In a thought-provoking opinion article recently published in the New York Times, political scientist David Adler posits a remarkable claim: Not extremists but centrists are the most hostile to democracy.
Can this be right? That depends on how you define “centrist.” Adler relies on what citizens say about their own ideology. He finds that citizens who place themselves in the center of the left-right scale are more skeptical of and dissatisfied with democracy than those who identify themselves closer to the left and right extremes.
But do these self-characterizations represent how moderate or radical they are? I looked beyond how people describe their left-right position and assessed their actions and beliefs. That reveals something different: The people who vote for radical parties and who hold radical views on those parties’ issues are the ones more skeptical of and less satisfied with democracy.
Is a centrist on a left-right scale really a moderate?
Adler relies on two large-scale public opinion surveys — the World Values Survey (WVS) and the European Values Study (EVS). In a thorough analysis, he examines the link between where individuals place themselves on the left-right scale and how they assess democracy.
But here’s where his analysis goes wrong: How people describe their own left-right position isn’t a very accurate way of distinguishing among those who are in the moderate ideological center and those who are more radical.
To illustrate, I’ll focus on the radical right. Let me stress, however, that you would see similar patterns among the radical left.
Here I’m defining the radical right as a family of parties that endorse “nativism” — i.e., the belief that the homogeneous nation-state is threatened by “dangerous others” such as immigrants or people of another race. Examples include the Front National in France and the League in Italy. Various studies have shown that those who vote for such parties mainly do so because they hold anti-immigrant attitudes.
Why does the traditional left-right self-identification scale fail to distinguish moderates from radicals? That’s because the categories of far left, far right, and center include very broad groups of respondents.
To make this clear, let’s look at those who vote for radical right parties and those who endorse those parties’ attitudes. In the analyses below, I use the European Social Survey (ESS), which has more recent information than the WVS and EVS.
Of those who voted for a radical right party, about 43 percent — a plurality — place themselves in the center. We get a similar result when we look at who holds the most negative attitude toward immigrants: About 48 percent — again, a plurality — call themselves centrists.
In other words, many self-identified centrists aren’t moderates at all, once you look at how they vote and what they believe.
But it’s not just the center. Those who identify as far right are also ideologically diverse if you look at how they vote and what they believe about immigration. Of those who place themselves on the far-right side of a left-right spectrum, about 30 percent voted for a radical right party. Most of them voted for a mainstream party.
And about 18 percent of those who say they’re on the far-right side of a left-right spectrum think that immigrants of a different race or from another ethnic group should be kept out of the country.
In other words, many of those who say they’re at the far-right side of the political spectrum are in fact moderate, if we’re measuring by how they vote and what they believe.
Other ways of assessing moderate vs. radical lead to different results
So let’s discard left-right self-placement for now. Instead, we’ll assess whether someone is radical right or moderate by looking at how he or she votes and what he or she believes on the radical right’s main issue: immigration.
Let’s first look at voting behavior. The figure above shows that those who vote for radical left and right parties attach less importance to living in a democratically governed country. We see a similar pattern when it comes to satisfaction with how democracy works.
Let me emphasize that these are different phenomena. Someone can find it of essential importance to live in a democratically governed country and at the same time be strongly dissatisfied with the way democracy works in his or her country.
In the figure, we look at attitudes toward democracy among those with various beliefs about the most important issue for the radical right: immigration. In the first panel, we can see that those people who want to keep out immigrants attach much less importance to living in a democratically governed country. In the second panel, we can see that they are also much less satisfied with how democracy works in their country.
In other words, citizens with typical radical right attitudes are more skeptical of and dissatisfied with democracy than citizens with more moderate pluralist and multiculturalist beliefs.
Not centrists but radicals are more hostile to democracy
These analyses make one thing quite clear: When we look at voting behavior and ideological beliefs, radicals feel it’s less important to live in a democratically governed country and are less satisfied with how their own democracy works than do those in the center.
Matthijs Rooduijn (@mrooduijn) is an assistant professor in the department of political science at the University of Amsterdam.