Different roads to the radical right

Roads to the Radical Right

In recent years, radical right leaders such as Trump, Wilders, Salvini, Le Pen and their parties have become important political forces in most Western democracies. Their growing appeal raises the increasingly relevant question: who are the voters that support them and why do they do so? With his book Roads to the Radical Right (Oxford University Press) Koen Damhuis of Utrecht University shows that these voters do not constitute one particular, homogeneous group. There are different routes that lead to radical right support.

Based on statistical research, more than a hundred in-depth interviews with voters in the Netherlands and France and an analysis of nearly 1400 tweets by Wilders and Le Pen, Damhuis shows which groups in the electorate are attracted by these politicians, and: in what way. Innovative, enlightening and highly urgent.

Diversity among radical right voters

With the elections in the US and the Netherlands approaching, Koen Damhuis provides topical and important new insights into the diversity of voters of radical right-wing parties. Roads to the Radical Right is the first book that systematically examines this electoral heterogeneity. The idea that different subgroups with different profiles and preferences can coexist within the constituency of these parties has thus far remained underdeveloped, both theoretically and empirically.

'Many journalists and academics are looking for general explanations,' says Koen Damhuis. Some argue, for example, that the political preferences of these voters are determined by their 'authoritarian' attitudes; others point to their low level of education or vulnerability in the labour market. If you look more closely, however, these voters turn out to be much more diverse'.

Voters oppose themselves to different groups for different reasons

Three main groups with different social backgrounds

Three main groups can be distinguished in both the Netherlands and France: people in socially weaker positions, voters from the 'hardworking' (lower) middle class and a group of radical conservatives from the more prosperous section of the population.

‘What you see is that these voters oppose themselves to different groups for different reasons,' says Damhuis. ‘People in socially weaker positions (lower income, fewer qualifications) feel unjustly disadvantaged, especially when it comes to social housing, health care and care for the elderly. They feel that refugees and newcomers, in particular, are prioritized by the political parties in power. These are citizens who feel they are receiving too little.

A second group is made up of voters from the (lower) middle class who rather feel that they give too much. These voters, many of whom are private sector employees and self-employed, share the conviction that they have achieved their social position by working very hard, and oppose themselves to groups that contrast with their self-made work ethic. In the Netherlands, these reference groups ofent concern 'fortune seekers', but also 'profiteers in Brussels' and 'lazy Greeks'.

A third group is made up of voters who do not so much interpret political phenomena on the basis of exclusively moral criteria, but mainly vote on the basis of ideological considerations. These 'radical conservatives', as Damhuis calls them, oppose themselves to the loss of cultural roots, particularly due to what they consider as the growing influence of Islam. These voters often stem from the better-off segments of society, and generally went through higher education.

In addition to issues such as the defence of the Judeo-Christian-humanist tradition and freedom of expression, these citizens, in the Neterlands, often highlight progressive values, such as women's emancipation and freedom of sexual orientation – just as the frontman of the party they vote for: Geert Wilders. In doing so, Wilders poses as a defender of homosexuals and presents  progressive values as inherent achievements of the threatened Dutch culture. This is not the case with Marine Le Pen, for example, who publicly speaks out against same-sex marriage. Interestingly, these progressive values do not matter to her voters I spoke to either.'

Radical right parties sometimes adopt 'left-wing' positions (...) at the same time, other political issues, on which their voters are divided, are less emphasised.

Koen Damhuis

Latent electoral conflicts

‘Here you can also clearly see that the various routes to the radical right are, in fact, two-way traffic,' says Damhuis. ‘It's not just about what the politicians say, but also what the voters ask. Radical right parties sometimes adopt 'left-wing' positions, for example with respect to health care or pension provisions. At the same time, other political issues, on which their voters are divided, are less emphasised, such as labour law, income inequality, inheritance tax and unemployment benefits, according to the analysis of the tweets. By prioritising cultural issues such as immigration and national identity, instead of these socio-economic topics, Wilders and Le Pen avoid adopting standpoints that might stir up latent conflicts between different groups within their constituencies and thus harm their electoral appeal'.

Damhuis himself does not draw political conclusions from his book: 'If you are sympathizing with a political movement at the other end of the spectrum, you can find 'ammunition' in the book to point out to radical right-wing parties, for instance when it comes to similar underexposed position-takings, but also regarding the things their voters actually want. Personally speaking, I have become more and more politically agnostic, also by doing all those in-depth interviews. I have been to many people's homes and, at times, I could well imagine why they say that they are tired of the established political parties. By no means all these voters are 'unreasonable', although you sometimes get that impression from the media'.

More information

Roads to the Radical Right. Understanding Different Forms of Electoral Support for Radical Right-Wing Parties in France and the Netherlands by Koen Damhuis was published by Oxford University Press.

Koen Damhuis is an assistant professor at the Utrecht University School of Governance (USG).