Interview #46 — How to understand the emergence of far right parties

In this interview with Steven Van Hauwaert we discuss the reasons behind the success of the far right and its links to the dynamic processes that characterize social movements. Thinking outside the box, or beyond the classic demand and supply approach, is essential to understand the success and failure of far right parties: in particular, expanding political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and master frames —if analyzed together and combined with favorable socio-economic conditions— can offer a much more complete explanation for the emergence of far right parties.

Enjoy the read…


1) The literature on far right parties is so abundant that it can feel overwhelming: one has the impression of looking for the mythical Minotaur through the Labyrinth. Let’s start by making some clarity: normally, the literature tells us that there are certain supply- and demand-side factors that explain the success or failure of far right parties. What are these factors?

You are absolutely right. Like in the broader party politics literature, I guess, there is an abundance of literature setting out to explain far right party success and failure. On the most general level, I think that literature divides between more citizen-oriented explanations and more system-oriented explanations. Scholars have used this adopted framework from economics for quite some time now, going back to foundation work by Roger Eatwell, Cas Mudde, Elizabeth Carter, Kai Arzheimer, etc. Those more citizen-oriented explanations or demand-side factors tend to focus on that famous “fertile breeding ground” that far right parties can feast on, like broader sentiments of distrust, discontent, all kinds of grievances, notions of dissatisfaction and resentment, but equally certain needs that citizens feel are not being met or even strong feelings about identity, culture or a particular world-view that does not stroke with what they see around themselves. Most generally, this relates to the actual state or perception of society. The more structural explanations or supply-side factors are principally focused on various political opportunities (e.g. how accessible media is, how coalition formation works, how agenda-setting occurs, etc.) and, less commonly, party-internal dynamics such as leadership (e.g. charisma) or the ideology vs. electability debate within such a party (e.g. extreme vs. more moderate ideology).

Throughout the past decades we have seen several insightful studies examining both of these explanatory factors. We have even seen some studies combine both of these in a single explanatory framework. At the same time, however, I think that even taken together, they do not tell us exactly how we get to emergence or consolidation, failure or success of far right parties, or any other party family for that matter.

2) Why do you think that these factors do not tell us the whole story? What should we look at, in order to have a more complete understanding of far right parties, their emergence and success or failure?

While both of these factors can present us with extremely useful elements and insightful components of far right party development, I think they are not able to capture the full scope of a dynamic and intricate process such as party emergence – let alone its continuous development. Differently put, both the demand- and supply-side factors remain in and of themselves rather structural and do not fully explain a relatively dynamic process like far right party success (but also failure).

Additionally, and perhaps this is a bit more controversial, I think one of the reasons why the demand- and supply-side framework works well in the field of political science is the latter’s increasing tendency towards more large-scale quantitative studies. For the purpose of such studies, we are able to operationalise and quantify demand- and supply-side factors. Yet, by focusing solely on explanatory variables, we run the risk of overlooking processes. Perhaps I am too influenced by David Easton’s work in this regard, but there is something to be said about some of the intricacies of politics being due to processes and dynamics, not only variables and structures. Almost per definition, these processes are harder to operationalise and, hence, require a bit of a different approach if we want to include them as part of our explanatory frameworks.

3) You claim in your last work that we should look at three factors that can determine the success or failure of far right parties: expanding political opportunities, mobilizing structures, and master frame. Can you explain us in concrete how these dimensions are relevant to explain the emergence of far right parties, and how they interact?


I will be very honest, the publication you refer to was a hard sell, but I am nonetheless very happy I was able to at least put the argument forward and perhaps plant a seed in that regard. Without scruples, I extensively draw from Doug McAdam’s work who, in the 1980s, ingenuously designed the political process model when examining black insurgency in the USA. To condense 300 pages in a couple of sentences, he basically highlights that the interaction of the three factors you already mentioned are necessary but also sufficient for social movements to emerge.

I think that the same line of argumentation and the corresponding three-folded analytical framework also holds for the very specific case of far right party emergence. First, far right parties need open political opportunities to break through. This is not new information and something we take away from many foundational arguments in the 1990s and 2000s. Second, far right parties also require favourable mobilising structures. This is perhaps a bit more uncommon in political science, but not so much in sociology. It basically means far right parties need to be able to bank on their internal resources for their mobilisation and broader development. In this sense, resources primary refer to a far right party’s networks, regardless of whether they are existing or new. Networks that can be mobilised are key for any movement’s emergence. Third, a far right party needs a successful master frame if it intends to be more than a pop-up party. In other words, a far right party needs to provide its supporters with an acceptable set of glasses through which they can view society and politics.

