🔮 Beyond grievances: the path to populist radical-right party membership

Sofia Ammassari argues that grievances are important in understanding why people join populist radical-right parties, but so is political efficacy – the belief that one can influence politics. We shouldn't think of members of these parties only as angry and disaffected citizens; they can be pro-active and efficacious, too

The stereotypical populist

The stereotypical supporter of a populist radical-right (PRR) party is someone filled with negative feelings. Usually, they are angry at mainstream politicians for having left people like themselves behind; fearful of societal transformations caused by globalisation; and resentful towards outgroups such as immigrants and refugees.

Undoubtedly, some support for these parties comes from individuals who fit the above stereotype. However, as these parties enter the mainstream, the profile of their supporters is changing. For example, this blog series shows that they are not inherently motivated by discontent or nostalgia.

So, why do people get involved in the populist radical right? In my new Government & Opposition article, I present a nuanced analysis of some of the myths surrounding this phenomenon. My research focuses on a specific group of supporters: PRR party members. I interviewed 82 members of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) in India, Lega in Italy, and the Sweden Democrats.

Populist radical-right party membership is not just about fighting ‘the Elites’ and ‘the Others’; it is also about saving ‘the People’

My interviews show that the people who join these parties do indeed hold grievances against outgroups and mainstream politics. However, they are also politically efficacious individuals who want to improve the situation of their ingroup. PRR party membership, therefore, is not just about fighting ‘the Elites’ and ‘the Others’; it is also about saving ‘the People’.

Why join a populist radical-right party?

Most people are motivated to join a political party for two main reasons: to support its policies and to express their belief in the party’s ideology. Those who enrol in PRR parties, therefore, generally do so to voice their populist, nativist, and authoritarian worldviews.

Yet, these motivations for joining do not exist in a vacuum – they need to be activated by triggers. To give an example, one is not born with anti-immigration attitudes: these arise due to individual and contextual factors. Drawing on studies about why people protest, I thus argue that there are two triggers behind the decision to join a PRR party: grievances and efficacy.

We already know that grievances are central to populist radical-right politics. For instance, feelings of relative deprivation – the perception that one is worse off in comparison with the past and/or with other people – are strong predictors of support for these parties.

Feelings of relative deprivation are strong predictors of support for the populist radical right

More counterintuitive is the idea that efficacy – the feeling that one can influence the political process – is a trigger for joining PRR parties. Some scholars have portrayed PRR supporters as not very sophisticated when it comes to political matters. Moreover, being populist, they should be sceptical of institutions like parties, which mediate between popular sovereignty and ‘the People’.

Why, then, should efficacy play a role in the path to PRR party membership? Not everyone with populist, nativist, and authoritarian worldviews will join these parties. Most people will limit themselves to voting for them – ultimately, voting would still allow people to help the party achieve its goals. Those who do eventually decide to become party members must believe that doing so can make a difference.

Populist radical-right party membership: between grievances and efficacy

My interviews with 82 members of the BJP, Lega and the Sweden Democrats provide strong evidence for my argument. In particular, they reveal three common elements of the path to PRR party membership, each with a distinctive set of triggers and motivations.

The first element is a sense of disaffection with local or national societal developments. This originates from the experience of being in contact with outgroups (religious minorities, immigrants and refugees). Outgroups are cast as a threat to the native culture, physical safety, and economic welfare of ‘the People’. These grievances against ‘the Others’, in turn, encourage soon-to-be PRR party members to support nativist policies such as curbing immigration.

Populist radical-right parties cast outgroups as a threat to the native culture, physical safety, and economic welfare of ‘the People’

The second element is a feeling of affiliation with the populist radical-right party. The latter is perceived as the only party close to ‘the People’ and thus capable of addressing the causes of their disaffection. Other parties are criticised for being out of touch and for favouring outgroups. These grievances against ‘the Elites’ trigger PRR supporters’ desire to oppose mainstream politics and to voice their populist beliefs.

The third element is a moment of action. Ultimately, PRR supporters realise that, by joining these parties, they can redress the societal and political wrongs mentioned above. The main trigger here is a strong sense of efficacy: the idea that, if they enrol in a PRR party, they can improve the situation of ‘the People’. They can do so, first, by providing assistance to the party, in the form of ideas and professional experience; and second, by making use of its resources, in particular public and party offices.

A coherent global phenomenon

What are the main takeaways of my study?

First, my interviews show that PRR party members are not just fearful, angry and disaffected citizens. The reasons for their involvement go beyond negative emotions and being against something. In the end, their main goal is proactively improving the situation of ‘the People’.

Second, my findings emphasise how populism and nativism are distinct concepts. The two provide different mobilisation mechanisms on the path to PRR party membership. Nativism makes members feel under threat from ‘the Others’. Populism allows them to identify who is responsible – ‘the Elites’.

Third, regardless of whether they were living in a village in rural India or an apartment in the centre of Stockholm, the members I interviewed reported similar triggers and motivations for joining. This confirms how the populist radical right has become a coherent global phenomenon. It is thus crucial that the study of PRR parties moves beyond the ‘usual suspects’ in Europe. Only by doing so can we fully understand how PRR politics is shaping today’s world.

No.56 in a Loop thread on the Future of Populism. Look out for the 🔮 to read more

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.


photograph of Sofia Ammassari
Sofia Ammassari
Research Fellow, Centre for Governance and Public Policy, Griffith University, Queensland

Sofia's main research interests are populism, political parties, and women’s and youth political participation.

She has published on these topics in leading journals such as the European Journal of Political Research and Government & Opposition.

She tweets @AmmassariSofia

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