In the recent Greek elections, the far-right, ultranationalist Golden Dawn party, whose members perform Nazi salutes at rallies, got 7 percent of the vote and entered Parliament for the first time. Its leader told journalists to stand upon his arrival at a news conference and ejected those who did not.
A sick joke, you say. What’s 7 percent? But Golden Dawn’s gains are a symbol of a protest vote that fed extremes in Greece and decimated centrist parties, making it impossible to form a government in a country on the edge of economic collapse.
That’s a pattern that has emerged in elections across Europe. The center cannot hold, things fall apart, and angry voters, hurting from unemployment and economic distress, migrate to the extremes. Fascism isn’t (yet) on the real rise, but governmental paralysis is, at a time when leaders are desperately needed to navigate Europe’s economic crises. Europe’s failures will be felt here.
So it’s a good time to take a look at those European elections, as America enters a campaign season defined by anger. Our centrists, too, are derided by political purists, especially on the right. Meanwhile, Supreme Court-enabled super PACs pour untold millions into attack ads that often incite hatred.
If you want to see where the politics of anger can lead, when the focus is on finding scapegoats rather than solutions, take a look at Europe’s election season up close.
In the Netherlands, the anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-Europe Freedom Party, led by Geert Wilders, brought the government down last month by pulling out of the governing coalition.
In France, Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front won its highest-ever count, nearly 19 percent, in the first round. Le Pen refused to steer those votes to center-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, whose loss to Socialist Francois Hollande in the second round was fueled by anger over austerity measures. And in principle, Hollande’s stress on the need for growth as well as austerity measures is not a bad thing.
But this election was more about anger over economic pain than about the need for better economic policies. It was about hostility to immigration, the euro, globalization and change.
Hollande blithely promised a 75 percent tax on the rich, a lower retirement age (in France it’s already 62), and retention of the 35-hour workweek. France can’t afford any of this, and when the truth comes out, the politics of anger will get another boost.
In Greece, voters boosted the far left and neo-Nazi right. They rejected the two main parties of the center-right and left, who are blamed for harsh austerity measures. The role of kingmaker went to a coalition of leftist parties called Syriza, which got 16 percent and refuses to enter into a coalition with either of the main parties. Thus Greece is rudderless, which increases the chance it will default and exit the eurozone.
In Serbian elections, driven by anger over high unemployment, voters denied a mandate to either of the two leading parties, and gave the Socialists once led by war criminal Slobodan Milosevic the kingmaker role.
And then there’s Russia, where Vladimir Putin was coronated, whoops, I mean sworn in, for his third term as president this week. Putin floated back to power on a sea of oil. But even in Russia, research by a respected think tank indicates widespread anger at the massive corruption under Putin, reflected by the demonstration of tens of thousands in Moscow this week.
Were oil prices to slide, more widespread voter anger would probably surface, even in Russia. But, for now, Putin can continue to survive by dribbling out the revenue from energy resources that Europeans lack.
What’s clear from this cascade of elections: Free-floating rage against austerity and elites is ripe for manipulation, especially when leaders prove unable to address the economic roots of that anger. Centrist parties, which have failed so far to rescue their publics from economic distress, are easy targets. Even in France, Hollande’s Socialist Party – a party of the mainstream – is being pulled too far left, and its adherents will be even angrier when their dreams can’t be met.
Which brings us back to the U.S. election season. In these confused times, when the Republican Party has been taken over by fringe groups that deride a centrist president as a foreigner, a socialist and a traitor, the compromises that used to make American politics work are impossible.
When Sen. Richard Lugar, a GOP elder and foreign-policy statesman known for his ability to reach across the aisle, was defeated last week in the Indiana Republican primary by tea party conservative Richard Mourdock, it illuminated the current state of our politics. Lugar had criticized Mourdock for his “unrelenting partisan mindset.” His defeat was hastened by a flood of money from ultraconservative groups outside his state. Any remaining vestige of bipartisanship in the Senate will be further diminished.
And yet the United States is still in a far better position than Europe to assuage voter anger. Serious leaders, not thwarted by ideologues, could find an economic compromise that encourages growth while cutting spending. The failure to do so will only fuel the anger that, at present, is all too often directed not at extremism but at those who try to hold center ground.
If you want a preview of where that will lead, just look at Europe’s election season. Look hard.