Intimate Rivals or Enemies of the Nation: Radical Right Movements and Transformative Populism

Hadas Aron

Intimate Rivals or Enemies of the Nation: Radical Right Movements and Transformative Populism
Aron, Hadas
Thesis Advisor(s):
Snyder, Jack Lewis
Ph.D., Columbia University
Political Science
Persistent URL:
Perhaps the most notable political phenomenon of the past decade has been the rise of global populism. Different political systems around the world have experienced the rise of anti-establishment politics, often accompanied by calls for protectionist economic policies, and exclusionary practices. Scholars struggle to define this phenomenon as it takes on different forms in different places. This research examines why some places experience a surge of radical right populism in the margins of the political system, and a populist turn at the center of the political system. In such places, the rhetoric and agenda of right wing radical movements penetrate the mainstream and ultimately transform political institutions. The dissertation explores the dynamics of the relationship between the radical right and mainstream political actors. I address several key questions. What makes some countries more susceptible to transformative populism? Why do mainstream actors in some countries condone or adopt the agenda and rhetoric of radical groups? Which rhetoric frames are more effective than others for radical groups? I argue that the behavior of central political actors is constrained by acceptable narratives in society. When radical groups compose a narrative that presents them as the true representatives of the nation, it makes it more difficult for states to take direct action against them. This is true even when radical groups employ violent rhetoric and action, disrupt public order, and undermine social cohesion and solidarity. To do so, they appropriate national symbols and myths and reframe them in a manner that places the group as the true successors of national forefathers, and their radical actions and ideologies as expressions of the national will. In an environment of deeply disputed national identity, the claim over national history and symbols can delegitimize and undermine political actors with a rivaling view of the nation. To understand the nature of the relationship between radical groups and the political center, and the disruptive political outcomes of populism we are witnessing in certain places today, I argue we need to view the populist struggle as a struggle over the nation itself between political centers and peripheries. To that end I define the nation as the effort to create a solidarity group through shared ethnicity, history, culture, language, territory, or civic identity. To evaluate the theory, I conduct cross case comparison in Central Eastern Europe, and within case process tracing in three different cases: present day radical populists in Hungary, 1970-1980s Jewish religious settlers in the West Bank, and the Ku Klux Klan in 1920s United States. The purpose of the comparison is to explore different ways societies addressed uneven and contradictory national identity in the 1989 transition from communism, and the consequences for the rise of disruptive radical populism. The individual cases serve to evaluate possible mechanisms leading to radical right capture of mainstream politics. The uneven spread of contradictory national identity is explored in depth in Chapter Two. Through the cases of four Central European states I show that the process of transition presented different options for countries to either reproduce long standing center-periphery cleavages, or address them. Chapter Three delves into the Hungarian case and evaluates explanations for the shift of the mainstream toward radical populism, and the leniency of politicians toward extremist violence. Continuing to explore rhetorical mechanisms of radical actors, Chapter Four examines the language of Jewish settlers in the 1970s and 1980s through the analysis of unique primary resources. The case of the 1920s Ku Klux Klan explored in Chapter Five demonstrates that though initially successful, the group was ultimately unsuccessful outside the Deep South. Chapter Six discusses the research findings and their implications. I find that center-periphery cleavages that do not overlap with ethnicity have their own set of outcomes. While nationalist emergence in ethnically divided center-periphery societies is turned outside – toward the other ethno-national group, the national fervor in ethnically homogenous but center-periphery divided societies is turned inwards – from the periphery toward the center. This is manifested in the rise of anti-establishment anti-elitist discourse that presents the elite establishment as foreign, and legitimizes an overturn of liberal institutions. Another key finding is that where mainstream political actors did not address center-periphery cleavages, the rhetorical space was open for the radical right to use an extreme version of them to justify exclusionary and violent actions.
Political science
International relations
Right-wing extremists
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Suggested Citation:
Hadas Aron, , Intimate Rivals or Enemies of the Nation: Radical Right Movements and Transformative Populism, Columbia University Academic Commons, .

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