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date: 21 February 2018

Globalization, Cleavages, and the Radical Right

Abstract and Keywords

This chapter underscores the merit of studying the emergence and growth of the radical right from a cleavage perspective, which sees party system change as rooted in large-scale transformations of social structure. The chapter begins by discussing explanations for the rise of the radical right in terms of the educational revolution, the processes of economic and cultural modernization, and globalization, showing where these perspectives converge and where they differ. It then goes on to show how the structuralist perspective has been combined with a focus on agency. Under conditions of multidimensional party competition, the behavior of mainstream parties is crucial, because it determines the relative salience of competitive dimensions and whether they offer space for radical right-wing challengers. Some of the most exciting recent research studies how the processes of dealignment and realignment structure the propensity of specific social groups such as the manual working class to support the radical right.

Keywords: radical right, party system, social structure, educational revolution, modernization, globalization, structuralism, cleavages, party competition, political parties

In a cleavage perspective, political conflicts and the rise and decline of political parties are shaped by structural political potentials that arise from the gradual evolution of social structure. Consequently, this chapter starts out by examining the social transformations to which the emergence of the radical right party family has been linked. Each perspective that has sequentially been put forward to explain the growth of the radical right—emphasizing the growth of higher education (often characterized as an “educational revolution”), the processes of economic and cultural modernization, and the multifaceted process of globalization—extends the prior one. Each one of them either adds new policy issues or singles out different groups as the winners and losers of socioeconomic transformations of the past decades, and thereby generates specific, testable hypotheses concerning the radical right’s support base.

There is much to suggest that the potential the radical right thrives upon exists throughout the advanced postindustrial world. To account for the country-specific timing of the breakthrough of these parties, the persistent differences in their success, and the makeup of their electoral support coalitions, I focus on the literature emphasizing political agency in shaping the articulation of latent structural potentials. The strategies employed by mainstream parties with respect to their radical right-wing challengers can both constrain and enable the latter’s success. Building on the finding that the political space in Western Europe is at least two-dimensional, some of the most exciting research in the past years has begun to focus on the interplay between the economic and cultural dimensions of competition in shaping the fortunes of the radical right.

Two avenues for future research appear particularly promising. The first is to combine the literature on the long-term evolution of political cleavages with the more short-term strategic perspectives prevalent in the more specialized literature on the radical right. Second, while a first wave of scholarship provided general explanations (p. 213) for the emergence of the radical right, producing some now-classic monographs (e.g., Betz 1994; Kitschelt 1995; Ignazi 2003), more recently scholars have asked more specific research questions that address how processes of dealignment and realignment within certain social groups are shaped by political actors and their conflictual relationships. This promises insights into the reasons why certain social groups are more likely than others to support the radical right. Namely, the tendency of the manual working class to exhibit disproportionate support for these parties is still to some degree puzzling, and looking at processes of dealignment and realignment in this group compared to others may help us build an explanation.

In keeping with the terminology used in this book, I label the parties situated at the pole of the new cultural divide in Western Europe as radical right. This divide evolves around political issues that are non-economic in nature, and pertain to the rules according to which society should be organized, how community is defined, and whether national politics should prevail over or instead be subject to international or supranational governance and the rulings of international courts. Both because the nature of this policy dimension is specific to Western Europe (and perhaps other older democracies) and since the radical right, according to the structuralist literature I build upon, is inherently rooted in the transformations of advanced postindustrial society, the focus of my review is restricted to the radical right in this context.

Bringing a Cleavage Approach to Bear on the Radical Right

The cleavage approach focuses on a distinctive type of alignment between parties and voters that is built upon long-term alliances between social groups and political parties. It is distinguished from interpretations of party competition as based on governments’ performance and valence competition by a particular interest in those issues that divide (or cleave) society and are thus inherently conflictive. Conflict is capable of forging strong collective and partisan identities, which, in turn, account for the “stickiness” of the resulting partisan alignments (see Tóka 1998). Due to this focus, in a cleavage perspective the specificities of campaigns, candidate traits, and unforeseen events that influence the policy agenda are merely temporary deviations from party competition centered on fundamental ideological divisions that are not time invariant but relatively slow-moving.

That said, the very durability of the cleavage dimensions identified by Lipset and Rokkan (1967; Rokkan 1999), a result of what the authors have referred to as the “freezing of the major party alternatives” from the early phase of mass politics, has given the cleavage concept a static touch (see Mair 2001). The study of the evolution of cleavages has therefore often remained limited to assessments as to whether those divisions identified in Lipset and Rokkan’s original account remain dominant (or “frozen”) or whether (p. 214) the alignments between social groups and parties that have given rise to these cleavages have eroded (e.g., Franklin 1992; Knutsen 2004, 2006). Yet in a line of thought that goes back to Sartori (1968), Zuckerman (1975), and Mair (1997), and more recently revived by Enyedi (2005, 2008) and Deegan-Krause (2006; Deegan-Krause and Enyedi 2010), there have always been currents that emphasize the role of political actors in either perpetuating existing alignments, transforming them, or forming altogether new ones (see also Bornschier 2010a, ch. 3).

Social structure has evidently evolved a great deal since the 1960s, when the classical cleavage account was developed. The rise of the radical right in particular has often been interpreted in terms of the emergence of new social divisions that have been politicized by political parties. Whether these divisions are anchored in social structure to a similar degree as the traditional cleavages, and thus conform to the canonical definition of cleavages developed by Bartolini and Mair (1990), remains disputed (see also Deegan-Krause 2009). Consequently, a cleavage perspective can fruitfully be brought to bear on the radical right by illuminating two issues that are at the heart of research concerning this party family. First is assessing theoretically and empirically the degree to which the radical right forms part of an encompassing and possibly structurally rooted division in European party systems—rather than simply constituting anti-immigration parties, as some would have it (but see Mudde 1999). Second, to the degree that this is the case, it does not make sense to look at the radical right and its political issues in isolation. Instead, we need to adopt a party system perspective and look both at the structuring power of older divisions as well as at the strategies that established parties employ with respect to the new cultural dimension the radical right mobilizes on. Although this is often not recognized, the classical cleavage perspective is quite helpful in understanding multidimensional political competition: The cleavages identified by Rokkan (1999) potentially created a more-dimensional policy space in the early years of mass politics, depending on how cross-cutting or mutually reinforcing they were. To exploit this potential, it is necessary to bridge the cleavage account and strategic, actor-centered perspectives. Before doing so, I review the potential new cleavages scholars situating themselves in the Rokkanian tradition of political sociology have postulated: education, modernization, and globalization.

