehow in decline.” A feeling of decline is exacerbated, noted Wallerstein, in “times of great economic difficulty” (like the global financial troubles in 2009 and 2010), while xenophobia has accelerated “in the political life of states around the world.”

In terms of illiberalism, the Merriam-Webster dictionary states that it is “opposition to or lack of liberalism.” Think of Orban stating that he wanted to make Hungary an “illiberal democracy”. He claimed that the party’s goal was to create “an illiberal state, a non-liberal state [that] does not reject the fundamental principles of liberalism such as freedom, and I could list a few more, but it does not make this ideology the central element of state organisation, but instead includes a different, special, national approach.”

An illiberal democracy can also thus be called a partial democracy, or perhaps not a democracy at all. Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way reject the notion of an illiberal democracy, arguing that it only “muddies the waters” on the basis that if a country does not have opposition parties and an independent media, it is not really democratic.

Illiberals tend to also be conspiratorial and engage in what Ruth Wodak calls a “politics of fear”, whether on the right or left. For Kim Holmes, “illiberalism stands opposed to the classic liberal notions of individual rights protected equally by government and the law, and it is hostile to freedom of conscience and expression.”

Interestingly, Benjamin Moffitt in a piece penned recently called “Liberal Illiberalism?”  argued that populism, particularly in its radical right-wing variants, is often posited as antithetical to the principles of liberalism. Yet a number of contemporary cases of populist radical right parties from Northern Europe complicate this characterisation of populism: While populist radical right parties in Northern Europe may only invoke such liberal values to opportunistically attack their enemies – Muslims and ‘the elite’ who allegedly are abetting the ‘Islamisation’ of Europe’—this discursive shift represents a move towards a “liberal illiberalism”.

Lenka Bustikova and Petra Guasti note that liberal-democratic project in the so-called Visegrad Four or ‘V4’ (the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland and Slovakia) has been either stalled, diverted or reversed. They develop a distinction between illiberal “turns” and “swerves”, with the former representing more permanent political changes. It notes Hungary is the only country in the V4 at the brink of a decisive illiberal turn.

Another view advanced last year by Senem Aydın Düzgit and E. Fuat Keyman of the Istanbul Policy Center states the following in respect of the illiberal turn: “…The rise of illiberalism in advanced democracies should be sought in multi-layered explanations that rest on the disconnect between globalization and democracy.”

There is also a distinction between democracy and liberalism, with the former long preceding the latter. It is no accident, then, that the leader of the French New Right Alain de Benoist once stated in the 1990s that he favors direct democracy, but one that is inconsistent with a liberal and multicultural society:

“The proper functioning of both Greek and Icelandic democracy was the result of cultural cohesion and a clear sense of shared heritage. The closer the members of a community are to each other the more they are likely to hold common sentiments, values and ways of looking at the world, and it is easier for them to make collective decisions in the regard to the common good without the help of mediators.”

In the next blog, I shall go on to examine seven theses in respect of the rise of the radical right – parsing out the different explanations that scholars have given for the rise of this phenomenon.

Professor Tamir Bar-On is a Senior Career Fellow at CARR and Professor-Researcher at School of Social Sciences and Government, Tec de Monterrey. His profile can be found here:

© Tamir Bar-On. Views expressed on this website are individual contributors and do not necessarily reflect that of the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). We are pleased to share previously unpublished materials with the community under creative commons license 4.0 (Attribution-NoDerivatives).