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Interpreting Right-Wing or Reactionary Neo-Populism: A Critique

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 April 2009

Ron Formisano
University of Kentucky


During the 1980s and 1990s in countries across the globe, new populist protest movements and radical political organizations emerged to challenge traditional parties, ruling elites, and professional politicians, and even long-standing social norms. The revolts against politics-as-usual have arisen from many kinds of social groupings and from diverse points on the political spectrum. Through the 1980s, in Western and Eastern Europe, Latin America, Africa, Asia, and North America, populist discontent erupted intermittently. But the end of the Cold War, particularly in Europe, unleashed a torrent of popular movements and political parties opposed to what the discontented perceived as the corruption and deceitfulness of the political classes and their corporate patrons. Some protest movements promoted more democracy, pluralism, and economic opportunity; some expressed intolerance, bigotry, and xenophobic nationalism.

Critical Perspectives
Copyright © The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, PA. 2005

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1. A recent exception to this trend is Meny, Yves and Surel, Yves, eds., Democracies and the Populist Challenge (Houndsmills, 2002)CrossRefGoogle Scholar, esp. Meny and Surel, “The Constitutive Ambiguity of Populism,” 1–21.

2. In 1992 Piero Ignazi, in what became an influential article, asserted that the “only ideological corpus for the extreme right has been provided by fascism.” The Silent Counter-Revolution: Hypotheses on the Emergence of the Extreme Right-Wing Parties in Europe,” European Journal of Political Research 22 (07 1992): 9Google Scholar. Dahl, Goran, Radical Conservatism and the Future of Politics (London, 1999), 95Google Scholar; for the Hitler reference, see Marquand, David, “Democracy in Britain,” Political Quarterly 71 (0609 2000): 275CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Examples of the works referred to include: Hainsworth, Paul, ed., The Extreme Right in Europe and the USA (New York, 1992)Google Scholar; Betz, Hans-Georg, Radical Right-Wing Populism in Western Europe (Houndsmills, 1994)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Eatwell, Roger, “The Fascist and Racist Revival in Western Europe,” The Political Quarterly 65 (0609 1994): 313325CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Kitschelt, Herbert, in collaboration with Anthony J. McGann, The Radical Right in Western Europe: A Comparative Analysis (Ann Arbor, 1995)Google Scholar; Cheles, Luciano, Ferguson, Ronnie, and Vaughn, Michalina, eds., The Far Right in Western and Eastern Europe, 2d ed. (New York, 1995)Google Scholar (the first, 1991, edition was entitled Neo-Fascism in Europe); Merkl, Peter H. and Weinberg, Leonard, eds., The Revival of Right-Wing Extremism in the Nineties (London, 1997)Google Scholar, and Right-Wing Extremism in the Twenty-First Century (London, 2003)Google Scholar; Arnold, Edward J., ed., The Development of the Radical Right in France: From Boulanger to LePen (New York, 2000)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hainsworth, Paul, ed., The Politics of the Extreme Right: From the Margins to the Mainstream (London, 2000)Google Scholar. In a 1996 review article of nine books, six in German, Stefan Immelfarb observed that “once again, a spectre haunts Western Europe.” Party Politics of the Right: Neo-Populist Parties and the Future of the West European Party System,” West European Politics 19 (04 1996): 411Google Scholar. Ignazi recently revised his approach, Extreme Right Parties in Western Europe (New York, 2003), which will be discussed below.Google Scholar

3. For an introduction to the debate regarding parallels between Weimar Germany and post-Soviet Russia, see the special issue of German Politics and Society 14 (Spring 1996)Google Scholar: “Societies in Disintegration: Similarities and Differences Between Weimar Germany and Post-Soviet Russia, esp. Robert C. Williams, “Virtuous Republics and Eternal Empires: Goose Steppes, Weimar on the Volga, and Other Specious Analogies,” 1–16; and, for an opposing view, Norman Naimark, “Post-Nazi Germany and Post-Soviet Russia,” ibid., 129–39; see also Markovits, Andrei S. and Reich, Simon, The German Predicament: Memory and Power in the New Europe (Ithaca, 1997).Google Scholar

