A myriad of research has been conducted in recent years on radical-right messaging online, but what has attracted only limited empirical attention is how radical-right dynamics play out offline in specific local contexts, with some notable exceptions (such as the work of Allchorn (2018) and Busher, Harris and Macklin (2019)).
A recent study by a research team at Victoria University in Melbourne added to this slowly emerging area of research, analysing radical-right dynamics in three municipalities in the Australian state of Victoria, paying particular attention to locally specific factors of vulnerability and resilience to nationalist-exclusivist political mobilisation. For each of these three local case studies, we interviewed a range of local stakeholders (e.g. policymakers, civil society, community groups, & the local police). We also analysed various documents (e.g. local policies and inclusion plans), the media reporting of events and radical-right social media posts, electoral outcomes, as well as demographic and socioeconomic data.
Our first conclusion was simple and straightforward: Any neighbourhood could become a site of radical-right protests or other activities (e.g. postering, graffiti and banner drops). It is not necessarily an indication of being a right-wing ‘hotspot’ or having particular local problems. Sometimes the opposite was the case: Municipalities and neighbourhoods may be targeted by radical-right activists because of their progressive attitudes and commitment to social justice and inclusiveness. This observation was an important starting point when engaging with local policymakers and community groups as it addresses common sensitivities and potential defensiveness of local policymakers when confronted with radical-right issues in their ‘backyard’.
The key question is not if radical-right groups mobilise in a certain neighbourhood, but why such actions occur. What can be done to build local resilience to radical-right mobilisation, reduce vulnerabilities and minimise the risk of community harm when it does happen?
The Four-Fold Prevention and Intervention Cycle Model
Through a cross-comparative analysis of the three case studies we drafted recommendations to assist local governments, together with community and civil society groups and law enforcement, in developing measures to prevent and respond to radical-right dynamics within their local area. We propose a four-fold Prevention and Intervention Cycle to capture key elements of what can be an effective approach to radical-right actions and other forms of political polarisation in a specific local context (Figure 1). This proposed multi-faceted approach seeks to build on existing local programs and measures, adding new perspectives and combining both proactive long-term and short-term reactive measures.
Many local government and community groups have demonstrated firm commitment to promoting inclusion, celebrating diversity, and fostering positive intergroup relations. These programs and initiatives are mostly geared towards social harmony, aimed at strengthening community cohesion. Although such actions are not planned as PVE measures (nor should they be), they can have an impact on increased community trust and resilience and help reduce perceptions of threat and fear of ‘the other’, which can influence susceptibility to radical-right mobilisation. This applies in particular to measures that aim at enhancing positive intergroup contact, for example through various facets of urban planning – from micro-design of local spaces to addressing socioeconomic or ethnic segregation. The British researchers Biggs and Knauss (2012), for example, found that extreme right-wing mobilisation was more successful in local areas where high diversity coincided with high levels of ethnic segregation. Biggs and Knauss argue this may be due to a combination of lower likelihood of direct cross-cultural contact and a “greater sense of cultural or even political threat” (p. 643) among the Anglo-White population.
- Early Intervention
While some academics conceptualise social cohesion as a “continuous and never-ending process of achieving social harmony” (Markus and Kirpitchenko 2007, p. 25), others propose an arguably more realistic assessment of modern life in diverse (urban) settings as sites where conflicts and tensions inevitably occur. Social cohesion is then more aptly conceptualized as the “capacity of people and places to manage conflict and change” (Rutter 2015, p. 79). Similarly, Paul Gilroy (2019, p. 9) argues that multiculturalism itself refers “to the lived, sensuous practice of people disposed, generously and honestly to try and manage the conflicts that inevitably arise between them by making better communication, better translation and richer forms of mutuality”.
Our research identified at least three areas where such a conflict model of social cohesion complements social harmony-oriented approaches. This seems profoundly important for reducing vulnerabilities to radical-right mobilisations in the local offline context. This would involve:
- Early intervention and mediation (e.g. by local government) in arising conflicts and community tensions before they escalate and fuel local grievances and anger, and become a mobilisation opportunity for radical-right groups.
- Allowing moderated safe spaces for ‘difficult conversations’ around sensitive issues such as racial justice, privilege or gender identity instead of suppressing existing exclusivist and prejudiced views.
- Striking a balance between pursuing a progressive agenda and potentially conflicting and dissenting views within more conservative parts of the local constituency; this may involve alternative methods of community consultations on controversial issues in the municipality.
