Author Q&A Session with Pontus Odmalm

Routledge is pleased to share with you our author Q&A session with Pontus Odmalm co-editor with Eve Hepburn of the recently published title The European Mainstream and the Populist Radical Right.

Pontus is currently a Senior Lecturer in Politics at The University of Edinburgh.

About the book and the subject area

Congratulations on the publication of your book The European Mainstream and the Populist Radical Right. What do you want your audience to take away from the book?

Thank you! The book is an attempt to challenge some ‘truths’ in the immigration and integration debates. Namely, that mainstream parties face in the same direction and there is not much difference in terms of what they want to achieve. We also wanted to look at how the political mainstream deals with challengers that do not play by conventional rules. The populist radical right (PRR) is by no means a new phenomenon, but presents different electoral challenges to the centre-right than it does to the centre-left. After reading the various contributions, we hope the audience gains a more nuanced understanding of how parties engage with one of the most pressing issues in contemporary European politics.

What inspired you to put this book together?

The idea emerged from a growing unease we had about how mainstream parties were portrayed in popular discourses. One could often read comments about ‘open door policies’ and that all sorts of things were permissible in the name of multiculturalism. The conclusion was that if someone wanted stricter immigration controls and a more hard-line approach to integration, then the only choice left was the radical one. But these claims were not necessarily supported in the research we conducted. So we wanted to do a more systematic study and investigate the extent to which this so-called ‘lack of choice’-thesis held up. Especially from comparative perspective.

Why is your book relevant to present day politics?

We try to challenge conventional wisdom in the field. On the one hand, our manifesto analysis returned several instances where mainstream parties offered a restrictive and assimilationist choice. On the other, our contributors further nuanced the volatile relationship mainstream parties have with the niche contender. An interesting finding was that mainstream parties tend to be moderately restrictive and a bit assimilationist compared to the more intense positions the PRR adopts. The mainstream is also restrictive towards some categories of migrants, say, to family reunification but more lenient towards others, e.g. to labour migration. Conversely, the PRR wants immigration levels to go down across the board. This creates a very difficult context to compete in since it’s debatable whether mainstream parties can ever out do the PRR in this respect.

How do you think the field of politics is evolving today?

The party politics of migration has been downplayed for a long time. Scholars were more interested in explaining migratory flows and state responses to increased diversity. What can be identified now is a gradual shift in attention. Parties and party competition have become important again. This is partly because the PRR has consolidated its presence in many European parliaments and is no longer a mere irritant. But it’s also because parties are ultimately the actors that decide on policy and policy direction. It’s thus a very exciting time. As long as we keep our research hats on, that is.

What are the main developments in research that you’re seeing in politics?

For the area we work in, it’s probably how to distinguish a mainstream party from a more radical one. This is becoming increasingly difficult to do. Mainstream parties seem to be stuck in an endless cycle of playing catch-up with the PRR. This makes it challenging to apply conventional definitions and frameworks. Then we have the mainstreaming process that several PRR parties are going through. An interesting question is how relevant those various tags are that researchers apply to fringe parties. Especially given the blurred edges between mainstream and non-mainstream parties.

How does your book relate to these recent political developments?

In the conclusion we ask whether it is time to expand the number of indicators used for classifying parties as PRR, radical right-wing, or niche. For example, it could be worth looking at their positions on state-market and state-individual relations as well. This can then tell us whether these parties are as intense on, say, taxation as they are on immigration control.

What makes your book stand out from its competitors?

The book hopefully raises some questions regarding the changing nature of party competition. It’s one of the few studies that systemically analyses mainstream and PRR parties together. The puzzle we seek to solve - is there a multicultural consensus or not? - challenges some of the paradigms in previous research. And the methodology we use lends itself to be replicated in future studies

Is there one piece of research included in the book which surprised you or challenged your previous understanding of the topic?

Yes, there wasn’t an obvious relationship between a restrictive mainstream and PRR-type parties losing out electorally. What appears more likely is that mainstream parties perform worse when they signal liberal approaches to border control and communicating the benefits of cultural diversity. This suggests that merely taking over the anti-immigration position will have a legitimising effect on the PRR, but it won’t necessarily impact on their level of support. Another very interesting finding came out of the Finnish case study. The authors (Kuisma and Nygard) highlight the Finns Party’s strategy of having a ‘party within the party’. The party leadership could thereby accommodate the more anti-immigration wing while still remaining a radical option in the view of the electorate. Consequently, the Finns Party’s attempts to become a ‘normal’ type of party were not jeopardised. It will be very interesting to see how they deal with the breakaway group of MPs who recently set up an association known as Blue Reform

About you:

Tell us more about your academic background’?

I’m trained as a political scientist, and came into migration studies via a political theory course I took as an undergraduate. I then went on to do a Ph.D. and studied migrant political participation and modes of citizenship in comparative perspective. Over the past few years, I’ve looked into the relationship(s) mainstream parties have with immigration and integration. I’m particularly fascinated by how parts of the mainstream (still) struggle to come up with consistent narratives for how they are going to deal with these areas.

What first attracted you to this topic as an area of study?

Good question. I suppose immigration taps into fundamental questions about who the ‘we’ are and how states go about making their countries work as the population changes. Who’s included? Who’s not? I’m currently interested in what type of issue immigration is for parties. Is it primarily about economics and access to resources? Or is it something more nebulous and difficult to pin down? Why do some parties find immigration easier to deal with than others?

Tell us an unusual fact about yourself and your teaching style?

I tend to make references to my favourite films. This is getting trickier with age as said references are not always contemporary. I’ll probably stick to the script in the future (see what I did there?).

What advice would you give to an aspiring researcher in your field?

Try to not get trapped by context and write what you’re interested in.

Do you have plans for future books? What’s next in the pipeline for you?

Ask me again in a few months’ time. I have a chapter coming out in ‘The Routledge Handbook on the Politics of Migration in Europe’ called ‘The Party Politics of Migration and Mobility (2018, edited by Saskia Bonjour, Agnieszka Weinar, Lyubov Zhyznomirska, and Melissa Siegel). I‘m also finalising an article together with a colleague from the University of Gothenburg and revising a symposium submission.

What is the last book you read (non-academic)?

I started on Perfidia by James Ellroy in 2015 and am now halfway through it (I’m a very slow reader).

Anything else you would like to add?

Many thanks to Routledge for given us the opportunity to work on this book!

The European Mainstream and the Populist Radical Right is part of the Europa Regional Perspectives series

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Pontus Odmalm

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The European Mainstream and the Populist Radical Right