The far right is gaining power in many liberal democracies. Far-right actors threaten democracy by spreading their nativist, exclusionary and authoritarian ideas through various means (Mudde 2019). They are protesting on the streets, mobilising support on social media, getting elected to parliaments and participating in governments. In Europe, far-right parties have increased their share of the vote in recent years and are currently in government in Italy, Hungary, Finland and Switzerland (Rooduijn et al. 2023). But how can we explain the entrenchment of the far right?
I argue that to fully understand the entrenchment of the far right in democracies, we need to look beyond electoral politics and consider the mainstreaming of the far right in public debates, which I call discursive mainstreaming. I define discursive mainstreaming as an incremental process by which far-right ideas gain visibility, resonance and legitimacy in the public sphere. The sum of seemingly “harmless” statements shifts the boundaries of what is considered normal and legitimate in public debates and leads to the diffusion of far-right ideas. Public debates are crucial for the mainstreaming of far-right ideas because far-right actors depend on the oxygen of publicity. Public debates can be seen as a signal for developments that will be politically manifested in the next step. They are crucial because they shape the way citizens think about politics. Without public visibility, far-right actors remain on the fringes, unable to reach the wider public and mobilise support.
In my dissertation, I identify three key drivers of discursive mainstreaming that increase the visibility, resonance and legitimacy of far-right actors and ideas: (1) structural opportunities in debates on cultural issues, (2) critical events as windows of opportunity and (3) public attitudes as a breeding ground for mainstreaming.
Structural opportunities in debates on cultural issues
The first driver of far-right mainstreaming is issue-specific discursive opportunity structures. According to Ferree et al. (2002), discursive opportunity structures refer to pre-existing values and visions around issues in a country’s political culture. These structures determine how much attention and resonance far-right actors and ideas receive. The emergence of discursive opportunities for the far right depend on various factors, such as the political culture of a country or the extent to which mainstream parties and the mass media exclude far-right actors and ideas from public debates and maintain the cordon sanitaire.
The cordon sanitaire is a refusal to cooperate with political actors who do not adhere to the norms of democracy. It is seen as a guarantee that anti-democratic actors will not be accepted into political coalitions. My dissertation shows that the cordon sanitaire is important not only in political processes but also in public debates. The dissolution of the cordon sanitaire around far-right actors and ideas in public debates contributes to the mainstreaming of the far right. When far-right ideas are part of everyday debates, this leads to the growing acceptance of far-right ideas in society. Importantly, mainstreaming is a process that can unfold in two ways. First, far-right mainstreaming develops when far-right actors successfully mobilise around their issues and demands and gain electoral support. Second, mainstream actors, including democratic political parties, journalists and civil society organisations, can contribute to far-right mainstreaming by forming political and discourse alliances with far-right actors and increasing the visibility, resonance and legitimacy of far-right demands.
I argue that even if far-right actors perceive mainstream actors, such as the mass media and mainstream parties, as opponents and part of the elite and “corrupt system” (Figenschou and Ihlebæk 2019; Levitsky and Ziblatt 2019), they still benefit from mainstream actors’ communication. Mass media journalists and mainstream parties may oppose far-right actors, but they often refer to far-right ideas and increase the visibility of far-right actors. In this sense, negative attention is better than no attention.
For example, Akkerman, de Lange and Rooduijn (2016) and Walgrave, Lefevere and Tresch (2012) have shown that far-right actors successfully mobilise support as issue owners in cultural debates on migration, nationalism and Islam. Such cultural debates are linked to questions of identity, belonging and the definition of ingroups and outgroups. When far-right actors become issue owners, they become the central actors that the public associates with these issues. If mainstream parties try to attract voters with anti-immigration positions, they increase the visibility of issues owned by the far right (Bräuninger et al. 2021). Thereby, they legitimise far-right actors and their demands (Abou-Chadi, Cohen and Wagner’s 2022).
