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The Intolerance Trap: Popular Backlash to Violence against Far-Right Activists

Extremism
Political Violence
Survey Experiments
Activism
Lars Erik Berntzen
Universitetet i Bergen
Lars Erik Berntzen
Universitetet i Bergen
Jacob Ravndal
The Norwegian Police University College

Abstract

The far right is perceived by many as the ultimate manifestation of intolerance and a fundamental threat to liberal democracies. Tolerance of far-right actors and attitudes is therefore limited in most liberal democracies. Some opponents even believe violence against the far right is justifiable and necessary. But how does such violent mobilization against the far right affect other people’s view of the far right? Using panel data to measure citizens’ tolerance for far-right activism, we find that while tolerance decreases as far right militancy grows, it increases when counterdemonstrators use violence against the far right. Those mobilizing violently against the far right therefore fall into an intolerance trap whereby their actions have the unintended and opposite effect of strengthening the far-right’s position in the public eye rather than weakening it. This intolerance trap is identified using a novel experiment fielded in the Norwegian Citizen Panel in September 2020 (N = 2 542). Exposure to images of violent mobilization against a far-right group in Norway led to a statistically strong and substantively moderate shift in favor of allowing this group to rent a meeting venue. This finding points to potential pitfalls of using transgressive tactics to combat the far right. By resorting to violence, those wishing to stop the far-right risk fanning the flames rather than extinguishing the fire.