Conference examines explosion of far-right thought worldwide

Author: Rowland, Ashley

Plenty of scholars have studied far-right populist movements around the world. But what about the people who inspire those movements?

The “New Right Thinkers and the Crisis of Liberal Democracy” conference at the University of Notre Dame, held Feb. 7 and 8, brought together scholars from around the world to address the growing influence of those thought leaders and their potential impact on democracy.

“We are taking new right thinkers seriously. Rather than just dismissing them as simple extremists or cranks or fools, we’re asking if there’s a coherent logic to their positions that lasts long after populist movements fail or die,” said event organizer and Kellogg Institute Faculty Fellow A. James McAdams.

The conference addressed two questions: What is new right thinking – an entirely new set of ideas,  or an offshoot of existing strands of fascism and extremism? And, does new right thinking pose a threat to liberal democracy?

“We’re trying to think through the roots of where these ideas come from and the consequences of these ideas around the world,” said Faculty Fellow Emma Planinc, a historian of political thought who studies the origins of regenerative political rhetoric in 18th century France.  

She noted that even within the conference, scholars disagreed on the meaning of the term “new right,” a phrase that has different political connotations in different countries.

Meanwhile, a recent surge in interest in fascism within academia has gone hand in hand with the resurgence of right wing parties in Europe and, many scholars believe, in the United States.

By bringing in an international cohort of scholars, “we’re thinking this through on a grand scale,” Planinc said.

“Because this is a movement bigger than any one country or thinker, we’re trying to sort out whether there is a shared basis emerging and at least try to figure out if there’s something deeper going on. Why now? Why is this happening?”

McAdams, who is the William M. Scholl Professor of International Affairs, said the conference was unique because it concentrated on individuals instead of movements. It was also the first to focus on contemporary thinkers – Martin Lacko of Slovakia, American Jason Reza Jorjani, and France’s Guillame Faye, among others.

“It’s a novel way of approaching the current crisis of liberal democracy – by focusing on their ideas,” he added.

The event was sponsored by the Kellogg Institute for International Studies and the William M. Scholl Chair of International Affairs, and was the outgrowth of a smaller May 2019 workshop and a panel at last year’s American Political Studies Association conference.

The conference is expected to result in an edited volume that, like the conference, will be the first of its kind on the topic.

“There is, so far, no such book. There has been no such meeting,” McAdams said. “We’re at the top of the wave right now.”

Unlike most academic conferences, attendees shared their papers beforehand and came prepared with questions for discussion. The format was intended to be organic in nature and help participants – all historians or political scientists ­– narrow their focus and identify a common language to describe the new right movements.

Jérôme Jamin of l’Université de Liege, who wrote a paper on “Pat Buchanan, Ethnic Loyalty and Democracy,” said the conference’s emphasis on discussion over presentation was paying off: “It’s producing quite rare and unique intellectual moments.”

“We’re not from the same countries. We’re not from the same cultures,” he said. “We study a common topic but we see it from different perspectives, and we need the deep discussion that results from that.”

McAdams said the participating scholars, who came from the United States, Canada, Europe, and Australia, were “the best of the best.”

Among them was José Pedro Zúquete, a political scientist from the Universidade de Lisboa whose paper analyzed the relationship between European Identitarians and white identity politics.

He said the right-wing thinkers being studied come from different countries and different traditions, but share common characteristics: a rejection of universalism and globalism, and a defense of particular cultures, ethnicities, and civilizations.

Those elements have led to a “bundle of issues” related to identity, tensions within multiethnic societies, and the impact of mass immigration.

“We’re dealing with something that is vague but is important to define, which is the spirit of the times – the Zeitgeist,” Zúquete said. “We are going through a period of turmoil, and these writers are part of that intellectual and cultural turmoil.”