New Cleavages

The Education Cleavage

In the classical Lipset-Rokkan world, the dominant cleavages across Western Europe since the 1920s had involved religion and class. But even in the late 1960s, when Lipset and Rokkan’s (1967) classic essay was written, Allardt (1968) suggested that the expansion of higher education could be considered a revolution similar to the national and industrial revolutions that were at the center of Lipset and Rokkan’s model. This idea (p. 215) was revived by scholars trying to identify the bases of the “New Politics” divide. Across the advanced industrial democracies, the original structure of conflict had been transformed by the issues put on the political agenda by the new social movements that mushroomed after 1968 and were taken up to a significant degree by parties of the so-called New Left (Dalton, Flanagan, and Beck 1984; Inglehart 1984). This group encompasses not only Green and other newly founded parties but also to differing degrees, as Kitschelt’s (1994) seminal work has shown, social democratic and socialist parties that underwent a New Left transformation. These established left-wing parties strived both to broaden their electoral appeal and to confront the challenge by Green and other New Left parties by rallying middle-class citizens with culturally liberal preferences. This first transformation of the dimensionality of political space resulted in the formation of what Kitschelt (1994, 1995) along with others labeled a libertarian-authoritarian dimension in West European party systems. This new conflict at the party system level reflected a similar divide at the mass level (Sacchi 1998; Flanagan and Lee 2003). But although a counterpotential to the New Left existed already in the 1970s and 1980s, right-wing parties were slow to exploit it.

A number of authors have underlined the association between educational level and the universalistic values that underpin the new cultural divide (Kriesi 1999; Stubager 2008, 2009). Indeed, preferences along the cultural dimension are most strongly shaped by educational level in the six countries studied by Kriesi and colleagues (2008) throughout the period between the 1970s and the 2000s. In a similar vein, education has a strong effect on voting behavior (Knutsen 2004), particularly with respect to the radical right (Ivarsflaten and Stubager 2013). In fact, van der Waal, Achterberg, and Houtman (2007) show that much of the decline in class voting in the past decades can be accounted for by an increase in cultural voting triggered by educational differences.

There is a long tradition of explaining the association between education and cultural value preferences, focusing on openness to change and tolerance. According to this literature, individuals with low levels of education do not have the resources to communicate with foreigners or to “understand” other cultures (Lipset 1960; Grunberg and Schweisguth 1990, 54; Grunberg and Schweisguth 1997, 155–159; Quillian 1995; Sniderman et al. 2000, 84; Kriesi et al. 2008, 13). The most sophisticated work accounting for the origins and the mechanisms underlying these education effects comes from Stubager (2008), who shows that higher education instills universalistic values. According to him, “the authoritarian-libertarian value differences existing between high and low education groups reflect deep-seated differences in socializing experiences of the members of the two groups rather than differences in labor market experiences and associated allocative outcomes” (344). Furthermore, Stubager (2009) reveals that, at least in Denmark, educational groups exhibit collective identities and to some degree also perceive an antagonism with each other in terms of interests. To the degree that these results are generalizable, this suggests that at least in Western Europe, education possesses the three distinctive elements that Bartolini and Mair (1990) have postulated as constitutive of full-fledged cleavages. (p. 216)

While education-based differences in political preferences are thus likely to have existed for a long time, the expansion of higher education has broadened the corresponding political potential, and the mobilization of the New Left has brought it to the fore. In conjuncture with the rising salience of the new cultural divide, not only do individuals with higher education have a propensity to vote for the New Left, but those with lower education provide disproportionate support for the radical right (Knutsen 2002; Bornschier 2010a; Stubager 2010).

Economic and Cultural Modernization

Contrary to the proponents of an educational cleavage, those analyzing the rise of the radical right in terms of the winners and loser of modernization tend to retain the notion that occupation-shaped worldviews remain the bread and butter of politics. Even where they focus on cultural political potentials within the two-dimensional political space, rather than economic ones, Herbert Kitschelt and his coauthors (Kitschelt 1994, 1995, 2013; Kitschelt and Rehm 2014), as well as Hanspeter Kriesi and his associates (Kriesi 1998, 1999; Kriesi et al. 2008, 2012) continue to regard individuals’ work situations and structural economic change as central in shaping voter preferences. Likewise, Betz (1994; 2004, ch. 4) early on identified the losers in economic modernization as the backbone of radical right support. In this reading, those left behind by economic modernization vote for the radical right to voice their discontent, and to exclude immigrants, who are made responsible for difficulties on the labor market (Lubbers, Gijsberts, and Scheepers 2002). Similar arguments have been advanced with respect to East-Central Europe, where the transition from state socialism to capitalist democracy also created winners and losers (Mudde 2007, 203).

What exactly constitutes the new structural potentials created by the multifaceted process of modernization? To overcome the theoretical vagueness of the concept criticized by Mudde (2007, 202–205), it makes sense to distinguish economic and cultural modernization and the losers that each of these processes generates, even if they interactively create new political potentials. Furthermore, thinking in terms of cleavages and political dimensions invites us to look not only at the losers but also at the winners in these processes, and to reflect on how winners and losers may be antagonistically related. Strands of the globalization literature then identify additional potentials, which I discuss in the next section.

Economic modernization.