Although local stakeholders may find it difficult to deal with conflicting views and dissent in the local community, our research highlights the risks that arise when such voices are ignored and silenced as some may be pushed into a highly politicised and aggressively antagonist space (a phenomenon that Mark Davis (2020) recently called ‘anti-publics’). Similarly, Bartlett, Birdwell and King (2010, p. 128) argued in in their analysis on how to “tackle home-grown terrorism” that:
“the best way to fight radical ideas is with a liberal attitude to dissent, radicalism and disagreement. Silencing radical views is not only wrong as a matter of principle, but it can also create a taboo effect that inadvertently makes such ideas more appealing.”
- Preparedness and response
Our research highlights that local stakeholders often feel surprised and unprepared when radical-right mobilisation occurs in their neighborhood. This makes it difficult to respond swiftly and effectively. There are, however, a range of measures that local stakeholders can take proactively. Local municipalities, for example, have a range of levers at their disposal which could enhance their preparedness. Depending on the type of radical-right action, these may include, among others, local graffiti removal policies and practices, event management and venue-hiring policies, social media monitoring and management and a specific communication strategies, which would involve training for public-facing staff and front-line workers (especially youth and social work) who specialize in this line of work. The first and crucial step is to raise awareness of the potentially powerful tools local policymakers already have and how they can be adapted or applied more effectively to respond to or prevent radical-right dynamics bubbling up in a problematic way locally.
In addition, our case studies emphasised the importance of vibrant civil society structures in the neighbourhood, which make a local community not only more resilient to divisive mobilisation (often from external actors), but also better prepared to activate a broader grassroots response that challenges messaging by the radical-right and their claims of speaking for a ‘silent majority’.
Related to that, we found that a positive identification with one’s neighbourhood increases local resilience to radical-right mobilisation. When radical-right groups rally locally, do significant segments of the local community consider this as a ‘stain’ on their community or are they instead rather indifferent to their presence? If residents identify positively with their community and feel socially connected, they are often better prepared and more likely to actively and publicly oppose the actions of radical-right activists in their area.
After actions by radical-right activists occur in a local context, our findings highlight the importance of an honest assessment of these incidents. The following interrelated questions can assist with this assessment:
- Firstly, what role do local issues play for radical-right mobilisation?It is important for local stakeholders to fully understand the role of local grievances, community concerns and fears for radical-right mobilisations to be able to respond effectively. If there are local factors, how do radical-right groups try to exploit these local issues for their political agenda? How can these local grievances be dealt with locally to reduce the risk of political exploitation?
- Secondly, to what extent are radical-right actions ‘imported’ or organised locally? It is important to understand if the radical-right mobilisation was organised by local or external groups/individuals or a combination of both. Local actors tend to be better connected within the community, which may increase their chances to mobilise parts of the local community.
- Thirdly, how do radical right protest tactics resonate within the local community? Our findings indicate that segments of the local community may agree with the political message of the radical-right street rally, but the specific protests tactics (e.g. confrontation with police and/or violence) may not resonate with the local community. This also affects their attempts at local mobilisation.
- Finally, what role does the broader discursive context and media reporting play? The public discourse is an important contextual factor that can significantly influence radical-right dynamics in the local context. While this discursive influence manifests itself usually in a negative way (e.g. fuelling perceptions of threat), local stakeholders can collaborate with local media to counter such negative impacts.
Such an assessment is not only crucial in better understanding the radical-right dynamics that have already occurred. By identifying local grievances and community vulnerabilities and resilience factors, it also offers a basis to re-evaluate and further adjust existing prevention and early intervention measures. And here the cycle continues – local policies and programs will become increasingly effective going forward if they constantly adapt to the changing demographic, socioeconomic, political and cultural environment in the municipalities that they are situated in.
Although this four-stage Prevention and Intervention cycle was developed within a research study that focussed on radical-right dynamics, the applicability is by no means limited to this specific context. In a series of subsequent workshops with local governments, this model has proven helpful in initiating new ways of approaching questions of local community cohesion, where conflicts and tensions are not pathologized but addressed holistically and used as an opportunity to learn and respond to constantly evolving local circumstances.
The report, ‘Dissenting citizenship? Understanding vulnerabilities to right-wing extremism on the local level’, published by Victoria University, can be foundhere.
Dr Mario Peucker is a Senior Fellow at CARR and Senior Research Fellow at Institute for Sustainable Industries and Liveable Cities (ISILC), Victoria University, Melbourne, Australia. See full profile here.
© Mario Peucker. 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).