This article is a preview from the Summer 2020 edition of New Humanist

The Far Right Today (Polity Press) by Cas Mudde

Even those with only a passing interest will be aware that politics has become significantly more right-wing and intolerant in character in recent years. Identifying this rightward shift as a growing threat to liberal democracy, Cas Mudde sets about exploring what lies behind “the mainstreaming and normalisation of the far right in general, and the populist radical right in particular,” and does so in a notably systematic, informative and accessible manner.

It is a sorry tale of prejudice, xenophobia and racism, recalling the fascism of the 1930s, and Mudde’s account of it ought to ring warning bells. Arguing that we are now in a “fourth wave” of far-right political activity since the end of the Second World War, he emphasises just how much further the process of mainstreaming and normalisation has gone this time around, to the extent that far-right concerns are beginning to dominate the political landscape – as recent elections around the globe amply demonstrate.

Mudde splits the far right into two factions: the “extreme right” and the “radical right”. While the former is smaller in numbers, its crudely nativist beliefs have been picked up by the latter to become increasingly influential in setting the terms of public debate about issues such as immigration and national security. Why their ideas continue to find adherents remains the great unanswered question of studies such as this, as even Mudde concedes.

Mudde’s analysis ranges widely, taking in a host of far-right political groups, introducing the reader to the bewildering list of acronyms that mark out this territory, and exploring what they have in common ideologically. The 38 parties that Mudde cites provide a snapshot of where we are now, so if you do not know your AfD (Germany) from your XA (Greece), this is the place to start. What comes through most strongly is the scale of the right-wing resurgence in recent years.

Even if not all of the groups discussed have scored much in the way of political success, enough of them have to raise doubts about the future of liberal democracy. Where once Mudde considered the populist radical right to be a “relatively minor nuisance” on the political scene, he now admits that he underestimated the receptiveness of the general public to such policies, particularly with regard to immigration.

Although Mudde makes several suggestions as to how we can stand up to the far right, these tend to be statements of the obvious; a matter of “strengthening liberal democracy” by reclaiming the political agenda, for example. No liberal humanist or rationalist is going to disagree with that, but it is more of a wishlist than a programme for action. The book ends on a rather plaintive note, telling us that “only if we believe in liberal democracy can we defend it!” Again, no disagreement there, but the problem is that so many of our fellow citizens no longer do seem to believe, and altering this mindset is turning into one of the most intractable cultural problems of our time.

The real problem is a psychological one rather than a political one, and the solution to that is by no means clear. Scientists have long been searching for a Grand Unified Theory of physics, but we might benefit even more from a Grand Unified Theory of Human Nature that would tell us how to prevent the recurrence of fascist ideas and the prejudices they promote.