Apart from educational expansion, two trends characterize the process of socioeconomic modernization in advanced capitalist democracies since the 1960s, according to Oesch (2013a, 33) and Esping-Andersen (1999): deindustrialization and service sector growth, on one hand, and occupational upgrading, on the other. While new jobs were created in the service sector, particularly in the public sector, due to the expansion of the welfare state, a large number of less qualified jobs in manufacturing were lost. Those situated in the segment of the service sector requiring specialized skills and education are clearly the winners in economic modernization, but as (p. 217) we shall see below, they do not create a homogeneous political potential due to internal divisions concerning cultural values. Those working in the low-skilled service sector, which has also expanded significantly, clearly constitute the most disadvantaged class in terms of income and promotion chances (Oesch 2006, 95–106). But this is not the group that most research has identified as a potential base for the radical right, mainly due to its members’ propensity to abstain from voting. The same seems to apply for the unskilled working class, also labeled “routine operatives,” arguably those whose jobs are most strongly endangered by international competition and automation (Bornschier and Kriesi 2013). In fact, in line with the early observation of the “proletarianization” of the radical right’s support base (Perrineau 1997; Swyngedouw 1998; Plasser and Ulram 2000; Bjørklund and Andersen 2002; Mayer 2002; Betz 2004; Ignazi 2003; Minkenberg and Perrineau 2007), the manual working class increasingly constitutes the core constituency of the radical right, while the importance of the petty bourgeoisie, one of this party family’s traditional support bases, has declined (for an analysis over time, see Arzheimer 2013, 82–83).1 Somewhat paradoxically at first sight, the highest level of support comes from those members of the working class with relatively specialized skills and intermediate levels of education (Oesch 2008a, 2008b; Bornschier and Kriesi 2013; Mayer 2014). A recent analysis by Kurer (2017) employing panel data shows that within the working class, it is those who manage to hold on to their jobs that vote for the radical right, while those who lose their jobs or are forced to move to other occupations shift to the left.

The driving forces of the working class alignment with the radical right are difficult to explain in strictly economic terms. Kitschelt (1994, 15–18; 1995, 4–13) argued that as global competition accelerates and national market barriers break down, the degree to which the sector an individual works in is exposed to international competition comes to play an important role in shaping political preferences (together with his or her work situation, as discussed below). If workers in internationally competitive sectors voted for the radical right because the latter challenged the state interventionist consensus of the mainstream parties, this would in fact explain why skilled workers are overrepresented among radical right voters.2 But the hypothesis concerning the sector divide has become less compelling, since most radical right parties have abandoned their market-liberal credentials (Perrineau 1997; de Lange 2007; Mudde 2007, ch. 5; Betz and Meret 2013) or deliberately “blur” their positions along the economic dimension (see Rovny 2012; 2013). Furthermore, it was shown that neither the electorate of the radical right in general nor its working-class constituency in particular stands out for its market-liberal position (Chiche et al. 2000; Swyngedouw 2001; Ivarsflaten 2005; Bornschier 2010a, 39–45, 111, 151; see also McGann and Kitschelt 2005 and Kitschelt 2007, 1181–1184, for an amendment of their original proposition).

Cultural modernization.

There is robust evidence that libertarian-authoritarian value preferences covary with occupation, in particular with a horizontal distinction based on differing work logics that cross-cuts the vertical social class dimension (Kriesi 1989, 1998; Kitschelt 1994; Müller 1999; Oesch 2008b; Kitschelt and Rehm 2014). The authors who analyzed the political significance of new class differences initially sought (p. 218) to explain the social basis of the mobilization of the new social movements and the New Left turn of the 1970s and 1980s. Consequently, they focused strongly on the expanding middle class. Kriesi (1998) and Müller (1999) draw a distinction between sociocultural specialists, technical specialists, and managers within the middle class. These occupations are characterized by differing work logics and are situated in settings with different degrees of hierarchy or autonomy. The so-called social-cultural specialists work in client-interactive settings, where they encounter human diversity, which in turn leads them to endorse universalistic values and support redistribution (Kitschelt 1994; Kitschelt and Rehm 2014). The opposite pole is occupied by those situated in organizational work logics characterized by strong hierarchies, with the technical specialists lying in between. These groups differ in terms of their preferences along the libertarian-authoritarian dimension.

The new social movements as well as the electorate of the New Left are drawn disproportionately from the so-called sociocultural specialists. The cultural agenda of the New Left centers on political issues that are concerned with safeguarding or establishing equality beyond the economic domain by advancing women’s and gay rights and the rights of minorities more generally, recognizing difference. This also creates an affinity toward multiculturalism, which became an issue that was difficult to avoid once the mobilization of the radical right gained momentum. These values—which also correlate strongly, as discussed in the preceding section, with educational achievement—may be labeled as universalistic, because they imply a strong equality principle (Schweisguth 2000; Grunberg and Schweisguth 2003; Bornschier 2010a). The New Left has been immensely successful in implementing its political agenda throughout much of Western Europe, with the Southern European countries lagging somewhat behind. Clearly, then, those holding universalistic values are the winners in the process of cultural modernization that occurred beginning in the 1960s.

The losers, on the other hand, are those who disapprove of these universalistic principles and defend authoritarian values and traditional, monocultural conceptions of community. According to Ignazi’s (1992, 2003) renowned “reverse new politics thesis,” further developed by Minkenberg (2000) and Bornschier (2010a, 2010b), the radical right thus spearheads a counterrevolution against the social changes brought about by the New Left, rallying the losers of cultural modernization. Indeed, the new cultural value divide is related to both tolerance and hierarchy, and in a tradition that goes back to Adorno and colleagues (1950), those who consider hierarchies as natural and justified and who lack tolerance for difference are often labeled authoritarian (Stubager 2008, 328–329; see also Kitschelt 1994, 10; Kitschelt 1995; Flanagan and Lee 2003). Inspired by the French nouvelle droite, the radical right has opposed the New Left by developing its own counterideal of cultural differentialism, implying the right of political communities to defend what they consider their organically grown community and traditions against multiculturalism (Antonio 2000; Minkenberg 2000; Betz 2004; Rydgren 2005).

