The Section ‘Radicalism, Populism, Extremism: Threat or Corrective for Democracy?’, chaired by Anna-Sophie Heinze (University of Trier) and Manès Weisskircher (TU Dresden), has been accepted to the 2021 ECPR General Conference in Innsbruck. The Section is proudly endorsed by the Standing Group on Extremism & Democracy and is now open for panel and paper proposals. The deadline for submissions is 10 February 2021.

Section abstract:

Recent years saw a proliferation in the number of studies explicitly focusing on radicalism, populism and extremism. Their insights have become increasingly relevant to a broader political science audience – first and foremost to scholars of democracy and its supposed crisis. Ever more urgent reflections on ‘how democracies die’ and the rise of ‘illiberal democracies’ have considered the strength and actions of radical, populist and extremist actors as key explanatory variables. Also in what are still considered to be stable and prospering democracies, significant shares of the electorate have turned to political parties which aggressively promote the exclusion of minorities and other illiberal aims. These developments reflect the ongoing debate in our subfield about whether radicalism, populism and extremism have gone mainstream as key part of the contemporary Zeitgeist.

In addition to the crisis of democracy, the Covid-19 pandemic constitutes a major break in the functioning of societies around the world: governments have taken strong measures to contain the virus, which has raised the question of how to balance individual freedom, public health and economic activity. Some radical and populist actors in government have been accused of taking advantage of the pandemic, enforcing policies through emergency legislation and undermining the power of parliaments. In stark contrast, many radical, populist and extremist parties in opposition have struggled to attract attention in this ‘hour of the executive’. Moreover, harsh opposition to government measures have also motivated some old and new – and often quite heterogeneous – forces to march on the streets, where they frequently articulated a hostility to science and conspiracy theories about the pandemic, sometimes including antisemitic tropes.

While many observers have raised alarm about the rise of radicalism, populism and extremism, some actors have also been described as political innovators, who do not contribute to democratic backsliding, but may in fact act as a corrective to an unresponsive political mainstream or ‘undemocratic liberalism’ in general. Their improvements may include the representation of opinions which were previously neglected in political competition, the promotion of institutional reform such as direct democracy, or the demand for a more equal distribution of income and wealth.

These developments point to the ongoing relevance of many of the classical questions in our subfield, including but not limited to whether radical, populist or extremist actors represent a threat or a corrective to liberal democracy. As 2020 most certainly does not mark ‘the end of populism’, it makes its study ever more urgent. The unique situation caused by the pandemic, together with an observed democratic decline in various contexts, underlines the need to study the diversity within and the impact of such actors worldwide.

Therefore, the section will focus on the following questions:

1. Issues and forms of actions: Which old and new issues are of particular relevance to radical, populist and extremist actors? How did they respond to the Covid-19 pandemic? How do they link this and other issues to broader ideological stances? What forms of actions do non-party actors engage in, and what explains cross-country and cross-group variation? And why do some of them resort to political violence?

2. Mobilisation and political communication: How do radical, populist and extremist actors activate support in the electoral and the protest arena? What explains their varying success in Europe and beyond? Does the ‘gender gap’ still matter or is it narrowing? What is the often-underestimated role of established channels of communication? And how do they use old and new online platforms, especially ‘social’ media, to communicate their political views?

3. Internal organisation and internal democracy: How are radical, populist and extremist political parties and social movements organised? Does strong leadership still matter or is there a rise of new forms of collective leadership? To what extent do members have a say within their organisations, and what are the forms of such participatory processes? Which connections do radical, populist and extremist actors maintain with each other, both nationally and transnationally? And how can the usually opaque internal processes be studied by scholars?

4. Responses and counterstrategies: How do political parties, social movements, media actors and others respond to radical, populist and extremist actors? How did state authorities respond to ‘anti-Corona’ protests in the face of public health risks? To what extent have strategies of inclusion, exclusion and accommodation proved to be effective against radical, populist and extremist actors? And what are effective measures to preserve liberal democracy?

5. Impact and consequences: How do radical, populist and extremist actors influence political processes, such as the democratic quality of the political system, policy-making and political discourse? Do they contribute to the decline of liberal democracy or are they able to function as corrective? And what are their actions when in government, in the context of the pandemic ‘management’ and beyond?

The section embraces theoretical and methodological pluralism. Preference will be given to panels that mirror the diversity of the ECPR research community in terms of gender, ethnicity, age, rank and regional specialisation.