The elitist populism of the extreme right: A frame analysis of extreme right-wing discourses in Italy and Germany


In this article, we investigate the presence and forms of populist frames in the discourse of the extreme right by looking at different types of extreme right organizations in Italy and Germany. Focusing on the meso, organizational level, and applying a frame analysis to written documents (for example newspapers, magazines) of certain selected extreme right organizations, chosen from the political party and non-party extreme right milieu in the two countries, the article examines the relevance and the characteristics of the populist discourse in the extreme right. Similarities and differences between types of extreme right groups and countries in the framing strategies of populism are underlined and linked to the cultural (historical) and political-discursive opportunities. The bridging of appeal to the people with other (more traditional) frames of the extreme right (for example nativism) is shown. In particular, we look at how the central populist frame (namely the people versus the elite) is linked to the extreme right definition of the ‘us’ and the ‘them’, when developing diagnoses, prognoses and motivations to action. The analysis is based on a total of around 4000 frames collected in documents from 2002 to 2006.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Access options

Buy single article

Instant unlimited access to the full article PDF.

US$ 39.95

Price includes VAT for USA

Subscribe to journal

Immediate online access to all issues from 2019. Subscription will auto renew annually.

US$ 124

This is the net price. Taxes to be calculated in checkout.

Figure 1


  1. 1.

    For frame analysis applied to organizational documents.

  2. 2.

    The codebook is available from the authors on request.

  3. 3.

    These specific categories can be distinguished in ‘identity actors’ (100–499), namely actors who are considered in the discourse of the extreme right as part of the right-wing group (the ‘us’), and ‘oppositional actors’ (500–999) (the ‘them’). As for the former, we differentiate further between ‘more proximate’ and ‘more remote identities’: the peer group of right-wing activists itself (100–199) (for example, ‘skinheads’, ‘extreme right political parties’, ‘generic references to extreme right individuals’ and so on); the wider (racial, national and social) groups with which the extreme right identifies itself (200–399) (for example, ‘the occidental’, ‘the Europeans’ or ‘the Nordic race’, ‘the nationalists’ and so on.); other actors (399–499) (for example, judges, media and so on). Similarly, oppositional actors included the following differentiated categories: (500–599) ‘ethnic adversaries’ (for example, foreigners, immigrants and so on); (600–699) ‘social adversaries’ (for example, the homeless, homosexuals and so on); and (700–899) ‘political adversaries/actors’ (for example, domestic and international institutions); (900–999) other actors (for example, business, mass media, the Churches and so on).

  4. 4.

    The differentiation between ‘subject actors’, ‘object actors’ and ‘ally actors’ mainly refers to the grammatical position of an actor within a sentence (for example, ‘ally actors’ are those actors who are mentioned as supporters of the ‘subject actors’).

  5. 5.

    These specific subissues have been later re-aggregated into the following broader fields: conservative values and history/nation; immigration; globalization/European integration; political issues; social and economic issues; internal life of the extreme right.

  6. 6.

    Founded in 1985 as a non-profit organization for the promotion of cultural, musical and sports activities, the Veneto Fronte Skinhead is considered one of the most violent racist organizations in Italy (EUMC, 2004, p. 15).

  7. 7.

    This resulted in a sample of 623 articles for the Italian case and 402 for the German case, which constituted the texts for our frame analysis.

  8. 8.

    The length of the articles found in the newspaper and magazine sources could vary from 1 to 3 columns, whereas the contributions in the online forum and guest book online could vary from 1 to several sentences.

  9. 9.

    Abbreviations for documents’ sources: (Italy) FN=Forza Nuova; VFS=Veneto Fronte Skinhead; CV=Camerata Virtuale; (Germany) NDP=National Democratic Party of Germany; NBD=Nationales Bündnis Dresden; Kam=Kameradschaften.

  10. 10.

    Political issues are the main field of the discourse in about one-fifth (19–20 per cent) of statements in each of the three types of organizations in Italy; they represent about 33–39 per cent of statements in both the political party and the political movement in Germany (but only 16 per cent of statements for what concerns the skinhead groups).


  1. Abt, K. and Rummens, S. (2007) Populism versus democracy. Political Studies 55: 405–424.

  2. Art, D. (2007) Reacting to the radical right. Party Politics 13 (3): 331–349.

  3. Backes, U. and Moreau, P. (1994) Die Extreme Rechte in Deutschland. Munich, Germany: Akademischer Verlag.

  4. Baldini, G. (2001) Comparative Mapping of Extreme Right Electoral Dynamics: An Overview. Report,, accessed 10 May 2010.