Each of the two party families driving the mobilization of the new cultural dimension put its own issues on the political agenda: the New Left those related to universalistic values and the radical right the issues of immigration and nativism, the latter (p. 219) constituting its ideological core (see Part I of this volume, as well as Mudde 2000, 2007). Interestingly, while the mobilization of the New Left began in the social movement arena and only later spilled over into institutionalized politics, the radical right’s countermobilization was channeled into the electoral arena from the very start by political entrepreneurs seeking to benefit from its anti-universalistic potential (Hutter 2014). As will be discussed in the next section, the radical right later on expanded the range of issues it emphasizes by increasingly criticizing globalization and European integration. Beyond the respective issues that the New Left and the radical right “own,” each of them also exhibits an antagonistic posture with regard to the issues of the other, suggesting that their sequential rise is indeed related. Both at the party level as well as at the level of voter preferences, positions with regard to the issues of the New Left and the radical right are inversely correlated (e.g., Bornschier 2010a, 2010b). In theory, anti-immigration postures need not be married with anti-universalism more generally, as emphasized by Kitschelt and Rehm (2014), who suggest that the “group” (identity) and “grid” (social norm) dimensions are conceptually independent. But with the notable exceptions epitomized by Pim Fortuyn and to some extent by Geert Wilders, for the radical right cultural liberalism and restrictive immigration positions do not go together—instead, they defend cultural traditionalism and anti-immigration postures.3

The differentiation based on work logic discussed for the new middle class can also be used to distinguish between service workers, production workers, and office clerks within the lower classes (Oesch 2006). A host of evidence now shows that production workers constitute the radical right’s core support base, as already mentioned. Why is this so? Oesch (2008a) shows that this group is clearly mobilized by the radical right in terms of its cultural preferences rather than its economic anxieties. More generally, Sniderman, Hagendoorn, and Prior (2004) reveal that perceived cultural threats are more important than the economic threats emphasized in the ethnic competition argument (e.g., Quillian 1995), which often features prominently in journalistic accounts. Furthermore, Ivarsflaten and Stubager (2013, 130–135) add evidence that although respondents often emphasize ethnic competition, the causal direction of this association is open to question. In their analysis, perceived ethnic competition is related much more closely to immigration preferences than to economic vulnerability. Likewise, Rydgren (2008) finds little support for ethnic competition in an analysis of radical right voting determinants.

The relationship between class positions and cultural values may, of course, be an education effect, stemming from the way that education allocates the workforce into different class positions (Bengtsson, Berglund, and Oskarson 2013). But while some find that class effects vanish when taking into account education-induced cultural value preferences (Gougou and Mayer 2013), others find that the effect persists (Bengtsson, Berglund, and Oskarson 2013; Bornschier and Kriesi 2013). The question thus remains why skilled production workers are especially likely to feel resentment against the process of cultural modernization of the past decades in general, and against multiculturalism more specifically. Here, it seems necessary to move beyond objective class position and to take into account the long-term processes of the rise and decline of social classes (p. 220) or groups (cf. Vester 2001). Indeed, Elchardus and Spruyt (2012) show that feelings of relative deprivation—the feeling of being worse off than others and of deserving more than one actually receives—explain cultural value preferences.

These are important findings. The mechanism is that by demarcating themselves from foreigners, individuals gain self-respect—itself a well-established finding from social psychology (see also Rydgren 2013, 5–9). Indeed, the typical male blue-collar worker has lost most dramatically in terms of social prestige with the advent of the service economy and the massive influx of women into the low-skilled and skilled service sectors. This seems to be reflected in the propensity to support the radical right, even when controlling for value preferences and objective economic factors (Bornschier and Kriesi 2013, 20). An alternative explanation would focus on work experiences that exert an influence on cultural values even when controlling for formal education (Kitschelt and Rehm 2014, 1685–1686). The difficulty here, as highlighted by the authors, lies in empirically establishing that individuals’ workplace characteristics are independent of occupational choice, which in turn is based on some antecedent variable such as personality, value orientations, or working-class family background.

In sum, the New Left and the radical right are situated at the poles of the new cultural divide, which varies in salience but is present throughout Western Europe (and in somewhat different form also in East-Central Europe; see Buštíková 2014). Beyond this ideological antagonism, in social structural terms, the electorate of the radical right is also the mirror image of that of the New Left with respect to the gender differences in vote choice, education levels, and class, where the core constituency of each of the two party families situated at the poles of the cultural divide is underrepresented in the other party’s electorate. For this reason, in class terms, Oesch and Rennwald (2010) and Oesch (2013b) argue that the antagonism between the New Left and the radical right has developed into a full-blown cleavage. The strength of this cleavage and its importance for partisan alignments relative to the traditional economic cleavage varies depending on the short-term and long-term strategies of the established political actors. Before turning to dynamic cleavage models, I discuss a final structural explanation for radical right support, namely, the impact of the process of globalization on national politics. This process affects the relative salience of the cultural as opposed to the economic dimension of conflict, but it can also be seen as introducing new divisions of its own.


Although there is a large degree of overlap between the implications of the processes of modernization and those stemming from globalization, the latter concept is potentially broader. Some authors use the term to add a political dimension to the economic and cultural implications of modernization, and there are also some differences in the social groups that are arguably most challenged by the economic, cultural, and political transformations in Western societies. At the same time, the globalization thesis’s focus (p. 221) on political constraints generates some tangible hypotheses concerning the relative salience of competitive dimensions.

But to start out, let us look at accounts that understand globalization narrowly as an economic process that affects individuals’ well-being, while reducing governments’ capacity to govern the economy and respond to voters’ policy preferences. As with modernization, globalization can be seen as creating social groups that profit from the process and others that lose out. Following the narrow account, we would expect globalization to create a potential in favor of economic protectionism, as globalization losers seek remedy against increasing economic competition and employers’ capacity to shift production to other countries (cf. Scheve and Slaughter 2004). At the individual level, Walter (2010) shows that economic globalization losers—that is, those employed in “offshorable” sectors—favor an expansion of welfare provisions by the state. In terms of the political manifestation of this potential, the key question then is whether these voters find a political offer by a party that credibly promises to implement such a policy.

