2016 was a banner year in atypical electoral outcomes. At the outset of the year, few would have predicted the results of the Brexit vote, the election of Donald Trump as President of the United States, and the massive vote share that the far-right Alternative for Germany (AfD) received in Mecklenburg-Vorpommern in Germany – garnering a higher percentage of votes than the Christian Democratic Party (CDU). These results have been paired with increasingly widespread discussions of the lack of responsiveness of elected officials and a widely disillusioned populace.

Within these developments, two major points cannot be afforded to be ignored any longer: far-right populism is once again rearing its ugly head across Europe, and a democratic deficit at both a European Union and member state level is at least partially to blame for it. This paper will analyze the palpable and evolving trends in the rise of far-right populist success in Germany, France, and the Netherlands and analyze how institutional failures have contributed to it. While this paper originally sought to only answer the components above, the author realizes the dire state of the political situation at hand – and what its consequences could mean for ourselves and our posterity. As such, he includes a third section focusing on several methods and approaches to combat this rise.

The Rise of the Far-Right: Examples and Realities from Germany, France And the Netherlands 

A specter is haunting Europe, the specter of far-right populism. Across the continent of Europe, parties that only shortly ago were well beyond the realms of the mainstream political spectrum have gained momentum in public opinion and at the polls. Populist in the sense of displaying a disdain and opposition to the ‘established’ political parties while also claiming to be the ‘true voice’ of a people in a given country, far-right populist parties also often have strong tinges – or full-blown components – of nationalism, xenophobia, racism, or some form of restrictive inclusiveness. For this paper, the successes and components of three far-right parties will be analyzed: the Alternative for Germany (AfD) in Germany, the National Front (FN) in France, and the Party of Freedom (PVV) in the Netherlands. It should be noted that many of the attributes and successes of these parties transcend country or Western Europe. They can in many respects be viewed as part of a wider reaching development.

Germany and the Alternative for Germany (AfD)

As mentioned in the introduction to this paper, the 2016 Mecklenburg-Vorpommern elections – a German Federal State – shocked many across Europe and beyond. The mighty Christian Democratic Party (CDU) placed third in the regional elections behind the AfD, a party founded only a few years prior. Two weeks later, they won over 14 percent in the Berlin state elections – a traditionally very liberal city. Unlike the traditional extreme right party in Germany, the NPD, the AfD has taken a more sophisticated approach in pushing its right-wing agenda – Bernd Lucke, an economist, was a founding member of the party, for instance. Campaigning on issues such as shutting the EU’s external borders to immigration, a strong anti-Islam platform, a skepticism of the Euro and the EU, and more traditionally conservative Christian social values,[1] the party has pulled voters from both the CDU – who feel the party has abandoned its traditionally more conservative base – and from the SPD (Social Democratic Party) – many of whom feel that the traditional worker’s party has abandoned their interests in the name of globalization. At the center of the AfD’s overall message is a tone against the “elites” and the belief that there is an overall lack of responsiveness by those in ruling positions. A recent poll found 88 percent of AfD supporters agreeing with the notion that political powers operate independently of public opinion, and that their voices did not matter from the perspective of the ruling classes.[2] Its swift ascension to state parliaments – and potentially into the Bundestag in next year’s elections – paired with its every so often NS-Zeit vocabulary (their use of the term Lügenpresse, for instance), has been viewed through nervous eyes by many.

France and the National Front (FN)

Across the border from Germany, France may be in store for a similar development in its upcoming presidential elections. While much older than the AfD, France’s National Front (founded in 1972) has a long history in French politics. In 2002, the party pulled a major political upset when then-leader Jean-Marie Le Pen defeated a Socialist Party candidate to advance to the second round of the French presidential election. While the party often displayed outright attitudes of anti-Semitism under Le Pen, his daughter and current party leader Marine Le Pen, has been widely successful in making the current party operate under a “veneer of respectability” that seeks to mask the more outright levels of xenophobia and racism found under her father’s leadership.[3] The party’s success has been coupled with these moves and a rising wave of Islamophobia in France to the tune of its 25 percent popular vote share in the 2014 European Parliament elections and its 28 percent vote in the first round of France’s 2015 regional elections.[4] Many speculate that Le Pen has a real chance at getting past the first round of this year’s presidential elections, given current President Francois Hollande’s current dismal approval ratings. Yet what Le Pen has tapped into and what her and the FN ultimately use to lure voters parallels much with most of the ideas of the AfD, a sense of a victimized French people by foreigners and globalization, and the FN as the ultimate representative of the common interest of these people.[5]

