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Democracy’s New Normal: The Impact of Extremist Parties

William M. Downs Tuesday, Jan. 22, 2013

Political extremism has, in many places, become a kind of new normal. In most democratic political systems, whether firmly established or still early in their consolidations, we find parties deemed “extremist” by the mainstream that routinely enjoy sustained electoral success. These political parties espouse rejectionist philosophies, proffer illiberal policies and promote intolerance of targeted groups. They typically do this, however, while playing within the rules of the democratic game. Putatively extremist parties therefore pose a bedeviling challenge to democracies, namely how to resolve the paradox of being asked to tolerate the intolerant.

While scholars, journalists and watchdog groups expend much effort to expose and understand the rise and persistence of extremist parties, remarkably less attention is paid to the impact of extremist parties on democratic processes and systems. Addressing the latter task means examining three interrelated issues: first, the impact of extremist parties on political discourse in democracies; second, the range of responses by mainstream democratic parties in response to electorally successful party-based extremism; and third, the observed lifecycles of extremist parties after they emerge on the political scene. While few democracies appear immediately imperiled by the exclusivist and rejectionist parties that appear on their systems’ outermost edges, it is nevertheless clear that these parties’ gradual accretion of influence on everyday politics cannot be ignored. ...

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