“The Global Rise of Nativism and Illiberalism: A Conversation on the Contemporary Political Pathology,” Part 3: Seven theses about the radical right

Recall that in the last CARR blog, I offered key definitions in the literature, including what we mean by the radical right, populism, nativism, and illiberalism respectively. I also highlighted some interpretations of these terms and underscored some of the links between them. In this blog, I want to offer seven theses on the rise of nativism, illiberalism, and the radical right.

Seven theses

The first thesis is that we are not dealing with a political pathology, but a radicalization of a world system that has few concrete alternatives to challenge the hegemonic neo-liberal order. Or, as Cas Mudde puts it, radical right-wing nativism should not be viewed as a “normal pathology,” but rather is a “pathological normalcy” and “a radicalisation of mainstream values.”

The second thesis is that it is demeaning for the radical right parties and their supporters to call them “pathological”. Instead, we should embrace what Roger Griffin calls an empathetic paradigm in respect of parties and movements of the radical right. This connotes an awareness of what has already been written in the literature, as well as taking seriously the way fascists or those on the radical right positively conceive of their values and programmes.

The third thesis is that the reason we use the metaphor of “political pathology” to describe the rise of the radical right or radical right populism, or even at times use the words “fascism” or “neo-fascism”, is that perhaps we are biased. Those that study the radical right are largely liberal or left-wing scholars (including myself). In 2011, James David Bowen noted that most intellectuals in Latin America identify with and disproportionately study the left and hardly engage in research on the right. The same state of affairs applies to North American and European intellectuals. In a 2017 reader on the radical right, Cas Mudde pointed out that, in contrast to the study of other party families (liberals, social democrats, or socialists) where there are sympathizers of the ideologies they study, there is “no openly sympathetic scholar of the populist radical right.”

The fourth thesis borrows from my own books: Where Have All The Fascists Gone? and Rethinking the French New Right: Alternatives to modernity. In these works, I argue that the radical right has been influenced by the arguments of French New Right intellectuals (nouvelle droite). Created during the epoch of the spectacular student and worker protests in France in 1968, the nouvelle droite have borrowed its ideas from the Left and New Left by focusing on winning the cultural struggle in civil society; claiming that they are anti-racist; dropping its open support for the use of violence, one-party rule, and the aim of totalitarianism;  espousing what the Israeli scholar Alberto Spektorowski calls a “multiculturalism of the right”; and respecting what Zbigniew Brzezinski dubs an “anti-imperial age”. This intellectual makeover – in part – set the stage for the success of the radical right parties.

The fifth thesis is that it follows that the Left needs its own variant of the nouvelle droite in order to seriously think about what it stands for and to rethink its strategies in relation to a rising right-wing tide worldwide. This would require a greater focus on culture struggle by the contemporary Left; the ability to take their opponents seriously; and the creation of left-wing manifestos to counter those on the right (e.g., French New Right, Alt-Right, etc.).

The sixth thesis is that the reasons for the global rise of nativism and illiberalism are related to multiple causes: a) A system of sovereign states (Immanuel Wallerstein); b) The cyclical revival of ethnic concepts of nationhood that valorize homogeneity and attack pluralism; c) The success of radical right parties through the anti-immigrant formula; d) The radical right parties and movements tend to borrow ideas, discourses, and strategies from each other (e.g., Stephen Bannon speaking to a Front National convention); and e) The chasm between liberalism and democracy; f) A globalization that has winners and losers – think of Central and Eastern Europe where communists (for a period) and radical right parties such as Jobbik (Hungary) and the Slovak National Party have been able to capitalize on the difficult transitions after the fall of the Berlin Wall; g) The failure of the Left and elites in general; and h) the closing of ideological options in an increasingly neo-liberal world. In this respect, Cas Mudde argues that populists of a nativist and illiberal hue provide an illiberal democratic response to the perceived undemocratic liberalism.

The seventh thesis is that the fascism analogy needs to be dropped for everything that we view as right of centre, unless we identify real neo-fascists or neo-Nazis such as the Australian terrorist Brenton Tarrant or the National Socialist Underground. In this respect, Diethelm Prowe  is useful because he highlighted six historical differences between classical fascism and the contemporary radical right: 1) Today’s radical right is fueled by conflicts over a multicultural societies rather than class conflict and communism; 2) The contemporary radical right emerges in the epoch of decolonization, whereas historical fascism was born in the age of colonial domination; 3) It emerges in times of peace, whereas classical fascism was a product of the ravages of World War One; 4) It is a product of material prosperity and consumerism rather than the economic despair of historical fascism; 5) It exists in a period where democratic norms are widely accepted, unlike the inter-war years where extremists on both the right and left openly disparaged parliaments and democracy; and 6) The support base of the radical right is more urban compared to historical fascism’s more rural support.

Democracy in action or threat to democracy?

All this raises the question of whether these radical right political parties are positive or negative in relation to democracy? Lars Rensmann, Sarah L. de Lange and Stefan Couperus note that, in theory, the impact can be both beneficial for, as well as a challenge to democracy in general and the tenets of liberal constitutional democracy in particular. The presence of populist parties has, in several cases, increased electoral turnout and public participation, which is generally seen as a positive effect when measuring the quality of a democracy. However, populist parties’ rise also points to negative effects. In addition to profoundly reshaping European party systems,  some on the radical right advocate – what the populist Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán calls – “illiberal democracy”. This implies eroding the separation of powers and subordinating constitutionally guaranteed individual civil and human rights to an alleged “general will” and a particular conception of “the people”. Such a move leads to the erosion of checks on power and minority rights. Something that we should all be weary of.

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).