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Both the Right and Left Have Illiberal Factions. Which Is More Dangerous?

A quantitative analysis.
February 1, 2022
Both the Right and Left Have Illiberal Factions. Which Is More Dangerous?
A Proud Boys gestures in front of the Oregon state capitol during a protest in support of the January 6 attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 8, 2022 in Salem, Oregon. The Proud Boy organization in Oregon has long been supportive of those arrested in last January's riot in Washington D.C. (Photo by Nathan Howard/Getty Images)

America is having an illiberal moment, with parts of both the right and left flirting openly with illiberalism. Both are dangerous. But which danger is more clear and present?

To get at this, we have to start by settling on a definition of illiberalism.

I posit that a working definition of illiberalism that applies to both left and right might be summarized as any system of beliefs which run counter to the political philosophy summarized in the Declaration of Independence.

The Declaration’s main principles are political egalitarianism; human rights; limited government; electoral democracy; the legitimacy of change; the rule of law; and tolerance. You could define illiberalism many ways, but an easy one would be: any explicit rejection of, or attack on, that order. Any ideology of whatever orientation, right or left, that explicitly repudiates these principles is illiberal.

Some illiberal ideologies are well known. On the left are all forms of communism—Leninism, Maoism, Guevarism, Trotskyism, etc.—some forms of Marxism, anarchism, and others. On the right are all forms of fascism, authoritarianism, theocracy, all forms of racial domination, etc. In recent years, a menagerie of right-wing illiberal ideologies has re-emerged or sprung up: neo-Nazis, KKK groups, anti-Semitic movements, and newcomers such as the Alt-Right, the Alt-Lite, the Manosphere, the Dark Enlightenment, the European New Right, White Supremacy, and more.

Which of these two sets of illiberal ideologies—the right or the left– represents the greatest threat to liberal democracy right now?

One relevant measure of an ideology’s potential influence is the size of its following. Public data on visits and visitors to web pages are not perfectly accurate, but are easily available from digital analysis firms such as Similar Web. The nonpartisan watchdog group Media Bias/Fact Check has usefully sorted hundreds of web pages into the ideological categories of Left, Left Center, Least Biased, Right Center, and Right.

Right illiberal sites can be identified in several ways. Many such outlets identify themselves in their content or with their very names:,,,,, and even (the actual URL uses the full racial expletive). Such self-identified sites often feature link lists and blog rolls that indicate sites of similar orientation. The Southern Poverty Law Center, the Anti-defamation League, and the Counter Extremism Project maintain lists of such extremist sites. Academic and journalistic literatures also identify right illiberal outlets, and two openly Far-Right oriented competitors to Wikipedia—Metapedia and InfoGalactic—identify sympathetic websites.

By similar means Left illiberal sites can also be identified. (Readers who desire a fuller account of how I identified and classified sites of various ideologies can consult my recently published book, The Rise of Illiberalism.) In the end I came up with a group of 1,952 web sites that ranged from the illiberal Left, through all the mainstream ideological categories, to the illiberal Right. Of particular interest were the 131 Left illiberal sites and the 215 most extreme rightist sites (what I refer to as the Hard Core Illiberal Right). I obtained data on traffic to these sites for the first 11 months of 2019; all figures given here are for that time period, unless otherwise noted.

In terms of audience size, Hard Core Right illiberal sites averaged about 186 million visits monthly. That’s about 31 percent the size of the audience for sites representing the mainstream Right and 19 percent the size of the audience of mainstream Left sites.

Not to put too fine a point on it: That’s a lot.

As I said, third-party web traffic numbers are not perfectly accurate. But consider a poll conducted in 2017 by Reuters/Ipsos in conjunction with the University of Virginia Center for Politics: It found that “6 percent of respondents said they strongly or somewhat supported the alt-right . . . 8 percent expressed support for white nationalism [and] . . . 4 percent expressed support for neo-Nazism.”

