In order to narrow the scope of the question, I will consider the case of Marine Le Pen.

According to this BBC article, she can be regarded as "far-right" due to hard line on immigration, treatment of immigrants ('native French' first) etc.

According to this article (Romanian), Le Pen and other populists should be simply labeled extremists (not right or left) since they share both right and left elements (translated from Romanian):

  • it is wrong to label as "extreme right" in the case of populists, as it is about "catch-all" extremism, because all these platforms speculatively and seemingly incoherently mix right-wing ideological elements (nationalism, authoritarianism, xenophobia and Anti-immigration attitude, etc.) with left elements (radical laity, economic and social protectionism for native workers, state support for local companies at the expense of foreign or multinationals, anti-globalization)

  • [..] Marine Le Pen is an extremist, like Geert Wilders, Nigel Farage, or Norbert Hofer. According to the dictionary definition, "extremism is an attitude characterized by ideas, exaggerated, radical opinions, rigid, based on hatred and intolerance." It's about extremism, period.

Of course, Marine Le Pen rejects the term as pejorative (source):

She refuses the qualification of far-right or extreme-right, considering it a "pejorative" term : "How am I party of the extreme right? ... I don't think that our propositions are extreme propositions, whatever the subject"

Question: why does "extremist" (and flavor) seem to be such a relative term? Isn't it a clear concept within the political spectrum?

  • I think your question is a bit unclear. The first quote is mainly about the horseshoe theory (ie left- and right-extremism are the same), but the Le Pen quote is specifically about her refusing the label far-right/extreme-right. It would help if you could clarify (although I think the first might be a duplicate, and the second isn't a great question; the far-right generally rejects the label for propaganda reasons, so a quote by a more mainstream academic rejecting the label for Le Pen would be great).
    – tim
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 13:33
  • My intention is to have a single question: why "extremist" concept seems to be so differently seen for a single person? The first view is coming from a BBC article (far-right proponent for Marine Le Pen), the second from a Romanian political science professor (Marine Le Pen among others is only extremist, not right or left) and the last view comes from Le Pen herself (rejects any association with extremism). Although the last view is not from a mainstream academic source, I though she deserves her opinion to be included.
    – Alexei
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 13:40
  • 1
    The primary failing of this question is the reliance on a two dimensional scale, only caring about the magnitude of displacement from a central position. Commented May 15, 2017 at 13:51
  • Since your question already states that "extremist" is a relative term can you clarify what type of answer you're looking for? The obvious answer to me is that "extremist" is a relative term so people on the edges don't see themselves as such but you seem to already know that.
    – JonK
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 14:43
  • 3
    Any description of a political position is subject to the biases of the person describing it. Often abortion opponents equate abortion to murder, but clearly abortion supporters will not characterize it that way. Similarly, some people don't see nationalism as extremism, while others do. Commented May 15, 2017 at 15:00

5 Answers 5


Extremism is a pretty straight-forward concept. Pedagogically, I have often seen students have a hard time with the concept because the reality of extremism is different than their (often naive) beliefs.

The common naive* view is that there is some belief that is extreme. This is common because it is intuitive: a sufficiently uncommon belief is so uncommon that we call it extreme. However, many of the things people call "extremist" in common language are not at all uncommon. Racism, xenophobia, desires to do violence to other groups, etc. are all incredibly common.

A second common view I have heard from students is that the content of the belief is extreme. For example, while racism may be common, the belief that we should annihilate another race is extreme - whether it is common or not. It turns out that many ordinary people hold these kinds of views, although they might never act on them. In all other ways, people with these extreme views tend to be exactly like "ordinary" people - because they are ordinary. Additionally, the burgeoning work in critical theory has pointed out that common ideas are founded on the same principles as these extreme ones, making any distinction somewhat arbitrary.

So what is extremism? Extremism is a behavioral and psychological trait. An extremist cannot accept any flexibility in their world view. Anything which threatens their view must be wrong. This is often amplified by living in a social bubble that echoes their beliefs and limits interactions with people who disagree.

I provided a similar answer to another question on extremism. For more information (including some references), you may want to read it also.

