The Rise of the Radical Right: Reflections on the Role of Academics in Tracking Emerging Developments

In recent years radical right actors – which encompasses nativist, authoritarian and populist political movements; both in the global north and parts of the south – are never too far from the headlines. Whether it is the atrocities that took place in Christchurch in March or the hype surrounding Matteo Salvini’s recently announced grouping in the forthcoming European Parliamentary elections, we are living in an unprecedented moment; one defined by phenomenal uncertainty and chaos where the edifice of the old liberal order is starting to crack and a new illiberal one is appearing on the horizon. Such is the complexity and the seriousness of these shifts that perhaps now more than at any other time experts are needed to weigh in on – and make sense of – these ‘shifting sands’.

At the Centre that I and my colleague Professor Matthew Feldman co-direct, we believe that this pressing issue requires academics to engage in serious public analysis. Launched over a year ago, the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR) was set up to be the leading information disseminator and knowledge repository on the radical right, past and present. Above all, the aim of the Centre was to shape public discussion on the development of radical right extremism in a more informed direction – equipping journalists and citizens with the tools they need in order to engage with an often baffling and concerning trend in global politics.

Added to this, we have also tried to foster new and diverse perspectives on the study of the radical right beyond those traditionally adopted in western academia. For example, the focus of the Centre has not just been on the radical right in the global north (where it has traditionally resided) but also in the global south where new illiberal and authoritarian populist actors are also thriving and increasingly acting like their European counterparts. Key examples of this include Rodrigo Duterte in the Philippines, Jair Balsanaro in Brazil and Narendra Modi in India who all use religious and racial identity politics in order to further their political aims.

In order to do this practically, CARR features daily blogs by academic experts on the radical right in Europe, the US, Asia and South America. Our fellows contribute to these blogs monthly (with Early Career Researchers contributing quarterly), as well as adding bibliographic content to our world-leading compendium of research texts, contributing video blogs and podcasts to facilitate accessible and engaging forms of content; and above all, to make themselves available to engage in media commentary, stakeholder consultation and policy formulation. This is all done in order to move the debate of this issue forwards. Throughout, CARR’s emphasis has been placed upon the public dissemination of specialist insights and research on this resurgent phenomenon – facilitating academic engagement beyond learned communities and the lecture theatre and into untapped, new arenas and spaces.

Such outward-facing scholarly engagement is not without its challenges, however. For example, there are well-trod debates about the perils of activist academicians and the pitfalls of providing so-called ‘hot takes’ on developing and often complex issues. Added to this, and in relation specifically to the radical right, there are controversies over whether through highlighting such an issue that scholars provide more oxygen for such fringe groups – boosting both their visibility and legitimacy in the eyes of the public.

In response to such claims CARR can see these straw man arguments to be false. Firstly, our fellows have years of experience conducting analysis of these issues. Indeed, Professors Hans-Georg Betz, Leonard Weinberg, Terri E. Givens and Cas Mudde, as well as many others, have studied this phenomenon long before it was fashionable to do so. This rich level of expertise and experience begets measured judgments often missing in journalistic accounts of the radical right to date.

Secondly, and on the issue of oxygen, of course there is a risk involved in solely focusing on one form of extremism as opposed to others. However, the oxygen of publicity argument is premised on the notion that the radical right receives overtly flattering coverage, which of course is not the aim of the Centre. Instead, we aim to demystify the issue of radical right extremism by critically engaging with existing media narratives and perceptions around such movements as a way of de-glamorising and better contextualising such trends.

Over the past year, one particular example of this has been the Centre’s coverage of the former EDL leader, Tommy Robinson. Through several op-ed style pieces, our fellows have carefully scrutinised the modus operandi, travails and misfortunes of someone who has become a rallying figure for the UK far right after his imprisonment for contempt of court charges last June. They’ve also shone a light on the social media reach and effects of banning such a prominent figure on platforms such as Twitter and Facebook – with fellows warning of the potential pitfalls of censuring such activists in the online space. 

To conclude, then, engaging in ‘impact work’ is often fraught with ethical dilemmas and conundrums – even more so when dealing with the sensitive and controversial subject material of radical right extremism. Approached in a critical and open way, however, what the CARR experience has showed is that the merits of doing impact outweigh the demerits – helping scholars engage in new avenues of research and ways of thinking that help enrich rather than compromise their scientific endeavours. In engaging in impact, therefore, we both transform our own minds as well as the minds of others – one of the ultimate quests in academic inquiry and lifelong learning in general.

Article Details

Dr William Allchorn,
Associate Director at the Centre for the Analysis of the Radical Right and Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Leeds,

Date Published:

June 13th, 2019


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