14 August 2023

How to Respond to the Far Right

Across the European continent, far-right parties are soaring in opinion polls. As the far right continues establishing its presence on the mainstream political stage, the urgency to address its rise and normalisation cannot be overstated. But which strategies are effective when and why?

From the margins into the mainstream

The success of the far right has been in the making for a long time. The far right is an umbrella term that captures the growing links between ‘(populist) radical right’ (illiberal-democratic) and ‘extreme right’ (anti-democratic) political actors. Ideologically, the far right is characterised by nativism and authoritarianism. Nativism is a xenophobic form of nationalism, which holds that non-native elements form a threat to the homogeneous nation-state. Authoritarianism refers to the belief in a strictly ordered society, where infringements against the ‘law and order’ are to be punished severely. As a result, far-right ideologies are exclusionary and hierarchical, often manifesting as a range of beliefs that are racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, and hostile towards LGBTQ+ communities.

While the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic appeared to take the wind out of the sails of far-right parties (particularly those in opposition), their decline in popularity proved to be transient. In fact, since the beginning of the 21st century, the far right has shaken up party systems in almost every country in Europe and beyond. Recent years have seen far-right parties assume governmental responsibilities in various countries, including Italy and Finland. Meanwhile, in Austria and Belgium, the Freedom Party (FPÖ) and the Flemish Interest Party (VB) are polling at approximately 25 percent.

Even countries that long seemed ‘immune’ now appear to have succumbed to the far-right spell: in Scandinavia, the Sweden Democrats (SD) – which were long treated as pariahs by media commentators and mainstream competitors – are now backing a minority coalition. Despite suffering substantive electoral losses in the recent snap election, Spain’s far-right party Vox might become kingmaker in the coalition talks. In Germany, the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) is soaring in the polls. Having marked its 10th birthday earlier this year, the party is currently celebrating the instalment of their first elected mayors at the local level.

The electoral advances of the far right have rekindled the age-old discussion on how to effectively address their presence. With elections around the corner at the European, national, subnational and local levels, the stakes are high. Germany is gearing up for elections in three eastern states – a region where support for the far right is notoriously high. Meanwhile, citizens in Poland and the Netherlands are preparing to cast their votes in the upcoming parliamentary elections. Looking ahead to 2024, Belgium and Austria will follow suit. In the same year, the European Parliament elections are scheduled, where the far right is likely to solidify its presence.

Understanding the success of the far right

To answer the question of how to respond to the far right, we first need to understand the reasons behind its success, which are complex and manifold. To begin with, individual attitudes play a major role – even though they are often neglected in media discourses. For instance, far-right support cannot simply be dismissed as ‘protest’ against the status quo, or dissatisfaction with particular policy items, such as the much-discussed ‘heating law’ in Germany or measures to curb nitrogen emissions in the Netherlands. Instead, opposition to immigration remains one of the key drivers behind far-right voting – although scholars have distinguished more fine-grained attitudes, suggesting that immigration scepticism (i.e. wanting to reduce immigration) is a stronger predictor than xenophobia or racism.

While individual attitudes matter, they do not automatically translate into far-right support. Indeed, these attitudes need to be mobilised by far-right parties and actors. Generally speaking, far-right parties are more likely to succeed if they are able to present themselves as credible alternatives to mainstream parties. As with any party, an appealing programme, charismatic leader(s) and a solid organisation are key. In recent decades, many far-right parties have adopted features of the mass party model and developed policy positions on a wide range of other issues, including foreign policy, gender, and climate.

Crucially, the success of far-right parties is also contingent on the way in which they are perceived and received by other actors, notably mainstream parties, media practitioners, and civil society actors. Together, they serve as gatekeepers who control the gateway to the political arena. As such, their behaviour is particularly important in determining the electoral trajectory of far-right parties in the earlier stages of their life span (i.e. before their initial breakthrough). But also after the far right has entered the political stage, responses from mainstream competitors, the media, and the general public continue to play an important role.

Strategies against the far right

From a purely theoretical perspective, three strategies can be discerned when confronted with a far-right challenger: demarcation, confrontation, and accommodation. First, mainstream parties (just like media practitioners) can opt to isolate the far right through demarcation (or Abgrenzung in German), for instance by treating them as pariahs, or by setting up a cordon sanitaire or ‘firewall’. Second, established politicians might choose to engage with the far right by assuming a confrontational stance. For instance, they might demonise or stigmatise the far right, thereby openly distancing themselves from them. Similarly, journalists might seek to ‘expose’ them by showing their ‘true face’ (ontmaskeren in Dutch), or they can delegitimise these parties (and their policies) through unfavourable news coverage. Third, mainstream parties can opt to accommodate the far right, for instance by copying their views or policies or choosing to collaborate with them.

So which strategy is the most effective in countering the far right? History suggests that there is no ‘silver bullet’ in dealing with the far right. It very much depends on the context, as well as on the timing. Austria is an interesting case in this respect, as all these different strategies have been adopted at different times and by different actors, but none of them led to the long-term vanishing of the far right. Mainstream politicians and popular media commentators often suggest that isolating the far right could risk confirming the populist claim that ‘the elites’ are unresponsive to the concerns of ‘the people’, thereby fuelling the populist fire. However, empirical evidence for this claim is scarce.

