Radical Attitudes


Like many other concepts in political science, the notion of radicalism harks back to the political conflicts of the late 18th and 19th century. Even then, its content was depended on the political context and far from well defined. Consequentially, being “radical” has meant different things to different people in different times and countries. Moreover, radicalism is closely related, if not identical to a number of (equally vague) concepts such as extremism, fundamentalism, and populism. As of today, there is no universally accepted definition of radicalism, and, by implication, radical attitudes.

There is, however, a core meaning of radicalism: radicals are willing to challenge the ground rules of politics to get to the root (Latin: radix) of what they perceive as the most pressing political problems. In any given context, radicals will confront the political establishment and will support policies whose implementation would trigger systemic change.

Radicalism in the 18th and 19th century

In the last third of the 18th century, a heterogeneous group of philosophers, writers and politicians began to campaign for a thorough reform of Britain’s political system. Amongst the goals of this movement were the abolition of the slave trade, a reform of the electoral laws and a better protection of citizens’ rights. They soon gained support from the emerging middle and working classes. The parliamentarian Charles James Fox is often credited with coining the name for this new movement when he demanded a “radical reform” of the electoral system in 1797, and by 1819, the “radicals” had established themselves as a separate political force that inspired the Chartist movement and played an important role in both the creation of the Liberal and the Labour Party.

Similarly, after the restoration of the monarchy in 19th century France, supporters of republican principles called themselves “radicals”. Over the last third of the century, they drifted to the left and were instrumental in the foundation of the country’s first modern left-wing party, the “Republican, Radical and Radical-Socialist Party” in 1901.

In Germany, “radical” was initially a political label chosen by those liberals who, in the spirit of the French Revolution, demanded civil liberties, universal male suffrage and parliamentary representation. In the second half of the 19th centuries, this label was applied those members of the workers’ movement who favoured a revolutionary change of government (i.e. an end of the authoritarian monarchist regime). In a similar fashion, in many other European and Southern American countries “radicalism” became shorthand for a subtype of liberalism that could be located either to the left or to the right of the political centre. To the present day, “radical” parties exist in many countries including Argentina, Chile, Denmark, Ecuador, France, Italy, Paraguay, and Switzerland. Most of them are today classified as either liberal or socialist/social-democratic.

Radicalism in the 20th century

The gradual spread of liberal democracy and its crisis during the interwar period changed the meaning of the concept. In the wake of the events in Germany, Italy, Russia, and many other European countries, radicalism became a collective term for the forces at the poles of the political spectrum that had formerly be known chiefly as “ultras” and threatened to overthrow liberal democracy: Communists on the on side, Fascists and National Socialists on the other. Consequentially, radicalism was transformed into a primarily spatial term (location on the left-right axis) with a connotation that was directly opposed to its original meaning. While the original radicals had been champions of freedom and democracy, the radicals of the 20th century were, by virtue of their ideological preferences, opposed to these values. Under the post-war consensus of the 1950s, this perspective on radicalism became dominant.

However, less than two decades after the end of the Second World War, Seymour Martin Lipset challenged the prevailing view of the connection between centrism and support for democracy. In his seminal study Political Man (1960), Lipset claimed that Fascism and National Socialism were neither left- nor right-wing ideologies. Rather, they constituted an “extremism of the centre”. While this statement is problematic if interpreted in purely sociological terms – Fascism and National Socialism appealed both to the middle and to the working classes – it reflects the ambiguous location of these regimes on the traditional Left-Right Spectrum. On the one hand, they violently suppressed the left-wing unions and parties. On the other hand, they were hardly champions of a free market economy: Fascism and National Socialism insulated farmers and small businesses from competition, engaged in large-scale economic planning and raised government spending on welfare to unprecedented levels.

More generally, Lipset argued that attitudes towards the economy and attitudes towards democracy could vary independently. In his view, any position on the Left-Right spectrum – radical or centrist – can be combined with “the repression of difference and dissent, the closing down of the market place of ideas”. This “tendency to treat cleavage and ambivalence as illegitimate” is what Lipset called extremism.

Lipset fruitfully applied this concept to right-wing extremism in the United States. In his view, the insistence on free-market principles makes this particular breed of extremisms “right-wing”, whereas anti-semitism, homophobia, racism, religious intolerance and xenophobia are simply manifestations of the same underlying generic phenomenon. Indeed, in separate work he convincingly demonstrated that these traits are also prevalent amongst members of the working class, whose criticism of free market principles marks them as left-wingers.

Lipset’s notion of extremism is so broad that it resonates with even more general concepts that were developed around the same time by psychologists such as Hans Jürgen Eysenck (“tough-mindedness”) and Milton Rokeach (“closed mindedness”, “dogmatism”) and refer to a tendency to unconditionally accept norms, prejudice and authorities. Like Lipset, Eysenck, Rokeach and many other scholars treat political preferences in general and political radicalism in particular as an essentially two-dimensional phenomenon. However, while Lipset argued that left-right ideology and support for democratic values and institutions can vary independently, other authors disagree.

