I should preface today’s post by sharing a basic political premise that comforts me.
When I look around at the multiple examples of injustice, mean-spiritedness, racism and fear that characterize America’s current polarization and unrest, I think back to the 60s and other tumultuous periods in our history. Almost always, those upheavals subside and leave significant social improvements in their wake.
Not perfection. But improvement.
It can be hard to keep that in mind when every day brings new evidence of humankind’s reluctance to deal positively with the challenges we face. And blogs like this one, that tend to focus on those challenges, probably don’t help. But if we take the long view, human society really has seen substantial progress–it’s just a lot slower than most of us would like. And sometimes, because it is slow and incremental, we miss seeing that progress.
Which brings me to Persuasion’s fascinating analysis of the global far-Right.The crux of that analysis is in the introductory paragraphs:
It is hard to be hopeful about democracy today. We are bombarded with headlines proclaiming democracy’s “retreat,” “crisis,” and perhaps even “death.” In the United States, both Democrats and Republicans believe democracy faces serious threats and President Biden has addressed what he views as widespread sentiments that “democracy’s best days [are] behind us.” Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, recent electoral victories by the Brothers of Italy, the Sweden Democrats, and the French National Rally—parties with far-right, even neo-Nazi roots—led many to proclaim that “fascism was returning” and democracy in danger even in Western Europe, a region where it has long been taken for granted. That’s become the reflexive framing for many commentators addressing European politics. The Guardian, for instance, declared Spain’s election, held this past weekend with the right-wing Vox party potentially poised to enter a ruling coalition, “a key battle in the Europe-wide struggle against neofascism.”
This pervasive pessimism is not justified. Far from being a sign that democracy is imperiled in Western Europe, the evolution of the Brothers of Italy, the Sweden Democrats, and the French National Rally should make us cautiously optimistic. These parties have come to recognize that in order to win votes and political power they had to move away from their far-right roots, moderate their appeals and policy platforms, and pledge to play by the democratic rules of the game.
The article argues that, when democratic norms and institutions are weak, extremists lack the incentive to moderate–they can gain power without playing by the rules of the game.
But where democratic norms and institutions are strong—as they have been for decades in Western Europe—extremists tend to be forced to moderate because there is little constituency for explicitly anti-democratic, extremist appeals. And until they moderate, other political actors and institutions are able to keep them from power.
The article documents that moderation, tracing the trajectory of several far-Right European movements–Marine Le Pen in France, Sweden’s Democrats, Brothers of Italy and others.
The author argues that refusing to recognize that these parties have moderated has consequences: it fosters fear and polarization; calling them fascist often bolsters their narrative of being righteous “outsiders;” and calling parties fascist when they are not contributes to misunderstandings about the current state of democracy.
There has certainly been significant democratic backsliding among countries that made transitions to democracy during the late twentieth century. But this is not surprising: all previous democratic “waves”—such as those occurring in 1848 and after the First and Second World Wars—had significant undertows. Notwithstanding, many more democracies have survived the late twentieth century wave than did previous ones. And among established wealthy democracies only one—the United States—has experienced significant democratic decay.
The fact that these parties have moderated doesn’t mean they don’t continue to pose problems, of course. And what is particularly chilling is the author’s explicit recognition that America’s Republican Party has gone in the opposite direction from most of its Western European counterparts: “it has moved from being a center-right or conservative party to a far-right one.”
This reflects underlying weaknesses in American democracy and deep divisions in American society and shows that under such conditions even wealthy, long-established democracies can experience democratic decay.”
The article ends by recommending more democracy– but there’s a caveat:
As long as right-wing populists continue to respect laws, constitutions, and the democratic rules of the game, this is the best way forward: trying to lure voters away from these parties with better ideas.
Large numbers of MAGA world denizens, unfortunately, do not “continue to respect laws, constitutions and democratic rules of the game.”
But then, neither did the Weathermen...