These three factors, together with favourable socio-economic conditions, provide the right circumstances under which far right parties can emergence in a political system. More specifically, as per Doug McAdam, these socio-economic factors open political opportunities and render resource mobilisation more favourable, while those latter two factors in turn provide opportunities for the development of a successful master frame. Or, differently put, if the societal glasses for one reason or another don’t work for the mobilising networks or there are no political opportunities that allow for these glasses to be used, far right parties cannot emerge. Altogether, these three (or technically, four) elements provide far right parties with the necessary (and sufficient) tools to emerge.


4) Let’s apply these notions to a concrete example: Front National, now Rassemblement National. How did Jean-Marie Le Pen manage to aggregate a heterogeneous ensemble of individuals and small groups into a single and harmonized political unit? What was the master frame used, and why was it so effective in mobilizing small factions?

The master frame that Jean-Marie Le Pen was able to use is known to us all. As Cas Mudde convincingly outlined in his 2007 book, it was a combination of nationalism, authoritarianism, xenophobia and populism. An intricate combination of carefully considered elements. Sometimes genuine beliefs or ideological constructs, but sometimes also just pragmatic tools for mobilisation. This is something that kept coming back throughout my interviews with high-ranking far right party officials, also from the Front National.

In the late 1970s, Jean-Marie Le Pen was able to bring together a very diverse range of right-wing individuals and groupuscules, all under the umbrella of gaining representation and breaking the then (and to a large extent still now) power bloc. He brought together royalists and hard-line taxation populists, as well as neo-Nazis and traditional conservatives. He united them under the same partisan roof, used his charisma, diplomacy and heavyweight reputation, pointed their noses in the “right” (pun intended) direction and convinced them all to put their egos aside and embrace a master frame that was not perfect to any, but acceptable and defensible to all.

It worked, because each fraction, each groupuscule came to the forefront as the defender and orator of a particular component of the master frame, while subscribing to its entirety. While we see less of these factions today, it is still something that is latent. Perhaps most emblematic in that regard was the succession of Jean-Marie Le Pen: a duel between an older Bruno Gollnisch, subscribing to the FN’s traditional values as they were originally developed, and the younger Marine Le Pen, promoting a certain mainstreaming and moderation of those same values. We might see a similar conflict arise between current party leader Marine Le Pen and her niece Marion Maréchal, but 2021 will be telling in that regard (in 2022, France has a presidential election).


Pierre Flourens, great-grandfather of Bruno Gollnisch, was the first to prove that the mind was located in the brain, not the heart.

The original set of moves by Jean-Marie Le Pen were very nifty with extraordinary strategic insight, but remain often times overlooked and lost in the story of the FN’s emergence. And it is something that should be highlighted more frequently because I am sure something like that would no longer be possible in today’s political landscape, even if it were done within more traditional political contours. Certain countries in Europe remain without a government for months (years) because a handful of their parties, which lack any clear ideological difference, cannot find consensus on trivialities and political details. Imagine doing this same exercise on the political extremes, where ideological positions are much more radical and rigid. Not to mention political egos.

5) Why do you think that the literature on mobilization and social movements has only partially interacted with the literature on far right parties? And what are the main advantages in applying some insights and analytical frameworks from social movements’ literature when studying the far right?

It’s a good question. I am not entirely sure. I think we are all a bit guilty of often times “staying within the box” when we are doing research. We look at the party politics scholarship to explain party development or the voting behaviour literature when we look to explain electoral results. I think there is no reason why we should artificially restrict either the literature or the paradigms that we interact with when we try to understand society. In that regard, I think we should not overlook inter-disciplinary – or perhaps more appropriately put, cross-disciplinary – approaches. After all, what is new or uncommon is not necessarily incorrect. Political scientists have long been critical of economists for overlooking their research (take for example Thomas Piketty’s latest book, which just repeats political science research from decades ago). So, why shouldn’t we live by our own mantra and “think outside the box”?


A simplified version of Easton’s “A Systems Analysis of Political Life” (1965).