In work that is partly inspired by Lipset, Uwe Backes and Eckhard Jesse claim that there is a U-shaped link between ideological radicalism and anti-democratic extremism. While they acknowledge that radicalism and extremism are conceptually different, they argue that radical ideological positions have implications that render them incompatible with liberal democracy as defined by the core values of the French revolution: liberty, equality, fraternity. According to Backes and Jesse, left-wing radicalism (Communism) overemphasises equality to the detriment of freedom whereas traditional European right-wing radicalism (Fascism) as well as American right-wing radicalism disregards equality in favour of either fraternity or liberty. In Backes’ and Jesse’s view, centrism is conducive to liberal democracy while radicalism is a necessary and sufficient condition for extremism. In a sense, the 20th century view of radicalism has come full circle in their work, which has influenced many European scholars directly or indirectly. However, empirical evidence for the U-shaped link between radical ideological positions and opposition to liberal democracy is sparse.

Measurement issues

If radicalism is interpreted in a purely spatial sense, it simply refers to the endpoints of the ideological spectrum. The most common instrument in this context is the general left-right scale that has been employed in countless comparative and single-country studies. Since the left-right scale is still interpreted chiefly in economic terms, other, more specific scales which refer to the appropriate degree of government intervention in the economy, state control of prices and wages, or the importance of trade unions have also been used. On the other hand, more inclusive attempts at measuring radicalism include preferences on the “postmaterialist” issues such as the environment, minority rights, and direct democracy.

Logical implications of extreme positions not withstanding, most researchers would, however, agree that a position at the endpoints of any policy scale is in itself of little importance because people frequently hold inconsistent and contradictory attitudes. Therefore, a number of items and scales have been proposed to directly capture support for liberal democracy.

Arguably, the most influential amongst these were developed by Herbert McClosky in his work on democratic values. In his 1964 article, McClosky distinguishes between three sub-dimensions of democratic values: respect for the “rules of the game” on the one hand and support for freedom of expression as well as support for political, economic, social and ethnic equality on the other. McClosky’s first dimension primarily refers to formal compliance. As long as a majority of citizens has internalised these rules, they will support democratic institutions even if their grasp of the underlying principles is patchy. His second and third dimension, however, refer precisely to these principles.

A model (liberal) democrat should subscribe to both the principles and rules, whereas an anti-democrat would despise both. Real-world citizens usually find themselves somewhere in between those two poles: they agree with the rules and abstract principles, but sometimes struggle with their application. Some items on McClosky’s scale were specifically designed to capture these conflicts. For instance, 90 per cent of his respondents believed in “free speech for all no matter what their views might be”, yet 50 per cent agreed that books containing “wrong political views” did not deserve to be published and 25 per cent were ready to suspend due process for “dangerous enemies like the Communists”.

To the present day, McClosky’s work has a tremendous impact on the field, but there are some basic problems with his and all subsequent attempts to measure support for democratic values. First, the items inevitably reflect the political and historical context for which they were devised. For McColsky and many of his successors, Communism was the main threat to liberal democracy. With the advent of new ideological challenges such as Islamism and Right-Wing Populism, this is obviously not longer true. Second, the rules and sometimes even the principles that constitute liberal democracy are bound to change gradually over time. Political behaviours and issues from the New Politics agenda that were considered “radical” in the 1960s – minority rights, the environment, sit-ins and human chains etc. – are now well within the political mainstream. Therefore, finding items that work well in all countries at all times is conceptually and empirically next to impossible. Third, even if these attitudinal scales generate measurements that are valid across time and space, they lack a natural cut-off point. At best, they are able to identify the most radical persons in society. However, where the boundary lies between democrats and radicals is an entirely different question.

See also Communism, Democracy, Theory of, Democracy, Types, Fascism, Fundamentalism, Ideology, Islamist Movements, Left-Right Spectrum, Liberalism, Peasants’ Movements, Political Attitudes, Populism, Postmaterialism

Further Readings

Backes, Uwe. 2007. “Meaning and Forms of Political Extremism in Past and Present,” Central European Political Studies Review 9 (4): 242–62.

Lipset, Seymour Martin. 1959. “Democracy and Working-Class Authoritarianism,” American Sociological Review 24: 482–501.

Lipset, Seymour M. 1960. Political Man. The Social Bases of Politics. Garden City: Doubleday.

Lipset, Seymour Martin, and Earl Raab. 1971. The Politics of Unreason. Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970. London: Heinemann.

McClosky, Herbert. 1964. “Consensus and Ideology in American Politics,” The American Political Science Review 58 (2): 361–82.

Electoral Sociology: Who Votes for the Extreme Right and why – and when?


Over the last 15 years or so, analyses of the Extreme Right’s electorate(s) have
become a minor industry within the larger context of (comparative) Political
Sociology. By necessity, this chapter aims at summarising the main findings from this
research program, but cannot strive for a comprehensive presentation of all that has
been achieved during these years. More specifically, findings from national
and small-n studies are (almost) completely ignored. Much by the same
token, I will not delve into the fascinating literature on the social bases of the
Interwar Extreme Right in Germany and in other countries (Childers, 1983;
Falter, 1991; King, Tanner and Wagner, 2008; Küchler, 1992; O’Loughlin,

Recent events in Central and Eastern Europe (Mudde, 2005) provide a fascinating
complement to this Western perspective. However, much like Central and Eastern
European parties and electorates themselves, our (comparative) knowledge of the
social base of the Extreme Right in CEE in still very much in flux. Therefore, the
chapter aims to provide a comparative perspective on developments in West
European electoral politics since the 1980s.

