🔮 Why the populist radical right will soon embrace ecologism

The intersection between the crisis of representative democracy and the climate crisis grows ever bigger. Gijs Lambrechts argues that climate action will soon take centre stage in the discourse of the populist radical right

Ecologist turn?

In recent years, the phenomenon of populism has become increasingly prominent in global political reality and in academic research. Yet scholars have paid surprisingly little attention to predicting its future shifts. Building on public recognition and existing academic research, can we reliably predict that populist radical-right parties will soon turn toward ecologism?

Approaches to populism

Within the ideational approach, populism applies two core concepts: ‘the people’ and ‘the elite'. This approach ties the two concepts to a host ideology from which they derive meaning.

Populist ideology divides society into two conflicting blocs. It describes 'the people' as morally ‘pure’ and denigrates 'the elite' as ‘corrupt’. This binary delineation fuels a strong belief in popular sovereignty.

However, the discursive-theoretical approach to populism is also valid. This approach rejects the conceptualisation of populism as a set of ideas. Instead, it focuses on how these ideas are articulated.

The discursive-theoretical approach also poses the idea that these collective identities are formed based on an equivalential process in which heterogeneous demands are united by their opposition to ‘the elite’. As such, a party or movement is not populist because of the contents of its politics or ideology. Rather, it is populist because of the logic with which it articulates these contents.

When the two crises of our time meet

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) stresses that climate change will increasingly affect ecosystems, infrastructure, water and food security, health and wellbeing, economies, and culture. As a result, human systems will inevitably have to adapt. Generally, the climate crisis generates demands for more ambitious climate action, far-reaching energy policies, and more robust environmental protection.

Demands from the twin crises of the climate emergency and the crisis of representative democracy are very different in substance. Yet discontent with the current state of affairs increasingly fuels them both

The other major crisis of our time is that of representative democracy. Lack of trust in the system of representation is on the rise. Liberal democracy is built upon the idea of a representative electoral system. However, many citizens don’t feel they are being represented, so the system can therefore no longer be considered representative. The crisis of representative democracy leads citizens to make demands for direct, unmediated, non-institutionalised sovereignty.

The demands from these two crises are very different in substance. Yet discontent with the current state of affairs increasingly fuels them both. Citizens feel they do not have a say in the legislation that affects them, and place growing demands on governing authorities.

If governments do not meet this wide variety of demands, citizens grow increasingly frustrated. Solidarity arises among groups with shared grievances, creating fertile ground for populists to gain votes.

Capturing the intersection

Can we, then, link these heterogeneous demands, generated by two different crises, under the ideology of one political party? To answer this, we must first identify and distinguish the relevant operative ideologies: populism, nativism, and ecologism.

In contrast with the thinness of populism, nativism is a thick ideology. It holds that members of a nation should be the exclusive inhabitants of the nation-state. It also holds that foreign persons or ideas threaten the nation-state's homogeneity.

Populist radical-right parties portray the political establishment and the media as discordant with the general will of the people they claim to represent

Scholars consider ecologism a thick ideology because its ideological core is deep. Ecologism posits that we should consider the moral value of the non-human world in the social, economic, and political order.

Populist radical-right parties form in layers. They combine the thinness of populism and the thickness of nativism. In practice, such parties propagate a discourse in which the elites consist of the political establishment, financial powers, intellectuals, and journalists.

Populist radical-right parties portray these actors as discordant with the general will of the people they claim to represent, defining them in ethnonational or ethnocultural terms. The populist radical right thus mobilises grievances that stem from the crisis of representative democracy.

Thin ideology of populism meets thick ideology of ecologism

It may seem counterintuitive, but the thick ideology of ecologism is compatible with nativism. Populist radical-right parties can integrate the moral consideration of nature in social, economic, and political policy into their nativist view of society. By so doing, they can attach their thin ideology of populism to a thick ideology of nativism and ecologism.

However, the fact that it is theoretically possible to do this doesn't necessarily mean it will happen. Such frame-bridging appears to contradict current politics in which many on the populist radical right are climate sceptics.

Populist radical-right parties can integrate the moral consideration of nature in social, economic, and political policy into their nativist view of society

Still, the populist radical right might soon embrace ecologism because the growing body of evidence will prove harder to deny. The conflux between the twin crises of liberal democracy and the climate will only grow bigger. And this will give populist radical-right parties an opportunity for electoral expansion.

The convergence will result in a thick ideology which holds that natives should exclusively inhabit the nation-state and that national policy should consider the moral value of nature by limiting climate impact. Attached to this merged thick ideology will be the thinness of populism that depicts the elite as corrupt and discordant with the general will.

Populist radical-right parties would thus respond to the growing intersection of two crises by merging two thick ideologies under the thin umbrella of populism. Such ideological re-articulation is already manifesting itself within the far-right in Spain (Vox), Italy (Fratelli d’Italia), and France (Rassemblement National).

 A rational move

As the crises of liberal democracy and the climate converge yet further, political parties will have no choice but to react to social grievances arising from both. Today, populist radical-right parties are responding only to the crisis of representative democracy. It seems likely, therefore, that such parties will be forced to embrace ecologism while they still remain populist.

11th 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 Gijs Lambrechts
Gijs Lambrechts
MSc Student in Policy Economics, KU Leuven / MSc Student in Journalism, Politics and Media, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Gijs' research interests are environmental politics, populism, political journalism, and discourse theory.

He tweets @LambrechtsGijs

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