Radical-Right Voters and Democratic Support

Do radical-right voters knowingly share the anti-democratic views of the parties they support?

Introduction

The rise of radical-right parties is considered by many to be one of the largest modern threats to liberal democracy. There is a strong pattern of populist and radical leaders eroding constraints on the executive, diminishing press freedom, and harming the quality of elections to benefit themselves.

But what about these parties’ voters? Do radical-right voters exhibit overtly anti-democratic rhetoric? In other words, do voters of radical-right parties knowingly hold and agree with anti-democratic attitudes? Or, rather, do they support these parties for other ideological reasons, while disagreeing with their anti-democratic tendencies?

On the one hand, it may simply be the case that voters support a radical-right party for their policy proposals, e.g. their attention to immigration, the global economy, and promise of removing corrupt elites from government that in their mind other mainstream parties ignore. In such cases, cognitive dissidence may play a role in their determination that such parties are not really a threat to democracy, and claims to the contrary are simply ‘fake news.’ Or perhaps voters do believe these claims, yet dub them a ‘necessary evil’ worth the cost to restore the country to its ‘rightful place.’

On the other hand, there is a possibility that voters acknowledge the harms to democracy caused by the party they support, and agree with these anti-democratic positions. The rhetoric of these parties is often categorized as anti-pluralist, with both voters and candidates believing that their party is the only one capable of solving the nation’s current problems. Thus, voters may be interpreting this situation as one which necessitates removing any limitations to the party’s rule. This surely constitutes a more dangerous situation.

Public Opinion Data

For all the work done examining the relationship between the radical right and democracy, this important aspect of voter opinion still remains unclear. In fact, recent work has suggested that radical-right voters are actually more supportive of democracy than their centrist counterparts, further complicating the issue. However, there is some anecdotal evidence that voters may indeed knowingly hold anti-democratic views. For example, the 2017 referendum that greatly consolidated executive power in Turkey held very high support from voters of the ruling populist-right Justice and Development Party (90%), while maintaining overwhelming opposition from supporters of all other parties.

To gain more insight on this important question, I analyzed public opinion data from the European Value Survey (EVS). The EVS is a large-scale public opinion survey that has been conducted every nine years in Europe since 1981. It asks several questions with regard to democratic support on topics ranging from the importance of free and fair elections to the appropriateness of the military seizing power. I use these questions as a way to measure democratic support amongst respondents. Following Rooduijn et al.’s classification of what constitutes a radical-right party, I outline the differences in opinion on democracy between EVS respondents who supported a radical-right party, compared to supporters of all other parties below.

Question Non Radical Right Support Radical Right Support
Having a democratic political system is “very good” 60% 45%
Having a strong leader who doesn’t bother with elections or parliament is “very good” 6% 7%
Free and fair elections are an “essential characteristic of democracy” 61% 58%
Having the army rule the country is “very bad” 65% 46%
The army takes over when government is incompetent is an “essential characteristic of democracy” 5% 9%

 It seems evident from EVS survey data that, at least in some cases, radical-right voters tend to hold more anti-democratic views. Overall, radical-right voters are 25% less likely to classify a democratic system as “very good,” vis-à-vis their non-radical-right counterparts. Digging deeper, in many cases, the results point to radical-right voters seemingly approving an authoritarian consolidation of power and ignoring checks and balances, while simultaneously maintaining support for free and fair elections. For example, while radical-right voters were nearly as likely to maintain the essentiality of free and fair elections compared to other voters, they were much less likely to decry military coups and rule.

This variation in voter preferences mirrors rhetoric of radical-right leaders themselves. Much of the radical right electoral rhetoric focuses on taking power away from the corrupt elite and rightfully returning it to the masses. Rarely do radical leaders openly advocate removing people from the decision-making process. Rather, they are more concerned with removing constraints to their ruling, once democratically elected. Take again, for example, President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s actions in Turkey. Considered as leading to a breakdown of liberal democracy, his constitutional changes dramatically increased the power of the executive and abolished the office of prime minister. Still, these changes did little to affect voting rights in Turkey (and were even enacted via a popular referendum).

Conclusion

Given the above, it appears that not only are radical-right voters aware of their anti-democratic predispositions, but these predispositions seem to mirror the traits observed in party leader rhetoric. They are more likely to support the idea of eroding constraints on their rule, yet at the same time are no more willing to castigate the importance of free and fair elections. This may seem a subtle difference, but is an important one. When radical-right parties demonstrate values counter to democracy, their voters believe them to be a necessary process of which they will benefit.  As such, they stand for policies that give the party they support more power, at the expense of democracy. When it comes to seizing their own power, however, in the form of fairly run elections, they seem to remain opposed.

Nicolas Bichay is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral Candidate at Department of Political Science, Michigan State University. See full 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).