Recapturing the Reluctant Radical

Executive summary

Why the reluctant radicals?

The recent past has seen comment and analysis lavished on the dangers of right-wing populism in Europe. Most of this attention, however, has been focused on the core supporters of right-wing populist parties (RPPs, see page 16) – the members and the street activists – at the expense of what we call the ‘reluctant radicals’. These are the soft, uncommitted ‘supporters of RPPs’. Policy must focus on the reluctant radicals, for two straightforward reasons: the reluctant radicals represent the bulk of support for RPPs and they are the voters mainstream parties are most likely to win back. Similarly, little attention has been paid to ‘potential radicals’ – those people who do not yet vote for RPPs but are the most likely to do so in the future.

In this pamphlet, we explore the characteristics of the reluctant and potential radicals in ten European countries, with a particular focus on France, the Netherlands and Finland. We aim to critically test some common assumptions – in particular, that right-wing populism is the preserve of disadvantaged young men. While other research has suggested that the ‘hard core’ of RPPs and movements is in line with this typical profile, we wish to test the theory with respect to the reluctant radicals in particular. We draw on original data analysis as well as other expert research.

The method

We use the European Social Survey and national election studies to develop profiles of the reluctant radicals and the potential radicals. We divide our samples into four categories for each survey we use, broadly employing the following definitions:

Committed radicals: people who vote for an RPP and say they are close to an RPP
Reluctant radicals: people who vote for an RPP but say they are not close to an RPP
Potential radicals: people who have views in line with right-wing populist ideology but who do not vote for an RPP
Mainstream: the remainder of the electorate.

An initial sketch

Using the European Social Survey, we compare the reluctant and potential radicals in Germany, Denmark, France, Finland, Hungary, the Netherlands, Norway and Sweden. We find that reluctant radicals make up a large proportion of right-wing populist voters – often at least half of right-wing populist voters are reluctant radicals. Potential radicals tend to extend far beyond RPP voters, suggesting that RPPs have a large amount of scope for broadening their electorate.

Using regression analysis, we find that men are more likely to be reluctant radicals than women in Germany and Finland, even when controlling for other factors. But in other countries – the Netherlands and Norway, in particular – the gender gap is small. In Germany, younger people are more likely than older people to be reluctant radicals, while in Denmark the opposite is true. Evidence for a relationship with unemployment is apparent only in Germany. Being a blue-collar worker increases the chance of being a reluctant radical in Denmark, France, Norway and Sweden.

Yet, across all countries, education rather than gender, age, or unemployment is the most consistent predictor of ‘reluctant radicalism’. Education appears to be the feature that distinguishes the reluctant radicals most reliably. We find only partial evidence that the typical profile of ‘young, male and disadvantaged’ applies to the reluctant radicals.

On the other hand, it is older, less educated people who tend to be potential radicals. And in France, women are in fact more likely to be potential radicals than men.

Turning to attitudes, we find that in nearly all the countries in our study, anti-immigration views increase the likelihood of being a reluctant radical. Distrust in parliament is also an important factor in Germany, Denmark, Finland France, the Netherlands and Norway. On the other hand, lacking trust in parliament increases the chance of being a potential radical in Germany and Norway. The alternative datasets that we use for the UK and Italy also support our findings.

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