On far right parties, master frames and trans-national diffusion: understanding far right party development in Western Europe


A common assumption throughout the far right party (FRP) literature is that of developmental independence between FRPs, meaning explanatory accounts typically (i) look at FRPs as structurally independent political agents and (ii) examine their development as context-unique processes, in the absence of cross-sectional implications. Three initial observations can refute the plausibility and larger validity of such a claim. First, the dissemination of a relatively stable and comparable master frame between FRPs increases their similarities. Second, it is possible to distinguish the FN as the primary source (or innovator) of those similarities. Third, the adoption rate of the master frame illustrates spatial and temporal heterogeneity. Together, these observations support this study’s claim that we should think of FRP development in terms of interdependence. More specifically, this study theorises and illustrates developmental interdependence between FRPs using trans-national diffusion dynamics. Drawing from unique interview evidence and using master frame adoption as the primary process under analysis, this study also describes learning and emulation as the core mechanisms that underlie trans-national diffusion between FRPs. In the end, this theorisation is not intended to replace existing, more variable-oriented and structural explanations of FRP development, but rather to complement them and add to what we already know about FRPs.

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Fig. 1


  1. 1.

    From a party change perspective, Harmel and Janda (1982, 1994) argue all political parties are conservative at heart. Since the sociopolitical environment is always changing, political parties need to change if they want to survive politically and electorally. Therefore, all political parties regularly change, or rather evolve, albeit not because of internal desire, but because of external pressure.

  2. 2.

    While academic debate continues to exist regarding this party family’s conceptualisation and terminology, it does not fall within the scope of this study. This study relies on the term far right parties because internal contradictions are limited, and it remains relatively uncomplicated. For more studies that use the same terminology, see also Marcus (2000), Karapin (2002), Jungerstam-Mulders (2003), Cole (2005), Erk (2005), Veugelers and Magnan (2005), van Spanje (2010), McGowan (2014) and Van Hauwaert (2014). For one of the more comprehensive discussions of different terminologies, see Ignazi (2003). While this study relies on a different terminology, the parties that comprise the party family mostly correspond to what some scholars refer to as populist radical right parties (e.g. Mudde 2007).

  3. 3.

    It is possible to distinguish a master frame from ideology, which typically refers to a general worldview, rather than an interpretative scheme (Snow and Benford 1992). Furthermore, as Snow and Byrd (2007) indicate when referring to Islamic terrorism, ideology is quite restrictive, monolithic and structural as an explanatory concept of a dynamic and cultural phenomenon with sizeable trans-national and longitudinal variations like FRP development (cf. also Caiani et al. 2012). A master frame can capture and bridge different aspects of the mobilisation process, rather than just focus on collective identities. Whereas master frame refers to a cluster of extensive and inclusive rhetorical strategies from which FRPs can draw (Swart 1995; Carroll and Ratner 1996), ideology refers to support for more specific articulations of theory and value nested within more general ones (Oliver and Johnston 2000). In other words, a master frame does not necessarily include the sociopolitical theory and normative value systems that characterise an ideology. While a master frame is distinct from ideology, the choice between the two primarily stems from the analytical approach taken throughout this study.

  4. 4.

    These differences should not necessarily be thought of as contrasting components or a widely different make-up as such, but rather as a conceptually distinct interpretation of more flexible and comprehensive frames. For example, while anti-pluralism is a crucial component of both old right-wing extremist parties and FRPs, the former interpret this in more racial terms (e.g. biological racism), whereas the latter understand this in more ethnic terms (e.g. xenophobia or ethnocentrism).

  5. 5.

    The construction and design of the different master frame components do not fall within the scope of this article. Here, I primarily focus on what happened once these components became implemented and how the ensemble of components – the alternative master frame—spread throughout Western Europe. Note also this study does not seek to argue previously identified ideological constructs of FRPs are incorrect, but instead, they could (or should) be conceptualised differently, namely as master frame components.

  6. 6.

    Smaller and more regionally oriented parties, such as the Bürgerbewegung pro-Deutschland (BpD) or the Plataforma per Catalunya (PxC), can also be considered FRPs. The overall selection remains contentious, as various scholars consider different parties to belong to this party family, or they even define this party family differently. However, any possible differences in conceptualisation, operationalisation or case selection do not make a difference in the theorisations of master frame adoption or trans-national diffusion proposed in the following sections.

  7. 7.

    This presentation of patterns of adoption does not justify the positioning of the FRPs alongside the curve. Instead, the logistic pattern of alternative master frame adoption suggests the implausibility of this phenomenon as a set of ad hoc or independent occurrences and provides initial support for the interpretation of FRPs as part of a more substantial development. Furthermore, it is important to notice that emergence, persistence or even (electoral) success is irrelevant for the initial diffusion argument.

  8. 8.

    The literature often recognises the specific role of the FN as the FRP family's pater familias (e.g. Backes 1996; Ignazi 1997).

  9. 9.

    For an extensive theoretical account of how to describe an innovator, see Fordham and Asal (2007).

  10. 10.

    Even more, it is more likely than not this occurs, seeing some of the more international and global dynamics described earlier in this study. The analysis of these additional diffusion dynamics just does not fall within the scope of this study.

  11. 11.

    For more information regarding the data collection method, the sampling procedure, as well as the overall qualities of the dataset, the author refers to the online appendix.

  12. 12.

    Different FRPs can observe the same master frame differently, which can originate from a prior difference in knowledge, intellectual aptitudes or even a difference in contextual supply- and/or demand-side factors. Together, these factors can affect the impact and the effectiveness of new experiences and observations, and thereby bias posterior knowledge and master frame adoption. For a more detailed discussion, see—for example—Shipan and Volden (2008) and Gilardi (2010).

  13. 13.

    During the 1984-1989 term of the European Parliament, some ideologically diverse right-wing extremist parties organised in the "Group of the European Right". In the following term, a more ideologically coherent group of FRPs formalised in the “Technical Group of the European Right”. For a brief 10-month period during the 2004-2009 term, some FRPs formed the group “Identity, Tradition, Sovereignty”. In the 2009–2014 term, some West European FRPs were part of the “Europe of Freedom and Democracy” group (e.g. LN, DFP, PS). In the subsequent term (2014-2019), FRPs became between the “Europe of Freedom and Direct Democracy” group (e.g. SD, AfD) and the “Europe of Nations and Freedom” group (e.g. FPÖ, VB, FN, LN, AfD, PVV).


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Preliminary versions of this manuscript have been presented at various locations, including the MPSA Conference in Chicago and the ELECDEM final conference in Florence. I am grateful to participants and panel members for their feedback, comments and suggestions. In particular, I would like to thank the anonymous reviewers and editors of Comparative European Politics, Sarah de Lange, Zoltán Fazekas, Caterina Froio, John Ishiyama, Heike Klüver, Joost van Spanje and especially Pascal Perrineau for their valuable comments and insights.

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Van Hauwaert, S.M. On far right parties, master frames and trans-national diffusion: understanding far right party development in Western Europe. Comp Eur Polit 17, 132–154 (2019).

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  • Far right parties
  • Master frame adoption
  • Developmental interdependence
  • Trans-national diffusion
  • Interviews