/* Naive isn't meant as a pejorative term. A naive belief is merely one that hasn't been critically examined. In sciences, we sometimes refer to any idea as "naive" until it has been empirically examined.

  • This is a very interesting perspective. Many analysts I have seen on TV leave the impression that simply having a xenophobic, anti-immigration etc. speech makes someone "extremist", not the inflexibility of those having these ideas.
    – Alexei
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 19:06
  • @Alexei - Often the political analysts on TV shows are either professional journalists or people connected to the political process. Commented May 15, 2017 at 19:09
  • As I noted in the linked answer, this seems to somewhat contradict modern cognitive psychology. Motivated reasoning in general is a fundamental human trait; and is far more widespread than a small amount of "extremists" (unless you want to label 20-80% population "extremist", depending on your tolerance band of how resistant reasoning is).
    – user4012
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 19:10
  • @user4012 - As noted in the linked answer, I will take a look at that research and address. Commented May 15, 2017 at 19:14

Because it's mostly used in vague way, to attack political opponent du jour.

In 2012, America's left wing attacked Mitt Romney as "extremist" (in my personalized search results, 40-50% hits describe Romney as extremist or having extremist views - including New York Times, Slate, HuffPost just on page 1).

The most charitable thing was said by Slate, that claimed he faked being an "extremist" (by assuming basically mainline Republican positions)

Romney is not a right-wing extremist. To win the nomination, though, he had to feign being one, recasting himself as “severely conservative” and eschewing the reasonableness that made him a successful, moderate governor of the country’s most liberal state.

In 2016, all over the sudden Romney was the fluffy lamb darling of the same exact people, for attacking Trump (ironically, "right wing extremist" Trump has many views which are - in line with Trump's past history as a registered Democrat - to the left of Romney, both economically and socially). Up to encouraging him to run as 3rd party by far left Slate.

Or, if we exclude personalities and look at the issues, 2016 version of "extreme far right" is refusing to sell cakes to same sex wedding. As a gentle reminder, both Bill and Hillary Clinton opposed same sex weddings in the first place, and so did Barack Obama in 2008.

Or on economics, lassiez faire economic views went from left wing-ish in 19th centiry Europe to "extreme right wing" in modern Gramscian left.


At least in the US, user4012's answer is pretty spot on. In common use in media punditry and online arm chair analysis, it's just a word used to attack an opponent.

To hopefully make the point clearer, user4012 claims that left labeled Romney as extremist by pointing to a google search:


Note that there are about 4.7 million results.

Now do the same with Obama:


Note that there are about 4.7 million results.

Point being that in common usage, it's a rather meaningless term and really only means "they are on the other team". All sides throw out the term to simply distance themselves from the opponent on the other team.

However that doesn't mean the term can't have real meaning in proper political science. It's just that in op-ed pieces in online newspapers--they're not necessarily going for a deep analysis all the time.

  • 2
    I'm not sure those search results show what you want them to. The search engine very probably categorizes your query and returns sites that have been categorized to match. Being counted in either count means an ai guesses there is a non-negligible change a person making that search will follow that link. I would hazard that those two lists are nearly identical just sorted slightly differently.
    – user9389
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 19:44

Question: why does "extremist" (and flavor) seem to be such a relative term? Isn't it a clear concept within the political spectrum?

The concept of a political spectrum is not, in and of itself, clear.

Take Nazism. To many, it is clear that Nazis were right wing lunatics, yet to me it is equally clear that they were left wing. Their belief in class warfare, with the Jews cast as the evil ones, is vintage left wing in many ways. Try replacing the Jews with the rich in a Nazi speech or replacing the rich with the Jews in a Bernie Sanders speech. Their use of ethnic identification of class has gone out of fashion in the modern left, but it would have seemed perfectly reasonable to liberal racists of the early twentieth century, e.g. Woodrow Wilson.

Left vs. right wing was originally a French thing. At the time, it talked about how politicians chose to sort themselves. The royalists would sit in the right wing of the chamber while the anti-royalists sat in the left wing. One couldn't be extreme right wing at that time. There was no way of saying that one really supported the king's right to be king. Strong support for the king was the base position. It could be moderated but not made more radical.

