Making social science accessible

22 Jan 2022


Politics and Society

Europe’s centre-right political parties used to be seen as both dependably dull and dependably stable. Not anymore. The continent’s Christian democratic, conservative and market liberal parties – each of which can be said to belong to three distinct ‘party families’ that together constitute the mainstream right – are undergoing significant and fascinating transformations, not least as they confront an ever more serious challenge from the populist radical right.

Moreover, because they continue to play a part in governing so many countries, their role in preserving the liberal order in a continent struggling with the changes brought about by, for instance, the gradual erosion (and subsequent demand for re-imposition) of national borders is not one that we can afford to ignore.

To see what is at stake, one need only glance across the Atlantic, where Donald Trump’s presidency, and the apparently unquestioning support given to him in Congress by his co-partisans even after the storming of the Capitol, casts doubt on whether the Republican Party can be considered a mainstream right party anymore – something that has consequences for the future of democracy in the United States.

We should note right at the outset that portrayals of the political situation in Western Europe tend to focus more on the travails of the mainstream centre-left rather than the centre-right. This is because social democratic parties are struggling to hold on to their traditional voters and find it hard to attract enough newer, progressive voters to fully compensate, not least because some of the latter prefer to support alternatives belonging to the Green and radical/far left party families (see Figure 1).

mainstream right

Rightly or wrongly, the decline of social democracy is also linked by commentators to the rise of populist radical right parties. Indeed, hardly a day goes by without the media across Europe making at least some mention of the latter, many of which now regularly win between 5% and 15% of the vote.

“Social democratic parties are struggling to hold on to their traditional voters and find it hard to attract enough newer, progressive voters to fully compensate”.

Moreover, these parties are not necessarily treated as pariahs – as unfit for government – by their competitors. In fact, they have been in office in Austria, Finland, Italy, the Netherlands, Norway, and Switzerland, and have provided regular and reliable parliamentary support to minority governments in Denmark – and all this in spite of research showing that they have not, as some naively hoped, become more moderate over time.

Now, one might have assumed that the corollary of the decline of social democracy would be the rise of parties belonging to the mainstream right – in other words, the conservative, Christian democratic and (market) liberal parties that have always sold themselves as strong supporters of capitalist economies and, certainly in the first two cases, of ‘traditional’ values.

Yet, as we discuss in our recently published book, Riding the Populist Wave: Europe’s Mainstream Right in Crisis, many of those parties are also in trouble electorally, even if the rate at which they run into difficulties can vary considerably.

mainstream right

Partly because those difficulties have not generally been quite as serious as the ones faced by their centre-left counterparts and partly because they often have more coalition options, these parties seem, for now, to be better able to hang onto office. But that should not blind us to the problems they face – even when it comes to some of the continent’s hitherto strongest performers such as Spain’s conservative Partido Popular and Germany’s Christian democratic CDU/CSU.

“The comparative lack of attention paid by scholars and media commentators to the decline of these centre-right parties across Western Europe is striking”.

As Figure 2 shows, while the populist radical right party family has been able to establish itself and expand its electoral appeal and while the liberals have held relatively steady, both the conservative and Christian democratic party families have experienced declining support.

The comparative lack of attention paid by scholars and media commentators to the decline of these centre-right parties across Western Europe is striking. But it may be explicable: as Figures 1 and 2 show, the decay in support experienced by Christian democrats and conservatives has been much more gradual than that which has afflicted social democrats. And that decay is therefore easier to overlook.

What is the mainstream right?

The mainstream right encompasses a group of three party families – Christian democrats, conservatives, and liberals – with two main attributes. On the one hand, they all believe that inequality is natural and not something which the state should spend too much time worrying about.

On the other hand, they not only adopt fairly moderate policies but also support existing norms and values (including the rule of law, minority rights, media freedoms) that are intrinsic to liberal democracy – support which distinguishes them from the far right, which not only adopts hard-core positions but also rejects some or all of those norms and values, whether explicitly (the extreme right) or more subtly (the populist radical right).

This is not to suggest that the mainstream right constitutes some kind of essentially homogeneous bloc.

