Over the last thirty years, the Radical Right has established itself as a relevant player in many European political systems. Parties that are variously labelled as ‘extreme’, ‘populist’ or ‘anti-immigrant’ right are the subject of intense political and scientific scrutiny.
Perhaps one of the most striking facts about these parties is that electoral support for them varies so much over time and across political systems: some never get beyond the groupuscule stage, some are like the proverbial flash in the pan, while others are relatively stable over long periods and might even make or break governments. This empirical puzzle is the starting point for David Art’s latest book.
His is a contribution to the growing literature that focuses on the so-called ‘supply side’ of radical right politics. More specifically, Art claims that (collective) agency and structural factors interact to bring about radical right success or failure. Building on an argument whose intellectual lineage he traces back to Kitschelt and Downs, Art develops a simple yet useful typology of party activists by distinguishing between extremists, opportunists, and moderates, with the latter two groups being essential for a given party’s electoral success and organisational survival.
According to Art, structural factors, historical legacies and the initial reaction (permissive or repressive) to the new organisation determine how many and what type of activists will join. This mix, alongside with other factors such as the organisational abilities and other resources of the party founder(s) will shape the initial trajectory of the fledgling party.
While this causal mechanism may seem credible, it is obviously next to impossible to test the validity of the argument rigorously. Art responds to this challenge with a stupendous series of comparative case studies that go far beyond similar work on the Radical Right that has been done in the past. In four chapters, he traces the development of more than 20 radical right parties in ten Western European countries, trying to identify patterns that square with his assumptions. While few of his findings are completely new – after all, research on the radical right is a minor industry in political science and sociology – his expositions are very well structured and closely tied to the theoretical argument.
What sets the book apart, however, is the fact that large parts of it are based on not less than 140 interviews Art conducted with radical right party activists. Anyone who has ever worked in that field will know that getting and conducting even a single interview with a radical right activist is a formidable problem on more than one level, making Art’s feat all the more remarkable. Although these interviews are hardly unbiased and reliable sources, Art uses his unique material to give a nuanced account of the Radical Right’s internal dynamics. While the author’s determination to stick to his research design is laudable, one cannot help the feeling that there must be a whole host of more traditional books (on single parties or countries) waiting to be written on the basis of his notes.
Without doubt, Art’s book is an important and potentially controversial contribution that will refresh the sometimes slightly stale debate on causes of the differential success of the Radical Right. Its strict focus on the role of party activists (and elites outside the party) is both a strength and weakness. The real future challenge for the discipline will be to integrate the findings from party studies with the results from the literature on voter behaviour.