Conference: ECPR General Conference
Section: Populism, Radicalism and Extremism: At the Margins and into the Mainstream
Chairs: Pietro Castelli Gattinara (University of Oslo), Léonie de Jonge (University of Groningen), and Ofra Klein (European University Institute)
Location and date: University of Innsbruck, 26-28 August 2020
Deadline for submission: 18 February 2020
For further details: Conference website

Since the turn of the twenty-first century, radical right and radical left politics have entered into a new phase. Over the past decades, populist and radical actors have mobilized through electoral and protest channels, and succeeded in radicalizing ‘mainstream’ politics on the European continent and beyond. Whilst populist and radical parties have been responsible for the politicization of a number of issues (environmentalism, immigration, Euroscepticism, etc.), the issues at the core of their ideology are no longer exclusively owned by these organizations. Indeed, they have profoundly reshaped social and political cleavages at the national and supranational level. In more recent times, and notably in the wake of the European crises, we have witnessed the rise (and fall) of left-wing populist parties including Syriza in Greece and Podemos in Spain. Meanwhile, far-right ideas have siphoned into the mainstream, with three of the world’s most populous countries (Brazil, India and the United States) currently being run by far-right leaders.

To account for this evolution, scholars of extremism and democracy have proposed to add a fourth wave to Klaus von Beyme’s famous distinction between three phases of post-war right-wing extremism. Far-right politics, in fact, is becoming increasingly detached from populist radical right parties, since grassroots activism has acquired its own standing in contemporary far-right mobilization, whereas nativism, authoritarianism and populism now feature in the discourses of many ‘mainstream’ right-wing parties. Meanwhile, academics have used the economic crisis of 2008 as a reference point to address the developments in radical left politics. Indeed, the Great Recession shook the left progressive camp: it created favourable conditions for ascending radical parties, links to social movements and the protest arena, but also new dilemmas, notably concerning migration, Europe and the environment.

The past two decades have thus brought to the fore two separate, yet intertwined processes, which will be at the core of this section. On the one hand the breakthrough of radical actors and ideas into the political ‘mainstream’, which has accompanied and fuelled the decline of traditional cleavage politics. On the other, the progressive rise of previously ‘marginal’ non-party organizations, and the related coupling of political contestation in the protest and electoral arenas. Both of these developments accompanied and fuelled the decline of traditional cleavages. As we turn the page on the second decade of the new millennium, the year 2020 offers a great opportunity to make up the balance sheet on contemporary populist, radical and extremist politics, both from a theoretical and empirical perspective. How do radical and extremist actors manifest themselves today, in terms of discourse, organization and mobilization? How have they developed and grown over time? Why are they (still) more prominent in some countries and regions than in others? What are the social and political consequences of the normalization of populist, radical and extremist politics? And, more generally, how might we theorize these developments? How could theories developed to study “new” and “niche” populist radical actors explain their progressive institutionalization and integration in national political systems?

In particular, the section will focus on:
1. Contemporary manifestations of radical politics and its variation across contexts: How can radical and populist actors be studied from the perspective of established political parties? How to compare actors within the radical/extremist/populist party family? Why is the far right not equally successful throughout the European continent and across different regions in the world? What explains regional and urban/rural variations in the way these actors operate?

2. The mobilization by radical actors in the electoral as well as in the protest arena: What determines the action repertoire of radical actors? Is electoral engagement alternative to street protest and contentious politics? What is the life cycle of radical movements and parties, in terms of emergence, breakthrough, and structuration of movement-party relations? How do these actors respond to setbacks and reinvent themselves?

3. The internal organization of populist, extremist and radical actors: How do radical groups cope with problems of collective choice and manage internal organization? How do party organizations relate to the non-party sector and the broader extremist milieu, nationally and transnationally? What is the function of auxiliary organizations, such as youth groups and thematic organizations? And what role is played by cultural aspects, such as symbols, clothing, and visuals/memes, in the formation of collective identities, and in the mainstreaming of extreme ideals?

4. The political communication of extremist, radical and populist actors: How do radical and extremist actors mobilize on the internet and through established channels of communication? What are the main issues at the core of their propaganda online and offline? How do they relate to more fringe message boards and forums? What is the role of intellectuals and student associations in the development of radical ideologies and propaganda?

5. The interaction between radical and mainstream actors: How, when and why do radical ideas drift into the political mainstream? How do mainstream actors respond to the challenge posed by radical populist parties? What are the responses by civil society actors, the media and universities? And what are the consequences of the normalization of radical politics?

The Section aims to combine different theoretical and methodological approaches to examine continuities and changes in contemporary manifestations of extremism, populism and radicalism. The wider aim is to bring together the different research traditions that have tried to explain these phenomena, with a particular interest in those who seek to bridge thematic areas and fields of enquiry, such as political sociology and comparative political science, supply- and demand-side approaches, as well as local, national and supranational levels of analysis. Accordingly, the Section encourages submissions combining a focus on Europe and other regions, including the Americas, the Middle East and Asia. It calls for panel submissions that are methodologically diverse, that try to combine different sub-disciplines and theoretical persuasions, and that aim at striking a balance between theoretical and empirical contributions. Preference will be given to panels that mirror the diversity of the ECPR research community in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, rank and regional specialization.