Interview #54 — Radical Right Between Stigma and Normalization

Individuals with radical-right ideas who feel comfortable voting for radical-right parties, might not feel comfortable publicly disclosing their support. What are the causes and consequences of this mechanism?

In this interview, Vicente Valentim discusses the ongoing normalization of previously stigmatized radical-right parties. With a focus on social norms and their evolution over time, we discuss how radical-right parties break these norms, and try to understand how the perception of what is acceptable and what is stigmatized in a certain social group changes across time and space.

Enjoy the read…


1) First, can you tell us what drove your interest on populist and radical right parties? Is there an author or work that has particularly inspired you?

I would say that my primary inspiration comes from work on social norms. I have been very influenced by authors like Cristina Bicchieri, Elizabeth Levy Paluck, Timur Kuran, Leonardo Burzstyn, or Amalia Alvarez. The focus on radical-right parties is something that follows rather naturally from that interest in social norms, given how much these parties breach them. In the party politics literature concretely, I was influenced by works like Catherine De Vries and Sara Hobolt’s work on entrepreneurship, or Cas Mudde’s conceptual work. It is always unfair to name some authors because there is so much excellent work that I learned a great deal from. Still, these were some of the authors that had a great influence on my work, and which I cite most often.

2) In Europe, after World War II, values and ideas associated to fascism and Nazism, have been stigmatized. To avoid repeating a dramatic past things like racism, nationalism, and authoritarianism have been considered as socially undesirable, and it became possible to hold these positions only in concealed, indirect ways. Is this still the case, or the perception of what is socially acceptable has shifted?

During the Post Ward decades, many social scientists talked of how explicit racism was going down and what we saw was mostly indirect expressions of it. I think this had to do with the stigma you refer to. But I think this situation is changing–and documenting and explaining that change is one ambition I have in my work. I think nowadays individuals who have these views have become much more comfortable expressing them in explicit ways than they were in the past.

3) The behaviours that are considered acceptable vary over time, and previously stigmatized behaviours can become completely normalized. For example, tattoos, same sex marriage, and smoking bans are now extremely normalized, but this was not the case until recently. The same applies to politics with ideas that were stigmatized and are now increasingly normalized. Is it because enough time passed from the horrors of World War II?  What can help us understand this change in the perception of what is socially acceptable when it comes to political positions?

Social norms often change fast. The examples you mention are all cases of fast normative change. This is because social norms affect behaviour via the inferences we make about what others think is acceptable or desirable. Because they make one’s behaviour conditional on what others think, social norms open the room for information shocks to change behaviour quite rapidly–often, much more rapidly than an actual change in people’s attitudes or preferences, which is usually slower. For this reason, I think there may be a linear trend where the more time goes by since the root source of the norm, the weaker the norm is. But ultimately, changing perceptions of what others deem acceptable will produce much faster changes.

4) You propose an interesting idea: when the radical right obtains parliamentary representation, citizens perceive as normal to support the radical right not only in the voting cabin but also in public. But let’s take a step back and consider radical right parties that have never been in parliament. I think for example of countries like Germany, Spain, and Portugal, where until very recently the radical right could not gain any parliamentary representation at the national level, and now parties like AfD, VOX and Chega are among the most voted ones. How can the radical right enter the parliament in the first place? And why is this increasingly common?

The argument in my work is that, because social norms don’t affect private behaviour as much, even radical right individuals who don’t feel comfortable publicly disclosing their support do feel comfortable voting for them. Since voting is private, no one knows who one voted for, and thus one is less likely to suffer social sanctions from supporting a stigmatized party. As such, there can be enough societal support for the radical-right to enter parliament, even if that support is somewhat silent–i.e. if many of the individuals who vote for the radical right do not feel comfort engaging in public demonstrations of that support.

When it comes to their success being increasingly common, I am working on a book project where I am trying to explore some demand/supply dynamics that may explain these patterns. However I still don’t have very authoritative empirical findings, so at this point I can only point to other people’s work. One explanation based on existing literature would be that politicians themselves learn the strategies of parties from abroad, which would explain why this party family is becoming increasingly successful in different countries.

