Abstract. This article presents a new model for explaining the emergence of the party family
of extreme right-wing populist parties in Western Europe. As the old master frame of the
extreme right was rendered impotent by the outcome of the Second World War, it took the
innovation of a new, potent master frame before the extreme right was able to break electoral
marginalization. Such a master frame – combining ethnonationalist xenophobia, based
on the doctrine of ethnopluralism, with anti-political-establishment populism – evolved in
the 1970s, and was made known as a successful frame in connection with the electoral breakthrough
of the French Front National in 1984. This event started a process of cross-national
diffusion, where embryonic extreme right-wing groups and networks elsewhere adopted the
new frame. Hence, the emergence of similar parties, clustered in time (i.e., the birth of a new
party family) had less to do with structural factors influencing different political systems in
similar ways as with cross-national diffusion of frames. The innovation and diffusion of the
new master frame was a necessary, but not a sufficient, condition for the emergence of
extreme right-wing populist parties. In order to complete the model, a short list of different
political opportunity structures is added.


The end of the Second World War marked the beginning of a long period of
marginalization for the extreme right in Western Europe. The outcome of the
war – and not the least the brutish act of genocide of which the general public
became fully aware only after the war – de-legitimized the extreme right and
rendered its old ideological master frame, the basic pattern from which its
appeals for support were delivered, impotent. Neither biologically based
racism, antisemitism nor overt antidemocratic critiques of the prevailing
societal order would attract more than marginal popular support. The main
elements of the old master frame had become highly stigmatized, and so had,
indeed, anything that could be associated with Nazism or fascism. To this we
may add the strong economic developments of Western Europe up to the early
1970s, which kept the level of societal strain to a low level. Finally, the level
of political trust was still high – or, to put it inversely, the level of political discontent
had not yet decreased below a critical point.

As a consequence, with some few isolated and transitory exceptions (e.g.,
MSI in Italy in 1972, Nationaldemokratische Partei Deutschlands (NPD) in
Germany during the late 1960s), the extreme right in Western Europe during
this period was largely insignificant. After the oil crises in the 1970s, Western
European economies became more unstable and plagued with deep economic
downturns and a high level of structural unemployment. Moreover, since the
late 1960s, the level of political trust has decreased rapidly in most Western
countries. However, it took the development of a new, innovative master frame
in the mid-1980s before the extreme right was able to escape marginalization.
Since then, extreme right-wing parties of a new family – which in this article
will be called ‘extreme right-wing populist’ (ERP) parties – have emerged in
most West European countries.1 Today, ERP parties are represented in the
Austrian, Belgian, Danish, Italian, Norwegian and Swiss parliaments, and are
also substantially represented at a local and regional level in France and
Germany (if one excludes here the Dutch List Pim Fortuyn).

These introductory paragraphs indicate three possible ways of explaining
the success and failure of political parties and social movements: through the
development of potent master frames and how they may be rendered impotent
by sociopolitical changes; the presence/absence of societal strain, sometimes
caused by economic hardships and relative deprivation, that may result
in waves of social protest; and through the expansion or contraction of political
opportunities such as the level of trust in established political institutions.

There are strong reasons to believe that the first alternative – development of
potent master frames – might be particularly important in understanding why
the ERP parties emerged when they did, especially if combined with political
opportunities. It is hence somewhat puzzling that the literature on the family
of contemporary extreme right-wing parties has focused on societal strain
and/or political opportunity structures but ignored the question of how a new
innovative master frame was constructed and, even more important, could be
spread and adopted through cross-national diffusion processes (a dimension
absent in, e.g., Eatwell 2003).

More specifically, with few exceptions, earlier research on ERP parties has
focused on singular national cases (see, e.g., Hainsworth 1992, 2000; Betz &
Immerfall 1998; Merkl & Weinberg 1993). ERP parties have commonly been
treated as discrete entities arising independently of one another, which has
prompted a search for the unique causes of the emergence of the national ERP
party in question. These causes are typically sought within each country. This
research design is highly problematic: by ignoring research done on similar
parties in other countries, it often leads to ad hoc theorizing. Moreover, when
doing research on social and political change, there are no reasons to assume
that explanans and explanandum are to be found within the same delineated
geographical territory (of the nation-state). In fact, this is less likely to be the
case today in our open globalized world than ever before. However, there
are also some rather sophisticated comparative studies of ERP parties in
Western Europe that seek to present a more universal theory of the emergence
of these parties generally. Most of this comparative literature has been
macrostructural-oriented, focusing on the postindustrialization of Western
European societies (e.g., Betz 1994; Kitschelt 1995), and is biased towards
finding one universal cause of the new party family of ERP parties (e.g., Betz
1994). This focus is understandable given the puzzle to explain the clustering
in time of emerging ERP parties within different political systems, and given
the rightful ambition to avoid ad hoc theorizing. However, both these aims
can be dealt with in another, and far better, way, which will be charted in this