4. Mudde, Cas, “Right-wing Extremism Analyzed: A Comparative Analysis of the Ideologies of Three Alleged Right-wing Extremist Parties (NPD, NDP, CP'86),” European Journal of Political Research 27 (02 1995): 218CrossRefGoogle Scholar; the five features are nationalism, racism, xenophobia, antidemocracy, and strong state, 206; in a related article, Mudde identified four theoretical approaches to the extreme right and noted that the few extant empirical and comparative studies have shown that “most definitions are far too demanding, and that even key features, like racism and anti-democracy, are absent in the ideology of several of the parties,” The War of Words Defining the Extreme Right Family,” West European Politics 19 (04 1996): 244Google Scholar; also on the difficulty of providing “watertight criteria” for right-wing or extreme right-wing movements, see Paul Hainsworth, “Introduction: The Cutting Edge: The Extreme Right in Post-War Western Europe and the USA,” in Hainsworth, ed., The Extreme Right in Europe and the USA, 4.

Ignazi's tour-de-force synthesis of the literature, Extreme Right Parties in Western Europe, now decouples the “extreme right parties of the 1980s” from fascism and neo-fascism, and argues that they are “post-material extreme right” phenomena because they “occupy the right-most position of the political spectrum,” are “anti-system as they undermine the (democratic) system's legitimacy through their discourse and action,” and “answer demands and needs generated by post-industrial society which traditional parties have failed to address” (2).

5. For examples of studies that reject the equation of right-wing populism with right extremism, see Roberto Biorcio, “From Bossi to Berlusconi: Italian Populism in the European Framework,” paper delivered at the Conference on Populisms in North America, South America, and Europe in Comparative and Historical Perspective, Liguria Center, Bogliasco, 7–10 January 2003; Pennings, Paul and Keman, Hans, “The Dutch Parliamentary Elections in 2002 and 2003: The Rise and Decline of the Fortuyn Movement,” Acta Politica 38 (Spring 2003): 5168CrossRefGoogle Scholar; and several others cited below.

In his conclusion to his analysis of fascists during their rise to power in interwar Europe, Michael Mann briefly examines contemporary “rightist populist parties” and finds them “not seriously fascist under the terms of my definition,” Fascists (Cambridge, 2004), 370.Google Scholar

6. Betz, Hans-Georg and Immerfall, Stefan, eds., The New Politics of the Right: Neo-Populist Parties and Movements in Established Democracies (New York, 1998)Google Scholar. I focus on this collection because of its usefulness and because its emphasis on populism overlaps with my own, different approach to populism. Ignazi credits Betz with having given currency to the populist theme in this literature in the early 1990s (Betz, Hans-Georg, “The New Politics of Resentment: Radical Right Wing Parties in Western Europe,” Comparative Politics 16 (1993): 413427CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and idem, Radical Right-Wing Parties in Western Europe; Ignazi, Extreme Right Parties in Western Europe, 29.

7. Betz and Immerfall, New Politics of the Right, 3. In contrast, Ignazi's persistence with the “extreme right” label depends in part on his insistence that all reactionary populist parties are “anti-system,” a position he arrives at by summarily dismissing their paying “repeated homage … to the democratic rules” as insincere (200).

8. See, e.g., Brinkley, Alan, “The Problem of American Conservatism,” American Historical Review 99 (04 1994): 409429CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see the books and articles in the bibliography in McGirr, Lisa, Suburban Warriors: The Origins of the New American Right (Princeton, 2001), 358377.Google Scholar

9. Mudde, “The War of Words Defining the Extreme Right Party Family,” 226. See Kitschelt's and McGann's note that they find (politically) “preoccupation with the extreme Right in Western Europe thoroughly distasteful,” The Radical Right in Western Europe, ix.

10. Betz, “Introduction,” New Politics of the Right, 8; Immerfall, “Conclusion: The Neo-Populist Agenda,” New Politics of the Right, 251.

11. Betz, “Introduction,” 6, 7.

12. Ibid., 7, 8; Immerfall, “Conclusion: The Neo-Populist Agenda,” 249. Although Immerfall also identifies blue-collar and less-educated workers as characteristic NPP voters, he admits that NPP's “recruit across social boundaries,” though “in all cases blue-collar workers are overrepresented” (250). For an earlier, similar interpretation, which the authors ultimately conceded was “conjectural,” see Falter, Jurgen W. and Schumann, Siegfried, “Affinity Towards Right-Wing Extremism in Western Europe,” West European Politics 11 (04 1988): 108.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

13. Nonna Mayer, “The French National Front,” in Betz and Immerfall, 18, 20.

14. Max Riedlsperger, “The Freedom Party of Austria: From Protest to Radical Right Populism,” in Betz and Immerfall, 38, 27, 41.

