In this Series, our Head of Ideology Research Unit, Balša Lubarda, speaks to some of the people helping to make CARR the ‘one-stop shop for knowledge and resources on right-wing extremism’. Today’s guest is Alessio Scopelliti. Alessio is a Doctoral candidate in the School of Sociology, Politics and International Studies at the University of Bristol and he researches radical right parties in Western Europe, alongside the key issue of the new transnational cleavage structure.
Your doctoral project at the University of Bristol was examining the future of political cleavages and their role on the flexibility of radical-right parties in Italy and France. What are some of your key findings?
First of all, I should explain that a cleavage structure, in its broadest sense, is a socially and culturally rooted conflict that shapes antithetical positions in societies through political parties. This notion has usually been employed to describe the origin of party systems and political parties, and, subsequently, it was also used to explore the electoral success of radical right parties. On the one hand, there is an impressive amount of scholarly attention on the demand side of the radical-right parties, consisting of the factors explaining their electoral support (e.g. economic inequality, surges in immigrants/refugees’ arrivals, cultural backlash). On the other hand, it is also important to understand the supply side, which coincides with the analysis on their strategies to appeal to the new voters (for instance, moving/creating new electoral spaces, populist narrative, role of the leader). Therefore, broadly speaking, within the theory of cleavage structures, these ideological conflicts are usually employed to explain the success or collapse of political parties. However, less has been done in exploring whether and how political parties can be flexible with respect to the cleavage structures, because there is the implicit assumption that when a political party belongs to a given side of a cleavage, it does not cross the line from one dichotomy to another. Moreover, when exploring the radical right parties, there is still the implicit expectation that these parties have strong core ideological features that have never changed since the rise of this party family, which was in the early 1980s.
However, my research on the flexibility of the Italian League and the French National Rally shows that political parties of the radical right have much more freedom than we thought. Based on a holistic conceptualization of parties’ flexibility, which comprises analyses of both the demand and the supply sides, these radical right political parties have been flexible from 1980 to 2020. For instance, when assessing the new transnational cleavage (pro-EU vs. anti-EU), they both demonstrated significant levels of flexibility, proving positive attitudes towards the European issues in the 1980s, and then showing antagonist attitudes towards the EU from the 1990s. Moreover, an in-depth analysis of the flexibility towards this new cleavage and taking into account its multidimensional nature (institutional, economic and cultural), the League has been exceptionally flexible on the economic dimension (moving from defending the spirit of entrepreneurship to the welfare chauvinism); while the National Rally has been especially flexible on the institutional dimension (moving from proposing the idea of ‘a strong France within a strong Europe’ to the more Eurosceptic project of Frexit). However, they also demonstrated inflexibility on the last dimension of the transnational cleavage, being “coherent” on the cultural dimension and, therefore, “frozen” towards the dichotomy “Nativism”.
In 2020, you asked if Italian right-wing populism is really on the decline, indicating that the much-needed solution to the populist riddle is simply “fearless electoral competition”, requiring parties nurturing the values of liberal democracy to step up and offer compelling counter narratives to the radical-right agenda. How can this be done?
When referring to the most recent polls of POLITICO, in Italy, the radical right parties (League and Brothers of Italy) might jointly receive 40% of votes in the next domestic election (expected in June 2023). While, in France, the two Presidential candidates of the radical right (Le Pen and Zemmour) together, reach 32%, ensuring for the second time in a row there will be a chance for a candidate from the radical right to compete for the French presidency in the second round. This outcome clearly demonstrates that the radical right is not a stigmatized force anymore, but it is rather normalized in the current political debates and a legitimate competitor in elections.
However, although the radical right is a part of our daily lives, it does not necessarily mean that radical right parties will win future elections. The main weakness of these political forces are live public debates when liberal democratic leaders have the chance to challenge the inconsistency of radical right policies’ propositions and propose alternative solutions to the wider audience. For instance, I would like to recall that in the last French Presidential election in 2017, the live TV confrontation between Macron and Le Pen in the second round significantly damaged the radical right candidate, because it raised awareness of the contradictions and incoherence of the radical right proposals to solve major global issues such as immigration, the economic crisis, and Frexit, and contributing significantly to Macron’s victory.
As a member of the Ideology Research Unit, you recently presented your research in front of IRU’s working group, and you also contributed to IRU’s 2019 Year in Review document, which offered a working definition of political ideologies for the radical-right scholarship. How much are the contemporary problems of democracy caused by our lack of understanding of political ideologies?
As political scientists, one of our goals is to understand the reality surrounding us. Part of this understanding is achieved, for instance, through the identification and, eventually, the categorization of what are complex organizations, like the political parties. And the understanding of political parties’ ideologies is fundamental for the stability of modern democracies, because conflict among different groups is actually expressed through these organizations.
However, since political parties are also actors that can change ideologically for both structural and instrumental reasons, the main challenge thus remains identifying these political parties and which categories they do represent. As such, if we are not able to categorize ideologies of political parties because they tend to change over the years, the risk for our democracy is that parties become empty vessels whose agendas continually change according to the political or topical agendas of the moment. Eventually, the damage for democracies with “non-ideological” parties (some populist parties, for instance, claim to be neither left- nor right-wing) would be having a political elite that constantly changes its vision of the future in line with public opinion. And this can have political implications, at the national and international levels, with unpredictable long-term consequences.
Speaking of the future, you dedicated a considerable portion of your doctoral project to the prospects for the development of the new transnational cleavage. What is this and how do you see it developing in the mid-to-long term future?
The transnational cleavage is a new ideological conflict theorized by Professor Liesbet Hooghe and Professor Gary Marks in 2018. In a nutshell, the authors argue that the undermining of national sovereignty in favor of international governments, for example, European Union, has led to the rise of a new cleavage, or ideological conflict, between those who identify themselves according to the national way of life and cultural heritage against those who see themselves in the transactional institutions favoring both economic and political integration processes among nation-states.
When examining how the transnational cleavage has developed in Italy and France, I could observe that from the early 1980s, this topic was not a polarizing one, as most of the people thought favorably towards a more European integration process, institutionally, economically and culturally. The established elites would opt to depoliticize the European issue in order to not threaten the fate of this project. Moreover, the European integration process developed alongside a consistent permissive consensus from European public opinion. Nevertheless, after the signing of the 1992 Maastricht Treaty, the transnational cleavage tended to be more polarizing and, therefore, citizens tended to be more divided into two substantive opposing sides within society and, therefore, political parties tend to challenge to each other on this new politicized issue. To this end, I believe that the transnational cleavage has become the new zeitgeist in European countries. In fact, in recent years, this new cleavage structure played a significant role in both national and European electoral campaigns, which will shape the research agenda of party politics to dedicate much more space on the conflict between those that support the European institutions and those that wish to reclaim national sovereignty.
You can read more about Alessio’s work on the radical right in Italy and France here.
Read more interviews with CARR Fellows here.
Find out more about CARR’s Ideology Research Unit here.