For instance, Christian democrats like the CDU/CSU are characterised not only by the promotion of European integration, class compromise, accommodation and pluralism, but also by the development of a fairly comprehensive welfare regime that, amongst other things, privileges families over individuals and is based on the principle of subsidiarity.

Conservatives such as the British Tory Party, on the other hand, generally promote a rather more residual welfare state, and take a more nationalistic line, being noticeably less enthusiastic, for instance, about European integration.

By contrast, liberals, such as Venstre in Denmark or the Dutch VVD, are generally more internationalist as well as more concerned with the promotion and protection of pluralism and individual rights (and not just property rights) rather than the preservation of traditional values.

These differences help determine the scope and scale of their responses to the challenges they face and, indeed, the extent of the electoral trouble in which they find themselves.

The double whammy – the silent revolution and the silent counter-revolution

To better understand the current political situation and fate of the mainstream right in Western Europe, and to appreciate quite how daunting a challenge it faces, one has to acknowledge an important transformation that has shaken up West European politics.

Effectively, two revolutions have shaken the continent, which have made possible the emergence of two new party families – a ‘silent revolution’ which, among other things, fostered the appearance of the Greens and a ‘silent counter-revolution’ which helped give rise to the populist radical right.

“Effectively, two revolutions have shaken the continent, which have made possible the emergence of two new party families”.

The sustained economic growth that characterised the three decades after the Second World War permitted the emergence of a robust middle class that began to worry less about material needs and started to place more emphasis on post-material concerns.

This was not an abrupt transformation, but rather a slow-motion development that was championed first by younger generations who cared about issues such as fair trade, international peace, respect for the environment and women’s rights.

By the 1980s, this generation was able to trigger a shift in the political agenda of most Western European societies, putting pressure on the existing political parties to adapt to this new scenario – one marked by the growing relevance of post-material values and thus the declining strength of traditional class voting.

Increasing support for progressive values by the middle-class implied a major challenge to the mainstream right, because the left looked set to expand its base of support beyond the traditional working class.

This was hard enough by itself but, from the 1980s and 1990s onward, the mainstream right also faced a challenge from new parties on its right flank which were in part a product of a similar socio-cultural backlash against progressive values, particularly against multiculturalism and immigration – a backlash labelled the silent counter-revolution by Italian political scientist Piero Ignazi.

As a result, mainstream right parties have found themselves experiencing a tension between, on the one hand, the need to continue to appeal to well-heeled (and often well-educated) voters, many of whom express the liberal and progressive values associated with the silent revolution; and, on the other hand, the need to appeal to often less-educated and less affluent (male) voters who sympathise with the authoritarian and nativist ideas associated with the silent counter-revolution pursued by the populist radical right.

Immigration – responding to the silent counter-revolution

The shoe pinches most, perhaps, when it comes to migration and multiculturalism. Widespread anti-immigrant and ethnocentric sentiment is particularly problematic for the mainstream right – not just because, generally speaking, it approves of business-friendly labour market flexibility but because, ideologically, it is all about defending right-wing ideas yet adopting moderate policy positions and adhering to liberal democratic values. So while it can to some extent ape and work with the far right, there are limits to this approach.

As well as posing a threat to the immediate economic interests of some businesses, the adoption of overly harsh positions on immigration can hurt the image and reputation of mainstream right parties among voters who, generally speaking, approve of markets but not authoritarianism, and might therefore withdraw their support.

Moreover, since the populist radical right has in many countries effectively seized ‘issue ownership’ of migration and multiculturalism, trying to match them policy for policy risks driving up their electoral salience, thereby doing those  radical right parties a huge favour.

If immigration represents a challenge to the mainstream right, we might expect it to affect its three party families in dissimilar ways. In the case of the Christian democrats, for instance, the adoption of harsh anti-immigrant positions is clearly at odds with core Christian values.

For Conservatives, opening the economy to immigrants can be seen as something positive for the free market but equally something that potentially conflicts with their belief in national sovereignty.

“For Conservatives, opening the economy to immigrants can be seen as something positive for the free market but equally something that potentially conflicts with their belief in national sovereignty”.

