The ordinary people making the world more right-wing

By Prof Richard Youngs
Carnegie Europe

Image source, Getty Images

Around the world, conservative groups have been gaining influence, bolstering the power of right-wing leaders. It is a trend driven not only by older generations but also by the young.

The rapid rise of Brazil's new far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro may have surprised some observers but it did not come out of thin air. His success follows years of support from powerful social movements.

Such groups have increasingly found a voice in countries from Poland to Thailand to India - their influence coming from ordinary people rather than politicians.

Their rise is a crucial part of the turn towards more conservative politics in many countries around the world over the past few years.

Often, right-wing populism is seen as being brought about by new political parties or charismatic leaders. Think of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban - who presents himself as the defender of his country and Europe against Muslim migrants.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Nationalist rallies have been held in the centre of Ukraine's capital, Kiev

But the reality is that the role of grassroots movements is often central.

This has been brought about by what is often described as "civil society" - citizens' groups or organisations with a particular aim, whether that's saving a school from closure or overthrowing a regime.

For years, civil society has tended to be seen as liberal: supportive of human rights, democratic reform and the protection of minorities. Often, it is still these "progressive" causes that appeal to younger activists.

But today, civil society involves an increasingly diverse mix of people and political goals, with those on the right gaining traction.

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Image caption,
Thailand's military rulers have benefited from the support of citizens' groups

Many of these conservative groups share a belief in "traditional" values - those often associated with:

  • religious beliefs
  • community
  • national identity
  • protection against immigration
  • support for the family unit

Of course, there is also much that divides conservative civil society. While most groups favour democracy and work within mainstream politics, a small number are more disruptive and sometimes even violent - as is the case among groups on the left.

Whatever the differences, research by Carnegie Europe shows that there are many countries where conservative civil society has had a key role in shaping domestic events:

There are many other places where conservative groups have grown in influence - from those in Georgia opposed to closer links with the EU, to Ugandan groups against greater gender equality.

In the US, anti-abortionists and right-wing groups including Patriot Prayer - which has been linked to the alt-right but argues that it campaigns for freedom and unity - have staged numerous high-profile demonstrations since Republican President Donald Trump took power.

In Europe, the French youth movement Génération Identitaire has been described as the equivalent of the American alt-right, while Pegida (Patriotic Europeans against the Islamisation of the West) alarmed the German government during its rapid rise.

Image source, Getty Images
Image caption,
Kim Kataguiri (centre) has now been elected to Brazil's Congress

The differences between the groups are important - demonstrating that they can't all be treated as one.

Neither can they be regarded as simply a voice for older conservatives or those who feel excluded by social trends.

These movements are attracting many younger activists in many countries.

One of the groups behind Jair Bolsonaro's campaign, the Free Brazil Movement, has three million followers on Facebook and more than one million subscribers on YouTube.

In Thailand, a group of students known as Cyber Scouts has been accused of monitoring other citizens' social media comments, in their role backing the military regime and its campaign for traditional and royalist values.

Similar alliances between young people active on social media and conservative groups have been seen in countries including Morocco and Tunisia.

Such developments have seen right-wing civil society move into a space that was, until recently, dominated by liberal and progressive causes.

It is likely to mean a fierce rivalry between groups on the left and right as they battle to be heard not only by politicians but by society as a whole.

About this piece

This analysis piece was commissioned by the BBC from an expert working for an outside organisation.

It is based on The Mobilization of Conservative Civil Society, by Richard Youngs - a senior fellow in the Democracy, Conflict, and Governance Program at Carnegie Europe, which focuses on EU foreign policy and on issues of international democracy. Follow him @YoungsRichard.

Edited by Duncan Walker