How the Extreme Right became the Radical Right

What (is) right?

These days, the (Populist) Radical Right is all the rage. But when I started out as a young Padawan an unspecified number of decades ago, we were working on the Extreme Right as a matter of course. A few years down the line, a dear co-author asked me whether we should switch terminology, but I was all against it,stubborn bugger that I was. My own conversion came in the early 2010s or so, when we were organising a section and younger people were not sure what the oldtimers were talking about.

Besides the Extreme and the Radical, there is the Far Right, the New Right (not so new anymore, eh?), and the Populist Radical Right. What does it all mean? Is it all the same? And where did it come from? And when did Radical become de rigeur?

What does the (meta) science say?

For a forthcoming chapter, I have looked at the distribution of these and other phrases in the titles and abstracts of the (then) 650+ titles in my bibliography on the (Insert as Appropriate) Right. Note that I used wildcards to find some common variations. This is the distribution that I found:

Distribution of various phrases in the literature
Phraseper cent
Any Phrase61
Radical Right*27
Extreme Right*21
Right-Wing Populis*10
Populist Radical Right*7
Far Right*6
Right-Wing Extrem*5
Populist Right*3
New Right*1
Radical Populist Right*0
Right-Wing Radic*0

From the table, it’s easy to see that more than half of the publications use at least one of the phrases in a prominent position. While number of publications uses two or more different phrases, the average number is just 1.3. Two phrases stand out: “Radical Right” and “Extreme Right” (and some derivatives) collectively show up in the titles and abstracts of nearly half of the items in the bibliography. But how has their use changed over time? Well, that’s an easy one.

Extreme vs Radical Right over time

Extreme Right vs Radical Right over time
Extreme Right vs Radical Right over time

In the figure, I have plotted their respective shares for every year. Because the number of publications per year is often low, the numbers vary wildly, so I used a local scatter smoother. As you can see, both the Extreme and the Radical Right were equally popular (or unpopular) in the early 1990s, but then the Extreme Right took the lead. Around the turn of the century, as many as 40 per cent of the publications in the bibliography used the phrase.

But then the tide turned. I blame Cas Mudde, or rather his 2007 book. In 2008, the two trajectories crossed, and the use of “Extreme” began to decline quickly. “Radical”, on the other hand, rose to dizzying heights. For the 2008-2017 period, “Radical Right” outnumbers the use of “Extreme Right” by a factor of 2.2.

So …

Once more, my own experience was not special at all. Many more jumped ship. Or, to put a more positive spin on it: the field has finally overcome its most blatant shortcoming: the inability to agree at least on a common label for its object. If you find this as fascinating as I do, you should get a life read the full chapter here, for free (author’s version):

  • Arzheimer, Kai. “Conceptual Confusion is not Always a Bad Thing: The Curious Case of European Radical Right Studies.” Demokratie und Entscheidung. Eds. Marker, Karl, Michael Roseneck, Annette Schmitt, and Jürgen Sirsch. Wiesbaden: Springer, 2018. 23-40. doi:10.1007/978-3-658-24529-0_3
    [BibTeX] [Download PDF] [HTML]
    author = {Arzheimer, Kai},
    title = {Conceptual Confusion is not Always a Bad Thing: The Curious Case of
    European Radical Right Studies},
    booktitle = {Demokratie und Entscheidung},
    publisher = {Springer},
    address = {Wiesbaden},
    pages = {forthcoming},
    year = 2018,
    url =
    doi = {10.1007/978-3-658-24529-0_3},
    pages = {23-40},
    html =
    editor = {Marker, Karl and Roseneck, Michael and Schmitt, Annette and Sirsch,
    dateadded = {01-06-2018}

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