1 Theory


1.1 Definitions


Much of the early literature on the Extreme Right is devoted to the twin debates on
the correct label and on criteria for membership in this party family. Initially, the
newly successful parties of the “Third Wave” that began in the late 1970s were

seen as closely linked to the Extreme Right of the Interwar years (Prowe,
1994). While such connections do exist in many cases, scholars soon began
to pinpoint the differences between a) the current and the Interwar right
and b) between different members of the emerging new party family. As a
result, scholars came up with a plethora of definitions, typologies and labels,
including (but not limited to) the “New Right”, “Radical Right”, “Populist
Right” and “Extreme Right”, to mention only the most popular ones. As
recently as 2007, Cas Mudde (Mudde, 2007, pp. 18-24), one of the most prolific
scholars in this area, made an attempt to bring a semblance of order to
the field by suggesting that “nativism”, the belief that states should be
inhabited exclusively by members of the “native” group, is the largest common
denominator for the parties of the Third Wave including those in Central and
Eastern Europe. Like a Russian doll, this family contains two subgroups
which are nested into each other: Parties of the “Radical Right” combine
nativism and authoritarianism, whereas the “Populist Radical Right” add
populism as an additional ingredient to this mixture. In a departure from
his earlier work, the label “Extreme Right” is reserved for anti-democratic
(extremist) parties (Mudde, 2007, p. 24) within the all-embracing nativist

While Mudde’s proposal is remarkably clear and was very well received in the
it matters most to students of parties. Scholars of voting behaviour, on the other
hand, tend to go with a rather pragmatic approach that was concisely summarised by
Mudde (Mudde, 1996, p. 233) a decade earlier: “We know who they are, even though
we do not know exactly what they are.” As this quote suggests, there is (definitional
questions not withstanding) actually a very broad consensus as to which
parties are normally included in analyses of the Right’s electoral base. These
include the Progress Party in Norway, the Danish People’s Party and the
Progress Party in Denmark, New Democracy and the Sweden Democrats in
Sweden, the National Front, National Democrats and British National Party
in Britain, the National Front and the National Republican Movement in
France, the German People’s Union, Republicans and National Democrats in
Germany, the Centre Parties, Lijst Pim Fortuyn and the Freedom Party in the
Netherlands, the Vlaams Blok/Belang and the National Front in Belgium, the
Freedom Party and the Alliance for the Future in Austria, the Italian Social
Movement/National Alliance, the Northern League and the Tricolour Flame in Italy,
the Falange Parties in Spain, Political Spring, the Popular Orthodox Rally
and various smaller and short-lived parties in Greece, and the “Christian
Democrats”(PDC) in Portugal. There is even a remarkable agreement on which
parties should best be seen as borderline cases: the Scandinavian Progress
Parties before they transformed themselves into anti-immigration parties
during the early 1980s, the National Alliance after Fini began to develop its
“post-fascist” profile in the mid-1990s, the Swiss People’s Party in Switzerland
before it became dominated by its “Zurich Wing” lead by Blocher and the
True Finns in Finland and the Social Democratic Centre/Popular Party in

Amongst scholars of voting behaviour, there is little doubt that these parties
attract similar voters and should be grouped together in a single, albeit very
heterogeneous, party family. “Extreme Right” is currently the most popular label for
this group. Its use does not (necessarily) signify the respective parties’ opposition to the principles of liberal democracy but rather adherence to a convention in the

This is not to imply that differences between these parties do not exist, do not
matter for voting behaviour or should be analysed by different typologies. The
German NPD, for instance, is unapologetically neo-fascist, whereas the Norwegian
Progress Party is, at least on the surface, remarkably moderate and libertarian.
Rather, it is next to impossible to incorporate the existing differences between parties
into studies of voting behaviour, because it is very rare to concurrently observe two
or more electorally viable parties of the Third Wave competing for votes. Therefore,
party sub-type effects are inseparable from constant and time-varying country

1.2 Explanations


Over the last eight decades or so, historians, sociologists and political scientists have
developed a multitude of theoretical accounts that aim to explain the electoral
support for the Interwar and modern Extreme Right. While many of these accounts
are highly complex, they can usefully be grouped into four broad categories (Winkler,

A first group of scholars focuses on largely stable and very general attributes of the
Extreme Right’s supporters, that is, personality traits and value orientations. The
most prominent example of this line of research is without doubt the original study of
the so-called “Authoritarian Personality’s” support for the Nazi party by Adorno and
his collaborators (Adorno et al., 1950). More recent contributions include work by
Altemeyer and Lederer, who both aim at developing “modern” scales for measuring
In a related fashion, authors like Ignazi and Kitschelt (Ignazi, 1992; Kitschelt, 1995)
have proposed a link between allegedly stable value orientations and voting for the
Extreme Right. Both authors interpret the success of the Extreme Right as part of a
authoritarian-materialistic “backlash” against the Green and Left-Libertarian
parties that emerged from the New Social Movements of the 1970s (Inglehart,