To the degree that parties converge in their economic policy propositions in favor of a neoliberal free trade consensus, this may no longer be the case. Bartolini (2005) argued that because national boundary building constituted a precondition for the formation of historical cleavages, the lowering of these boundaries that results from European integration leads to the destructuring of functional cleavages prevalent at the national level. This argument is of course equally applicable to globalization. Empirically, Hellwig and Samuels (2007) show that globalization indeed weakens the role of economic factors for voters’ evaluations of political incumbents. Most relevant in our context is the ample evidence that testifies to the role of economic globalization in increasing the salience of the cultural at the expense of the economic dimension. As economic integration increases, parties tend to emphasize non-economic issues more (Ward et al. 2015). And voters appear to follow suit: in a comprehensive analysis, Hellwig (2014) shows that if voters fail to perceive meaningful differences between parties in terms of economic policy propositions, the salience of non-economic issues for their vote decisions rises. Voters may then be inclined to vote for entrepreneurial niche parties that differ in their policy emphasis (e.g., Meguid 2005; Bischof 2015; Hobolt and de Vries 2015). Alternatively, the perception of diminished room to maneuver by national governments may dampen turnout (Wessels and Schmitt 2008; Steiner 2016; Evans and Tilley 2017). Group differences in turnout can thus become a salient manifestation of class politics, as Goldthorpe (2002) had hypothesized.

The most straightforward response to mainstream party convergence would of course be a shift in voter preferences toward those radical left parties that favor economic protectionism and continue to occupy staunchly leftist positions along the overall economic dimension. The fact that voters are presented with both radical left and radical right options in several West European party systems—France, the Netherlands, and Denmark are the most obvious examples—and that the radical right nonetheless flourishes suggests that the radical right does not attract economic globalization losers.4 Put differently, economic and cultural potentials seem clearly distinct. This is also in line with the findings discussed in the previous section that showed that those supporting (p. 222) the radical right are not the most marginalized groups in economic terms, and not particularly concerned about losing their jobs either (see also Mayer 2014; Mols and Jetten 2016). Furthermore, the exposure of working-class respondents’ sector of employment to international trade plays no role in shaping support for the radical right (Bornschier and Kriesi 2013, 23). The simple hypothesis suggesting that the radical right rallies economic globalization losers has thus not found much empirical support.

More generally, Margalit (2012) finds attitudes toward economic openness to go well beyond material aspects; in fact, sociocultural and identity-based threats are more important in shaping trade preferences than is any perception of economic threat. While van der Waal and de Koster (2015)—similarly to Margalit—find economic protectionism to matter for some respondents, these authors construct a careful sociological argument and employ a sophisticated empirical analysis to show that the well-known education effect in trade preferences is much more strongly explained by an aversion to cultural diversity rather than by objective economic risk or preferences for economic egalitarianism. These findings are more in line with the explanation discussed earlier that links the rise of the radical right to a new dividing line triggered by education. But the mobilization of the New Left and new political issues related to globalization may have jointly made individuals’ openness toward other cultures more salient in shaping party preferences. What is more, by constraining the range of available policy options along the economic dimension, economic globalization interacts with the rising salience of new cultural issues to create a cultural response to the lowering of national boundaries, if the latter phenomenon is conceived of as a more multifaceted process.

The discussion so far has focused on narrow economic conceptions of globalization. In its broader variant, advocated by Kriesi and colleagues (2006, 2008, 2012), the globalization hypothesis encompasses different strands of change: economic (the internationalization of markets), cultural (the globalization of culture and increasing migration flows), and political (the growing internationalization of politics, processes of supranational integration, and the rise of transnational private governance). The main emphasis in these authors’ work is on the political and cultural aspects of globalization, because it is here that the dimensions of political competition at the national level are redefined. The political debate evolving around economic liberalism, on the other hand, has not been fundamentally transformed by international pressures (Höglinger, Wüest, and Helbling 2012; Wüest 2018). In terms of the political dimension of globalization, the political potential is constituted by those who are attached to the national polity and who see European integration not as a remedy against the loss of sovereignty and control by national governments but rather as an additional menace to national autonomy. Because the established parties avoid taking clear positions regarding Europe, as most studies posit (e.g., Franklin, van der Eijk, and Marsh 1996; Bartolini 2005; Kriesi et al. 2006; Höglinger 2016), it is left to the radical right—and increasingly to the radical left—to successfully combine a critique of the integration project with an anti-political-establishment logic of mobilization. Just like globalization, European integration is a multifaceted process, and political actors can frame their stance toward this process in different ways (Helbling, Höglinger, and Wüest 2010; Höglinger 2016; Hutter, Grande, and Kriesi 2016). (p. 223) Again, however, the analyses by these authors reveal that the radical right’s mobilization logic is cultural rather than economic (see also Vasipoulou, this volume). Thus, while following Bartolini’s (2005) logic that globalization dilutes the state-market cleavage by abolishing the national boundaries upon which the traditional cleavages depended, we can see that the radical rights spearheads the politicization of the issue of boundaries themselves.

The cultural potential in this line of research results from immigration flows, as well as from rising global communication and the emergence of a global culture, sometimes characterized simply as the “Americanization of culture” (Mudde 2007, 190–192). The link between immigration and cultural globalization is not obvious, but in New Right thinking, which has provided important inspiration for the radical right, immigration is treated as a phenomenon that creates resistances to the globalization of culture and to the concomitant loss of national specificities and traditions (see Antonio 2000, 57–58). As a result, globalization and the radical right-wing reaction to it transform the cultural dimension of conflict in West European party systems once more, shifting emphasis from the New Left’s universalistic values to the radical right’s defense of community. This is mirrored in the characterizations of this divide as an integration-demarcation divide or cleavage (Bartolini 2005; Kriesi et al. 2006, 2008, 2012), or one that pits Green-alternative-libertarian (GAL) and traditional-authoritarian-nationalist (TAN) positions against each other (Marks et al. 2006), or as libertarian-universalistic values being challenged by traditionalist-communitarian conceptions of community (Bornschier 2010a, ch. 1; Bornschier 2010b). In Kitschelt and Rehm’s (2014) most recent formulation, the “group” dimension has come to supplement the “grid” dimension of the 1970s and 1980s.

