Can Europe Make It?

Reflections on the ‘open letter’ debate: a middle way to approaching the radical right?

How should we study, present, and represent the radical right? Some from among the hitherto quiet observers speak up, in the interests of a broader conversation.

Julian Göpffarth Marta Lorimer
8 November 2018


Screenshot: Twitter.

A few weeks ago, part of the academic community on Twitter got into a heated discussion on the normalisation of radical right discourse. It all started when two much-followed academics announced that they would be taking part in the controversial debate entitled ‘Is Rising Ethnic Diversity a Threat to the West?’ The title of the event provoked a rebuke from numerous scholars, leading the organisers to change the title to the less inflammatory ‘Immigration and Diversity Politics: A Challenge to Liberal Democracy?’ It also led to the publication of an open letter outlining what the signatories held was wrong with the initial title, and opposing the tendency to mainstream radical right ideas by selling them as ‘open debate’. Amongst the most interesting features of this Twitter exchange has been the conversation that it has sparkedon how researchers, journalists, or political observers, should engage with radical right politicians, themes, and movements.

The debate

This ongoing debate has revealed a polarisation in scholarship that reflects a more general division over how to address the radical right in Europe and beyond. Broadly speaking, we can identify two stylised ‘camps’ in the online debate: the ‘sympathetic listeners’ to radical right concerns and on the other hand, the ‘radical right sceptics’ (for lack of a better term).

The ‘sympathetic listeners’ to radical right concerns arguably represent a minority position in a field which was, at least initially, largely inhabited by researchers concerned with the rise of new forms of fascism. Those on this side of the debate start from the claim that radical right parties are a relevant factor in modern societies and that, as scholars, we should engage with the ‘legitimate concerns’ of their voters.

On one hand, they highlight the importance of culture, an increasing uneasiness with immigration, fears of demographic change and the feeling, experienced by some, of becoming ‘strangers in their own country’. On the other hand, they evince scepticism about identity politics and the globalist-liberal elite. Many in this camp hold that the debate on these issues has been stifled by a prevalently left-wing academia and a politically correct elite that wants to avoid discussing these views because they clash with their vision for society. These issues, they argue, should be discussed. For, if democracy is to represent people, then all concerns should be heard, not only those of the ‘comfortable’ ones.

The other camp in this debate is that of ‘radical right sceptics’, or what the sympathetic listeners probably refer to when they talk about ‘liberal academia’. While many agree with the importance of studying the radical right (in many cases they have dedicated a large part of their career to doing so), they express some concerns about the sympathetic listeners’ strategy. In particular, they worry that presenting radical right ideas as ‘legitimate concerns’ and ‘contributions to the marketplace of ideas’ ends up doing two things. It legitimises far right discourse by providing it with a clout it does not have, while largely overplaying the relevance of these ideas in the public space.

Among the sceptics, there is a subcategory of more activist scholars, who will claim that as academics, we should actively counter radical right narratives through our work. The academic, in this view, should reveal the radical right for what it really represents: threats to the values of (liberal) democracy.

One argument that emerged in this camp was that, instead of emphasizing the rise of the radical right, one should rather speak of it as an “unpopular minority” and avoid any unnecessary reporting on or giving platform to radical right claims and strategies. But of course, this may lead to doing the opposite of what the sympathetic listeners do – underplaying the relevance of the radical right in modern European societies.

A third way?

Within this wider debate, there has been a broad group of quiet observers, who did not feel particularly represented by either approach. As qualitative researchers whose work focuses on radical right ideology, we felt this unease rather strongly, because it reflects the tensions that we face on a daily basis when we read, analyse, and write about the radical right.

We have found both arguments flawed. While agreeing with the sceptics’ camp on the importance of not getting too sucked into our object of analysis, we also feel that downplaying these parties and their voters may lead to further polarisation and ignore the extent to which many of the positions they hold are widespread. Equally, it excludes the perspective of those who have to face the consequences of the spread of radical right ideas.

The ‘sympathetic listeners’ approach, on the other side, we found problematic for the same reasons raised by ‘sceptics’. It all too uncritically buys into well-established radical right narratives of a ‘Muslim invasion’ or a ‘detached globalist elite’, and advances this as merely an unconventional view. Furthermore, it appears to privilege the ‘legitimate concerns’ of some, while completely ignoring the fact that others have ‘legitimate concerns’ about radical right politics – and this is not a small group of people. Where the ‘sceptic’ camp underestimates the ideological thrust of the radical right, by contrast, the ‘sympathetic listeners’ endow it with scientific legitimacy.

How then, do we as academics try to chart the course between these two exclusive approaches? As Early Career Researchers, we consider this question closely as we seek to balance our roles as researchers within a field and as researchers on the ground. Finding our voice as scholars can conflict with the need to gain access to our objects of study. Below, we outline how we have dealt with these questions in the hope to contribute to a broader conversation on how to study, present, and represent the radical right.

Our (tentative) approach

– Acknowledge bias: The starting point for us is to acknowledge that as academics, we cannot be completely neutral. There is a misleading myth that exists in scholarship, and that has formed part of the basis for the ‘sympathetic listeners’ claim to seek ‘Truth’, which is simply not true. Academics are people. Not only are they people, and often people with a high interest in politics. We have ideas about how politics work, how they should work, we participate in elections, some of us are party members. We come to the field with views that are likely influenced by who we are.

Our object of study is therefore likely to be influenced by this. Yet it need not mean that we cannot be somewhat dispassionate or listen to the objects of our study, though it does require that we acknowledge our potential biases.

– Seek to understand the radical right on its own terms (but don’t believe all of it): The second point is that, within these confines, we should seek to be as neutral as possible. When we analyse the discourse of the radical right, we try to see their internal logic, understand how the world makes sense to them through their eyes, rather than through ours.

In our own work, we have done this by using their terms of reference rather than ours, for example, defining certain radical right ideologues as ‘intellectuals’ or highlighting the value of ‘liberty’ to radical right parties. We have focused on their ideology, trying to understand how it fits within a broader history of ideas, and how it compares to mainstream discourse.

We have always, however, been aware of the fact that this is their truth, not ‘the Truth’. It is an ideology that we are dealing with, a way of seeing the world making sense for some but not for others. In this sense, while we do try to understand them on their own terms, we do not buy into their narratives. Representation is not endorsement, and in ignoring radical right views we will have trouble gaining insight about them. Whether what they say is good or bad in our view is best left to the conclusions of the study.

– Make a sober argument: Finally, studying contemporary political phenomena in times of polarisation can lead to both underplaying and overplaying. We know that there are other important phenomena out there worth studying and which may have long-term impact, but we still think that radical right parties are important to understand. They have been growing for many years now, representing a familiar feature transnationally.

At the same time, we should not overstate their relevance. Their growth is not linear, however, and they have not been successful everywhere. There are other political phenomena of interest, such as Green parties or ‘left-wing populist parties’. This does not make them unimportant, but holds that they are not all-important. Their achievements are in many ways impressive in themselves: there is no need to over-claim.

We hope that this tentative approach shows that even if we disagree with some of the positions put forward by either side of the debate, we believe that it is an important conversation to have. This debate resonated with so many outside academia not only because it is on the popular subject of the radical right, but also because it touches on the essence of fair and open political debate in times of polarisation. We hope that by offering a middle way between both poles, our approach outlines another meaningful path for future scholarship on the radical right.

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