The radicalization of politics

By Christian Ewert and Raphael Capaul

On that fateful Tuesday, November 8, 2016, the United States elected Donald Trump as their President. Four years later, there is no doubt that he was one of the most radical and aggressive incumbents the USA have ever seen. Standing out not only for his inclination for authoritarian rule—as demonstrated by the 2019 Ukraine affair and his involvement in the recent breach of the Capitol—but also for his degrading rhetoric toward women, minorities, and political opponents.

Donald Trump was not reelected in the 2020 presidential election. But of course, there are still other countries run by rather radical actors. In Brazil, Jair Bolsonaro is in power and has to face re-election in 2022. In the same year, elections are also due in Hungary, where the Fidesz party headed by Victor Orban governs. And the Law and Justice Party (PiS) leads the governing coalition in Poland, at least until the next regular renewal of the Sejm, the lower house of the parliament, in 2023.

However, it is important to acknowledge the unique circumstances in which the next elections will take place: A global pandemic threatens health, the markets, and social cohesion. Climate change endangers the survival and prosperity of all people. The EU and the UK have yet to cope with and fully process Brexit. Mediatization, privatization, globalization, and conflicts between more traditional and more progressive values and lifestyles are creating new political arenas, new winners and losers. Geopolitical conflicts between the USA and China will determine international politics for the foreseeable future. And demographic changes continue to deplete social security and pension schemes. Each one of these political, economic, and cultural crises is difficult enough to handle. If they occur together, they reinforce and amplify each other.

Crisis favours radicalization

A situation of crisis favours the radicalization of politics. To be precise, radical actors are always present in democratic societies, but they profit more than moderate actors from unresolved challenges and insecurities. This can be explained by, on the one hand, the growing disappointment and disenchantment of citizens with moderate or “mainstream” politics. For instance, virtually all governments of Western democracies have made painful political decisions in recent years. These include most notably the strict austerity measures implemented in connection with the last economic crisis, but also the restrictions on personal freedoms enacted in response to the Covid-19 pandemic. All of these measures have created strong resentments and criticism. Moreover, and despite these measures, many political problems appear to remain unsolved. Deforestation continues at an alarming rate, fossil fuels are still being burnt which contributes to global warming and climate change, and pension schemes have to rely on fewer and fewer contributors to support more and more retired persons; these are just some of the persisting policy problems of course. Finally, many people fear or are directly affected by a declining socioeconomic status.

Out of this disappointment and fear, voters are increasingly turning to and into radical actors.

On the other hand, radical actors know how to profit from crises. They try to convey or intensify the “mood” of crisis through a rhetoric of emotionalization, simplification, and negativity. And indeed, the voter turnout shows that Bolsonaro, Fidesz, and PiS know how to play their cards. Trump, for instance, received more votes than any other sitting President before him in spite of his failures to control the pandemic.

Is the radicalization of politics inevitable?

Considering the many crises we face and the implications they have on voters and politics, is the radicalization of politics inevitable?

The answer is no. For one, the USA have shown on November 3, 2020, that radical actors can still be “kicked out” of office. And in addition to this, history has shown that radical actors can de-radicalize themselves, and become more moderate.

The Freedom Party of Austria (FPÖ) exemplifies such de-radicalization. The party was a junior member of a coalition government from 2000 to 2005. During this period, FPÖ came closer to the policy positions of the leading centre-right coalition party, the Austrian People’s Party (ÖVP). FPÖ’s convergence was indeed so substantial that its moderate wing, consisting of ministers and members of parliament, seceded and founded the new Alliance for the Future of Austria (BZÖ). Another example following a similar trajectory is the Norwegian Progressive Party (FrP). It was represented in government along with established “mainstream” parties from 2013 to 2020, and also departed from its radical positions. Massive internal tensions and debates among the more moderate and radical members were the result.

It seems like a paradox: Radicalism in times of crises leads to electoral successes, and yet at least some radical actors de-radicalize and become more moderate. How come?

Many factors shape a political actor’s development. It certainly makes a difference whether this actor is in opposition or part of the government. In opposition, it is possible to agitate and criticize the government and the “corrupt elites.” In government, there might be no time for this because it is more urgent to actually “fill potholes” and “fix sewage systems,” as political scientists Tjitske Akkerman and Matthijs Rooduijn have put it. Apart from that, in many democratic systems, it is necessary to form governing coalitions and engage in compromises with other powerful political actors. If the incentives of joining a governing coalition are compelling, radical actors might be tempted to leave their radical positions.

The outlook is thus ambivalent. Given the current political challenges and crises, it would come as no surprise if Bolsonaro, Fidesz, PiS, and others would continue their winning streaks at the urns. Nevertheless, the election of Joe Biden and the de-radicalization of both FPÖ and FrP have shown that political radicalization is not a one-way street.


  • Christian Ewert, PhD, is a lecturer in political science at the University of Zurich (Christian.Ewert@uzh.ch)
  • Raphael Capaul, MA UZH, is a doctoral candidate at the Centre for Legislative Studies, University of Zurich (Raphael.Capaul@rwi.uzh.ch)

One thought on “The radicalization of politics

  1. Dominik Gross

    Thank you for this very interesting article!
    However, I think it is to much at stake to wait for a de-radicalization of radical parties and actors. “Mainstream” parties have to come up with their vision ideas to overcome the challenges of our time (e. g. Unconditional Basic Income). Instead, the mainstream incumbents often limit their actions to administer politics.

    Like

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