But if globalization is indeed a more-dimensional phenomenon, why is cultural opposition so much more prominent than resistance in the economic domain? Again, subjective deprivation seems to play a role, as it divides Europeans into winners and losers over and above objective social structural variables (Teney, Lacewell, and De Wilde 2014). In their “mobilization legacy hypothesis,” Grande and Kriesi (2012, 25) present a different explanation: the prior establishment of the radical right may undercut support for the radical left. Once voters have come to interpret grievances in cultural terms, they might no longer be receptive to economic mobilization frames. While this hypothesis is plausible, whether it provides an explanation for the success of the radical right in the French, Dutch, and Danish cases (discussed earlier on) that is in line with the globalization argument is open to question. Non-mainstream left-wing parties existed prior to the rise of the radical right in these countries; hence the latter’s rise must have been triggered by something other than economic globalization. Possibly the globalization argument therefore needs to be at least complemented by accounts that see the radical right as a reaction to the New Left. Indeed, the fact that the radical left spearheads the anti-EU integration and anti-globalization movement in Greece and Portugal, as shown by Teperoglou and Tsatsanis (2011), seems to support this hypothesis: the New Left transformation was weak in Southern Europe, and as a consequence, economic frames seem to prevail in the resistance against globalization. In continental and Northern Europe, (p. 224) on the other hand, a shift in salience from the economic to the cultural dimension occurred before the effects of globalization were attenuated. Together with the convergence of the major actors along the economic dimension, which was then reinforced by the constraining effects of globalization, this may have triggered a very gradual, long-term process of dealignment between the working class and the left, as I discuss in the next section.

To conclude, according to the proponents of the globalization cleavage, the radical right has transformed the cultural dimension of the 1970s. As in the case of its forerunner, the modernization loser and economic competition thesis, much emphasis is placed on class or skill levels, even if this is combined with a focus on education and its role in shaping cultural preferences (Kriesi et al. 2008). Yet in structural terms, the New Left and the radical right are less intimately related in this reading than in the modernization account. The rise of these two party families is not the result of the same transformation but rather the product of two sequential critical junctures, one shaped by education and the other by globalization, as most explicitly emphasized in Kriesi’s work (Kriesi 1999, 400–404). This is partially related to the fact that the emphasis in the globalization account is on new issues and on how these new issues have become “embedded” in the two-dimensional space prevalent in Western Europe since the days of the traditional class and religious cleavages (Kriesi et al. 2006, 2008; see also Rovny and Polk 2013). Similarly to the literature emphasizing the importance of political issues rather than cleavages (e.g., Green-Pedersen 2007; Bale et al. 2010), there is not much analysis of the antagonistic relationship between the ideologies of the New Left and the radical right. These differences also impact how we model party strategies in seeking to explain differences in radical right success, as I discuss in the second part of this chapter.

Cleavages and Party Strategy: Opportunities and Limits for the Radical Right

In this part of the chapter, I suggest that a dynamic account of cleavage theory can help us predict the country-specific potential for the conflicts the radical right thrives upon to gain room. Drawing on the concepts of dealignment and realignment helps to overcome the static touch of the original cleavage concept (Martin 2000; Bornschier 2010a, ch. 3; Kriesi et al. 2012; Hutter 2014). Because electorates in Western Europe are fully mobilized in the sense that all traditional social groups have linkages with some political parties, either a weakening of these linkages or a fundamental transformation of social structure is a precondition for the emergence of the radical right. In the language of realignment theory, this is referred to as a process of dealignment (e.g., Dalton et al. 1984; Mayhew 2000). While the strength of existing cleavages thus constrains the space for the radical right, the latter’s chances of rallying dealigned voters depend on the radical (p. 225) right’s strategic interaction with other parties in what realignment theorists refer to as a series of “critical elections.” In other words, the long-term evolution of the cleavage structure in a given country represents the baseline of strategic party interaction, and it is only in a situation where existing alignments have been substantially weakened that the vast literature on the impact of mainstream party strategy on radical right success comes in.

The Baseline: The Strength of Existing Alignments

Drawing on the work of Schattschneider (1975) and Riker (1986), for whom political competition is about defining or redefining the relevant dimensions of conflict, new political actors have an interest in priming new dimensions that put them at a comparative advantage over established political actors.5 In line with realignment theory, during times of “normal politics” party systems forged by a specific set of conflicts tend to be receptive only to those issues that correspond to and reinforce these dimensions of conflict. As Schattschneider (1975, 69) puts it, they have a tendency to “organize out” political issues that cut across these dimensions. The idea that existing cleavages limit the space for new conflicts was already inherent in Rokkan’s (1999) and Bartolini’s (2000) work on the formation of the classical cleavages in the early years of mass politics. Existing conflicts limit the space for new ones to the extent that the groups divided by these dimensions are characterized by social closure, that is, strong collective identities that structure and cement their party preferences (Bartolini and Mair 1990, ch. 9; Kriesi and Duyvendak 1995; Bartolini 2000, 2005).

It has proven exceedingly difficult to measure social closure independently of its outcome, the stability of alignments between social groups and political parties. It might be promising, however, to focus on the most important predictor of politically relevant social identities: political conflict between parties. Much of the literature that conceptualizes the top-down effects of parties’ political offers on cleavages implicitly or explicitly recognizes that political conflict strongly shapes the collective identities and partisan alignments that underlie cleavages (e.g., Sartori 1968; Zuckerman 1975; Enyedi 2008, 295–297; Deegan-Krause and Enyedi 2010).6 In this line of thinking, Evans and de Graaf (2013a, 3–9) suggest that top-down processes matter because parties define the choice sets that voters are offered: if parties offer contrasting policy packages along the economic and religious dimensions, voters are able to express political preferences anchored in social structure. When parties collude, on the other hand, these differences will remain politically latent, even if they persist at the attitudinal level. The crucial variable here is how much party positions differ, or, expressed differently, how polarized they are.