If there is a correlation between one’s social position on the one hand and one’s
personality traits and value orientation on the other, these approaches should go
some way towards identifying the electoral base of the modern Extreme Right. And
indeed, ever since the first studies on the social bases of the original Nazi movement
were published (See e.g. Parsons, 1942), social scientists have suspected that the
working class, the lower middle-classes and particularly the so-called “petty
bourgeoisie” exhibit stronger authoritarian tendencies than other social groups. This
alleged link between class (and, by implication, formal education) was made explicit
by Kitschelt (Kitschelt, 1995, pp. 4–7), who argued that the very nature of
jobs in certain segments of the private sector predisposes their occupants
towards a mixture of market-liberal and authoritarian ideas that was at one
stage promoted by the National Front in France and the Freedom Party in

A second strand of the literature is mainly concerned with the effects
of social disintegration, i.e. a (perceived) break-down of social norms
(“anomia”) and intense feelings of anxiety, anger and isolation brought about

by social change. Allegedly, this mental state inspires a longing for strong
leadership and rigid ideologies that are provided by the Extreme Right. A
classic proponent of this approach is Parsons in his early study on the Nazi
supporters. More recently, these ideas have returned in the guise of the “losers of
modernisation” hypothesis, i.e. the idea that certain segments of Western societies
feel that their position is threatened by immigration and globalisation and
therefore turn to political parties which promise to insulate them from these
Interestingly, the losers of modernisation hypothesis identifies more or less the same
social groups – (unskilled) workers, the unemployed and other persons depending on
welfare, parts of the lower middle classes – as the main target of Extreme Right
mobilisation efforts.

A third class of accounts draws heavily on theories from the field of social
psychology. In this perspective, group conflicts are the real cause of support for the
Extreme Right. Unlike the two aforementioned approaches, this strand is
relatively heterogeneous. At one end of the spectrum, it includes classic
theories of purely emotional, hardly conscious scapegoating (See e.g. Dollard
et al., 1939). In this perspective, ethnic minorities including immigrants
provide convenient targets for the free-floating aggression harboured by a
society’s underclass. These minorities are at the same time a) suitably different
from and b) even more power- and defenceless than the members of this

At the other end of the spectrum, theories of Realistic Group Conflict
that can be traced to the early work of Sherif and Sherif (See e.g. Sherif
and Sherif, 1953) emphasise the role of a (bounded) rationality in ethnic
conflicts over scarce resources like jobs and benefits. This idea is especially
prominent in more recent accounts (E.g. Esses, Jackson and Armstrong,

Theories of “ethnic competition” (Bélanger and Pinard, 1991), “status politics”
(Lipset and Bendix, 1951), “subtle”, “modern”, “symbolic” or “cultural” racism
(Kinder and Sears, 1981) and social identity (Tajfel et al., 1971) cover a middle
ground between these two poles, while the notion of “relative deprivation” – the idea
that one’s own group is not getting what they are entitled to in comparison with
another social group – provides a useful conceptional umbrella for these somewhat
disparate ideas (Pettigrew, 2002).

Again, no matter what specific concept from this research tradition is applied,
again, the usual suspects emerge: those social groups who deem themselves
threatened by immigration and related processes. But not all members of these
groups vote for the Extreme Right. Rather, the Extreme Right vote shows a
considerable degree of variation both between and within countries in Western
Europe. Some of the differences between countries might be explained by differences
in the social composition of the respective societies. However, these differences cannot
explain the huge differences in Extreme Right support between otherwise
reasonably similar countries: Norway is hardly more deprived than its neighbour
Sweden. By the same token, it is difficult to imagine that the authoritarian
underclass in Austria is six or seven times larger than its counterpart in
neighbouring Germany. Moreover, personality traits, value orientations, group
membership and even social and economic position change slowly, if at all, whereas
support for the Extreme Right often exhibits a great deal of variability within


One factor that is often overlooked, perhaps because it seems too obvious, is the
core variable of the social-psychological model of voting, i.e. party identifications.
Historically, West European parties of the centre left and the centre right have been
able to absorb considerable authoritarian potentials in their respective societies, and
even today, some voters who might otherwise be lured by the Extreme Right are
simply not available for those parties because they are still firmly attached to one of
the more established parties (Arzheimer and Carter, 2009a). Similarly, ties to other
organisations, notably churches and trade unions, are likely to reduce the
probability of an Extreme Right vote. This implies that the ongoing processes of
de-alignment in West European societies (Dalton, Flanagan and Beck, 1984)
will increase the potential for right-wing mobilisation, everything else being

However, varying degrees of de-alignment are not the only differences between
West European societies that can help to explain levels of support for the
Extreme Right. Moreover, party identifications are also supposed to be stable
over time. Therefore, processes of de-alignment and re-alignment cannot
explain short-time fluctuations of Extreme Right support within the same

These insights have triggered interest in a fourth, additional perspective that has
come to the fore in recent years and aims to complement the three major approaches.
In Winkler’s original survey of the literature, this emerging perspective was presented
under the label of a “political culture” that constrains the posited effects of
individual factors on the Extreme Right vote. However, since the mid-1990s, interest
in a whole host of other, more tangible contextual factors has grown tremendously,
and it is now widely believed that the interplay between group conflicts and
system-level variables can help explain the striking differences in support for the ER
over time and across countries. Building on previous work by Tarrow and Kriesi and
his associates (Kriesi et al., 1992; Tarrow, 1996), Arzheimer and Carter have argued
that these factors should be subsumed under the concept of “political opportunity
structures”, which compromise short-, medium- and long-term contextual
variables that amongst them capture the degree of openness of a given political
system for political entrepreneurs (Arzheimer and Carter, 2006, p. 422).
As it turns out, however, the concept of “opportunities” for new political
actors might be too narrow: Many context factors like unemployment or
immigration will not only provide the political elite with an incentive to mobilise,
but will also have a direct and possibly more important impact on voters’
preferences. Empirically, it is not possible to separate these two causal mechanisms
since we have no reliable information on the mental calculations made by
(would-be) politicians. Therefore, it seems reasonable to subsume the notion of
opportunity structures under the even more general concept of contextual

