The recent dramatic rise of populist parties in Europe has attracted vast popular and academic attention. With many populists recently crossing the threshold into government power, concern has been further heightened. Debate abounds regarding the threat that they may pose to liberal democracy. How radically should we expect populists to behave once in power? How, and why, should we expect this radicalism to vary? And where should we look for the answers?
In his doctoral thesis, Fred Paxton enters this debate and shifts attention to the often overlooked local level of politics. Despite this neglect, subnational politics have in fact played crucial roles in populist parties’ historical development: ideologically, organisationally and electorally. With this novel local perspective, Paxton makes an important contribution to a crowded field through the study of so far uncharted terrain: the impact made by populist radical right parties in local power, and the effect of acquiring local power on the parties themselves.
Paxton’s thesis centres on four Western European cases: Austria, France, Italy and Switzerland. For each of them, he collected systematic data on the actions of populists in local power. These include the programs of the local parties, their policy outputs when in government, and their shifting discourse in council meetings and on social media. Between 2018 and 2019, he also conducted 57 semi-structured interviews across the four countries with local politicians, administrators, journalists and activists to reconstruct the process by which populist parties actually govern. He analyses these rich and original datasets with quantitative and qualitative methods to show the different forms of populist party behaviour in local government, and the varying degree of impact made.
Paxton shows that there are multiple pathways by which these populist parties gained local power, as well as various styles of governance that follow. Across all four cases, the radicalism of their approaches varied greatly. Paxton argues that to understand why this was so, we need to look at two principal factors. First, the degree to which power sharing is imposed by the institutional setting. The thesis reveals the ways in which a mayor in a consensual system, as in Switzerland, is constrained to be more moderate compared to a more autonomous mayor in a majoritarian system, as in Italy. Second, we need to look at the degree of involvement of the central party in local politics, and the strategic motivation behind their involvement. In particular, the centrality of local government to the mainstreaming strategy of populist leader Marine Le Pen is crucial to understand the relative moderation of the French case.
Overall, the findings contribute to a greater understanding of the outcomes of populist radical right party-led local government across Western Europe, and provide a new perspective on these parties’ strategies for organisational and electoral growth. The thesis shows that the local level of politics offers new analytical leverage to explore some crucial questions in the study of populist parties, and that it can provide a broadened perspective on European liberal democracy, its safeguards and its vulnerabilities.
Read Fred Paxton's thesis in CADMUS.
Fred Paxton defended his thesis at the EUI on 20 September 2021. He is currently a postdoctoral research fellow at the University of Milan. As part of the ProDem project, he studies how interactions between citizens, social movements, and a specific breed of political parties (so-called ‘movement parties’) are influencing democratic quality in Europe.