Liberal parties, however, should face no such philosophical difficulties since they are in favour of both the free market and tolerating different cultures, although, by presenting Islam as a religion at odds with pluralistic values, radical right parties may disrupt that logic.

And yet, and yet: as Figure 3 shows, parties from all three families have actually moved in pretty much the same restrictive direction on the issue, albeit, as one would expect given the above, with different start- and end-points.

mainstream right

Moral issues – responding to the silent revolution

Of course, immigration is only one area where mainstream right parties have felt obliged to alter their stances – on that issue in response to the pressure created by the silent-counter revolution. They have also had to respond to the silent revolution.

Western European societies have become more liberal on issues such as abortion, divorce, gay rights and gender equality. This has forced mainstream right parties to rethink their programmatic positions and the policies they pursue in government – not always an easy task, particularly for conservative and, even more so, Christian democratic parties, as both David Cameron and Angela Merkel found when it came to gay marriage.

Nevertheless, as Figure 4 shows, although liberal parties have become even more liberal, conservatives and Christian democrats have done so too, albeit without ever quite catching them up.

mainstream right

However, the critical point is that none of these shifts in position – whether they be in response to the silent revolution or the silent counter-revolution – are risk free. By adopting harsher positions on immigration, for instance, mainstream right parties risk alienating their core constituency, which is traditionally and strongly pro-business.

On the other hand, surveys which measure ‘propensity to vote’ for other parties reveal that many current and former mainstream right voters will be tempted to defect to the far right if they don’t see its mainstream counterparts offering at least some token resistance to the social and cultural changes migration brings.

They are similarly uncomfortable – even if they are far from being ‘culture warriors’ advocating some kind of ‘war on woke’ – with the dilution of what they see as common-sense, traditional morality.

Which mainstream right parties are faring better or worse?

Clearly, as their electoral decline since the 1980s suggests, things have been hardest for Christian democratic parties – at least across Western Europe as a whole.

The silent revolution brought with it a decline not just in religiosity but in adherence to the traditional values associated with it, both of which are associated with support for the Christian democrats.

Meanwhile, the silent counter-revolution – and in particular the nationalism, xenophobia, and antipathy to immigration associated with it – represents a direct challenge to Christian democracy’s support for internationalism (typified by its role in encouraging European integration) and its traditional commitment to charity and ‘turning strangers into friends’.

Certainly, it would appear that the Austrian, Dutch and German Christian democrats have suffered as expected. They have lost support over decades and have found it increasingly difficult to appeal to a broad range of voters.

In spite of this, however, their desire to hold on to office – even if that involves sacrifices on policy – means they have been able to form governments on several occasions, either as junior partners (the Netherlands) or the main partner providing the premier (Austria and Germany).

Of course, whether this has been a sensible strategy for these Christian democratic movements in the long-run is debatable. The difficulties of Germany’s CDU/CSU were for a long time somewhat disguised by the personal popularity of former Chancellor Angela Merkel and the weakness of its traditional centre-left opponent.

Now that she has departed and the SPD is the largest force in the new ruling coalition, what is to stop the Christian Democrats going the way of their much diminished counterparts in other countries across the continent?

One response, of course, is to follow their Austrian sister-party in its willingness to partner up in government with the far right. True, the AfD is, for now, regarded by the CDU/CSU as beyond the pale – at least at the federal level.

But how long will that attitude last, notwithstanding the understandable reluctance of many in the Union to do a deal with a party that for some voters conjures up memories of a dark and deeply disturbing past?

“As the Austrian example shows, the idea that, by inviting the far right into coalition, the mainstream right can somehow shame or tame its partner is a convenient, comforting fiction”.

As the Austrian example shows, the idea that, by inviting the far right into coalition, the mainstream right can somehow shame or tame its partner is a convenient, comforting fiction. Any electoral and reputational damage done by the frequent failure of populist radical right parties to convert simplistic promises into workable policies soon seems to heal.

That said, the alternatives – maintaining some kind of cordon sanitaire against the far right or else adopting some of its rhetoric and priorities (particularly on immigration) – show little sign of working either. The former approach rarely lasts and anyway only serves to prove the pariah party’s accusations that ‘the elite’ or ‘the political class’ is conspiring to shut out the true tribunes of ‘the people.’

