Much has been written recently about the rise of the far right and its growing impact on mainstream politics. While the campaign and election of Trump was the most covered event, the strong performance of the Freedom Party in Austria, the Front National in France, the Lega in Italy and the victory of Brexit in the UK amongst others have made such discussions ubiquitous. Countless books and articles have focused on the ways in which the discourse of parties and movements once considered toxic has evolved or been adapted. While the concepts of ‘mainstream’ and ‘mainstreaming’ have become commonly used, their definition has been elusive, or rather evaded by scholars and experts on the topic. This is partly due to the fact that defining the mainstream is itself a challenge.
It is therefore not surprising that much of the scholarly work about the mainstreaming of the far right in Europe has been based on electoral performance. Yet, focussing solely on parties and electoral politics risks both underestimating and exaggerating certain phenomena. In the 2007 French presidential election, the defeat of the Front National was only a result of Nicolas Sarkozy’s absorption of many of its ideas, leading in turn to the mainstreaming of the far right party and its return to the forefront of politics. UKIP faced a similar fate after the Brexit victory, and Farage, who has continued to receive disproportionate coverage, was only too happy to say as he stood down from the party leadership that “The Ukippers will have been the turkeys who voted for Christmas.” In the US, white supremacists such as Jason Kessler and Richard Spencer, whose electoral weight is close to nil, have also received disproportionate coverage, including by the more liberal media. This occurs in a context where the far right has endorsed and been supported and emboldened by Trump.
Therefore, we believe that it is essential to move beyond electoral politics to understand the way the far right is being mainstreamed. To do so, a few common sensical tropes must be challenged:
The mainstreaming of the far right is not new. Despite the pledge across the West that Nazism and fascism would never be let to happen again, we have witnessed the resurgence of far right parties, movements and ideas and their absorption into the mainstream up to this day. Flirting with anti-immigration or openly racist rhetoric is not new and mainstream politicians have done so for decades.
The mainstream’s meaning and position is constructed, contingent and fluid. It is also dependent on what we contrast as ‘extreme’, which is just as contingent and fluid. What is mainstream or extreme at one point in time does not remain so. Ideas such as racism, sexism and homophobia, once acceptable in the mainstream, can be and were rejected, associated with the past and extreme. Yet, such movements or ideas (and structures or institutions which underpin them) may not disappear, may adapt and change, or a backlash and revival may always occur.
Far-right parties also move both ways. On the one hand, they can become more mainstream by their own choices and actions, usually through a discursive shift towards less overtly racist and authoritarian politics, as well as an expansion of their programmes away from anti-immigration as a single issue. They can also be disentangled from the mainstream and rendered ‘extreme’ as the mainstream changes. On the other hand, their position can also be influenced by the actions (or inaction) of other parties and political actors (including the media). Providing a media platform or engaging in ideological, political or discursive alliances and cooperation has played a major role in mainstreaming far right parties.
The mainstream is not essentially good. The mainstream can move both ways, depending on circumstances. Mainstream parties can move towards more progressive politics, as much as they can move towards reaction when under real or perceived pressure from far-right parties or public opinion for example.
Progress is not unidirectional or inevitable. A common narrative sees history and society moving forward in a constant, unidirectional trajectory towards more freedom (in a liberal/capitalist sense) and equality of opportunity (based on systemic inequalities which remain unaddressed), overcoming injustices such as colonialism and slavery. However, this narrative fails to address the continuity of racism, sexism and homophobia, or the possibility of a backlash by reactionary forces. The most notable case is that of the ‘post-racial’ where racism, supposedly overcome, has been predicated on individual achievements by persons of colour, representing racism in terms of the bad old days of Nazism. This has served to legitimise what we term ‘liberal racism’ and Islamophobia in particular, that is, attacks on Islam and Muslims in the name of liberal values as opposed to race. This can be seen most recently with Boris Johnson’s attack on the burqa or in the banning of religious symbols across Europe targeted directly at Islam in an unmistakably racist manner.
