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By Joana Ricarte[1]

Portugal is going through an atypical year from an electoral point of view. The resignation of the Prime Minister on November 7th last year dictated, by decision of the President of the Republic (PR), the holding of upcoming legislative elections on the continent that took place earlier this month, on March 10th, 2024. This context was reproduced also in both autonomous governments of the archipelagos. The failure to pass the 2024 regional budget by one vote in the Parliament of the Azores also led to the dissolution of its Legislative Assembly by the PR and the calling of elections, which took place recently, on February 4th. It follows that the autonomous region of Madeira has been facing a political crisis since January 24th of this year, just four months after the last electoral vote, and it is still uncertain what the future of the region will be, which could also point to the holding of elections after March 25, when it will complete six months after the current government took office, being then constitutionally possible to opt for dissolving the regional parliament. Whatever the outcome of this imbroglio comes to be, it is certain that, in addition to the national elections that took place this month, all Portuguese people will be called to the polls this year, as elections for the European Parliament are scheduled for June, although Portugal usually sees high rates of abstentionism. All these elections have something in common, following a global transnational trend: a lot is being said – and a lot can in fact be verified – regarding the growth of the extreme right.

In this context, it is necessary to question and clarify: what is extremism? Firstly, it is worth noting that there are different definitions of extremism and, mainly, that they tend to be contextual, that is, they are not fixed categories, they change, they depend on geographies and chronologies, our context and our time. For example, slavery in the colonial period was not considered extremist, nor was the apartheid regime in South Africa or the policies of active racial segregation in the USA, even in the first half of the 20th century. Likewise, we traditionally do not define Nazi Germany as an extremist regime, simply because this was the dominant regime, and therefore the norm. Furthermore, the notion of extremism is always relational because it depends on our frame of reference – nothing is extremist in itself, but it is extremist in relation to something else. The simplest definition uses the existing political spectrum as a guide to categorize as extremist everything that distances itself from the center, that is, from the norm. Here, there is not necessarily a moral or value-driven charge associated with the concept of extremism: this definition does not imply assuming the center as what is moderate. A democrat is an extremist in an autocratic context.

More complex views of the concept follow a definition that is also psychosocially based. According to this line of thought, followed by the European research project OppAttune – Countering Oppositional Political Extremism through Attuned Dialogue: track, attune, limit, in which I am the Principal Investigator in the Portuguese context, extremism is present when oppositional thinking becomes violent. It is important to begin by clarifying that oppositional thinking is normal, desirable and healthy in a democracy. Democracies are not built on consensus. Consensus, or apparent consensus, the lack of disagreement and contestation, is what we see in a dictatorship. However, when oppositional thinking becomes violent, slipping into exclusionary discourses, practices and policies, we are talking about extremism.

The traditional scientific literature on PCVE, an acronym for preventing and combating violent extremism – from which mainstream experts in security, counterterrorism and radicalization studies, who tend to have a state-centric approach, draw –, looks at these phenomena from the perspective of what is visibly disruptive and violent, which threatens the current order. However, they tend to undervalue less visible dimensions of extremism, which are obviously those mobilized by parties that are part of the system (which are established and institutionalized, play the democratic game, even if often crossing the lines, and which present themselves to elections), who are not actively defending physically, directly violent attitudes against others, but whose discourse is based on racist, xenophobic and/or populist premises. These discourses create the rationality or intellectual and moral justification for violence to emerge. However, as they are not directly violent, and they are not advocating the extermination of individuals of other ethnicities or origins, or with sexual orientation that deviates from the so-called norm, for example, they are many times not perceived by the electorate as extremist parties, because the extremism they proclaim is within the scope of violence that cannot be seen.

I am specifically talking about an everyday dimension of extremism that is often undervalued and that is nothing more, nothing less than the driving force of violent extremism. Everyday extremism is expressed in everyday interaction, in the normalization of symbols, stories, practices and social norms that are exclusionary, marginalize, alienate, and discriminate against parts of the population, be they immigrants, refugees, gypsies, economically disadvantaged people – or even excessively advantaged, obviously considering the proportionality of the impact of exclusion in this case – LGBTQI+ individuals, blacks, Arabs, Jews, etc.

This increasingly normalized extremist discourse can be seen in several examples today in public space. To identify it, we need to understand that its strategy tends to be binary, that is, these discourses present themselves as a symbolic (re)construction of the “self” and the “other”, collectively translated into “us” – the good ones – and “they”. This discourse obviously simplifies the complexity of the world and the processes and structures that lead individuals to certain life situations. They deny history and facts, often creating alternative narratives of reality, and de-historicize political and social processes, looking only at the present time, without concern for the context – or with the active concern of isolating events in relation to their contexts. It was seen recently in the case of the reactions to the speech of the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, when he stated the obvious and said that the Hamas terrorist attacks did not happen in a vacuum; in Rishi Sunak’s proposal to deport asylum seekers to Rwanda; or when Donald Trump stated that uncontrolled immigration was “poisoning the blood” of the United States of America. This discourse is a central feature of the resurgence of anti-Semitism, accompanied by Islamophobia, across Europe. It has been reflected in setbacks in fundamental rights, such as in Italy, with the revocation of the right to shared parenthood for homosexual couples, or in Spain, with proposals to discuss revoking the law against gender-based violence.

Being within the scope of discourse, these formulations are still dangerous. They are based on the construction of threat and the mobilization of feelings of insecurity, and call for division, polarization and exclusion. And they work, because they touch our most basic instinct, related to the human need for belonging. Ultimately, these words can become acts and deeds. When they are considered normal, or are normalized and legitimized by people in positions of prominence or power, they have the potential to act against democratic resilience and, in practice, against me and you. To combat it, it is essential to realize that we all have the potential to become extreme, and we all reproduce extremist discourses to some extent. These days, in times of elections, we need to understand what extremism is and actively assume our individual role in propagating and normalizing these discourses that today are just words of discontent, but tomorrow could turn into actions.

[1] Originally published in the Portuguese weekly newspaper Expresso on February 16, 2024. Access here:–f82dca17.

picture provided by jackmac34 @pixabay

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