There is also mixed evidence for the confrontational and accommodative strategies. In theory, the latter could have a moderating effect by forcing far-right parties to tone down their rhetoric. This is what Reinhard Heinisch has called the ‘filtration effect’. Earlier studies also suggested that by accommodating far-right contenders, centre-right parties could actually succeed in seizing some of their electoral support, particularly if the far-right challenger has acted as a junior coalition partner. This is also known as the ‘black-widow-effect’.

However, more recent studies have shown that adopting far-right positions does not help to win back voters but in fact, contributes to legitimising the pariah’s views and agenda. Similarly, including the far right into power to ‘demystify’ it has proven ineffective. Historical instances of far-right government participation have yielded a range of outcomes. But the bottom line is that the risks of collaboration outweigh the benefits: once in power, the far right can actively contribute to serious democratic backsliding, as we have seen in Poland, Hungary, and the United States. Moreover, when far-right ideas are disseminated from a position of power, it accelerates the mainstreaming and normalisation of these ideas.

Where to go from here?

Although there is no magic formula on how to deal with the far right, insights from research enable us to outline some effective strategies and pitfalls to avoid. Evidence put forward by Joost van Spanje and Nan Dirk de Graaf indicates that engagement strategies (i.e. confrontation and accommodation) are most effective when combined with non-engagement strategies (i.e. demarcation). Drawing on evidence from nearly 300 election results in 28 Western European countries from 1944 to 2011, the authors show that copying (or ‘parroting’) a challenger party can work (i.e. it can decrease that party’s support), but only if that party is also systematically isolated. This suggests that combining different strategies might be key to their overall effectiveness.

Moreover, evidence from Belgium suggests that demarcation can actually work. When a cordon is truly ‘watertight’ in the sense that the media universally deny access to far-right parties and mainstream parties clearly rule out any sort of cooperation, it can deprive the far right of the oxygen they need to grow and flourish. However, the effectiveness of the demarcation strategy ultimately hinges on its rigidness and timing. When a cordon is permissive (i.e. allowing some possibility for cooperation with far-right actors because they are not universally treated as pariahs), it is less likely to be effective. As David Art reminds us, ‘even small cracks in the cordon sanitaire can have large consequences’. That is precisely why political parties should not make exceptions at any federal level – unlike CDU leader Friedrich Merz, who called for more pragmatic cooperation with the AfD at the local level a few weeks ago. In fact, the local level serves as a particularly important bulwark against the far right, as emphasised in a study by Antonis Ellinas on antifascist mobilisation in Greece.

At the same time, media coverage matters. In Germany and beyond, media commentators seem to be scrambling for the most sensational headline when it comes to the far right’s recent high ratings in the polls (thereby ignoring normal margins of error). This, again, runs against what we know from existing research: when adhering to a strict demarcation, media practitioners can significantly hamper the far right’s success, as shown in Wallonia.

Here to stay: dealing with the far right is a long-term challenge

Demarcation is admittedly easier before the far right has passed the ‘threshold of relevance’. Many may therefore wonder how dealing with the far right will or should change after it has gained a solid foothold in the party system. Indeed, once a far-right party has won parliamentary representation, it effectively changes the parameters of party competition, and electoral fortunes become less dependent on the tactical manoeuvring of other players, including mainstream parties and the media. But that does not mean that the responses do not matter anymore. If anything, this is when the mainstreaming processes become even more relevant.

Since the far right is likely to be here to stay, learning how to deal with it will undoubtedly be a long-term challenge – but one that cannot be avoided. In the words of Tim Bale, ‘once the toothpaste is out of the tube, the can of worms opened, the issues rarely go away’. The normalisation of the far right can be seen as one of the greatest threats that liberal democracies are currently facing. Instead of integrating far-right positions and frames, mainstream parties should thus focus on strengthening liberal democracy and reclaiming the political agenda on the basis of offering credible political alternatives. This involves staying true to their own story, getting back in touch with their core electorates, and creating strict boundaries on how much intolerance liberal democracies should tolerate. If these boundaries are not set, it becomes much easier for far-right actors to push them further and further.


SUGGESTED CITATION  de Jonge, Léonie; Heinze, Anna-Sophie: How to Respond to the Far Right, VerfBlog, 2023/8/14, https://verfassungsblog.de/how-to-respond-to-the-far-right/, DOI: 10.17176/20230814-182858-0.

4 Comments

  1. M G Tue 15 Aug 2023 at 11:22 - Reply

    One aspect about this analysis leaves me with a question: In the beginning of the article we learn that Belgium is one of those countries where far right countries are currently getting very high poll results. Towards the end of the article we are informed that Belgium is a country where the demarcation strategy worked. How can these two things go together? If the strategy worked, how can the far right party surge to the top of the polls?

    • Louis Droussin Tue 15 Aug 2023 at 12:47 - Reply

      Hello,

      In Belgium, there are three party systems: one French-speaking, one Dutch-speaking and one German-speaking.

      In the Dutch-speaking part of the country, the far-right party (Vlaams Belang) won almost 19% of the vote in 2019 (and in the latest polls is often close to 25%).

      In French-speaking Belgium, the electoral far right does not really exist (it has no seats in any parliament). This is due to a combination of factors, including the presence of a political cordon sanitaire, but above all of a solid media cordon sanitaire – unlike in Dutch-speaking Belgium (i.e. Flanders), where the media cordon sanitaire has been broken.

      On this subject, I recommend this article by L. de Jonge (one of the authors of this post): https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/government-and-opposition/article/curious-case-of-belgiu