Meanwhile, as we have already observed, ‘closing down the issue space’ by, for example, cracking down on immigration, asylum and crime often increases the salience of the issues and thereby boosts support for the insurgents.

Let us turn to the conservative parties. Even if campaigning against immigration risks rubbing up against their commitment to business- and market-friendly economic policies, Western Europe’s conservatives should have been better able to cope with the silent counter-revolution: after all, nationalism, as well as, for instance, a penchant for ‘law and order’, is already very much part of who they are.

On the other hand, their respect for traditional hierarchies and so-called ‘family values’, has made the silent revolution a slightly trickier prospect, even if looser links with the church have offered them a little more flexibility in that respect than is allowed to their Christian democrat counterparts.

The UK is a good example. Save for a brief (albeit electorally costly) hiatus during the early years of David Cameron’s leadership between 2005 and 2016, the British Conservative Party has found little difficulty in moving to the right on the cultural dimension, in particular by tapping into ‘welfare chauvinism’ and politicising immigration and the issue of national sovereignty.

“Western Europe’s conservatives should have been better able to cope with the silent counter-revolution: after all, nationalism, as well as, for instance, a penchant for ‘law and order’, is already very much part of who they are”.

Some, however, would argue that the strategy was taken too far in response to the rise of the populist radical right party, UKIP, and its successor, the Brexit Party, resulting in the UK leaving the EU – not something that the majority of employers (or indeed employees) wanted.

When it came to the gradual but seemingly unstoppable growth of social liberalism, however, the Conservative Party initially found things trickier: what was acceptable up until the early 1990s (such as its lack of support for equalities legislation covering race, gender and sexuality) became far less so as the twentieth century turned into the twenty-first.

What Cameron billed ‘liberal Conservatism’ enjoyed relatively narrow support among the party’s grassroots. Still, there seems little chance that its headline policy consequences will be reversed: after all, both equal marriage and at least a superficial commitment to environmental targets enjoy widespread support among voters – to the evident consternation of right-wing Tory MPs who have established parliamentary groups in order to stem the tide of ‘wokery’ and ‘greenery’.

But by no means every West European conservative party has coped as well as the UK Tories with the challenges posed by the two revolutions. Perhaps predictably for a Nordic outfit, Sweden’s Moderates, have proved – more than most conservative parties – relatively comfortable with the silent revolution.

But, as anxiety about immigration has mounted, the Moderates have suffered losses to the far right Sweden Democrats, prompting a move on the party’s part to the authoritarian right in order to stop these defeats.

This rightward shift by the Moderates has been largely ineffectual, so far anyway,  and may have ceded ground to liberal parties on the other flank, reminding us once again that, for Europe’s mainstream right parties, there are no easy solutions, only trade-offs.

A similar but probably more dramatic tale is unfolding in France. For a long time, the Gaullist right, in its various formations, did little to adapt to the silent revolution but proved more alive to the concerns of the silent counter-revolution, especially when these concerns led voters to  switch to the Front National (FN).

As a result, Jacques Chirac and especially Nicolas Sarkozy talked (and sometimes acted) tough on immigration and integration as a vote-seeking strategy.

Arguably, however, their successors overshot, doubling down on a conservative cultural agenda that extended beyond migration and multiculturalism to issues like equal marriage – a move that caused liberal voters (and politicians) to become alienated from the party. Nor, in any case, did it do the Gaullists much good: working class, authoritarian voters to whom that cultural agenda may have appealed were put off by the so-called neoliberal, austerity policies advocated by them in response to the global financial crisis and were instead attracted by the anti-globalist, welfare chauvinist appeal of the FN.

On the other flank, and as a consequence of the increasing adoption of tougher positions on the cultural dimension of competition, many liberal mainstream right voters defected (along with some politicians) to Macron’s En Marche, which (at least initially) took more liberal positions on both sociocultural and socioeconomic issues, effectively stranding the Gaullist Les Républicains between the proverbial devil and the deep blue sea.

Whether the Republicains’ chosen candidate for this year’s presidential elections, Valérie Pécresse, will be able to escape that fate remains to be seen. True, in the battle to become the  party’s presidential candidate, she beat off internal rivals who ran further to the authoritarian right than she did.

