Daviel Lazure-Vieira

Over the past two years, the fear of the far right has resurfaced in every European election. After Austria, the Netherlands, France and Germany, all eyes are now on Italy. The upcoming Italian election this Sunday once again raises concerns about the rise of populist political parties in the era of Brexit and President Trump, as the country is confronted with a flagging economy, and with an unprecedented number of migrants landing on European soil through its Mediterranean shores. And the results couldn’t be more volatile: incumbent prime minister Matteo Renzi will face anti-establishment right-wing leaders Luigi Di Maio and Matteo Salvini, as well as former prime minister Silvio Berlusconi.

Kai Arzheimer will be carefully watching the results on Sunday. The 2017–2018 Hannah Arendt Visiting Chair for German and European Studies at the Munk School of Global Affairs has spent his entire academic career studying political extremism and voting behaviour. The Chair of German Politics and Political Sociology at the University of Mainz in Germany, who came to the University of Toronto through the Joint Initiative in German and European Studies, became fascinated with these radical, often extremist views that emerged soon after the reunification of Germany in the early 1990s.

“Although there are core issues that stand the test of time – concerns about globalization, immigration, and political elites – the discourse of the far right has evolved,” says Arzheimer. “We shouldn’t underestimate these parties. There’s a lot of political innovation going on, and it’s important to understand what’s appealing to voters. Far right parties supply citizens with their own, unique brand of democracy.”

It’s the reason why Arzheimer makes a point to have his students read material from these parties, manifestos and documents that reflect on the nature of populist and far-right movements by putting them in historical perspective. This semester, as part of his time as Visiting Chair, Arzheimer has designed a course specifically dedicated to right-wing extremism, analyzing the latest developments through a comparative approach – an overview of current political trends in more than 10 countries across Western Europe. The fourth-year undergraduate seminar is offered by the Department of Political Science in collaboration with the Munk School’s Centre for European, Russian, and Eurasian Studies.

“I want students to observe elements of change and continuity within these political formations,” says Arzheimer. “It’s crucial to examine the genealogy of these movements, but also to recognize how they’ve managed to tap into current anxieties and how even mainstream politicians are able to capitalize on discontent.”

One class exercise, a mock parliamentary session, requires students to take positions and advocate an agenda from the standpoint of different political parties – including that of a far-right party. Students often find it difficult to argue from this perspective, but it’s necessary in order to fully grasp the rise of such discourses within liberal democracies.

Although there are similarities when it comes to political, economic, and social issues, not all far-right parties share the same message. Arzheimer insists that distinctions must be drawn at a national level, since the face of the populist far right in Norway or Sweden is different from that in Austria, Spain or Greece. And in the case of Italy, things could change radically in four to eight weeks.

“One of the most pro-European countries is on a trajectory to see the EU much more critically,” he explains. “It seems like nobody wants the federalization of the European Union, and few politicians dare to promote political integration. But the EU is still a good case of close economic cooperation, even if it generates winners and losers. The challenge is how to complement and consolidate these successes through a shared political will.”

There’s no easy answer to this question, but at least Arzheimer is raising it in the classroom, hoping that tomorrow’s leaders can start tackling it now.

March 2, 2018