“Right” roads to “pluralism”

Cultural integration, pluralism, and multiculturalism (sometimes termed “mosaics” or “melting pots”) have been largely studied as processes of democratization, one whereby ethnic confrontation is reduced through tolerance and cooperation. The assumption that such socio-political transitions are steps towards a broader sense of equality has made it difficult to understand the emergence of radical right extremism in these settings. What is more, rather than always presenting itself as an ethnically exclusive force, this resurgent radical right has often adopted religiously-charged narratives of “pluralism” that have surprisingly been “most successful among irreligious voters”.[i] Commonly, such views highlight the existence of some “cultural” traits that justify the cooperation between certain groups which, albeit perhaps “ethnically” different, supposedly share basic values. In turn, these values can serve as a framework from which to pursue a common interest. References to a common heritage, a shared history, and ultimately a collective identity, have served the new radical right to challenge essential democratic values while avoiding directly attacking the democratic system itself. The use of such ideas for the socio-political reordering is not new, however, but rather part and parcel of the constitution of modern culturally integrated states.

The downside of assuming that the formation and consolidation of culturally integrated systems in Europe, North America or anywhere else, is the result of political changes – one led exclusively by “leftist” ideals – leads naturally to the association of radical right discourse with narratives of cultural disruption. Yet disruption is only part of the radical right’s (incongruous) discourse. Oftentimes, a kind of “restricted pluralism”[ii] (different in kind than the ethnopluralism of, say, Generation Identity) is discernable. I define “restricted pluralism” as a (discourse on) multiculturalism or cultural integration that is defined in religious terms and, therefore, implies a hierarchized understanding of beliefs and consequently of different ethnic groups. Eurosceptics, for example, tend to use “pluralistic values” to sustain their xenophobic arguments around the idea that the Christian roots and values of the European identity are under threat and must be protected against “invaders”.[iii] But the notion that “European identity” is essentially defined by Christian values is neither new nor utterly erroneous. For one thing, the pursuit of a post-World War II European Union (one strongly encouraged by Christian Democrats) sought to attain stability and peace through transnational cooperation, which would be based upon “respect for Europe’s Christian heritage and individual rights”.[iv] On the other hand, Christianity as a tool for the establishment of new and diverse “imagined communities” has not only been employed by the European Union. A March 2017 Associated Press-NORC poll found that 7 in 10 Americans believed the country is losing its identity, characterised more often than not by the English language and a “[shared] culture based on Christian beliefs and European values”.[v] In Canada, Lydia Bean argues that ethnic diversity and “immigration presented an opportunity, rather than a threat to Canada’s Christian identity”, with congregations focused on “accommodating ethnic diversity within their religious subculture” – thereby framing multiculturalism in Christian terms.[vi] In other words, modern cultural integration seems to have been more about reordering chaos than about consolidating diversity. This reordering has been progressively established through the recognition of a (rehabilitated) “cultural framework”, one that has defined “shared” worldviews and expectations largely based on those held by the dominant group. Expectations that, when threatened, have been reclaimed by the radical right.

The situation is not too different from that occurring throughout the interwar period. The financial “crash” of 1929 led to a general mistrust in capitalism that pushed many to look for “third ways” that enabled cooperation (against class struggle) as against liberal individualism. This was the beginning of the so-called “corporatist turn”, which cause the widespread appearance authoritarian forms of government that preached “universalism” and “internationalism” by the “forced integration of organized interests”. Corporatism inspired conservative, radical-right and fascist parties, and helped craft the dictatorships of Benito Mussolini, Francisco Franco, and Engelbert Dollfuss, among others.[vii] Whatever pluralist elements there were in corporatism, these were “annihilated by a foundational commitment to a supreme common good, infusing with a sense of purpose and direction a complex pyramidal edifice that had the state at its apex”.[viii] These hierarchical elements very much echo the discourses of the new radical right.

Certainly, we should not deem all attempts at cultural integration as right-wing-infused projects for the establishment of new hierarchies that respond to socio-economic challenges. However, modern “multiculturalism” may be considered to be a discursive tool for the creation of new “imagined communities”[ix] defined by a set of common values that depend upon exclusion as much as nationalism does. Given this, studying “the dark side[s] of democracy”,[x] specially by taking into consideration the role of the radical right in the formation of (old and new) ideas on “pluralism” – can contribute to our understanding of the relationship between the current identity crises sweeping “western” democracies and the strength of the new radical right. Without doubt, there are multiple ways of tackling cultural diversity, but so far all of them seem to do so by choosing one common “cultural” framework. It is in the construction of that framework that exclusion lies, and conflict starts.

Ms Bàrbara Molas is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and Doctoral candidate in Department of History, York University, Toronto – specializing in transnational right-wing ideology and mobilization. Her profile can be found here:

© Bàrbara Molas. 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-No Derivatives).

[i] New Statesman, “Defenders of the faith: why right-wing populists are embracing religion”, 30 May 2018.

[ii] This is a term I have coined for my current research on radical right, corporatism, and multiculturalism in Canada.

[iii] Open Democracy, “Europe’s far-right bid to take back ‘Christian Europe’”, 24 May 2019.

[iv] Morisi, Paolo (2004), “The Role of Christian Democracy in Support of European Integration”, Studies: An Irish Quarterly Review, Vol. 93, No. 369 (Spring, 2004), pp. 45-53 (9 pages), p. 45.

[v] The Guardian, “Donald Trump has made it clear: the only ‘read Americans’ are white and Christian”, 16 July 2019.

[vi] Bean, Lydia, The Politics of Evangelical Identity: Local Churches and Partisan Divides in the United States and Canada, p. 55.

[vii] Pinto, Antonio Costa, “Corporatism and ‘organic representation’ in European dictatorships”, in Corporatism and Fascism, London, Routledge, 2017, p. 3.

[viii] Laborde, C., Pluralist Thought and the State in Britain and France, 1900-1925, London, Macmillan, 2000, p. 165.

[ix] Anderson, Benedict, Imagined communities, London, Verso, 2006.

[x] Mann, Michael, The Dark Side of Democracy: Explaining Ethnic Cleansing, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2005.