Analysis: The rise of the radical right reflects a 40 year trend in politics across Europe as socities and economies have changed

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The emergence of the far-right, or more accurately the 'radical right', is a new phenomenon in Irish politics. So where did they come from? The rise of the radical right reflects a 40 year trend in politics across Europe. For decades, politics in almost all countries was dominated by centre-right and centre-left parties. These political parties reflected the class systems of industrialised economies where a homogenous group of unskilled and semi-skilled working-class voters aligned with their chief economic interests.

However, as economies became more diverse these tribes lost their homogeneity and accordingly partisan loyalties withered. As we can see below, the centre-left declined, while the radical-right increased, punctuated by the occasional ‘shock’ result such as the successes of Front National in France and Lega in Italy.

Average vote share for 'socialist' and ‘right-wing’ party families in elections in each half decade since 1940 across 27 European countries using data from ParlGov - Holger Döring and Philip Manow 2020.

And who are they? The most consistent theme of a radical-right party's platform is their opposition to immigration. This is frequently combined with opposition to EU membership, and occasionally opposition to LGBT rights. Supporters of the radical right are by far the least likely to take the vaccine.

But what explains this combination and the prominence of anti-immigration sentiment? To understand their roots, we must understand their supporters. Support for the radical-right is strongest among those that on lower incomes with fewer educational qualifications. Yet, there is only weak evidence for the role of economic grievances.

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From RTÉ Brainstorm, Kevin Cunningham on the far-right's electoral performance in Ireland

Prominence among younger males leads us towards alterative explanations for their support. A number of factors have proved useful in estimating support for radical-right parties among the general public, including dissatisfaction with the political system, authoritarianism and nationalism. Support for the radical-right is consistent with a sense of societal pessimism and nostalgia. This is reflected in campaigns in the UK and US respectively which sought to appeal to these voters through slogans such as 'take back control’ and ‘make America great again’, appealing to an innate desire to restore the country to a time that has passed.

There is a growing understanding that responses to political developments have a psychological layer, driving attitudes. The best known way of understanding human psychology draws on the ‘five-factor model’ of personality traits. This was originally conceived in the 1960s based on a research into patterns of how individuals were described (eg. people described as ‘messy’ were rarely described as ‘always-prepared’).

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, Dr Eileen Culloty from DCU on how the far right operate online in Ireland

Five traits (namely ‘openness’, ‘conscientiousness’, ‘extraversion’, ‘agreeableness’, and ‘neuroticism’) are found to be significantly associated with a series of outcomes from personality disorders to success in exams and relationships. They have also been found to correlate with political opinion. Those with a high score for ‘openness’ (creative, intellectually curious) tend towards the left, while those with high scores for ‘conscientiousness’ (organised, diligent, etc) tend towards the right.

One can see in the visual below that supporters of left-wing parties, such as People Before Profit and the Social Democrats do have higher levels of openness, while supporters of parties on the right, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael tend to have higher levels of conscientiousness. Supporters of the radical-right again reflect an extreme version of those on the right, with a further tendency for lower levels of agreeableness (one’s tendency to trust others, or even to talk to strangers). This is also reflected in what we observe among supporters of other parties.

Differences between Irish party supporters on each of five personality traits

A more successful method of looking at human psychology is the 'moral foundations theory'. This derived from observing similarities in moral codes across cultures which, it is argued, were formed through evolution. From there, we get the theory that there is an intuitive set of ‘moral foundations’ (‘care’, ‘fairness’, ‘loyalty’, ‘authority’, ‘purity’ and ‘liberty’) which people trade-off against one another to varying degrees.

When it comes to politics, research suggests that Liberals tend to prioritise the first two foundations that emphasise individualised concerns: caring for the vulnerable and treating everyone fairly. Conservatives tend to balance those concerns with the next three considerations which aim to bind communities together: respect for authority to maintain order, loyalty to your people, and maintaining standards.

For example, in relation to refugees, those on the left will be primarily concerned with those that are most vulnerable - the refugees themselves (emphasising the value of ‘caring’). Those on the right will condition on this the importance of having an orderly and controlled system (in deference to ‘authority’). Meanwhile, those on the radical-right will place more emphasis on why refugees rather than the native population are getting any preferential treatment at all (‘loyalty’ to the in-group).

Differences between Irish party supporters on each of six 'moral foundations'

In general, those on the radical-right in Ireland (denoted here by supporters of 'Other' parties, such as the National Party, the Irish Freedom Party and Renua) tend to emphasise ‘loyalty’ and ‘authority’. This reflects what is also observed as a tendency towards ‘Social Dominance Orientation’, a preference for hierarchies in any social system and, stemming from that, comfort with discrimination. This also corresponds with a tendency within the radical-right for uniforms and ranks.

In Ireland, explicitly radical-right political parties have had relatively little success, winning less than 1% of the vote at the 2020 election. Cross country analyses suggest that differences in their success is a function of electoral systems and public discourse opportunities.

In the early 2000s, immigration was a salient issue here, but it was the government that was pre-empting an anti-immigrant position arguably providing less room for an anti-immigrant opposition. Speaking in relation to the 2004 Immigration Act, which increased restrictions on inward migration, then Minister for Justice, Michael McDowell stated: "if we had not enacted this legislation, the opportunity for right-wing racism to enter Irish politics would have been enormous. Our system, like most systems in the northern European political world, is wide open for people to campaigning on anti-immigration Issues."

Latest public opinion polling on selected European rightwing and far right political parties

For most countries, the question is not about how to avoid the radical-right, but what to do with them and specifically what to do with anti-immigration politics when it arrives. There is some evidence that when governments accommodative strategy and adopt anti-immigration positions they can depoliticise immigration and that anti-immigration parties that were not ostracised became more moderate. However, there are also numerous counter-examples where it has failed to do that and where raising the salience of immigration has only led to greater restrictions.

Although the Irish electoral system makes it more difficult for extremes, this electoral cycle is the first time in which there is no non-left alternative to the government. This creates a vacuum for such an enterprise particularly among disaffected voters who are not psychologically predisposed to the left. With that in mind, it would be of significant use to government and opposition to learn the lessons of other countries.

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