Given that America has roughly 250 million adults, if at least 4 percent of them support neo-Nazism, then our nation has at least 10 million proponents of one form of radical right-wing illiberalism. That would be larger than the number of adult Jews in America (of whom there are about 4.2 million). Or, if you prefer: larger than the populations of 43 states.

And what about the threat which the illiberal left poses?

Unlike the Hard Core Right illiberal sites, the audience for Left illiberal sites is miniscule. Left illiberal sites received a monthly average of about 2.5 million visits.

Which is about 1.3 percent the size of the Hard Core Right illiberal audience.

Moreover, while the Right iIlliberal audience is nearly a third the size of the mainstream Right’s following, the Left illiberal audience is just 0.2 percent of the mainstream Left audience.

In short, the illiberal Right is an important part of the audience for right-of-center outlets, while the illiberal Left is an exceedingly small part of the audience for left-of-center outlets.

Engagement matters, too. And it appears that the Hard Core Right illiberal audience is much more engaged than the audiences of any other ideology.

Hard Core Right illiberal sites had an average engagement rate of 3.07 visits per unique visitor over the period of my analysis, the highest of any ideological category. Moreover, if we look at the top 50 sites in terms of engagement (from the entire sample of 1,952), we find that the Hard Core illiberal Right dominates. Of these top 50 sites by engagement, 19 belonged to the Hard Core illiberal Right—the most of any ideological category and 38 percent of the total.

The most engaged site of them all was extremely radical Vox Popoli, with an extraordinary 21.54 monthly visits per unique monthly visitor. The better-known Daily Stormer had “only” 10.92 visits per unique monthly visitor.

Meanwhile, the illiberal Left had the lowest mean engagement rate of the ideological categories with only 1.76 visits per unique monthly visitor.

Given the size of its audience, it would be comforting to believe that the illiberal Right doesn’t really repudiate liberal democracy—that it’s just a cruder form of the mainstream Right.

But the reality is not comforting. Here are a handful of excerpts from sites my analysis considered to be part the illiberal Right:

Vox Popoli: “As I have repeatedly observed, there is no such thing as equality, the grand rhetorical flights of Thomas Jefferson notwithstanding. The artificial distinctions that conservatives attempt to make between equality of opportunity and equality of result, and between equality before the law and equality of condition simply do not exist.”

Daily Stormer:Morals and Dogma…the Daily Stormer is…an outreach site, designed to spread the message of nationalism and anti-Semitism to the masses. . . . The basic propaganda doctrine of the site is based on Hitler’s doctrine of war propaganda outlined in Mein Kampf, Volume I, Chapter VI.”

Zero Hedge: “Democracy’s pitting of individuals against each other leads to moral degeneration and impairs capital accumulation.”

Occidental Dissent: The Alt-Right looks at the question of racial equality, demands to see the evidence, and draws the conclusion it is just a bunch of bullshit. . . .The evidence for racial equality is less plausible than Medieval alchemists trying to turn lead into gold.

Return of Kings: “6 Ways Liberal Democracy Destroys the Goodness of Humanity: America indeed has the *potential* to be great… But the current system of liberal democracy destroys all potential for this success.” “It’s time to stop beating around the bush: feminists want to be raped. . . . Everything feminists do, from holding up “Refugees Welcome” signs at airports to passing affirmative consent laws, is geared around encouraging men to assault them…”

VDARE: “If anyone thinks we need an original sin, I would like to propose the five most destructive words in American history: ‘All men are created equal.’”

Each of these sentiments runs directly along our definition of illiberalism as being opposed to the political philosophy of the Declaration of Independence.

Illiberalism is dangerous in whatever form it takes. But not all dangers are created equal. And in America, right now, it is clear that the size and influence of right-wing illiberalism dwarfs that of left-wing illiberalism.

Those of us who seek to conserve and defend American liberalism should act accordingly, which involves recognizing that the illiberal threat comes overwhelmingly from the right.

Thomas J. Main

Thomas J. Main is author of The Rise of Illiberalism  (Brookings, January 2021).