The Netherlands and the Party of Freedom (PVV)

With national elections in the Netherlands next year, the Party of Freedom (PVV) is currently topping the polls. Their leader, Geert Wilders, has toned down on much of the borderline anti-Semitism and homophobia from traditional far-right parties in Europe, and instead portrayed the situation in the Netherlands as one of traditional Dutch liberal values under attack from ‘Islamization.’[6] As such, Wilders and his party have pulled from a wide range of groups that traditionally do not engage with his brand of far-right politics. Yet, like the party’s counterparts in France and Germany, the PVV has gained support from a populace disillusioned with a politics-as-usual approach – one that many feel has ignored their basic needs and has become increasingly less responsive. While Wilders was recently found guilty of inciting discrimination at a recent rally – calling for “fewer Moroccans” – the support he has gained has continued to grow, such as those in rural fishing villages where the threat of many of the EU laws on fisheries brings much disdain.[7]

What’s different about these far-right populist parties compared to traditional ones? On the whole, these parties have tapped into much of the disillusionment among the populace that has fueled forerunner parties of similar backgrounds, while broadening their approach and veiling their overall messages in ways that make their ideas – at first glance – appear less extreme and more mainstream. We now turn to an important component of their rise – the democratic deficit at the EU and member state level.

The Democratic Deficit and Its Contributions to the Rise of the Far-Right

Generally speaking, the idea of the ‘democratic deficit’ involves the sense felt by many that EU institutions – and as I will argue here, member states as well – suffer from a lack of democratic measures and complexity that makes it seem “inaccessible to the ordinary citizen.”[8] High levels of a democratic deficit can make populations increasingly disillusioned with political structures, and leave them vulnerable to the sway of far-right populists claiming to be the one ‘true’ or ‘responsive’ voice of the people.

At an EU level, this democratic deficit is extremely palpable. Its high levels of complexity – from the way officials are appointed and leadership positions are awarded – paired with low levels of participation leave it – particularly when the body itself is endowed with the power of supranational law – drawing the ire of many in Europe. Part of this EU-level democratic deficit certainly starts with the fact that the European Parliament is the only directly elected body in the EU. Its five-year electoral cycle means that individual citizens only have two opportunities per decade to contribute to it through the power of the ballot. Perhaps it is no surprise then, that EU electoral participation has dropped from about 62 percent in 1979 to less than 43 percent in 2014.[9] It suffers from a real or perceived lack of input-oriented democratic thought, which Scharf (1999), explains as “government by the people” – the idea that political decisions reflect the will of the electorate.[10] Even though the Parliament has gained more competencies following the Single European Act, a democratic deficit is still felt by many.[11] Far-right populist groups have pounced on these ideas, and to some degree, perhaps they are not incorrect. When liberal democracies, or supranational institutions, fail to provide a sense of transparency and input legitimacy, they undermine their entire existence, and make themselves a less responsive and accountable body.