5) Your work suggests that when radical right parties enter parliaments this signal to citizens that norms changes and the stigmatization associated to the radical right is now lower. In turn, this boosts the support for radical right parties, and then the cycle restarts because the increased support for the radical right produces further normalization. Is this an avalanche effect where the more normalized the radical is, the more it creates further normalization? And how can this mechanism be stopped while respecting democracy?

This is a complicated question for which I do not have a very good answer just yet. I do not think solutions like making these parties illegal would work. I have some ongoing work with Daniel Bischof that suggests such strategies may actually backlash. I think that any solution has to target the root causes of the problem. If people support the radical right because of anxiety toward minorities, for example, we need to target those attitudes and debunk the myths and misinformation that very often feed those views. Social norms may help too but, as the theorist Temi Ogunye argues, the risk is that social norms will lead to the type of preference falsification that I also find in my work, where people still have these views, but they just don’t admit to them. This would thus mask the problem more than actually solve it.

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6) Radical right parties do not necessarily rely on a populist rhetoric: however, empirically, they often do. What role do you think populism plays in the process of normalization of the radical right? Is it possible that the attention towards populism obscures the radical aspects of these parties?

I think that is plausible. There is work suggesting that there are many reasons why people support these parties. One of those reasons is often dissatisfaction with corruption, which is a prototypical populist topic. Populist rhetoric that feeds on these type of attitudes can thus help these parties reach voters that would probably not support the party if they relied only on the radical-right side of its ideology.

7) It is increasingly common to observe parliaments with the presence of more than just one radical right party: in Italy, Lega was followed by Brothers of Italy; in the Netherlands, the Party for Freedom was followed by Forum for Democracy.  Is it easier for a radical right party to enter the parliament if another party already charted the way towards representation and normalized the presence of the radical right within the institutions? Or, on the long term, do you think these parties will inevitably compete against each other and will start taking votes from each other?

This is a good question. I do think stigmatization and normalization are mostly party-specific. The normalization of one party mostly affects that party specifically and spillovers should not be very relevant. One thing I want to highlight, though, is that normalization and electoral success are not the same thing. Even if electoral success may affect normalization, a party can still be small and normalized; or big and stigmatized. For this reason, I think the dynamics of competition between different radical-right parties will affect their electoral success more than they will affect their normalization, which is mostly driven by other factors (such as how much individuals think it is perceived as OK to support them).

8) Moving forward and looking at younger generations, it is unclear whether the stigmatization of the authoritarian past will increase or rather decrease. On the one hand, younger generations might stigmatize the past because they have more liberal values. On the other hand, they might vote for radical right parties because they perceive the past as remote and irrelevant. Towards which scenario do you think we are moving?  

This is a hard question that I think about quite a lot. I do think the post-war period was probably exceptional in how it stigmatized radical-right views. We are probably seeing the end of those norms, which is why individuals feel more comfortable engaging in these types of behaviour. But I am not sure if this means there will be a linear trend where people always become more likely to engage in extremist behaviour, or if we are just reaching a different equilibrium, where we have a higher but stable (i.e., not increasing) amount of extremist behaviour. I would lean toward the latter, but ultimately only time will tell which of the two is really taking place.


Vicente Valentim

Vicente Valentim is a Postdoctoral Prize Research Fellow in Politics at Nuffield College, University of Oxford. He earned his PhD at the European University Institute (Florence) in July 2021.Vicente’s work focuses on how democracies generate norms against behavior associated with authoritarianism, and how these norms erode. Some of his work has been accepted for publication in The Journal of PoliticsComparative Political StudiesPolitical Science Research and MethodsPolitical Behavior, and Electoral Studies, among other outlets. His doctoral thesis was awarded the Linz-Rokkan Prize for best thesis in Political Sociology. You can read more about Vicente’s work at www.vicentevalentim.com

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