Party politics and discourse can move together but they do not have to, or not at the same time. Parties can move left or right faster or slower than public discourse does, putting them at odds with the political discussion and thus alienating or marginalising them. Various levels of discourse must also be accounted for. Does elite discourse (media, academics and experts and politicians) reflect wider public discourse at the local or individual level? If these move separately, then which influences which and how? Are parties following public opinion or leading it? The far-right or its (mis)perception may also pressure or influence the mainstream, based on a skewed account of its support, so much so that the mainstream may appropriates their ideas as they fear a loss of vote. The very idea of an EU referendum in the UK for example was accelerated by the constructed threat of UKIP which sent into panic mode both Labour and the Conservative and in turn fed the hype despite the far-right party gathering at most 7% of the registered vote in all its history.
There is no such thing as public opinion. In recent year, particularly through what has been termed a populist hype, the mainstreaming of racism and the far-right has often been explained and legitimised in terms ‘public opinion’ and attributed to ‘the people’. Did the British ‘people’ want a referendum on the EU or were they told they wanted it? Did all Trump voters voted for a white supremacist leadership or did they simply vote for the party they had always voted for? What happens when non-voters are taken into account? Does public opinion shape politics from scratch or do politicians and the media shape public opinion? These are issues which would require far more space than is given to us here to discuss, but some leads can be explored briefly. As Maxwell McCoombs noted ‘most of the issues and concerns that engage our attention are not amenable to direct personal experience’, building on Walter Lippman’s belief that ‘the world that we have to deal with politically is out of reach, out of sight, out of mind’. This means that our knowledge of the world beyond our very limited direct experience has to be mediated, and, while mediation can come from a number of sources (family, friends, work etc), much of our political knowledge these days is acquired through the media, and the way politics is discussed within it, with certain actors having more powerful voices than others. Of course, this does not mean that the media or politicians will tell you what to think, but simply that they will tell you what to think about. This is key when looking at the contemporary mainstreaming of the far right as much of it has been based on the simplistic idea that tougher measures on immigration for example are ‘what the people want’ or that Islam is not compatible ‘according to majority of (add nationality) people’. The data used to generate public discourse, whether through election results or opinion polls, is often based on selective interpretation, and often give the impression that it is the people as sovereign voice who is driving the mainstreaming process, rather than the elite through their misguided perception or inability to respond to current political crises.
Therefore, key to our approach is a particular focus here on discourse, moving away from electoral politics qua politics, towards a more holistic approach. To implement a comprehensive strategy, it is thus essential to separate electoral and ideological/discursive successes when talking about the mainstreaming of the far right and racism more generally. The fate of a political party or movement in terms of election is irrelevant if their ideas become front and centre.
This is something the far right has managed to turn to its advantage, in part through a radical transformation of its strategy initiated in intellectual circles in the 60s and 70s. Building on and perverting the theories of Antonio Gramsci on hegemony, far right intellectuals in France in particular devised their own way out of their post-war oblivion. They claimed, their revival would be based on the simple hegemonic principle that: cultural power must precede political power. It was therefore not surprising to see Steve Bannon cite these intellectuals as inspiration, or that the Alt-Right directly borrowed from them.
While the far right itself remained at first on the margins, its ideas begun to seep into the mainstream as they perfected their strategy and gained increased impact in the media and on public discourse in the 90s and 2000s. The second half of 2010s seems to have heralded a new stage in this mainstreaming whereby the far right’s ideas have become so normalised that their presence in government is no longer a surprise, and in fact increasingly common, as exemplified by the Austrian and Italian cases.
In this context, while day-to-day, localised anti-racist action remains as essential as ever, we have reached a point where a broader response must be developed on the left. It is essential to aim beyond the far right itself and tackle the appeal to and activation of racism by and within the mainstream, as well as the roots of the continual and pervasive presence of racism in our societies, their structures and institutions, relying on critical and historical approaches.
First published on OpenDemocracy