  5. Caldiron, G. (2001) La destra plurale. Rome: Manifestolibri.

  6. Deiwiks, C. (2009) Populism. Living Reviews in Democracy,

  7. Della Porta, D. and Diani, M. (2006) Social Movements. Oxford: Blackwell.

  8. Dietmar, L. (2009) Globalization and populist radical right parties in Europe: Austria, Denmark, Germany. Paper presented at ESA Conference; 2–5 September, Lisbon, Portugal.

  9. Eatwell, R. (2003) The theories of the extreme right. In: P. Merkl and L. Weinberg (eds.) Rightwing Extremism in the Twenty-first Century. London: Frank Cass.

  10. Ferber, A.L. (1998) Constructing whiteness: The intersections of race and gender in US white supremacist discourse. Ethnic and Racial Studies 21 (1): 48–63.

  11. Franzosi, R. (2004) From Words to Numbers. Narrative, Data, and Social Science. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  12. Gamson, W.A. (1988) Political discourse and collective action. International Social Movement Research 1: 219–246.

  13. Goetz, G. and Mahoney, J. (2006) A tale of two cultures. Political Analysis 14: 227–249.

  14. Härmänmaa, M. (2002) Un modello per il nuovo discorso fascista. Alcune osservazioni sul linguaggio politico di Alleanza Nazionale. Paper presented at Romansk Forum XV Skandinaviske romanistkongress; 12–17 August, Oslo, Sweden.

  15. Ignazi, P. (1997) The extreme right in Europe. A survey. In: P.L. Merkl and L. Weinberg (eds.) The Revival of Right-wing Extremism in the Nineties. London; Portland: Frank Cass, pp. 47–64.

  16. Johnston, H. (2002) Verification and proof in frame and discourse analysis. In: B. Klandermans and S. Staggenborg (eds.) Methods of Social Movement Research. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 62–91.

  17. Johnston, H. and Noakes, J. (2005) Verification and proof in frame and discourse analysis. In: B. Klandermans and S. Staggenborg (eds.) Methods of Social Movement Research. Minneapolis, MN: the University of Minnesota Press, pp. 62–91.

  18. Kersten, J. (2004) The right wing network and the role of extremist youth grouping in Unified Germany. In: A. Fenner and E.D. Weitz (eds.) Fascism and Neofascism. Critical Writings on the Extreme Right in Europe. Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 175–188.

  19. Koopmans, R. and Statham, P. (1999) Ethnic and civic conceptions of nationhood and the differential success of the extreme right in Germany and Italy. In: M. Giugni, D. McAdam and C. Tilly (eds.) How Social Movements Matter. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, pp. 225–251.

  20. Koopmans, R., Statham, P., Giugni, M. and Passy, F. (2005) Contested Citizenship: Immigration and Cultural Diversity in Europe. Minneapolis, MN: The University of Minnesota Press.

  21. Kriesi, H. (2004) Political context and opportunity. In: D.A. Snow, S.A. Soule and H. Kriesi (eds.) The Blackwell Companion to Social Movements. Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 67–90.

  22. Lefkofridi, Z. and Casado-Asensio, J. (2010) European Vox Radicis: Representation and policy congruence on the extremes. Paper presented at the Conference on Policy Congruence and Representation in the EU; 27–29 May, Mannheim, Germany.

  23. Mazzoleni, G., Stewart, J. and Horsfield, B. (2003) The Media and Neo-populism. Westport, CT, London: Praeger.

  24. Mény, Y. and Surel, Y. (2002) Democracies and the Populist Challenge. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

  25. Merkl, P.L. (1997) Why are they so strong now? Comparative reflections on the revival of the radical right in Europe. In: P.L. Merkl and L. Weinberg (eds.) The Revival of Right-Wing Extremism in the Nineties. London; Portland: Frank Cass, pp. 17–46.

  26. Minkenberg, M. (2000) The renewal of the radical right: Between modernity and anti-modernity. Government and Opposition 35 (2): 170–188.

  27. Minkenberg, M. (2001) The radical right in public office: Agenda – Setting and policy effects. West European Politics 4 (24): 1–21.

  28. Minkenberg, M. (2002) The new radical right in the political process: Interaction effects in France and Germany. In: M. Schain, A. Zolberg and P. Hossay (eds.) Shadows over Europe: The Development and Impact of the Extreme Right in Western Europe. New York; Houndmills, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 245–268.