At a member state level, the democratic deficit has been equally as dangerous and responsible for the rise of the far-right: through a real or perceived loss of popular sovereignty, the lack of an effective democratic debate, and what Mouffe (2002) calls the ‘impasse of moralism.’ Much of the antagonism towards the EU is also towards member state governments, where a similar type of democratic deficit exists. Far-right populists have seized on what many supporters view as a lack of responsiveness to the will of the people from the ruling parties at hand and with it, capturing the minds of individuals who feel that there is no ‘scope’ left for them to participate in important decisions through the existing political parties and system at hand.[12] As one PVV supporter put it, “[the traditional political parties] don’t listen to us…every time it is the same.”[13]

This loss of popular sovereignty – real or perceived – has been met with a lack of real democratic debate. In Germany, for instance, the ruling CDU/SPD Große Koalition – paired with the SPD’s embrace of more neoliberal policies – has led to a crowding out of potential political alternatives and with it the creation of an anti-political climate – one in which Mouffe (2002) says makes it impossible for political passions and displeasure to be “channeled through traditional democratic parties.”[14] This blurring of the political landscape amongst mainstream parties has resulted in a neo-liberal hegemony[15] in many Western European states, and with it a vacuum of where a forum for real economic and social issues to be discussed and voted on – in a fuller view of the public – used to exist.

Finally, the ‘impasse of moralism,’ as Mouffe (2002) states, is the result of the institutional and political failures of combating right-wing populism with simply a ‘moral high ground’ approach.[16] While it may seem convenient to avoid contact or acknowledgement with any of the ideas from some of these parties based off an aura of moral supremacy, it has done little to hinder the success of these movements – as the aforementioned electoral results show. Coupled with this component has been a dismissal of voters for these groups by ruling institutions, and their automatic labeling by the ruling powers as what Pulitzer Prize winning lawyer and journalist Glenn Greenwald describes as, “primitive, stupid, racist, xenophobic, and irrational,” valid or not.[17] It is a convenient excuse for ruling institutions and parties, and has allowed them to slip through the accountability cracks while at the same time absolving themselves from the responsibility to look within their own faults to examine the underlying political, social and economic causes that have buoyed the rise of these movements.

Some thoughts on Combatting the Wave – Three Approaches to Counter Far-Right Populism

Under the guise of being the ‘one true voice’ of the people, far-right populist parties threaten the very institutions, freedoms and relative stability that has – mostly – existed in Western Europe since the end of the Second World War. Although many of these movements operate under the false-premise of restoring the democratic will of the people, their modus operandi, and the values for which they truly stand for is inherently undemocratic in the sense of denying many rights to marginalized groups – rights not subject to the forces of democracy. With that said, this author offers three ways that parties and institutions can combat this dangerous wave permeating throughout Europe.

Restoring Input-Oriented Democracy

Member state governments the and EU must make more direct efforts to legitimize their decisions to their constituents and appear more transparent to a wider public. Increasing the role of the European Parliament – the only directly elected body of the EU – would be a meaningful first place to start. Moreover, member states and the EU would benefit greatly by pushing for more real or perceived reliance on citizen ‘participation’ in order to achieve more input-oriented legitimacy.[18] Democracy does not end at the ballot box – elections are merely just one component of the democratic process. Engaging in more meaningful ways of feedback, education, and more genuine attempts to approach citizens and gauge their interests and concerns is a major step to counter much of the disillusionment felt across member states and the continent as a whole.

More Introspection from Existing Institutions

The ruling parties and governing bodies of Europe cannot absolve themselves from the blame for the rise of the far-right any longer. Their moralistic responses have for some time been a convenient enough response to avoid their own versions of self-critique, but it has also led to a dangerous lack of self-acknowledgement of their own faults and lack of responsiveness. Writing about the victory of Donald Trump in the United States, Glenn Greenwald pointed to the failure of institutions continuously, “mocking, maligning, and pillaging large portions of the population,” while then being shocked when these individuals do not, “follow and obey the exact people they most blame for their suffering. They’re going to do exactly the opposite: purposely defy them and try to impose punishment in retaliation.”[19] The same is the case in European countries where far-right movements have gained momentum. An acknowledgement amongst the ruling parties and governments themselves that they have in many ways abandoned traditional bases – and even maligned a good portion of them – or placed the value of winning elections or staying in power over good governance for all – is a step that needs to be taken. To fail to do so displays a dangerous level of hubris that could continue to result in negative consequences.