Over the last 15 years or so, studies have looked at a whole host of such
contextual variables, including but not limited to:

  1. Opportunity structures
    1. In a strict sense: political decentralisation and electoral thresholds
      (E.g. Carter, 2005)
  • In a wider sense: positions of other parties (Arzheimer, 2009;
    Arzheimer and Carter, 2006; Lubbers, Gijsberts and Scheepers,
    2002), media coverage (Boomgaarden and Vliegenthart, 2007, 2009)
    and “discursive opportunity structures” (Koopmans and Muis, 2009;
    Koopmans and Olzak, 2004; Wal, 2000; Wimmer, 1997)
  • Variables related to the Extreme Right parties themselves (e. g. availability of
    “charismatic leaders”, policy positions, reliance on populism, party
  • Macroeconomic variables: unemployment, growth, and their trends
  • Other political variables: immigration figures



All accounts of the role of contextual variables assume – sometimes explicitly but
more often implicitly – some sort of multi-level explanation in the spirit of Coleman’s
ideal type of sociological explanations (Coleman, 1994). Put simply, these
explanations assume that changes at the macro-level (a declining economy, rising
immigration figures, a new anti-immigrant party) bring about changes in individual
preferences, which lead to (aggregate) changes in individual political behaviour, i.e.
an increase in electoral support for the Extreme Right. Since different groups in
society have different prior propensities to vote for the Extreme Right, and since they
react differently to changes in the social and political environment, both micro and
macro information are required to fully model and understand the processes that
transform latent or potential support for the Extreme Right into real, manifest

2 Data


All empirical analyses of the nexus between the social and the political require data,
which fall into two broad categories: aggregate (macro) data which provide
information on the behaviour and properties of collectives (electoral districts,
provinces, countries …), and micro data, which relate to individuals and are typically
based on standardised interviews. Both categories can be further subdivided by
including additional dimensions:

  1. Macro data
    1. Source: census data, electoral results, macro-economic and
      government data
    2. Temporal coverage: cross-sectional vs. longitudinal data
    3. Geographical coverage: one, few or many countries
    4. Level of aggregation: wards, constituencies, subnational units or the
      whole country
  2. Micro data
    1. Source: national opinion polls vs. comparative multi-national studies
    2. Temporal coverage: cross-sectional, trend and panel studies
    3. Geographical coverage: one, few or many countries
    4. Level of aggregation: individual cases vs. aggregated survey results


The analytical leverage of the data depends on these sub-dimensions as well as on
the reliability of the information and the level of detail they provide. As a result of
technological progress and huge individual and collective investments into the
infrastructure of social science research, the quality and availability of comparative
data on the electorates of the Extreme Right in Western Europe have vastly
improved over the last decade. Consequentially, scholars of the Extreme Right are
nowadays in a much better position to analyse the social base of these parties than
fifteen or even five years ago.

Nonetheless, they still face some awkward trade-offs. Generally speaking,
micro-level data is preferable to macro-level data, especially if the level of
aggregation is high. After all, aggregate measures are usually restricted to human
behaviour but provide no information on the motives behind the aggregated

Moreover, aggregation discards individual information. Therefore, inferences from
correlations at the macro-level to the behaviour of individuals are plagued by the
infamous ecological fallacy (Robinson, 1950) unless the aggregates are homogeneous.
This is most easily illustrated by an example: At the level of the 96 departments
of metropolitan France, there is a sizable positive correlation between the
number of foreign-born persons and the vote for the National Front. It is,
however, highly unlikely that immigrants have an above-average propensity to
vote for the Extreme Right. Rather, the aggregate correlation reflects a
mixture of a) the below-average propensity of immigrants to vote for the Front
and b) a hostile reaction of other voters to the presence of immigrants.
Without individual-level data, it is not possible to disentangle these two

A famous historical example for the perils of aggregate correlations concerns two
time-series that moved in sync: electoral support for the NSDAP and the
unemployment rate in Weimar Germany. Their positive relationship suggests that the
unemployed turned to the Nazi party as their economical situation declined (Frey

and Weck, 1981). However, at lower levels of aggregation (Länder and Kreise), the
relationship between unemployment and the NSDAP vote was actually negative.
Presumably, the unemployed were less likely to vote for the NSDAP while those who
(yet) had a job had a higher propensity to support the Nazis that further
increased as the economy deteriorated (Falter and Zintl, 1988; Falter et al.,

So why would anyone want to base their analyses on macro data? As it turns out,
quite often there is no alternative, because (comparable) surveys were simply not
conducted at some point in time relevant to the intended analysis, at least not in all
countries that are supposed to be studied under a given design. The United Kingdom
is a point in case. Until recently, the parties of the Extreme Right in this country
were so weak that it was next to impossible to study their supporters by means of
survey data.