  29. Morlino, L. and Tarchi, M. (1996) Crisis of parties and change of party system in Italy. Party Politics 2 (1): 5–30.

  30. Mudde, C. (2004) The Populist Zeitgeist. Government and Opposition 39 (3): 542–564.

  31. Mudde, C. (2007) Populist Radical Right Parties in Europe. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  32. Norocel, O.C. (2009) How about taking gender in the theorizing of populism? Paper presented at the ESA Conference; 3–5 September, Lisbon, Portugal.

  33. Norris, P. (2005) Radical Right. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  34. Ruzza, C. and Fella, S. (2009) Re-inventing the Italian Right: Territorial Politics, Populism and ‘Post-fascism’. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon, NY: Routledge.

  35. Rydgren, J. (2003) Meso-level reasons for racism and Xenophobia. European Journal of Social Theory 6 (1): 45–68.

  36. Rydgren, J. (2005) Is extreme right-wing populism contagious? Explaining the emergence of a new party family. European Journal of Political Research 44: 413–437.

  37. Rydgren, J. (2007) The sociology of the radical right. Annual Review of Sociology 33: 241–262.

  38. Rydgren, J. (2008) Immigration sceptics, Xenohpobes or racists? European Journal of Political Research 47: 737–765.

  39. Schellenberg, B. (2009) Country report Germany. In: B. Stiftung (ed.) Strategies for Combating Right-wing Extremism in Europe. Gütersloh, Germany: Bertelsmann Stiftung, pp. 179–247.

  40. Simmons, H.G. (2003) The French and European extreme right and globalization. Paper presented at the International Seminar Challenges to the New World Order; 30–31 May, Amsterdam, the Netherlands.

  41. Snow, D.A. and Benford, R.D. (1988) Ideology, frame resonance, and participant mobilization. In: B. Klandermans, H. Kriesi and S. Tarrow (eds.) From Structure to Action. Greenwich, CT: JAI Press, pp. 197–218.

  42. Snow, D.A. and Benford, R.D. (1992) Master frame and cycles of protest. In: A. Morris and C. Mueller (eds.) Frontiers in Social Movement Theory. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, pp. 133–155.

  43. Snow, D.A. and Byrd, S.C. (2007) Ideology, framing processes, and Islamic terrorist movements. Mobilization 12: 119–136.

  44. Snow, D.A., Rochford, E.B., Worden, S.K. and Benford, R.D. (1986) Frame alignment processes, micromobilization, and movement participation. American Sociological Review 51: 464–481.

  45. Statham, P. (2008) Political Party Contestation over Europe in Public Discourses: Emergent Euroscepticism? Oslo: Arena. Working Papers no. 8/2008.

  46. Tilly, C. (2003) The Politics of Collective Violence. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

  47. Wagemann, C. (2006) ‘Us’: A Literature Review on the Identity Frame of German Right-wing Extremists. Florence, Italy: European University Institute. Report.

  48. Wilcox, A., Weinberg., L. and Eubank, W. (2003) Explaining national variations in support for far right political parties in Western Europe, 1990–2000. In: P.H. Merkl and L. Winberg (eds.) Right Wing Extremism in the Twenty-first Century. London: Frank Cass, pp. 126–158.

  49. Zimmermann, E. (2003) Right-wing extremism and Xenophobia in Germany: Escalation, exaggeration, or what? In: P.L. Merkl and L. Weinberg (eds.) Right-wing Extremism in the Twenty-first Century. London; Portland: Frank Cass, pp. 220–250.

Download references


We thank Claudius Wagemann for the empirical data collection on the German case. Although the authors share responsibility for the whole article, Manuela Caiani contributed the final text of Sections 1–3, and Dontella della Porta of Sections 4 and 5.

Author information

Correspondence to Manuela Caiani.

Additional information

This article is part of the broader research project VETO, conducted at the European University Institute and financed by the START Center of the University of Maryland.

Mudde has found in the literature 26 different ways of defining the extreme right (Minkenberg, 2000). Some scholars (for example, Carter, 2005) define right-wing extremism using two criteria: anticonstitutionalism and antidemocratic values (this is the reason it is called extremist), and a rejection of the principle of fundamental human equality (this is the reason why it is called right wing). Others (for example, Norris, 2005) prefer the label radical right in order to describe those political parties and non-party organizations that are located toward one pole on the standard ideological left–right scale.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Caiani, M., della Porta, D. The elitist populism of the extreme right: A frame analysis of extreme right-wing discourses in Italy and Germany. Acta Polit 46, 180–202 (2011).

Download citation


  • extreme right
  • populism
  • Italy and Germany
  • frame analysis
  • social movements