Columns / Discourse / May 9, 2012

Voice of Reason: European voters go to extremes

As it becomes clearer by the day that the austerity measures their governments have place on them have failed to spur growth, Europeans have grown increasingly impatient. Ruling parties across the continent have been hit hard recently as voters have expressed their discontent over anemic economic growth and cuts in social services.

In France, President Nicolas Sarkozky, who, with Germany’s Angela Merkel did more to shape the response to the Eurozone crisis than anybody else, were given a sharp rebuke by French voters as he was thrown out of office in favor of Socialist Francois Hollande last weekend. Roughly simultaneously, parliamentary elections in Greece saw centrist ruling parties losing huge chunks of their seats to challengers from the far right and left.

Most worrying among these is the neo-Nazi party Golden Dawn, which has advocated such measures in the past as planting land mines on the border with Turkey to stop illegal immigration and earned enough votes in this weekend’s elections to enter Parliament for the first time in its history. Less insane, but gaining a much larger chunk of the vote, was the Radical Coalition of the Left, whose name should provide some clue as where they fall along the political spectrum.

The Greek extremists join a growing number of far-right groups who are gaining in power across the continent as economic woes persist and immigrants fail to integrate into their new societies, such as Finland’s True Finns and the Netherland’s Freedom Party.

As broken-down as Congress is these days, at least we can take consolation there are no avowed neo-Nazis or Communists running around Capitol Hill. It seems that as time goes on, fewer and fewer of our friends across the Atlantic can say the same.

The French are not immune to this radical trend either. In the first round of voting for the president, far-right candidate Marine Le Pen managed to get 18 percent of the first round vote and probably doomed Sarkozky by refusing to endorse him in the second round. Trailing with 11 percent of the vote was leftist Jean-Luc Melenchon, a harsh critic of the European Union with the backing of France’s still powerful Communist Party. This means that roughly a third of the French electorate has become fed up with the mainstream parties and is looking for something more radical.

Europe has been able to resist the extremist temptation in the wake of economic turmoil before. Following the Second World War and the economic dislocation it left in its wake, Europeans (albeit helped along by generous aid from the United States) were able to keep their respective Communist parties from power and they were rewarded with miraculous economic growth.

Then again, following the earlier war, Germans, Italians, Spaniards and more British and French than we often remember were more than willing to try their luck with saviors promising extreme solutions to the problems of the day, with results that most of us are familiar with. History shows us either path would have clear precedent.

The risk is not that of a neo-fascist takeover in any European state, but rather that as extremist parties gain more seats in their respective Parliments, mainstream parties will increasingly have to distort their platforms to enter into coalition governments with them or to attempt to poach voters. This would probably take the form of more anti-immigrant legislation along the lines of France’s famous burka ban.

On this side of the Atlantic, the economy limps along, but at least it’s limping in the right direction. Should there be some sudden shock to the global economy (war with Iran, perhaps?) a renewed downturn is not inconceivable and we might eventually find ourselves in the same boat as the Europeans.

In that case, what would extremism, American-style, look like? It would not come from the left, for one thing. The far left has not presented a serious electoral threat since Eugene Debs pulled in nearly a million votes in the 1920 presidential elections, though Henry Wallace’s Progressive Party made a brief run in the later forties.

The Green Party occasionally makes some noise, but it lacks any real popular support and is not all that leftist anyway. No other left-wing party could realistically expect more than 1 percent of the national vote. There would be no American Melenchon or Coalition of the Radical Left.

Nor would it be right-wing state extremism, a la Golden Dawn. Most of the American far-right is deeply influenced by libertarian thought. Quite simply, when Americans lose faith in the way things are going right now, they will turn to Ron Paul or someone like him from the anti-government right.

A swing to the far right would be a disaster for this country. Internationally, America would retreat into neo-isolationism and leave the world searching for a new protector of the global commons. Perhaps the Chinese might do it. More likely no one would.

Domestically, there would be a risk of such economic inanities as a return to the gold standard, which would cause a rapid appreciation in the strength of the dollar that would gut our already shaky manufacturing sector.

Europe’s problems are far too deep and structural for any party, no matter how radical, to improve things in a short amount of time. Hopefully, Europeans will come to their senses before someone like Le Pen is able to actually gain power, but hope is not enough. Voters have to begin showing that extremists have no place in the political discourse of a liberal, democratic society and hopefully, we will be taking notes.

Matt Barry
Matt Barry is a senior majoring in international relations and double minoring in economics and German. This is his third year working for TKS, having served previously as discourse editor. He has worked for such organizations as the Chicago Council on Global Affairs, Premier Tourism Marketing and the Council on American Islamic Relations-Chicago, where his work appeared in such publications as Leisure Group Travel, Ski & Ride Club Guide and The Chicago Monitor. Matt has written his political opinion column, "The Voice of Reason," weekly for three years, which finished in first place at the 2012 Illinois College Press Association conference and was also recognized at the 2013 conference.

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