Moreover, survey studies suffer from a number of limitations of their own: Even
seemingly simple questions do not translate well into other languages, interviewers
are tempted to take shortcuts, respondents might not be able (or willing) to
accurately recall past behaviour and might be too embarrassed to admit to racist
feelings and (presumably) unpopular opinions, and so on. As a result, survey data are
often plagued by relatively high levels of systematic and random error. Macro data
on the other hand are usually collected by government agencies and are therefore
highly reliable. In summary, researchers are forced to choose between richness and
reliability, in-depth and “broad picture” perspectives, theoretical adequacy and data

But not all is bleak. (Relatively) recent initiatives in the collection,
dissemination and processing of survey data have gone a long way
to improve the situation of the subfield. The European Social
Survey8 with
its module on immigration (2002/2003) provides a pan-European, state-of-the-art perspective
on the hearts and minds of the voters of the Extreme Right. Similarly, the Mannheim
Trend File9
represents a major effort to harmonise and document the multitude of
Eurobarometer surveys that have been collected in the EC/EU member states since
the early 1970s. Finally, electoral support for the Extreme Right is now
often analysed by means of statistical multi-level models (Arzheimer, 2009;
Lubbers, Gijsberts and Scheepers, 2002), which allow for the joint analyses of
micro and macro data, thereby alleviating some of the problems outlined

3 Findings


While men were always overrepresented amongst the French Front National’s voters,
it is well-documented that its electoral base has changed considerably over time
(Mayer, 1998; Mayer and Perrineau, 1992). Initially, the Front appealed primarily to
the petty bourgeoisie, but it quickly transformed itself into a non-traditional workers’
party. In between, it managed to attract occasional support from segments of the
middle classes. The Front has been dubbed the “master case” of a successful New
Right Party, and its strategies have been adopted by other parties of the European
Right (Rydgren, 2005). Therefore, it seems at least plausible that other

parties of the right have followed a similar trajectory of “proletarianization”
(Oesch, 2008). At any rate, it seems safe to assume that new, relatively
unknown parties rest on relatively fluid and less than well-defined social bases,
whereas older parties that have competed for votes in three or four consecutive
elections build a more consolidated electoral base, often with a distinct social

As it turns out, the electorates of most parties of the Extreme Right do indeed
consist of a clearly defined social core that is remarkably similar to the French
pattern. The most successful of these parties – the Freedom Party in Austria, the
Norwegian Progress Party and some others – have regularly managed to attract votes
from beyond this core so that their profile became less sharp, whereas those
that project the most radical political images (e.g. the German NPD or the
British BNP) were bound to frighten off the middle classes and have therefore
been unable to achieve this feat. This not withstanding, a very clear picture
emerges from three decades of national and comparative studies of the Extreme

3.1 Socio-Demographics


3.1.1 Gender


Most national studies have found huge differences in the propensity of men and
women to vote for the Extreme Right, even if other factors such as occupation,
education and age are controlled for. While findings vary across time, parties,
countries and details of operationalisation and model specification (Givens, 2004),
men seem to be roughly 40% more likely to vote for the Extreme Right than
female voters. Even amongst the voters of the Norwegian Progress Party and
the Danish People’s Party (which have been both lead by women for the
last four/fifteen years respectively), about two thirds are male (Heidar and
Pedersen, 2006). An important exception from this general observation,
however, is the Italian National Alliance, which appeals to both men and
women. This somewhat unusual finding seems to coincide with the party
leadership’s attempts to re-define the Alliance as a Christian-conservative
party that eventually paved the way for the AN’s merger with Forza Italia in

Comparative studies that rely on various data sources confirm this general
pattern (Arzheimer, 2009; Lubbers, Gijsberts and Scheepers, 2002). A whole host of
explanations for this phenomenon have been proposed in the literature, spanning a
multitude of approaches from psychoanalysis to rational choice. Common arguments
include that

  • Some parties of the Extreme Right (like the Interwar Right) still project
    images of hyper-masculinity that are intrinsically off-putting for women
  • Women are moving towards the left of men in most post-industrial societies(Inglehart and Norris, 2000)
  • Women are inherently conservative and therefore more likely to be
    offended by the Extreme Right’s radicalism and more likely to identify
    with parties of the centre-right.


Related to the last point is a methodological argument: If effects of conformism
and social desirability are stronger in women, they might simply be less likely to
admit that they support the Extreme Right in an interview situation. However,
analyses of the “German Representative Electoral Statistics”, a special sub-sample of
ballot papers that bear marks which record the gender and age-bracket of the elector,
have shown that the gender gap is real, at least in Germany. Moreover, gender
effects do not completely disappear when attitudes are controlled for. As
Betz noted more than 15 years ago, the magnitude of the right-wing voting
gender gap is and remains “a complex and intriguing puzzle” (Betz, 1994,
p. 146).

