This section provides an overview of the literature on RRP electoral support. From a critical point of view, we review approaches that conceive of support for RRPs as consequence of material deprivation (‘globalization losers’) or political disenchantment against political institutions and the status quo (‘protest voting’). In contrast with these two hegemonic views, we also offer some theoretical reasons to explain support for this party family as an ideological decision mainly guided by policy-based considerations.
On one hand, one of the most widely recognized explanations is the so-called ‘globalization losers’ thesis that interprets voting for RRPs as a direct consequence of modernization processes (Mudde 2007). To some extent, this is the current version of a much broader approach that emerged several decades ago (Bell 1964). Cyclically, this broader approach connects the steps in modernization processes and transformations (e.g. risk society, post-Fordism, post-industrial society, globalization, etc.) with the rise of RRPs. This view clearly echoes, but not explicitly reproduces, the fundamentals of a large portion of the literature focused on explaining the fascist experience in the interwar period. The research tradition on fascism has given a preeminent role to the changes in material conditions and their impacts on feelings of anxiety, anger, and isolation in explaining this phenomenon (Parsons 1942). Notwithstanding, as noted by Art (2013), it is necessary to be cautious when comparing fascism to modern RRPs, as their differences are more notable than their similarities.
Specifically, the ‘globalization losers’ thesis states that the least-protected and poorest sectors that have seen their status in society lowered due to capitalist globalization and economic transnational processes tend to support RRPs to a larger extent than other groups (Givens 2005; Rydgren 2007). It is assumed that these sectors blame immigrants to a greater extent than others and, therefore, opt for RRPs. From this point of view, these ‘globalization losers’ have a certain socio-demographic profile: unskilled workers or unemployed individuals with low levels of income and education (Arzheimer 2018). This explanation gained popularity during the 1990s in an attempt to explain the overproportionate presence of blue-collars workers in the RRP constituencies (Betz 1994; Betz and Immerfall 1998). More recently, sophisticated studies, such as Rodrik’s research (2018, 2020), have contributed to renewing this approach. However, while the value of this approach is evident, it only illuminates a part of the reality, and, consequently, some of its faults have been highlighted. In particular, some voices argue that the ‘globalization losers’ thesis fails in explaining the unequal levels of support for RRPs (both cross-country and within-country) (Art 2011; Mudde 2007). In other words, it does not provide appropriate answers for cases characterized by good economic contexts and high levels of support for RRPs or for cases characterized by bad economic contexts and low levels of support for RRPs (Art 2011). Moreover, it should be noted that when RRPs established themselves in the political arena, the likelihood of attracting voters from all social strata increased. However, we do not deny that the phenomenon in question has a material basis. What we suggest is that the explanatory power of socio-demographic factors is likely more modest than previously thought and uncritically assumed.
On the other hand (and closely connected with the abovementioned ‘globalization losers’ thesis), there is an approach that links RRP support to discontent with politics. In this way, RRP voting is conceived as a ‘protest vote’ against the political status quo (Bélanger and Aarts 2006; Betz 1994). In supporting radical options like those espoused by RRPs, voters’ main aims may be to punish the political establishment and the mainstream elites. Nevertheless, much of the research that originally examined (and validated) this theory suffered from serious theoretical and empirical deficiencies. In essence, little theoretical clarifications exist in these earlier works about what exactly the ‘protest vote’ concept means. At the same time, much of these studies were based on aprioristic assumptions, such as assuming that RRPs are ideological protest parties and that their supporters are also protest voters. However, if the objective is to assess electoral support from the point of view of the demand-side, the unit of analysis should not be the parties but the voters themselves. A well-founded critique to these works can be found in van der Brug and Fennema (2003, 2009).
Thus, the examination of the ‘protest vote’ hypothesis requires, above all, a clear, precise, and operational conceptualization. The proposal of Passarelli and Tuorto is a good starting point because it distinguishes between two simple features: (1) acting as a reaction against the establishment and (2) not being driven by policy preferences (2018, p. 131). In similar terms, van der Brug et al. note that “a protest voter is a rational voter whose objective is to demonstrate rejection of all other parties” (2000, p. 82). In sum, we conceptualize protest voters as those who basically express discontent but for whom ideological considerations or policy preferences are not important.
