What is right-wing radicalism?

Anders Ravik Jupskås


  • Right-wing radicalism can be defined as a specific ideology characterized by ‘illiberal opposition to equality’.
  • It is associated with radical nationalism, authoritarianism, populism, and xenophobia.
  • Radical right parties have been increasingly successful in recent decades, not only in Europe but also in some of the largest democracies in the world, including the US, Brazil and India

Key definition

Right-wing radicalism is usually defined as a specific ideology characterized by ‘illiberal opposition to equality’.[1] While the concept occasionally is associated with behavioral characteristics like politically motivated violence, this is more common for ‘right-wing extremism’.[2] The concept usually applies to parties, movements, websites, and individual activists and intellectuals. These actors often emphasize different aspects of radical right politics, including ethno-nationalism, anti-statist populism and religious fundamentalism.[3] Like right-wing extremism, the concept is controversial, partly because very few political parties, groups, or activists use it to describe their own position, and partly because it is associated with attitudes and actions that are highly stigmatized and, in some countries, even illegal.[4]

History of the concept

The concept “radicalism” comes from the Latin word radicalis, which means “of or having roots”, which in turn arose from radix, or “root”. It was traditionally used, and is still used by some scholars, to describe left-wing and, in the 19th century, liberal movements aiming for a fundamental (progressive) change of society, whereas right-wing movements were more commonly seen as reactionary defending existing institutions, norms and values.

The concept of “right-wing radicalism” arises out of research on fascism in the post-war period. Fascism had proven that (some) right-wing movements were aiming for a fundamental change of society. Back then, the concept was used as an umbrella term for parties and movements on the far right of the political spectrum—both those with and without clear ties to interwar expressions of fascism and Nazism.[5] It was particularly popular in the US, where scholars referred to the “radical right” to describe small groups like the John Birch Society.[6] During the 1970s and 1980s, however, “right-wing radicalism” was largely replaced by “right-wing extremism[7], and in the 1990s, the latter became the dominant concept, particularly in continental Europe.

In recent years, scholars often refer to both ‘right-wing radicalism’ and ‘right-wing extremism’ to distinguish between ideologies that are democratic, but illiberal (radicalism), on the one hand, and those that are anti-democratic (extremism), on the other hand.[8] In other words, whereas the extreme right is inherently anti-democratic and, in some cases, legitimizes the use of violence to pursue its political aims, the radical right is opposed to liberal aspects of democracy (like minority rights) and does not promote the use of violence.

Different conceptualizations

There is extensive scholarly consensus that, despite some activists and leaders claiming to be neither right nor left, right-wing radicalism is on the ‘right’ because it defends a hierarchal social relationship between groups, usually between what is considered the “in-group” and the “out-group” in cultural or ethnic terms.[9] Inequality is not necessarily a goal in itself, but reflects that people with right-wing preferences prioritize values like family, tradition and authority.

However, there is more disagreement about the definition of “radicalism”. The first, and arguably most prevalent, understanding – the ideational definition – sees (political) radicalism as being ‘pro-democracy, but anti-liberal democracy’.[10] This means that “radicals” will accept popular sovereignty and majority rule, but oppose specific liberal aspects of contemporary democracies, such as are minority rights, checks and balances and/or rule of law.

Others argue that radicalism is a relative concept in which radicals are those that engage in unconventional action (like vandalism or violence), believe in fundamental change of society and operate outside of established institutions.[11] Based on this (rather strict) definition, groups like Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movement are not considered “radical” because they use normal political tactics (Occupy Wall Street) or do not seek fundamental change (Tea Party Movement).

Moving beyond minimal definitions, right-wing radicalism is often associated with radical nationalism, authoritarianism, populism, and xenophobia. This is particularly the case in contemporary Europe where most far right parties subscribe to the ideological combination of populism, radical nationalism and authoritarianism. In short, these parties presents themselves as the representatives of “the good people” against “the corrupt elite” demanding less immigration, particularly from so-called “Muslim countries”, and more emphasis on “law and order”.

Prevalence of right-wing radicalism

Organized forms of right-wing radicalism – understood as illiberal opposition to equality – is on the rise across the globe, including not only European democracies, but also in large democracies like the US, India and Brazil. When looking at EU member state in recent decades, radical right parties increased their electoral support from 1.1 % in the 1980s to 4.4 in the 1990s, 4.7 in the 2000s and 7.5 in 2010s. Very few countries in Western Europe do not have a successful radical right party in parliament. In several countries, such parties have even entered government – either alone as in Hungary and Poland or as part a coalition, usually with other mainstream right parties, like in Italy and Austria.

In India, the radical right Bharatiya Janata Party, characterized by Hindu nationalism, is currently the ruling party gaining almost 40 percent of the votes in the 2019 national election. In the US and Brazil, the rise of Trumpism and Bolsonarism are very much expressions of radical right politics, though many of those who voted for these candidates in the presidential elections do not subscribe to their ideology. Having said that, in many countries, particularly those with multi-party system, radical right attitudes are often more widespread than the support for radical right parties. For example, although radical right parties have very little electoral support in Canada, one survey found that 37 percent of respondents believe immigration is a “threat” to white Canadians. [12] Those who have university educations, at 27 per cent, were least likely to hold such views. There are similar findings from other countries.[13]


[1] Carter, E. (2018). Right-wing extremism/radicalism: reconstructing the concept. Journal of Political Ideologies, 23(2), 157-182; Mudde, C. (2007). Populist radical right parties in Europe. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.

[2] For example, David Snow and Remy Cross (2011) “Radicalism within the context of social movements: processes and types. Journal of Strategic Security, 4(4): 115-130

[3] Minkenberg, M 2013; Kitschelt 1995; Carter 2005

[4] Klandermans, B., & Mayer, N. (Eds.) (2006). Extreme right activists in Europe: Through the magnifying glass. New York, USA: Routledge.

[5] Mudde, C. (1995). Right‐wing extremism analyzed: A comparative analysis of the ideologies of three alleged right‐wing extremist parties (NPD, NDP, CP'86). European Journal of Political Research27(2), 203-224.

[6]Bell, Daniel (ed.) (1955) The Radical Right. Criterion Books.

[7] E.g. Lipset, Seymour Martin (1970) The Politics of Unreason: Right Wing Extremism in America 1790-1970. Univ of Chicago Press.

[8] Mudde (2007), 24-25; see also Bötticher, A. (2016). Towards academic consensus definitions of radicalism and extremism. Perspectives on Terrorism, 11(4), 73-77.

[9] Bobbio, N. (1996). Left and right: The significance of a political distinction. Chicago, USA: University of Chicago Press.

[10] Muude, C. (ed.) Political Extremism,

[11] E.g., Beck, Colin J. (2016) Radicals, Revolutionaries, and Terrorists. Cambridge: Polity.

[12] https://globalnews.ca/news/5288135/immigration-threat-canadians-poll/

[13] See for example Stenner, Karen (2005) The Authoritarian Dynamic. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press.


By Anders Ravik Jupskås
Published Sep. 7, 2020 11:04 AM - Last modified Nov. 7, 2020 12:41 PM