There is now a sizable literature that provides evidence for this hypothesis (De Graaf, Heath, and Need 2001; Elff 2002, 2007; Oskarson 2005; van der Brug 2010; Evans and Tilley 2011; Adams, de Vries, and Leiter 2011; Karreth, Polk, and Allen 2012). The most ambitious attempt to date at testing the role of top-down processes in the perpetuation (p. 226) of cleavages are the volumes by Evans and de Graaf (2013b), Rennwald (2015), and by Evans and Tilley (2017). Rennwald (2015), for example, combines foci on parties’ issue positions, overall ideological polarization, and issue saliency to explain the dealignment between the working class and the left since the 1970s in five West European countries. This line of research converges in its conclusion that class voting is stronger when the party system is more polarized along the economic dimension. Thus, beyond issue salience, which is central in the globalization cleavage argument (Kriesi et al. 2008, 2012) as well as in the issue competition account (e.g., Green-Pedersen 2007; Green-Pedersen and Mortensen 2010), party system polarization, a systemic feature that is produced by the aggregation of parties’ issue positions, is central in explaining the mobilization space of the radical right.7

This methodological tool kit has only recently been used explicitly to explain differences in the timing of the breakthrough of the radical right.8 It has found support in a number of analyses explaining the fortunes of the radical right in Sweden (Rydgren 2002; Oskarson and Demker 2013; Loxbo 2014) and in France (Gougou and Mayer 2013). The convergence of mainstream parties along the economic dimension in Germany since the reforms initiated by the Red-Green government under Chancellor Gerhard Schröder in the late 1990s did not immediately benefit the radical right, on the other hand, but it may have in the long term, as the recent success of the Alternative für Deutschland (AfD, Alternative for Germany) suggests. Others have tested the proposition that a persistently strong economic cleavage undercuts radical right support in comparative perspective. They provide impressive evidence for the importance of parties’ economic policy positions on the electoral fortunes of the radical right. Following the pioneering work by Meguid (2005, 2008), they underline the necessity of taking into account both economic policy positions and the salience of economic issues (as opposed to cultural issues) in the party system as a whole, an approach sometimes referred to as systemic salience. In a cross-national time series analysis, Spies (2013) shows that in contexts where the economic dimension is salient and polarized, members of the working class vote less for the radical right than in contexts where party differences with respect to economic policy are less pronounced and where cultural issues play a more important role. In a recent analysis, Grittersová and colleagues (2016) show that over the past three decades, austerity measures tended to increase the saliency of the economic dimension and undermined support for niche parties, including the radical right—in particular when austerity is implemented by the right and can credibly be opposed by the left.

These results have already offered considerable support for the baseline prediction of the cleavage account. I now turn to research that marries this perspective with a strategic approach focusing on the radical right’s own issues. I start out by briefly reviewing the older literature that analyzed the impact of mainstream party strategy on radical right success alone. For pragmatic reasons, I leave aside for the moment a discussion of the radical right’s own strategies in terms of ideological renewal or moderation, although the radical right’s own profile is clearly important (cf. Ignazi 2002; Golder 2003; Carter 2005; Mudde 2007, ch. 11). (p. 227)

Challengers and Mainstream Parties in Two-Dimensional Competition

With respect to the impact of mainstream party strategy on radical right success, the most widespread hypothesis is that the radical right’s potential is contained to the degree that the established parties close the space to their right on the cultural dimension.9 Focusing on overall left-right measures of political space, a first wave of studies measured the distinctiveness of mainstream parties’ profiles (e.g., Abedi 2002; Lubbers, Gijsberts, and Scheepers 2002; Arzheimer 2009), while others focused solely on whether the established right provides political space for a newcomer (Ignazi 2003; van der Brug, Fennema, and Tillie 2005). Carter (2005) tests both propositions.10 In general, these studies have provided support for the convergence thesis, pointing to the capacity of the mainstream parties to crowd out the radical right (but see Arzheimer and Carter 2006). Although most of these studies seem to suggest that the thesis applies mainly to the cultural domain, or even exclusively to the immigration issue, the evidence provided is not conclusive because researchers often employ overall left-right measures of party positions.

Much of this work has focused on the mainstream right as the radical right’s most proximate competitor. As pointed out before, however, if the salience of cultural issues depends on the degree of polarization they entail, the behavior of the mainstream left is also crucial. Meguid (2005, 2008) has highlighted that if the left chooses an adversarial strategy against the radical right by promoting a universalistic defense of multiculturalism, this reinforces the radical right’s issue ownership of the immigration issue. She claims that the French Socialists adopted their multiculturalist position strategically in order to divide the right in the 1980s, and that this strategy is likely to have been employed by left-wing parties elsewhere as well. But there is also a less opportunistic interpretation of the behavior of the left: if we conceive of the issues of the New Left and the radical right as polar normative ideals, as discussed earlier on, the choice to oppose the radical right is rooted in strong ideological convictions. To the degree that the mainstream left in a country underwent a New Left transformation in Kitschelt’s (1994) sense, as was clearly the case for the French Socialists, it would require a considerable watering down of its core ideology to either ignore the immigration issue (Meguid’s dismissive strategy) or to move toward the opposing pole of the cultural dimension (an accommodating strategy). As Bale and colleagues (2010) show, the adversarial strategy was in fact the most frequent reaction of the mainstream left when the radical right emerged. The left started to modify its position in a later phase, as these authors try to show, but this might no longer have an effect on the fortunes of the radical right, as I argue toward the end of this chapter.