3.1.2 Education


Like gender, education is a powerful predictor of the Extreme Right vote in Western
Europe. Virtually all national and comparative studies demonstrate that citizens
with university education are least likely to vote for the Extreme Right. Conversely,
the Extreme Right enjoys above average levels of support in lower educational

This relationship is neither perfect nor necessarily linear. Some parties
of the Extreme Right – most notably the Austrian Freedom Party – have
managed to attract considerable numbers of graduates in some elections.
Moreover, there is scattered evidence that the Extreme Right is even more
popular amongst those with middle levels of educational attainment than
in the lowest educational strata, although differences between these two
groups are rarely statistically significant. By and large, however, the statistical
association between educational attainment and right-wing voting is remarkably

There are basically three types of explanations for this relationship. A first
approach claims that citizens with higher levels of educational attainment for various
reasons tend to hold more liberal values than others (Weakliem, 2002) and are
therefore less likely to support the authoritarian policies of the Extreme

A second argument holds that supporters of the Extreme Right are primarily
motivated by ethnic competition (Bélanger and Pinard, 1991). Since immigration
into Western Europe is mostly low-skilled, it poses a threat only to those with low to
medium levels of attainment. In fact, low-skilled immigration might be seen as a
benefitting graduates, as it might bring down wages in some sectors of the service
industry (e.g. childcare or housekeeping), thereby increasing their ability to purchase
these services.

Third, graduates might be more susceptible to effects of social desirability,
which would lead them to under-report support for the Extreme Right. This
attainment-specific bias would result in overestimating the effect of education.


3.1.3 Class and Age


Social class is a notoriously complex concept, but voting studies usually rely on either
some variant of the classification developed by Erikson, Goldthorpe and
Portocarero (Erikson, Goldthorpe and Portocarero, 1979) or some simple typology
that pits the “working class” against one or more other broadly defined
occupational groups. Either way, class (in this sense) is closely related to formal

As outlined above, many parties initially appealed primarily to the so-called
“pettty bourgeoisie” of artisans, shopkeepers, farmers and other self-employed
citizens. As this group has been subject to a constant and steady numerical decline in
all European societies, the Extreme Right has been forced to broaden its social base.
Nowadays, non-traditional workers, other members of the lower middle classes and
the unemployed form the most important segment of the Extreme Right’s electorate.
Conversely, managers, professionals, owners of larger businesses and members of the
middle and higher ranks of the public service are the groups least likely to vote for
the Extreme Right. This chimes with the effect of educational attainment, although
both variables are not perfectly correlated and operate independently of each

Apart from the effect of class, many studies demonstrate an effect of age, with
younger (< 30) voters being more likely to vote for the Extreme Right. Presumably,
this age group is less firmly attached to the established parties, has a more intensive
sense of ethnic competition, is subject to lower levels of social control and more prone
to experiment with their vote.

3.1.4 Social ties and other socio-demographic factors


Various studies have looked at the respective effects of other socio-demographic
factors, often inspired by a varieties of disintegration, reference-group or cleavage
theories. For rather obvious reasons, trade union membership is often a strong
deterrent to right-wing voting. Slightly less self-explanatory is the negative effect of
church attendance, which contradicts earlier American findings. As Arzheimer and
Carter demonstrate, this effect is mostly due to pre-existing party loyalties that tie
religious voters to Christian/Conservative parties (Arzheimer and Carter,

Other alleged factors include household size and marital status, which are both
interpreted as indicators of social isolation and anomia. The effects of these variables
are, however, weak and inconsistent.

3.2 Attitudes


Especially during their early years, parties of the Extreme Right
were often seen as vehicles for “pure”, allegedly non-political
To be sure, the parties of the Extreme Right have very mixed
and attitudes such as distrust in and disaffection with existing parties and

Euro-Scepticism have strong effects on the probability of a right-wing vote. Yet, as
immigration emerged as their central issue during the 1980s, anti-immigrant
sentiment arose as the single most powerful predictor of the right-wing vote.

Anti-immigrant sentiment is a complex attitude, and there is no consensus as to
which sub-dimensions it entails and how it should be operationalised. Just as not all
parties and politicians of the Extreme Right are extremists, not all immigration
sceptics are xenophobes or racists (Rydgren, 2008). But what ever their exact
nature is, concerns about the presence of non-Western immigrants go a long
way towards understanding support for the Extreme Right. While not all
citizens who harbour such worries do in fact vote for the Extreme Right (many
support parties of the Centre Left or Centre Right), there are next to no
right-wing voters who have a positive view of immigrants and immigration. Even
if the “single-issue thesis” (Mudde, 1999) of right-wing support does not
paint an accurate picture of these parties and their voters, it is difficult to
overstate the importance of immigration for the modern (post-1980) Extreme

Finally, identifications with either a party of the Extreme Right or another party
compromise another important class of attitudes that help to understand and predict
the Extreme Right vote. As outlined above in section 1.2, party identifications are
often ignored in models of right-wing voting, presumably because their likely
effects are self-evident. This is, however, a grave mistake, as this omission can
seriously bias the estimates for other variables and ignores the fact that
many right-wing parties have consolidated their electoral base over the last

3.3 Contextual Factors


Since the mid-1990s, contextual (mostly system level) factors have attracted a great
deal of interested as they were increasingly seen as key variables for explaining the
huge variation in right-wing support. Some technical issues not withstanding, the
analysis by Jackman and Volpert (Jackman and Volpert, 1996) was groundbreaking
in many ways. In an aggregate study that spans 103 elections held in 16 countries
between 1970 and 1990, Jackman and Volpert analyse the impact of various economic
and institutional variables on the Extreme Right vote. Their main results are
that the Extreme Right benefits from high unemployment, PR voting and
multi-partyism, whereas high electoral thresholds are detrimental for the Extreme

