Discerning the Radical-Right from the Radical-Left

Much of the research on radical parties to date has focused largely on the right-wing side of the radical spectrum. Given this focus, how much do we know about the radical-right in contrast with the radical-left? In many ways, voters of radical parties, right or left, agree very generally on many of the problems facing their nation. They tend to disagree, however, with the sources and solutions to these problems. Take for example globalization. Both forms hold vehemently anti-globalist views. Yet, while for the radical-right these views stem from fears relating to national identity and sovereignty, for the radical-left they are instead tied to the perceived negative economic effects of increased global integration.

In other words, voters of the two wings are motivated by different interests. We see this same trend in leaders of these parties, as well. Far-left and far-right politicians tend to both be populist in rhetoric, yet at the same time, they focus on very different aspects of society. Where extreme-right candidates emphasize the problem of unchecked immigration leading to a moral decline in society via a loss of traditional values and a damage to national identity and sovereignty (e.g. Marine Le Pen, Donald Trump), far-left candidates tend to primarily focus on fixing the problems associated with trade and unemployment that arise due to increases in free trade and open borders in an attempt to revise the existing economic system in a more egalitarian manner (e.g. Jean-Luc Mélenchon, Pablo Iglesias). It should be no surprise, thus, to see important differences in the demographics of supporters for each party-type.

While on its face it may seem that the radical-right and radical-left attract very different voters, there are important similarities between the two. For one, voters of both the radical-right and radical-left tend to belong to lower economic classes. Similarly, those who are unemployed and of a lower social status (based on occupation) are more likely to support both the right and left. Demographically, the only remaining common characteristic noted relates to religiosity. Voters from both sides of the radical spectrum are less likely to be highly religious, yet research suggests this may simply be due to a prevalence of religious voters remaining ‘attached’ to Christian Democratic parties. This, however, seems to be where the socioeconomic similarities end, as we see important differences with regard to education, gender, and an urban/rural divide.

With respect to education, interestingly both the radical-right and radical-left exhibit significant differences vis-à-vis moderate parties, they just happen to be correlated in opposite directions. That is, radical-right voters tend to be less educated than moderate voters, while radical-left voters tend to be more highly educated than moderate voters. While this makes intuitive sense, as ideology and education have a clear connection, it is an important difference that educational attainment seems to attract leftist voters to the radical fringe of the ideological spectrum, while for the radical-right it propels them away.

In terms of gender, radical-right voters are predominantly male, while no significant patterns exist with regard to gender and probability of voting for a radical-left candidate. Dwelling patterns only seem to affect radical-left voters, who are much more likely to live in urban areas, while radical-right voters do not exhibit any obvious urban/rural divide. These differences are summarized together in table 1.

We can see these differences in play by looking at data from Germany. In 2017, respondents of the World Values Survey who indicated they would support the far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) in the national election were split 60/40 towards males. Meanwhile, the gender divide of those supporting the far-left Die Linke was a fairly equal 52/48 divide. Actual legislative makeup fares even worse. In 2017, only 10.9% of AfD members in the Bundestaag were female, while females made up over 53% of Die Linke’s membership. Education-wise, only 15% of AfD supporters held college degrees, while the rate amongst Die Linke supporters topped 32%.

Table 1: Summary of Radical-Right and Radical-Left Demographics

Demographic Radical-Right

(vis-à-vis moderate voter)

Radical-Left

(vis-à-vis moderate voter)

Income Lower Lower
Occupational Class Lower Lower
Religiosity Lower Lower
Education Lower Higher
Gender Mostly Male No Pattern
Dwelling No Pattern Mostly Urban

Source: Nicolas Bichay

While so much work has focused on the uniqueness of the radical-right, and how its voters differ specifically from mainstream voters, in order to truly understand their rise it is important to also understand how they differ from other manifestations of the radical movement. Especially given the fact that, in recent years, the two wings have received nearly the same share of votes in European elections. How are voters who demand such radical changes to their political system deciding which path is correct?

Votes of the radical-left (typically considered to be both communists and the ‘new-breed’ like Podemos in Spain or Syriza in Greece), like voters of the radical-right, feel that they are the “losers of modernization,” and as such they tend to be poorer and of a lower social class. The right, however, seems to be unique as a mostly less-educated, predominantly male movement. Much of these differences regarding education are themselves likely relics of deeper demographic divides, as attending school for longer decreases anti-immigration sentiment and increases support for redistribution to immigrants.

Reasoning for the gender gap, however, is less clear. For one, both men and women support radical-right attitudes at similar rates, differences being likely related to the rhetoric on ‘masculinity’ and male supremacy. Research suggests that female voters are mobilized in favour of the radical right when considering issues like redistribution, for example. Perhaps keen on this, statistics show newer radical-right parties have begun embracing more socially liberal policies, and as such have seen support amongst women rise. Without a doubt, where existing work has seemed to pay the left much less attention, in order to truly understand the right, understanding the left is imperative.

Mr Nicolas Bichay is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral Candidate at the Department of Political Science, Michigan State University. See his profile here.

© Nicolas Bichay. 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).