The electoral success of the radical right is a global phenomenon. In the past five years, right-wing candidates have won elections in Brazil (Bolsonaro), the United States (Trump) and the Philippines (Duterte). In Europe, practically all countries have a right-wing radical party in their parliaments. In Portugal in particular, the 2019 elections were marked by the arrival of Chega in parliament – whose chairman was one of the main figures in the January 2021 presidential election.
After World War II and the disastrous experience of authoritarianism in Europe, most Western democracies created social norms against positions inconsistent with the values of liberal democracy – such as racist or authoritarian positions. As a number of studies in social psychology show, because of these norms, many people tend to keep these positions private, but often not express them explicitly in public because they know that they are not acceptable in a liberal democracy.
Given that right-wing politicians like André Ventura openly violate these norms and, given their electoral success in recent years, the public debate has addressed the extent to which this success normalizes the transgression of the norms of a liberal democracy like Portuguese.
In particular, the presence of the radical right in parliament can bring about such a normalization. On the one hand, it signals the party’s electoral success. Such a signal can make it clear to voters that the number of supporters of the radical right is higher than expected. On the other hand, political institutions have the potential to legitimize the actors they represent. So when right-wing extremist parties enter their countries’ parliament, it can be expected that their positions will normalize and their supporters will feel legitimized.
This is the question that motivates an article I recently published in Comparative Political Studies. In this article I show that parliamentary representation of right-wing extremist parties effectively normalizes right-wing extremist positions.
The article is based on a new measure of how acceptable it is to express support for the radical right.
This measure consists of the proportion of a party’s official votes reported in by-election surveys. After each election, these polls ask a representative sample of the population for their vote. The interviews for such surveys represent a social interaction with an unknown person (the interviewer). For fear of being judged, many radical right advocates will prefer not to explain such support.
Indeed, the vote on the radical right declared in such investigations is consistently lower than the actual election result. However, this social pressure does not extend equally to voting as it is done privately. In this respect, the official vote in a party is a measure of how many voters support the radical right without social pressure. In contrast, the vote on the radical right declared in post-election polls is a measure of how many people in a population are willing to take on the interviewer who supports the radical right, despite social pressures not to explain such support.
The article shows that the proportion of official votes in the radical right, which is declared in post-election investigations, increases significantly when these parties are given parliamentary representation. The main analysis of the article focuses on data from 80 right-wing extremist parties in 21 countries between 1996 and 2018. The results show that out of ten people who voted for the radical right, four to five more people were willing to admit it when those parties would have entered parliament tangentially (compared to parties that would have tangentially missed the electoral support required for entry into parliament).
The results also show that the effect increases with time between the election and the post-election interview interview. This suggests that the normalization of right-wing extremist positions is normalizing over time and that political institutions are actually sending signals about which behaviors are acceptable in a society.
These analyzes are corroborated by additional analysis at the individual level (as opposed to the original party-level analysis) and by a case study of the UKIP party in the UK before and after its accession to Parliament. In both cases, the results confirm the main conclusion. When right-wing extremist parties are represented in parliament, voters feel much more comfortable when they express their support.
Overall, the analysis of the article shows that although there are social norms against the expression of radical legal positions, the continued success of right-wing politicians can lead to the erosion of these norms. It is important to emphasize that the results of the article do not suggest that this consequence is only due to the fact that the positions of voters are becoming more radical. On the contrary, the article suggests that the success of the radical right makes people who have already held positions of the radical right but who have not expressed them publicly feel more comfortable. These results have important implications, especially given that this effect is felt not only in the declaration of support for the radical right, but also in a number of other behaviors linked to the radical right that contradict the values of liberal democracy .
The author writes according to the new orthographic convention