Does Marine Le Pen support the restoration of the French monarchy? If not, then she doesn't fit the historical use of the term.

One could make an intellectual argument that Le Pen is left wing. After all, she disrupts the government position. That's not the status quo position. If France still had a king and that king supported increased immigration, she might sit in the left wing in opposition.

I've heard extreme right wing used to describe people like Le Pen or Donald Trump who favor government intervention in the economy to prevent trade. And I've heard it used to describe people like me who believe in laissez faire trade. Those are opposite positions!

The truth is that politics is more complicated than can be represented by a single line with a left and a right. Politics is more complicated than a plane that adds a top and bottom. Many positions don't actually contradict each other, and even of those that do, people may still hold both.

The nature of politics is that there is an incumbent position and an opposition position. Originally, right wing was the incumbent position (by definition). Now, either right or left can be the incumbent position. Worse, the actual incumbent determines what is what. So when Barack Obama was president, the left wing (incumbent) position was that free trade was good and opposition was right wing. But when George W. Bush was president, the right wing (incumbent) position was that free trade was good and opposition was left wing.

Since Obama was already left wing and there are right wing supporters of free trade, it's natural that trade opponents like Sanders would be seen as extreme left wing. Obviously it was the less moderate position. But if you flip that around, it's less obvious in the right wing. From one perspective, the idea that economic actions should be decided by individuals and not governments is the extreme right wing idea. Interventionist trade policy would be the moderate alternative.

How can a moderate Republican position and an extreme Democrat position be the same policy?

Politics is not a simple spectrum or even a compass. People's political positions are the result of a large number of decisions, not a simple, left vs. right.

  • 1
    " Their use of ethnic identification of class has gone out of fashion in the modern left" - no it hasn't actually. Quite in fashion. Including in USA: "Crown Heights Councilwoman Blames ‘Knockout Attacks’ on Growing Jewish Community". Great answer otherwise
    – user4012
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 16:17
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    The Nazis did not believe in class warfare in any meaningful sense. If you eg replace "Jew" with "rich" in "The Jewish doctrine of Marxism rejects the aristocratic principle of Nature", you get nonsense. That's not saying that there aren't antisemitic elements in some reductionist left-wing criticisms of capitalism (there are), but there is a difference between that and having the primary goal of solving the Jewish problem. Btw, using a Jew in your example to compare left-wing speeches to the speeches of Nazis is maybe not that ideal.
    – tim
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 17:17
  • 1
    There's always a danger in starting an answer with "Take Nazism..."
    – user1530
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 18:20
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    This answer seems bewildered by an effect referred to in a comment on the original question: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Horseshoe_theory
    – tobybot
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 20:54

I don't want to make this a full-fledged answer, but "extreme" is obviously relative. The question is extreme relative to what?

I think a reasonable definition for an "extreme position" is one that is significantly distant from the status quo. The most relevant dictionary definitions read:

: going to great or exaggerated lengths

: situated at the farthest possible point from a center

: most advanced or thoroughgoing

For instance, instituting or supporting Universal Health Care is not by any means an "extreme" position in Canada, England, Germany, France, or other countries where that is a reality or a near-reality. In the USA, it is seen as "extreme" because it is such a departure from the current system as it stands.

For a term that is inherently subjective/relative, I think this definition is appropriately simple and flexible.

To the original question, the subjectivity of the term is why it's unclear. "Extreme" depends on your idea of a reasonable center. As shown by polling (and its notable failures), measuring the majority opinion to establish an averaged-out idea of "center" across a population is a difficult and fuzzy task.

  • 1
    This is something of a belly-button answer. You should either establish your expertise on the subject or back-it-up through a reference to another source. Commented May 15, 2017 at 21:14
  • 3
    Sure, but it's a belly-button question. "Why is this relative concept unclear?" doesn't exactly require an expert armed with a load of figures. The best one can hope to do is establish a working definition and acknowledge that context will dramatically affect the meaning.
    – tobybot
    Commented May 15, 2017 at 21:37

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