15. Betz, “Against Rome: The Lega Nord,” in Betz and Immerfall, 51–52, 53–55; for a different approach stressing nationalism and regional “identity building,” see Tambini, Damian, Nationalism and Italian Politics: The Stories of the Northern League, 1980–2000 (London, 2001).CrossRefGoogle Scholar

16. Lars Svasand, “Scandinavian Right-Wing Radicalism,” in Betz and Immerfall, 86, 87. For skepticism toward the Betz thesis as well as toward a similar explanation offered by Kitschelt (Radical Right in Western Europe), see Rydgren, Jens, “Radical Right Populism in Sweden: Still a Failure,” Scandinavian Political Studies 25:1 (2002): 49.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

17. Neil Nevitte, Andre Blais, Elisabeth Gidengil, Richard Johnston, and Henry Brady, “The Populist Right in Canada: The Rise of the Reform Party in Canada,” in Betz and Immerfall, 177–87, 188.

18. Mayer, “The French National Front,” 19; Riedelsperger, “The Freedom Party of Austria,” 35; Marc Swyngedouw, “The Extreme Right in Belgium: Of a Non-existent Front National and an Omnipresent Vlaams Blok,” in Betz and Immerfall, 64, regarding the Vlaams Blok's view of the family; and Svasand, “Scandinavian Right-Wing Radicalism,” 85. For additional attention to gender, see, e.g., Pascal Perrineau, “The Conditions for the Emergence of an Extreme Right Wing in France: The National Front, 1984–98,” in Arnold, ed., Development of the Radical Right in France, 258–59.

19. Billiet, Jaak and DeWitte, Hans, “Attitudinal Dispositions to Vote for a ‘New’ Extreme Right-wing Party: The Case of Vlaams Blok,” European Journal of Political Research 27 (02 1995): 193, 194.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

20. Van der Brug, Wouter, Fennema, Meindert, and Tillie, Jean, “Anti-immigrant Parties in Europe: Ideological or Protest Vote?European Journal of Political Research 37 (01 2000): 77, 82, 93, 94, 95CrossRefGoogle Scholar; see also Brug, , “How the LPF Fuelled Discontent: Empirical Tests of Explanations of LPF Support,” Acta Politica 38 (01 2003): 89, 102CrossRefGoogle Scholar; on the latter point, see Tillie, Jean and Fennema, Meindert, “A Rational Choice for the Extreme Right,” Acta Politica 33 (Autumn 1998): 223249.Google Scholar

21. van der Brug, Wouter and Fennema, Meindert, “Protest or Mainstream? How the European Anti-immigrant Parties Developed into Two Separate Groups by 1999,” European Journal of Political Research 42 (01 2003): 57, 58, 59, 66Google Scholar.

22. Kitschelt, Radical Right in Western Europe, vii–ix, 1–3, quotations on vii, viii; the assertion regarding the “political class” seemingly is contradicted by Kitschelt himself, 160–62.

23. First quoted phrases from Paul Hainsworth, “Introduction: The Cutting Edge: The Extreme Right in Post-War Western Europe and the USA,” in Hainsworth, ed., Extreme Right in Europe and the USA, 20, 21, 22; Heinisch, Reinhard, “Right-Wing Populist Parties in Public Office,” West European Politics 26 (07 2003), 103CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also Mitten, Richard, The Politics of Antisemitic Prejudice: The Waldheim Phenomenon in Austria (Boulder, 1992), 208236.Google Scholar

24. Luther, Kurt Richard, “The Self-Destruction of a Right-Wing Populist Party? The Austrian Parliamentary Election of 2002,” West European Politics 26 (04 2003): 150, 151CrossRefGoogle Scholar; idem, “The FPO: From Populist Protest to Incumbency,” in Merkl and Weinberg, Right-wing Extremism, 214. See also Brug and Fennema, “Protest or Mainstream?” 64–65, and esp. Brug, “How the LPF Fuelled Discontent,” 103.

