Investigating the reluctant radical

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Young, male and unemployed: our representation of the typical supporter of European right-wing populist parties is filled with stereotypes. Who does actually cast a radical vote?

Marley Morris
11 October 2012
A supporter of the French Front National. Demotix/Hugo Passarello Luna. All rights reserved.

A supporter of the French Front National. Demotix/Hugo Passarello Luna. All rights reserved.

Part of the appeal of right-wing populist parties is their unwavering claim to represent ‘the people’ – the ordinary citizen as opposed to the detached, professional liberal elite. This means that finding out who their voters are is especially important, since these are the people who right-wing populist parties claim to represent.

Yet when it comes to these voters, we are drowning in stereotypes. Many commentators assume that they are predominantly young, male and unemployed. Niall Ferguson’s latest Newsweek column is a case in point: writing on right-wing populist parties such as the Front National in France, the True Finns in France and the PVV in the Netherlands, he seeks solace in Europe’s aging population because 'Fascism is for young men'. (Clearly, 'fascism' is the wrong word here.) The growth of the English Defence League in England has again reinforced the 'unemployed young men' image. But this is only one part of the picture—and not necessarily the part that mainstream policy makers should be focusing on if they want to draw electoral support away from right-wing populist parties.

Focusing on the reluctant radicals

When drilling down to elements of the populist right’s core support (their Facebook fans or those activists that turn to violence), there could well be some truth to the stereotype. But what if one looks at the wider group that these parties have had to court to expand their electoral base? Does the 'unemployed young men' stereotype apply here?

In Counterpoint’s new report, we focus on the ‘reluctant radicals’. These are the right-wing populist voters who are not the core (i.e. the most committed) supporters. The reluctant radicals do not have a strong allegiance to the parties they vote for. These voters generally constitute at least half of the populist right’s support. They are therefore what transform these parties from fringe movements into political forces that have an impact on the institutional landscape.

More diverse than expected

These voters, we find, using data from the European Social Survey as well as from national election studies, are not consistently or overwhelmingly young unemployed men. In fact, they are surprisingly diverse. Men are in general not particularly over-represented among the reluctant radicals: analysing data collected by the CEVIPOF (Centre de recherches politiques de Sciences Po Paris) from the 2012 French Presidential elections, we find that 53 per cent of reluctant radicals are men – hardly an overwhelming gender gap. We find similarly small gaps in other countries.

We find little evidence that reluctant radicals consistently tend to be young. Using the European Social Survey, we find that, in Denmark, older people are more likely than others to be reluctant radicals, when we control for other socio-demographic factors including gender, education and occupation. Using data from the Finnish National Election Study, the Finnish reluctant radicals appear to be disproportionately middle-aged. Finally, even when we do observe a relationship between being a reluctant radical and being out of work (which is by no means always), it is still the case that the vast majority of reluctant radicals are not unemployed.

Other academic research has supported this appreciation of the diversity of the right-wing populist electorate. In particular, researchers have noted the decreasing gender gap, thanks to successful right-wing politicians such as Marine Le Pen and Geert Wilders, who have arguably shaken off some of the more extreme – perhaps to some degree covertly macho – qualities of such parties’ programmes and rhetoric.

What is required at this point is to lay aside the hysterical stereotyping of hordes of young, unemployed men, and look more closely at what is a relatively diverse group, both across countries and within countries, held together less by a strict social profile than by particular attitudes and emotions – including antipathy towards immigration but also feelings of nostalgia, alienation or disconnectedness – depending on the country and the party the reluctant radicals are tied to. 

An educational divide

One  consistent element that is thrown up by our research is the correlation between education and reluctant radicalism – reluctant radicals do tend to be less well educated than average. In the Netherlands, for instance, reluctant radicals tend to go on to higher education less often than average, while in France the reluctant radicals are less likely to have obtained a baccalaureate. Class is at times also a factor, with people with blue-collar jobs being more likely to vote reluctantly for the populist right (though indeed 51 per cent of the reluctant radicals in the Netherlands described themselves as middle class).

So if something is to be gleaned from the social profile of reluctant radicals it should be with respect to the education divide between reluctant radicals and others. It would be too generous to the populist right parties to describe them as an authentic representation of the less well educated across Europe. For it is not the case that the reluctant radicals consist entirely of the less well educated, even if a correlation exists. Nor is it the case that less well educated people vote in overwhelming numbers for the populist right – otherwise these parties would be doing a lot better than they are today.

But I would argue that the voting patterns of the reluctant radicals are manifestations of the corrosive and growing inequality in western Europe between the higher and lower educated. One way of addressing the difficulties associated with right-wing populism is to find a means of closing this divide.



ESS round 1: European Social Survey Round 1 Data (2002). Data file edition 6.2. Norwegian Social Science Data Services, Norway – Data Archive and distributor of ESS data.

ESS round 2: European Social Survey Round 2 Data (2004). Data file edition 3.2. Norwegian Social Science Data Services, Norway – Data Archive and distributor of ESS data.

ESS round 3: European Social Survey Round 3 Data (2006). Data file edition 3.3. Norwegian Social Science Data Services, Norway – Data Archive and distributor of ESS data.

ESS round 4: European Social Survey Round 4 Data (2008). Data file edition 4.0. Norwegian Social Science Data Services, Norway – Data Archive and distributor of ESS data.

ESS round 5: European Social Survey Round 5 Data (2010). Data file edition 2.0. Norwegian Social Science Data Services, Norway – Data Archive anddistributor of ESS data.

PEF 2012. The data for the post-electoral research on the presidential election of 2012 was generated by CEVIPOF. The research was carried out by OpinionWay. The data will be held for consultation at the Sciences Po Centre for Socio-Political Data.

Stichting Kiezersonderzoek Nederland – SKON; Centraal Bureau voor de Statistiek – CBS; Henk van der Kolk – Universiteit Twente; Kees Aarts – Universiteit Twente; Jean Tillie – Universiteit van Amsterdam (21 June 2012, 2012-06-21), Nationaal Kiezersonderzoek, 2010 – NKO 2010; Dutch Parliamentary Election Study 2010 – DPES 2010.

Borg, Sami and Grönlund, Kimmo: Finnish National Election Study 2011 [computer file]. FSD2653, version 2.0. Helsinki: Taloustutkimus Oy [data collection], 2011. Election Study Consortium [producer], 2011. Tampere: Finnish Social Science Data Archive [distributor], 2012

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