Living Truths and Dead Dogmas – A Lesson from John Stuart Mill

In his famous work, On Liberty, John Stuart Mill discusses an important passage on ‘living truths’ and ‘dead dogmas.’ Mill argues that even if something is true – empirically or morally – if it is not debated in the public realm, or there is an outright failure to do so, it risks becoming a dead dogma. Thus, when individuals begin to question this truth, those who would like to defend it fail to do so through proper argumentative techniques to respond appropriately to dissent.[20] The inability to respond adequately, argumentatively, and meaningfully to many of the xenophobic and racist components of the far right – by ignoring rather than by out-reasoning – has been the fault of ruling institutions failing to properly articulate these flawed ideals and allowed many virtues of liberal democracy to become dead dogmas rather than living truths. It has contributed to many believing that this type of rhetoric – that these types of ideas – are acceptable, and the ruling institutions have largely failed to appropriately explain the dangers that they entail in real and meaningful ways. Because of it, ruling institutions must find new ways to object to much of the rhetoric from the far right – they simply cannot ignore their words in public debate anymore. These parties have won places in governments by legal means. Without a better formulated response from traditional democratic parties, people will continue to view these parties as the only type of way to voice their disillusionment with the current way of doing things; the current system at hand.

Moving Forward, Not Back

This is a critical juncture in European history. American writer Mark Twain allegedly said that “history doesn’t repeat itself, but it does rhyme.” A failure of EU institutions, member states and the ruling traditional political parties to respond in meaningful and tangible ways has threatened the existing democratic structures of the continent. They must quickly take note of the warnings and advice presented in this paper, or risk a resurgence of darker days in Europe.

Links and References

[1] Knight, Ben (2016), What does the AfD stand for?, Deutsche Welle, 7 March 2016 http://www.dw.com/en/what-does-the-afd-stand-for/a-19100127.

[2] Amann, Melanie, Bartsch, Matthias, Becker, Sven, Feldenkirchen, Markus, Fleischhauer, Jen, Neukirch, Ralf, Pfister, René, Saller, Josef and Thimm, Katja, (2016), Inside the Revolt against Angela Merkel, Der Spiegel, 21 March. 2016, http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/success-of-afd-populists-akin-to-revolt-against-merkel-a-1083147.html.

[3] Wolin, Richard (2016), France’s National Front Draws Strength from Brexit, The Nation, 5 August, 2016, https://www.thenation.com/article/frances-national-front-draws-strength-from-brexit/?print=1.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Graham-Harrison, Emma, (2016) Far-right party still leading in Dutch polls, despite leader’s criminal guilt, The Guardian, 10 December 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2016/dec/10/netherlands-geert-wilders-politics-far-right.

[7] Ibid.

[8] “Democratic deficit”, Eur-Lex, 18 December 2016, http://eur-lex.europa.eu/summary/glossary/democratic_deficit.html.

[9] “Results of the 2014 European elections – Turnout,” 18 December 2016, European Parliament, http://www.europarl.europa.eu/elections2014-results/en/turnout.html.

[10] Scharpf, Fritz W, (1999), Governing in Europe: Effective and democratic?, Oxford University Press, New York, Oxford University Press, p. 6.

[11] Scharpf (1999), p. 9.

[12] Mouffe, Chantal (2002), Democracy in Europe: The Challenge of Right-wing Populism, Lecture, 21 November 2002, http://www.cccb.org/rcs_gene/mouffe.pdf

[13] Graham-Harrison, Emma, (2016).

[14] Mouffe (2002).

[15] Ibid.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Greenwald, Glenn (2016), Democrats, Trump, and the Ongoing, Dangerous Refusal to Learn the Lesson of Brexit, The Intercept, 9 November 2016, https://theintercept.com/2016/11/09/democrats-trump-and-the-ongoing-dangerous-refusal-to-learn-the-lesson-of-brexit/.

[18] Scharpf (1999), p. 7.

[19] Greenwald, Glenn, (2016)

[20] Mill, John Stuart, (1869), On Liberty. London: Longman, Roberts & Green.

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