25. Oliphant, Thomas, “Still Dancing with the Beast,” Boston Globe, 15 12 2002, C11Google Scholar. For the role of race in elections in the United States in the post-World War II period, see Edsall, Thomas Byrne with Edsall, Mary D., Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes on American Politics (New York, 1991)Google Scholar, and Carter, Dan T., From George Wallace to Newt Gingrich: Race in the Conservative Counterrevolution, 1963–1994 (Baton Rouge, 1996).Google Scholar

26. Mendelberg, Tari, The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality (Princeton, 2001)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Van Holsteyn, Joop J. M. and Irwin, Galen A., “Never a Dull Moment: Pym Fortuyn and the Dutch Parliamentary Election of 2002,” West European Politics 26 (04 2003): 4547CrossRefGoogle Scholar; last quotation, Anderweg, Rudy B., “Lijphart versus Lijphart: The Cons of Consensus Democracy in Homogeneous Societies,” Acta Politica 36 (Summer 2001): 124Google Scholar. It has also been argued that not all anti-immigrant parties should be classified as extreme right-wing. Fennema, Meindert and Pollman, Christopher, “Ideology of Anti-Immigrant Parties in the European Parliament,” Acta Politica 33 (Summer 1998): 111138.Google Scholar

27. Mudde, Cas, “The Single-Issue Party Thesis: Extreme Right Parties and the Immigration Issue,” West European Politics 22 (07 1999): 182, 192, 193CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Since 1996 the northern electoral base of Italy's Northern League has shifted as it “has articulated a populist ideology of economic and cultural protectionism that holds great appeal for workers and artisans living in small communities.” Beirich, Heidi and Woods, Dwayne, “Globalisation, Workers, and the Northern League,” West European Politics 23 (01 2000): 133CrossRefGoogle Scholar. See also the importance placed on socioeconomic grievances and rationality in recent studies of the Lega Nord: Albertazzi, Daniele, “Review Article: Recent Studies of the Lega Nord,” Modern Italy 7 (11 2002): 211.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

28. Gaspard, Françoise, A Small City in France: A Socialist Mator Confronts Neofascism, trans. Goldhammer, Arthur (Cambridge, Mass., 1995), 3675, 95–99, 112, 117, 119, 121, 127–31, 145–47, quotation on 91Google Scholar; Hainsworth, Paul, “Review Article: At the Front,” West European Politics 19 (07 1996): 650CrossRefGoogle Scholar. When the Front came to power in Dreux its young toughs felt empowered to commit occasional voilence, and the city government fired leftist officials and engaged in cultural and moralistic repression.

29. Sartori, Giovanni, “Deconstructing Xenophobia,” International Herald-Tribune, 17 05 2002, Italy Daily, 2Google Scholar; the book is Pluralismo, Multiculturalismo e Estranei (Milan, 2000).Google Scholar

30. Some writers automatically equate opposition to some aspects of immigration with racism, e.g., Lamont, Michele, The Dignity of Working Men: Morality and the Boundaries of Race, Class, and Immigration (New York, 2000), 159.Google Scholar

31. Gompers merits inclusion in Richard Rorty's “reformist Left,” a term he uses “to cover all those Americans who, between 1900 and 1964, struggled within the framework of constitutional democracy to protect the weak from the strong.” Achieving Our Country: Leftist Thought in Twentieth-Century America (Cambridge, 1998), 43Google Scholar. For a nuanced analysis of the evolution of racial and ethnocentric attitudes in the ideology of the Northern League, see Bull, Anna Cento, “Ethnicity, Racism, and the Northern League,” in Levy, Carl, ed., Italian Regionalism: History, Identity, and Politics (Oxford, 1996), 171187.Google Scholar

32. Minkenberg, Michael, “The Radical Right in Public Office: Agenda-Setting and Policy Effects,” West European Politics 24 (10 2001): 19CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Gaspard, A Small City in France, 132.

33. For details on the French election, see Miguet, Arnauld, “The French Elections of 2002: After the Earthquake, the Deluge,” West European Politics 25 (10 2002): 207220CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Hainsworth, “At the Front,” 653; regarding anti-LePen rallies after 1983, see Minkenberg, Michael, “Context and Consequence: The Impact of the New Radical Right on the Political Process in France and Germany,” German Politics and Society 48 (Fall 1998): 9.Google Scholar

33. For a contrary approach, which stresses the “profound sense of dissatisfaction with public decision-making … the widespread discredit of public decision makers in local and national politics and of prominent businessmen owing to the corruption exposed by investigative journalists” that has helped create “a pervasive perception that the elites cannot be trusted to act in the public interest and have lost any claim they might have had to public deference,” see Hayward, Jack, “The Populist Challenge to Elitist Democracy in Europe,” in Hayward, , ed., Elitism, Populism, and European Politics (New York, 1996), 10.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

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