My research demonstrates that the far right in Germany has benefited from the opening up of issue-specific discursive opportunities for far-right actors and ideas over the past 30 years. I study the far right from a broad perspective, considering the blurred boundaries between radical and extreme right parties, social movements, cultural groups and terrorist organisations. In a study I conducted with Daniel Saldivia Gonzatti, we examined long-term trends in public debates. The automated text analysis of more than 500,000 newspaper articles since the 1990s shows that the public visibility of the far right particularly increased through the policy-specific issues of migration and security and in the context of the so-called “refugee crisis” and terrorist attacks in 2015/16. Moreover, far-right actors and issues have influenced the communication of mainstream parties, particularly in debates on Islamism, international politics and migration. This opening up of discursive opportunity structures has contributed to the mainstreaming of the far right and has intensified in the context of critical events.
Critical events as windows of opportunity
The second driver of mainstreaming of the far right that I have identified is critical events that provide windows of opportunity for far-right actors to shape public debates and intensify discursive mainstreaming. Della Porta et al. (2020) refer to such critical events as discursive critical junctures or focal moments in which public controversies and polarisation intensify and the content and dynamics of public debates are transformed.
The literature in this research strand shows that events, such as the “refugee crisis” or the Islamist terrorist attacks in Europe in 2015/16, draw public attention to contentious issues such as Islam, nationalism and migration. Such critical events can provide opportunities for far-right actors to mobilise as issue entrepreneurs (e.g., Della Porta et al. 2020; De Vries & Hobolt 2020; Hutter and Kriesi 2021).
My recent paper adds to this research by showing that terrorist attacks in Germany have played a central role in the mainstreaming of the far right (Völker 2023). I have compared the effect of Islamist and extreme right terrorist attacks on public debates in Germany. Islamist and extreme right-wing attacks are the least and most likely cases for far-right mainstreaming. Islamist attacks can be seen as the most likely case for far-right mainstreaming because they provide far-right actors with opportunities to blame their outgroups, such as Muslims or immigrants, for the attacks. In contrast, extreme right terrorist attacks can be seen as a less likely case for far-right mainstreaming as extreme violence tends to reduce public legitimacy and support for far-right actors and their goals more broadly.
The empirical study is based on an original, large-scale content analysis of mass media debates on all seven deadly attacks in Germany since 2015 (N = 9,047), including the most recent extreme right terrorist attack in Hanau and the Islamist terrorist attack in Dresden in 2020. Methodologically, I combine relational quantitative content analysis with frame and network analyses. Interestingly, the results of this study demonstrate that both Islamist and extreme right terrorist attacks have created favourable conditions for the far right and have opened up windows of opportunity for the far right to shape public debates and normalise far-right ideas (Völker 2023). Notably, it indicates that terrorist attacks have reinforced rather than changed existing patterns and actor alliances in public debates. Far-right actors have succeeded in gaining visibility and linking the attacks to cultural and identity issues. The far-right Alternative für Deutschland (AfD) party has been particularly successful, being the most visible party in public debates based on its share of statements in newspaper articles, regardless of the ideological motive behind the attack. In contrast, victims of attacks and members of ethnic or religious minorities have had little voice in public debates. Mainstream parties have played a central role in public interpretations of these attacks and in the diffusion of far-right ideas. Instead of referring to victims and improving their discursive opportunities, most politicians from mainstream parties have discussed the issues and demands of far-right actors. For example, mainstream parties linked Islamist attacks to the issues of security, religion and migration, which played into the hands of far-right actors as issue owners.
The mainstreaming of the far right in the context of terrorist attacks was particularly linked to the diffusion of far-right frames about the causes and consequences of security threats. Extreme right terrorist attacks were framed as acts of isolated individuals or “lone wolves” and public debates focused on the driving forces behind individual radicalisation such as mental illness. In contrast, Islamist attacks were framed as a collective threat associated with broader groups, such as Muslims or immigrants. This difference was also evident in the policy solution proposed in public debates: right-wing extremism was mostly framed as a national threat, while Islamist extremism was framed as an imported security threat caused by migration. Yet, to fully understand the mainstreaming of the far right, we need to understand how such distorted debates and far-right frames are reflected in public opinion.