What if there is nothing exceptional but ideology? Support for RRPs and policy voting
The two explanations that we already presented (‘globalization losers’ and ‘protest voting’) share similar assumptions: that RRP support is not the result of ideological preferences but of rage, resentment, and rejection due to adverse economic situations and against the established political status quo. Both hypotheses share the common idea of crisis—economic or political—as an explanatory factor for RRP support.
However, there are no reasons for not assessing RRP voting behaviour with the same theoretical and methodological tools used for studying other political phenomena. Although a rich body of literature has considered policy preferences and policy voting since the seminal study of Downs (1958), research on RRPs has not being sufficiently sensitive to these approaches, except for a few notable works (Tillie and Fennema 1998; van der Brug and Fennema 2003, 2009; van der Brug et al. 2000). Within a rational choice paradigm, citizens will compare their preferences to the proposals made by parties and choose the programme closest to their own preferences. In this case, we focus on theories of prospective voting because RRPs generally do not have governing experience and cannot be evaluated by citizens within a retrospective model of voting. Prospective voting theories, particularly Downs’ approach, have been subject to criticism—mostly based on the idea that citizens should make an effort to research all information about the electoral proposals of different parties to analyse and compare their platforms, thereby deciding which party would be most beneficial from a personal point of view (Arnold 2002). It is difficult to imagine the average citizen assembling and reading all electoral programmes, comparing them in all their dimensions, and understanding how each of the proposals will personally affect him or her.
A lack of interest and limited political participation are hardly surprising. A personal investment to gain political information makes little sense in the case of collective elections, given the low probability a citizen has to influence the result and obtain personal profit because of his or her actions, as one vote will usually not change the final results. In this context, even if most citizens do not read electoral programme s personally, they can guide themselves using the information provided by the parties themselves and, of course, by other agents (e.g. mass media, opposing parties, or interest groups) (Lupia 1994). Taking into account questions related to the level of knowledge, comprehension, and interest in politics, we can distinguish three types of voters: sociological or psycho-sociological voters, economic voters, and limited-rationality voters (Lago et al. 2007). The present research assumes the third type: a voter with limited rationality guiding his or her decisions via heuristics and informative shortcuts.
Our research departs from the assumption that RRP supporters can be rational consumers in the electoral market who guide their voting decisions based on ideological and policy considerations. The policy voting framework must necessarily consider the main policy dimensions that structure European party systems and societies.
On one hand, the literature confirmed the existence of a socio-economic dimension in the traditional left–right axis, which comprises a continuum from interventionist and pro-redistributive to neo-liberal and free-market orientations. This dimension includes preferences about the economic organization of society, state intervention, privatization, and the redistribution of wealth and taxation, among others (Wagner and Kritzinger 2012).
On the other hand, the socio-cultural dimension, whose content is more extensive and diffuse, has gained prominence in recent decades (Hooghe et al. 2002; Oesch and Rennwald 2018). There are diverse conceptualizations of this dimension: Universalism–Particularism (Bornschier 2010), left libertarianism vs. right authoritarianism (Kitschelt and MacGann 1995), demarcation vs. integration (Kriesi et al. 2008), and GALTAN (Hooghe et al. 2002; Polk et al. 2017). Notably, the GALTAN label (Green, Alternative, and Libertarian versus Traditional, Authoritarian and Nationalist) is increasingly gaining acceptance in the literature. This conceptualization distinguishes between a GAL pole that is favourable to the expansion of personal freedoms (civil liberties, same-sex marriage, environmental protection, lifestyle choices, participatory democracy, etc.) and an antagonist TAN pole based on an exclusionary, traditionalist, and restricted conception of personal freedoms, morality, and national identity and a more strict defence of authority, law, and order (Hooghe et al. 2002). It is worth noting that the issues related to immigration—both for and against—are usually included in the GALTAN dimension.
A third dimension that also substantially affects the electoral competition has also been identified. This dimension is linked to attitudes towards the EU integration process and includes Europhile and Eurosceptic poles (which usually include mainstream and radical parties, respectively) (Hernández and Kriesi 2016; Marks and Edwards 2006).
In short, there are good reasons to examine the support for RRPs through the ‘policy voting’ framework. To this end, the main axes which structure the dimensionality of political competition in Europe must be considered.