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Political Science in Europe

Strategic Tolerance from the Radical Right

European Politics
National Identity
Political Parties
Mixed Methods
Voting Behaviour
Jennifer Simons
University of Virginia
Jennifer Simons
University of Virginia

This paper investigates the political and societal consequences of changes and variations in the strategies and electoral outcomes of populist Radical Right parties. Theoretically, and across much of public discourse, populist Radical Right parties are characterized as largely uniform in message, electoral composition, and policy platform. These accounts, however, fail to recognize the agency of these parties to innovate and re-constitute themselves in the public imagination. While these parties have continuously championed a resurgence of national identity and traditional values, what these values actually are has changed considerably. I argue that these parties have found increased societal legitimacy and electoral fortunes when they paradoxically have promoted a more inclusive type of “traditional” values. Instead of relying on a white, straight, Christian male voting base, parties like the National Front (FN) in France and the Alternative for Germany (AfD) have begun to champion themselves as the true protectors of women and certain minority groups (namely, Jews and the LGBT community) in their respective countries, in opposition to a perceived larger threat: Islam. By incorporating these groups into the conceptualization of traditional national values (the deployment of what I call “strategic tolerance”), Radical Right parties have sought to distance themselves from their anti-Semitic, homophobic, racist, and misogynist popular image. Drawing on both interviews with elites, activists, and voters across Germany and France as well as a survey experiment testing the causal mechanism, this paper highlights the successes of the FN’s dédiabolisation campaign and the AfD’s ability to distance itself from the historically unsuccessful Republicans (REP), National Democratic Party (NPD), and German People’s Union (DVU). This paper therefore complicates our understanding of the Radical Right in Europe today – has “strategic tolerance” made these parties less radical or are they just a tool to integrate older extreme ideologies into a contemporary political mainstream?
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