Later studies have elaborated on these findings by dealing with some of the
technical and conceptual problems (Golder, 2003), using aggregated survey
data (Knigge, 1998), and considering mediating effect of the welfare state
(Swank and Betz, 2003). Around the turn of the century, the view that
immigration (usually operationalised by the number of refugees or asylum
seeker applying or actually taking residence in a country) has a substantial
positive effect on right-wing voting was firmly established, whereas the effects
of inflation and of (aggregate) unemployment appeared to be much less

The useful study by Lubbers, Gijsberts and Scheepers (Lubbers, Gijsberts and
Scheepers, 2002) represents another important step forward, as these authors were

the first to model right-wing voting in a multi-level perspective that combines
individual-level and system-level predictors. From a methodological point of view,
multi-level modelling s is currently the most appropriate approach to the research
problem. The study by Lubbers et al. was also important because they complemented
their model with political factors, namely characteristics of the Extreme Right

This approach was taken one step further again by Arzheimer and Carter, who
include various measures for the ideological positions of other parties as well as
institutional characteristics, unemployment and immigration rates into a
comprehensive model of “opportunity structures” for the Extreme Right (Arzheimer
and Carter, 2006).

As it turns out, immigration and unemployment work in the expected direction,
though their effect is moderated by welfare state interventions that insulate
vulnerable social groups from their impact. Moreover, the established parties have a
substantial impact on the success of their right-wing competitors: If they publicly
address issues such as immigration, the Extreme Right benefits, presumably because
it gains some legitimacy and relevance in the eyes of the public. If, however,
they simply ignore the issues of the Extreme Right, these parties seem to
suffer(Arzheimer, 2009).

The studies discussed in this section provide a detailed and nuanced account of
the interplay between social, economic, institutional, political and individual factors
required to transform the Extreme Right’s electoral potential into actual votes. There
is, however, a rather large elephant in the room: the media. If, as Arzheimer argues,
party manifestos (that are usually of little relevance for the general public) have a
sizeable impact on the right-wing vote, it is reasonable to assume that media effects
of agenda setting and priming are even more important. Country-level studies
for the Netherlands and for Germany demonstrate that this is indeed the
case (Boomgaarden and Vliegenthart, 2007, 2009). There are, however, no
comparative studies on media effects (yet), because the necessary data are not

4 Summary and Outlook


Conceptual and data problems not withstanding, Political Sociology has come up
with a clear image of the “typical” voter of the Extreme Right: male, young(ish), of
moderate educational achievement and concerned about immigrants and
immigration. While some parties of the Extreme Right have been remarkably
successful in making inroads into other strata, this group forms the core of the
right-wing electorates in Western Europe, making the Extreme Right a family of
non-traditional working class parties.

As the size of this group is largely stable and roughly similar across countries, the
interest in contextual factors that may trigger the conversion of potential into
manifest support has grown during the last decade. While immigration,
unemployment and other economic factors emerge time and again as variables that
play a central role, recent studies demonstrate that political factors, which are (up to
a degree) subject to political control and manipulation, act as important

The most glaring omission so far is the lack of comparative studies on the impact

that media coverage of immigrants and immigration policies has on the prospects of
the Extreme Right. Another area where more research is needed concerns the
effects of smaller spatial contexts on the right-wing vote. After all, social,
political and economic conditions vary massively at the sub-national, e.g. across
provinces, districts, towns and even neighbourhoods. It stands to reason
that citizens rely on these local conditions, which have a massive impact
on their everyday lives, to evaluate politicians, parties and policies at the
national level. This approach has been fruitfully employed at the national level
(Kestilä and Söderlund, 2007a; Lubbers and Scheepers, 2002). Comparative
studies, however, have been hampered by vastly different subnational divisions
and a lack of comparable micro- and macro-data. New initiatives for the
geo-referencing of survey data and the pan-European harmonisation of small-area
government data will hopefully help us to overcome that impasse in the



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1A staggering number of labels and definitions have been applied to the parties whose
electorates are analysed in this chapter (see section 1.1). For simplicities sake, I use the term
“Extreme Right”, arguably the most prominent in the international literature. This does not imply
that all or indeed a majority of the relevant parties are “extremist”, i.e. opposed to the values of
Liberal Democracy.

2Cf. the symposium in Political Studies Review 2009.

3See Altemeyer, 1996; Lederer and Schmidt, 1995; Meloen, Linden and Witte,

4See Scheuch and Klingemann, 1967 for the original, rather complex approach, and Betz,
1994 for a modern and more streamlined take.

5Aggregated survey data are a somewhat degenerated special case.

6This is illustrated by very low levels of support for the National Front in those departments
around Paris which have the highest shares of immigrants.

7See the exchange between Arzheimer and Carter, 2009b and Kestilä and Söderlund, 2007b;
Kestilä-Kekkonen and Söderlund, 2009.

8See http://www.europeansocialsurvey.org/.

9See http://www.gesis.org/en/services/data/survey-data/eurobarometer-data-service/eb-trends-trend-files/mannheim-eb-trend-file/.

10See Brug and Fennema, 2003 for a highly critical assessment of this thesis.

11Anti-tax movements in the case of the Scandinavian Progress Parties, regionalism for the
Leagues in Italy and the Vlams Blok/Belang in Flanders, a social movement to improve local
infrastructure for the Dutch LPF and Liberalism for the Austrian Freedom Party, to name just a