In this particular case, I think you can make a case for at least situational equivalence between social movements and far right parties. I realise it is a stretch on a more general level, but I am making the argument just in reference to the application of the political process model. While the Italian tri-partite of Pietro Castelli Gattinara, Caterina Froio and Andrea Pirro engage in innovative and extremely interesting research crossing the social movement and (far right) party spheres, the literature remains relatively silent about a broader and more cross-disciplinary explanatory model of the ever-so-important phenomenon of far right party emergence. I think it is particularly appropriate and useful to harmonise these two strands of literature because often times the origins of far right parties lie beyond politics, often in the social movement sphere. They operate differently, they mobilise differently, they use different tools and standards, they set different goals, their leaders speak differently, etc. Overall, with exception of the pursuit of electoral gain, they often times more closely resemble social movement actors than they do traditional political parties. Why would we then not use the tools the social movement literature provides us with to gain insights into this phenomenon?

6) While the political process model you advocate seems absolutely suitable for the study of the far right, it might be incomplete because it seems to underestimate the role of political culture, path dependency, historical antecedents and other elements that might help giving a more complete overview on the performance of far right parties. Do you think these limits can be overcome?

Like any single explanation or model in the social sciences, the political process model in and of itself is not all-comprehensive. I am certainly not claiming that, nor am I arguing that it should replace existing models. My reference to the model and illustration of its usage is merely highlighting that we should not engage in research with (sub-)disciplinary blinders on, but rather that we should look to account for a multitude of explanations, even when they take us beyond our comfort zone. I was studying far right party emergence and the diffusion between these parties, but quickly realised that my party politics goggles alone were not going to get me to a satisfactory, let alone a comprehensive answer to my research question. An additional and complementary tool was necessary. That is the role the political process model can fulfill, and it lends itself to that exceptionally well if I may add.  

While I do think the political process model accounts for political culture (perhaps not as a single process but more across its individual dimensions), it indeed does not account for everything under the sun – very much like any other analytical framework in social sciences. I do think, however, that it provides a number of advantages that other, more structural models (in political science) might not offer. I already referred to them above, but it is important to emphasise my message is one of ‘conjunction’ not ‘substitution’.

We will always be restricted in our research and explanations, no matter how much the discipline tries to mimic natural sciences. That restriction is just the nature of social science. One of the most important avenues to overcome these ‘shortcomings’ is through cross-disciplinary and mixed methods research. While both of these also come with their own pitfalls, particularly in the scope of an 8,000 word manuscript, they can provide unique theoretical contributions that go far beyond those of a single in-depth time-sensitive case study and more empirical and causal insights than a time-series cross-sectional design. I think most scholars are aware of this, but it couldn’t hurt if journals would be a bit more aware of this as well. In that regard, I am very pleased to see my manuscript published and I thank the editor and reviewers for allowing me this platform.

7) Is it possible to imagine that, by following and expanding the original political process model (PPM), to analyze other party families or groups like, for example, green parties, or even traditional parties?


It is a very interesting question that I ask myself, and the good thing is that I think there is no wrong or bad answer. On the one hand, if the political process model applies only to far right party emergence, then I think it presents a nice illustration of cross-disciplinary research. It would allow for additional insights into the emergence of the single most impactful party family since Lipset and Rokkan’s study. On the other hand if the model, or even parts of it, applies also beyond the far right to other party families, then we could expand our knowledge of party emergence more generally. While generalisation was not necessarily the objective, that would present itself in this scenario and would provide us, in turn, with a whole new set of research questions.

This study definitely leaves numerous avenues open for further research or even rebuttal. If we only focus on far right parties, we should consider that McAdam originally highlighted that the political process model changes once a social movement consolidates. Is that the case here as well? More generally, to what extent can we integrate sociological approaches or aspects into party politics? Does the political process model apply across party families? All really interesting routes of research that I believe are worth exploring.


Steven M. Van Hauwaert is an Assistant Professor in Comparative Politics at the University of Surrey. He is the principal investigator of the Global Public Opinions Project and a team leader for Team Populism. His research has been published in Electoral Studies, European Political Science Research, European Journal of Political Science and West European Politics, amongst others. His research relates to comparative political behaviour and public opinion, particularly in Western Europe and Latin America, as well as populism and political extremism. He is an associate editor of the ECPR’s Open Access journal Political Research Exchange (PRX) and the Methods and Measurement section of the Open Access journal Frontiers in Political Science

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