Who's Right Now?
Europe's far-right resurgence
by Steven Hill
The American Prospect magazine,
Several months ago, American journals-mainstream
and progressive both-were filled with alarm about the rise of
the far right in Europe. But recent election results in Germany,
Sweden, Austria and elsewhere make clear that the panic button
was pushed prematurely.
In Germany, the coalition of Social Democrats
and the Greens eked out a close victory in September. In Sweden,
the ruling Social Democrats scored an unexpected victory, handily
beating the predictions of the pollsters. Recent elections also
saw center-left governments take the reins in Poland, Hungary
and the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, the fortunes of the far right
have fallen on harder times. Following the media frenzy over Jean
Marie Le Pen's success at making it to a run-off in the French
presidential election, the anti-immigrant zealot drew just 18
percent support at the polls, and his party failed to win a single
seat in the balloting for the National Assembly. In Austria, Jorg
Haider, the personification of resurgent European ultranationalism
for the better part of the last decade, received his comeuppance
when, in recent elections, his Freedom Party received less than
half the popular vote that it had pulled down in the previous
vote. And after a stunning performance in the Netherlands by the
assassinated Pim Fortuyn's party, bickering among its members
led to the collapse of the new government late last year. Fortuyn's
party could virtually disappear after elections are held on Jan.
Any assessment of the seesaw fortunes
of the right in Europe must begin with the recognition that the
entire political spectrum there is far to the left of our own.
Europeans still have free health care for all, from the cradle
to the grave; free education through the university level; comparatively
generous retirement for their elderly; and an average of five
weeks paid vacation, plus more sick leave, parental leave and
a shorter workweek with comparable wages for workers. (French
workers, with their 35-hour workweek, toil on average nearly a
full day less per week than their U.S. counterparts, who work
on average 42 hours per week.) Social spending in Europe runs
some 50 percent above that in the United States. Environmental,
food-safety and labor laws, meanwhile, are the envy of activists
in the United States.
In short, the European political center
is where the American left would love to be. Europe's famously
generous welfare state is still alive and mostly well, though
under attack by globalization and corporations that would like
to bury it and make Europe more like the United States. And it
is in this context that one must understand the recent roller-coaster
ride of the European far right.
The leaders and parties of the European
right do not for the most part seek to overturn the European welfare
state, or to put an end to a proactive role for government activism
or regulation. On the contrary, they accept the need and legitimacy
of this kind of governmental role far more than most U.S. Democrats
do. Any Democratic Party candidate or leader who espoused the
welfare-state policies of the European far right would likely
be hounded by centrist Democrats into a backbench seat-or retirement.
Indeed, the far-right parties attained
their recent electoral successes in some European nations by defending
governmental benefits and regulations that the social-democratic
and center-left parties had been rolling back, in the manner of
Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, for the past few years. In the Netherlands,
Denmark and Norway, for example, the various far-right parties
demanded such things as a reinforced commitment to comprehensive
and quality public health care, elderly care, mass transit and
subsidized housing. They also emphasized the protection of the
public-pension and education systems.
By any measures, the far right in Europe
has not been nearly as successful as the far right in the United
States. Here, fundamentalist Christian Tom DeLay-a critic of the
separation of church and state who has compared the Environmental
Protection Agency to the Gestapo-cruises to reelection in Texas
time after time, and as the new majority leader, is now one heart
attack away from becoming speaker of the House. From his perch
atop the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Jesse Helms held
veto power over much of American foreign policy during the 1980s
and 1990s. David Duke came much closer to winning the governor's
mansion in Louisiana than France's Le Pen ever did to winning
real regional power. And Trent Lott-well, you know about Trent
While the parties and leaders of the European
far right have long supported health care for their countrymen,
the leaders of the American right-mainstream as well as far-have
consistently opposed universal coverage. Their ideology has reams
of excuses for why it's perfectly acceptable that 45 million Americans,
many of them children, have no health coverage, or why spiraling
education costs have shut out many of their countrymen's children
from quality education. And like the parties of the European far
right, American mainstream parties are not above bombastic, xenophobic
rhetoric or policy, as anyone who recalls Pete Wilson and Dianne
Feinstein's 1994 anti-immigrant campaigns can attest.
The partial renaissance of the European
right is also a function of the swing of the political pendulum
from right to left and back again. The center-right political
parties dominated European governments throughout the 1980s and
early l990s. Then the various center-left and social-democratic
parties prevailed, primarily because the right had finally run
out of steam and alienated enough swing voters that a Third Way
left supplanted it. Now the pendulum is swinging back, and it
has certainly received a special shove from nativist sentiments
unleashed in the aftermath of September 1l.
Moreover, the influx of immigrants in
many European nations is heavy. Germany has a greater percentage
of foreign-born persons than the selfprofessed "nation of
immigrants," the United States. Holland, a nation of 16 million,
has 1 million immigrants. Austria- with 8 million people, it's
a little less populous than New York City-has been the crossroads
in recent years for migrants fleeing various ethnic conflicts.
Unfortunately, the far right has often
been the only sector addressing-prejudicially and demagogically-the
hard questions concerning not only immigration and crime but also
the generous European welfare state, and how it is being affected
by globalization. As one European commentator has written, "The
Social, Christian and Liberal Democrats have left discussion of
the continent's most important issues in the hands of obscure
demagogues, amateurs and con artists." The legitimate question
of how rapidly the most generous of nations can absorb and incorporate
the immigrant influx has been shunted off to the right. According
to one far-right leader in Denmark, "It is very difficult
to have a welfare state if the borders are open. The responsibility
and the will to pay a lot of tax, as we do, must be there."
That's not reaction, that's common sense.
The reaction, of course, is there, too.
As in the United States, racism and xenophobia are very much present
in Europe. The idea of European society as a "melting pot"
or "rainbow quilt" is alien and new, and undoubtedly
there will be strains for some time to come. But for the American
media and punditry-right, left and mainstream-to portray the situation
as one in which Nazis and fascists are gaining a real foothold
in Europe is erroneous and hyperbolic.
As American politics and media have been
engulfed the last two decades by a right-wing, free-market conservatism,
the real Europe emerges more and more as the most viable countervailing
force-a mainstay of social democracy, government regulation, political
and media pluralism, and proportional representation. Playing
the fascist card too quickly undermines this vital European model
and contributes to the conservative agenda of those who wish to
attack Europe as the ideological opposition to a free-market United
STEVEN HILL is senior analyst for the
Center for Voting and Democracy and the author of a new book,
Fixing Elections: The Failure of America's Winner-Take-AIl Politics.