Public attitudes as a breeding ground
The third driver of far-right mainstreaming I have identified in my research is public opinion and the resonance of far-right ideas with the wider public. Public opinion research shows that there is a growing acceptance of far-right ideas and deep-rooted individual prejudices in many Western societies (e.g., Blinder, Ford and Ivarsflaten 2013; Zick, Küpper and Mokros 2023). Such prejudices provide a breeding ground for far-right mainstreaming. Previous research shows that citizens in Western democracies believe in negative stereotypes about marginalised groups such as immigrants, Muslims and other ethnic and religious minorities. For example, cultural grievances, such as concerns about immigration, are an important reason for supporting the far right (e.g., Castelli Gattinara, Froio and Pirro 2022).
I have conducted a survey experiment based on a between-subjects design, embedded in a representative survey on political attitudes fielded in Germany in 2023 (see OSF pregistration Völker 2023). I have used priming manipulation based on newspaper reports about Islamist and right-wing terrorism. The results show that extreme right attacks are more likely to be perceived as “lone wolf” incidents. In contrast, Islamist attacks are more likely to be perceived as a collective threat associated with the broader group of Muslims and lead to a greater willingness to support restrictive state countermeasures. Such prejudices and the stigmatisation of perceived outgroups provide an ideal breeding ground for the mainstreaming of far-right ideas in public debates.
At the same time, public debates can contribute to such prejudices and to the formation of far-right attitudes. Public debates tend to perpetuate stereotypes and reinforce negative attitudes towards ethnic and religious minorities (e.g., Boomgaarden and Vliegenthart 2009; Solheim 2021). For example, distorted media coverage of political violence, particularly Islamist terrorism since 9/11, has reinforced existing fears and hostile perceptions of Muslims (Ruigrok and van Atteveldt 2007; Von Sikorski et al. 2020). Mainstreaming is therefore an interdependent process between public debates and individual attitudes.
Taking stock and moving forward
Overall, my research indicates that if we want to understand the entrenchment of the far right, we need to consider discursive mainstreaming and the incremental diffusion of far-right ideas to the wider public. Discursive mainstreaming develops through the circulation of far-right ideas in three steps. In the first step, far-right actors and ideas rely on public visibility to attract public attention. The second step is resonance. Other actors reinforce far-right mainstreaming when they respond to far-right issues and demands and when far-right ideas resonate with the wider public. In the third step, far-right actors and ideas gain public legitimacy. Public legitimacy refers to the extent to which actors and issues resonate positively and gain support in the public sphere.
In line with previous research (e.g., De Jonge 2021b; Brown, Mondon and Winter 2023), my research suggests that discourse alliances have contributed to the mainstreaming of the far right and, above all, have increased the visibility, resonance and legitimacy of far-right actors vis-a-vis mainstream parties.
The findings show that mainstream parties have raised the issues of the far right and brought them from the fringes into the mainstream debate. Instead of drawing attention to far-right actors and issues, mainstream parties could use their public visibility to highlight the issues and ideas they represent and offer political alternatives. They could employ deliberative communication based on rationality, diversity, respect and inclusion, to halt the trend towards far-right mainstreaming.
Political responses to terrorist attacks are especially crucial for far-right mainstreaming – they can either promote or counteract distorted perceptions and the stigmatisation of outgroups. Mainstream parties need to reflect on these distorted threat perceptions when developing their communication strategies and policy approaches to preventing radicalisation and extremism in Western democracies. The stigmatisation of certain groups, such as Muslims and immigrants, can lead to disproportionate policy responses, such as repressive policies or failed counter-terrorism efforts, and thus challenge the legitimacy of the government.
Taken together, the empirical findings of my dissertation show that the consistent implementation of a discursive cordon sanitaire by both the mass media and mainstream parties is important in preventing the mainstreaming of the far right. This highlights a central lesson of my research: those who adopt the interpretive frames and issues of the far right promote the dissemination of far-right content and provide a platform for far-right ideas.
Note: This article reflects the views of the author and not the position of the DPIR or the University of Oxford.