But if she is to reach the second round run-off against Macron she will have to outbid two far more strident right candidates without losing Les Republicains’ moderate supporters. It may prove an impossible task.

In most of Western Europe, of course, mainstream right voters have long had an alternative to conservative and Christian democratic parties – namely the liberals. Indeed, should Macron’s experiment endure and entrench itself in the French party system, it may become a success story for the liberal party family and a role model to be imitated by its counterparts across the continent.

The same goes, perhaps, for the German Free Democrats (FDP), often written off but now back in government and aiming, like Macron, to combine (albeit in coalition) the defence of the values of the silent revolution with the endorsement of relatively pro-business positions.

In the Netherlands, however, the liberals have effectively ditched those values – at least as they relate to migration and multiculturalism if not to, say, questions of sexuality – in an attempt to retain sufficient support to stay in government and further stem the flow of Dutch voters to the far right.

In fact, under the leadership of Mark Rutte, the VVD in the Netherlands has, at least for the moment, succeeded in picking up votes and holding on to office, but at the cost of supporting ideas and policies that are at odds with key aspects of the silent revolution and therefore the agenda that, in theory at least, one would expect from a liberal party.

Seen in this light, it could be argued that Rutte is following a similar approach to those adopted by the Austrian Christian democrats under Kurz and the British Conservatives under Boris Johnson – namely to build an ersatz populist radical right party.

“Western Europe’s Conservative, Christian democratic and Liberal parties can be considered mainstream not only because they take relatively moderate positions but also (and perhaps more importantly) because they are committed to respecting liberal democracy”.

This involves the acceptance and even endorsement of some of the values of the silent counter-revolution, to the point that we should seriously question the extent to which, going forward, these parties can safely be categorised as mainstream right – in much the same way as the various parties formed by Silvio Berlusconi in Italy cannot, even if they were never far right outfits in the mould of his coalition partners in Alleanza Nazionale and the Lega, be convincingly or comfortably labelled ‘conservative’.

Will the mainstream finally move to the radical right ?

Western Europe’s Conservative, Christian democratic and Liberal parties can be considered mainstream not only because they take relatively moderate positions but also (and perhaps more importantly) because they are committed to respecting liberal democracy.

But consider the increasingly illiberal tone of the Austrian Christian democrats under Sebastian Kurz (now that country’s ex-Chancellor after retiring to spend more time with his family and to defend himself against corruption allegations).

Think too about some of the aggressively populist language, constitutional short-cuts, and flouting of international law pursued by the Conservative Party under the leadership of Boris Johnson, as well as the harsh discourse on integration and immigration advanced by Mark Rutte’s liberal party in the Netherlands. Will we always be able to classify such parties as mainstream right?

It seems premature right now to group them, as some well-respected and worried liberal journalists have already begun to do, alongside the Trump-era Republican Party, Orbán’s Fidesz in Hungary and Kaczyński’s Law and Justice in Poland. But in the future, who knows?

As those examples show, the far right doesn’t always start out as far right, while the literature on ‘democratic backsliding’ stresses that the slide into ‘illiberal democracy’ is often gradual rather than sudden – so incremental that, by the time it becomes undeniable, it is too late to do much about.

In short, if mainstream right parties in Western Europe conclude that the best way of arresting their decline and beating the challengers on their flanks is to effectively transform themselves into populist radical right parties, then scholars, policy-makers – and the rest of us – should start seriously worrying about the health of the liberal democracy we have, perhaps, taken for granted for too long.

By Tim Bale, Professor of Politics at Queen Mary University of London, and Cristóbal Rovira Kaltwasser, Professor at the School of Political Science at Universidad Diego Portales, Santiago de Chile.


Can the UK learn from the new EU approach to fiscal governance?

Will 2024 bring a new momentum for EU enlargement?

How strong is public support for Ukraine in Europe? 

EU enlargement remains on life support, despite the opening of negotiations with Ukraine and Moldova

Maritime security cooperation in the Red Sea: towards flexible European approaches?

Recent Articles

Subscribe to our newsletter

* indicates required