The Threats of Populism–Europe’s Reluctant Radicals

Counterpoint’s long-term programme of research and advocacy on European populisms investigates this continuing trend.

The project ‘Recapturing Europe’s Reluctant Radicals’, supported by the Open Society Foundations, asks what kind of risks generate support for populist parties? And what risks do these parties pose in political, policy and economic terms? And what hope is there to tackle them?

Counterpoint works on populism not only because it is an important political trend, but also because it is a powerful lens for exploring the health and solidity of a country’s democratic institutions. Populism reveals much about how responsive and open a country’s political institutions are, how confident the citizenry is in its political system, and how accessible the society is to outsiders.

The research on this topic has tended to privilege the more radical aspects of these movements—both in terms of ideology as well as tactics and supporters. While preoccupation with radicalisation of this sort is understandable, it has tended to lead away from studying and countering right-wing populist parties effectively.

This project focuses on the reluctant, ‘soft’ support for xenophobic populism – those voters who turn to right-wing populist parties but are not necessarily committed supporters. These are the ‘reluctant radicals’. The project aims to understand what motivates these voters – and what mainstream parties need to do to win back their support.

‘Recapturing Europe’s Reluctant Radicals’ is a three stage project. 


Stage 1

The first stage used quantitative analysis to investigate the socio-demographic characteristics and attitudes of the reluctant radicals across a series of European countries. This stage culminated in a report for mainstream politicians and policymakers on the motivations of the reluctant radicals and what they can do to address xenophobic populism. Our focus for the first stage was xenophobic populism on the right, but the project as whole looks at populism on both left and right.


Stage 2

The second stage of the project explored the country-specific contexts from which the reluctant radicals have emerged. Counterpoint has commissioned in-depth studies for ten countries, written by high-level experts, including academics, journalists and distinguished public figures. The studies aim to draw a picture of the local cultures, societies, feelings and perceptions, to complement our profiles of the reluctant radicals.

As part of the second stage of the project, we are currently launching the pamphlets across Europe. We have also partnered with the online magazine Open Democracy to release English excerpts of the pamphlets in advance of the full publications.


Stage 3

For the third stage of the project, building on the previous two stages, Counterpoint has partnered with organisations and institutions in Finland, France and the Netherlands to explore (through face-to-face interactions) the political realities and attitudes of citizens in each of these countries. This has enabled us to understand better the social, political and cultural contexts into which the reluctant radicals fit. Drawing on this detailed picture, Counterpoint and our partners prepared informed policy recommendations for politicians and policy-makers.

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