The fact that the ERP parties look alike in different political systems – that
is, they constitute a party family – has less to do with macrostructures forming
the demand sides of these political systems in similar ways (as the prevalent
demand-centred approach would have it) than with the fact that ideas and
practices diffuse from successful ERP parties to embryonic ones in other countries.
Second, instead of trying to find one universal cause of the emergence
of all ERP parties, I will assume that the emergence of the ERP parties may
have different causes in different countries. However, this is not to give in to a
relativist ‘everything-goes’ methodology: instead of searching for grand, universal
theories, we should look for causal mechanisms of some generality
(Hedström & Swedberg 1998). The prevailing answer to why ERP parties
emerged as a party family during the 1980s and 1990s is that the postindustrialization
of Western European countries both undermined the salience of
the economic (class) cleavage and created new ‘loser’ groups susceptible to a
political message combining cultural protectionism, xenophobic welfare chauvinism,
a populist critique of ‘the establishment’ and a reactionary call for
returning to the ‘good old values of yesterday’ (e.g., Betz 1994, Minkenberg
2001). Hence, in most respects, this is a strain- or grievance-based explanation.
As indicated above, although such an explanation need not to be wrong per
se – and indeed may help us understand variances in electoral success of the
extreme right over time – it tells us nothing about the variance in electoral
success of the ERP parties between different countries. Countries in which
ERP parties have done poorly have been postindustrial societies that have
experienced economic downturns and high levels of unemployment during the last twenty years as well (Rydgren 2002). Furthermore, by itself this approach
is also deterministic and tells us little about what is actually going on between
explanans and explanandum (cf. Tarrow (1998) and McAdam (1999) for a critique
of grievance-based explanations of social movement activity). Yet, as we
will see below, this kind of macrostructural explanation could, if successfully
interwoven with other elements, contribute to our understanding of why the
ERP parties emerged in the 1980s and 1990s rather than, say, in the 1950s or
1960s. However, I will propose that two other families of explanatory mechanisms
are much more useful in understanding the emergence of the party
family of ERP parties, and not least why these parties have been electorally
successful in some countries and failed in others:

First, we need to take cross-national diffusion processes seriously. The
emergence of ERP parties in different countries should not be explained in
isolation, but be seen as a series of interdependent events (cf. Myers 2000).
With the innovation of a new potent master frame combining ethnonationalism
based on ‘cultural racism’ (the so-called ‘ethno-pluralist’ doctrine) and a
populist (but not antidemocratic) anti-political establishment rhetoric, the
extreme right was able to free itself from enough stigma to be able to attract
voter groups that never would have considered voting for an ‘old’ right-wing
extremist party promoting biological racism and/or antidemocratic stances.
The development of this new master frame was a long process, in many ways
going back to the neo-fascist international meeting in Rome in 1950 (‘Carta
di Roma’), although it did not reach its refined form until the late 1970s and
early 1980s under the influence of the French Nouvelle Droite. The decisive
moment, however, was the electoral break-through of the French Front
National in 1984, which made the new master frame known as a successful
frame for existing but marginalized extreme right-wing groups and networks
all over Western Europe, and hence started a process of cross-national diffusion.
By focusing on cross-national diffusion processes, two biases, common in
the literature on the ERP parties, will be avoided: it will bring agency and time
back into the analysis.

As will be argued below, adopting ERP parties never mimic innovations
automatically, but creatively adapt and interpret things they have learned from
others because they think they can gain something from doing so (cf. McAdam
1995). Political actors – ERP party leaderships included – can for good reasons
be assumed to be rational in the bounded sense of the term. The main goal of
a political party is to maximize its influence on policy outcomes (within a particular
political system) in accordance with the core ideas and values embedded
in its party ideology, and the duty of its party leaders is to use strategies
that (given information shortage and uncertainties, cognitive limitations and
biases, etc.) are judged to arrive at that goal as effectively as possible. One
such strategy is ‘rational imitation’ (i.e., learning by looking at others’ behaviour
in situations in which the relation between strategies and goals are difficult to assess) (Hedström 1998; see also Hedström et al. 2000), which
constitutes the motivational basis of diffusion processes as they are conceived
of here. Yet it is often irrational to imitate the behaviour of others without
first translating it to fit the contextual situation in which the adopter is embedded.
Moreover, as Tilly (1984), among others, has pointed out, when things
happen affects how they happen: in trying to explain the emergence of, say,
the Danish People’s Party or the transformation of the Austrian FPÖ into an
ERP party in 1986 one has to account for the simple but mostly overlooked
fact that the Front National already existed as a successful exemplar influencing
the action of others.

Although diffusion and successful adaptation of the master frame combining
the ethnopluralist doctrine with anti-political establishment populism
will be considered a necessary condition for explaining why ERP parties
emerged as ERP parties, it is not a sufficient explanation by itself. In order to
reach a full explanation of why the ERP parties emerged when they did in
respective political system, and not the least, why they have failed completely
in some countries, we must consider a second group of mechanisms falling
within the composite notion of expanding and contracting political opportunities.
If an ERP party is to emerge, some, but not all, of the various political
opportunities presented below would have to be present.

These two families of mechanisms – diffusion and adaptation processes,
and expanding and contracting political opportunities – will be extensively
discussed below. The aim of this article is to outline a new model for understanding
two basic things: the emergence of the new party family of ERP
parties, and why such parties have been successful in some countries, but failed
in others. This model is as suitable for explaining so-called ‘positive cases’ as
it is for explaining ‘negative’ ones, and it has the advantage of being general
enough to escape ad hoc explanations of singular cases while at the same time
being flexible enough to be applicable to empirical cases all over Western
Europe. Because of lack of room, this article will not provide empirical applications,
only a few, scattered empirical examples. However, people are urged
to apply the model to as many cases as possible (see Rydgren (2004) for a discussion
of the Danish case along these lines). The article will be structured in
a straightforward way. First, political opportunities will be discussed. Second,
the development of the new, innovative master frame will be discussed,
and, finally, the processes of cross-national diffusion and adaptation will be
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