If, on the other hand, the established parties jointly succeed in keeping polarization around the issues relating to immigration, multiculturalism, and cultural liberalism low, then this dimension will prove less divisive and thus less salient for voters. Consequently, competition will center more strongly on the economic dimension (or (p. 228) government performance may become more important). Some of the most innovative recent research combines a focus on the cultural and economic dimensions, tentatively linking the long-term cleavage approach with shorter-term, more strategic frameworks. In an analysis covering all national elections in Western Europe from 1980 to 2003, Spies and Franzmann (2011) show that when the polarization of the economic dimension decreases, both the salience of cultural issues and the vote share of the radical right increase. These authors show convincingly that we must focus on the interplay between the economic and cultural dimensions to explain radical right support. Somewhat simplified, their results reveal that while policy convergence along the economic dimension alone does not have a significant effect on the fortunes of the radical right, it does so when the cultural dimension is polarized, implying that the left occupies a clearly universalistic position. When these variables are taken into account, the position of the mainstream right along the cultural dimension no longer proves significant.

While Spies and Franzmann derive expectations for the saliency of economic as opposed to non-economic issues for voters based on party system polarization, Rennwald and Evans (2014) measure saliency at the party level independently from party position, with highly interesting results. Furthermore, the focus here is not so much on the success of the radical right as on the fate of working-class voters, formerly one of the left’s core constituencies. In a comparison of Austria and Switzerland, Rennwald and Evans (2014) set out to explain why the Austrian Social Democrats lost far fewer working-class voters to the radical right than their counterparts in Switzerland, despite the fact that the Social Democrats retained a far more left-wing economic position in Switzerland than in Austria. Both parties adopted universalistic positions with respect to the cultural dimension, but given their inferior saliency in Austria, this proved far less consequential than in Switzerland.

Taken together, the results by Spies and Franzmann (2011), Spies (2013), and Rennwald and Evans (2014) suggest that polarization interacts with parties’ issue emphasis to make the cultural dimension more or less salient for voters. While the contributions so far have focused on the immediate, short-term effects of party system polarization along the economic dimension, the cleavage perspective discussed earlier suggests that we should also be able to observe lagged long-term effects, as policy convergence only gradually erodes voter loyalties. Finally, it is also worth noting that it seems necessary to distinguish the impact of party strategies in the radical right’s entry phase from their effects once the latter is entrenched in a party system. Ellinas (2010) and Kitschelt (2007) suggest that once the radical right has achieved ownership of the immigration issue, co-opting its message is exceedingly difficult. In other words, it is doubtful whether mainstream parties are able to crowd out a radical right party at that stage. This is all the more true since center-right parties tend to send mixed and temporally inconsistent signals to voters with anti-universalistic and anti-immigrant world-views (Meguid 2008; Kriesi et al. 2008; Ellinas 2010; Bornschier 2010a). (p. 229)


This chapter has focused on two areas that are at the heart of a cleavage perspective on the radical right. First are the social structural transformations that have generated the political potentials the radical right thrives upon. The cleavage perspective invites us to look at political competition in terms of potentially enduring overarching dimensions, rather than singular issues that come and go. From this point of view, the rise of the radical right is intimately related to the transformation of the traditional West European political space as a result of the educational revolution that took off in the 1960s, to the processes of economic and cultural modernization, as well as to the issue of national sovereignty posed by globalization. To shape voting behavior, the structural potentials created by these processes need to be articulated by political parties. Processes of political mobilization, in turn, shape the way structural potentials become manifest. Agency is thus crucial, in particular because the economic and cultural dimensions prevalent across Western Europe may exert contradictory pulls on individuals. Parties’ strategic behavior affects the relative saliency of the traditional economic dimension and the new cultural divide forged by the New Left and the radical right, but it also defines the political space for the radical right. Although two-dimensional competition taking into account party positions, systemic polarization, and issue emphasis is complex, impressive advances in this direction have been made, contributing to our understanding of the variation in radical right support across time and space. While a first wave of research focused on these questions, a new wave currently under way has begun to investigate more specific research puzzles, explaining the dealignment and realignment of specific social groups as a function of elite political agency. One of the central questions here is how the relative saliency of the economic and cultural dimensions of conflict for specific subgroups of the electorate is defined by political competition. The two fields of research covered in this chapter—the social structural basis of contemporary political alignments and the role of party strategies in forming these alignments—are thus growing ever closer together.


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(1.) In any event, the petty bourgeoisie’s contribution to this party family’s success is quite modest (Oesch 2008a, 2008b).

(2.) Likewise, Kitschelt (1995) had theorized that those proving difficulties of getting into the labor market would be susceptible to voting for the radical right.

(3.) Furthermore, de Koster et al.’s (2014) analysis at the voter level shows that even in the Netherlands, Pim Fortuyn’s unusual ideological mix does not reflect an association between moral progressiveness and ethnocentrism. Rather, these two concepts show a rather strong and highly significant negative association (594).

(4.) Given the free-market profile of many radical right parties in their first mobilization phase in the 1980s, as correctly highlighted by Kitschelt (1995), it is more than questionable whether they are the most credible advocates of economic protectionism. (For a discussion of the evolving economic profile of the radical right, see Bornschier 2010a, 25–26, 39–45.)

(5.) For a more recent formulation, see Hobolt and de Vries 2015.

(6.) For a more extensive discussion of the social psychological foundation of top-down effects of parties on partisan collective identities, see Bornschier 2010a, 57–63.

(7.) Additionally, Evans and Tilley (2017) break new ground in using the extent to which parties make explicit class appeals to explain the dealignment of the British working class.

(8.) In a review of the recent literature on the radical right, Kitschelt (2007) had suggested pursuing this line of inquiry.

(9.) For a more extended discussion, see Mudde 2007, ch. 10, and Bornschier 2012.

(10.) The opposing effect also has plausibility: by issuing tough stances with respect to immigration, the established right may legitimize the extreme right’s claims and thereby foster its success, as suggested by Ignazi (2003), Arzheimer and Carter (2006), and Spies and Franzmann (2011).