The surprising election of Donald Trump has brought with it a profound sense of panic among many American liberals, who interpret his election as a sure sign that the decades-long reign of progressivism throughout the West may soon come to a screeching halt.
Indeed, this year has produced a slew of events that have demonstrated the diminished popularity of progressive policies abroad, beginning with the United Kingdom’s dramatic exit from the European Union back in June. Since then, U.K. Prime Minister David Cameron has resigned, and he will soon be joined by Matteo Renzi, the P.M. of Italy, whose big government reforms were rejected by voters in early December. In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats lost an election in her home state, and President Francois Hollande of France—whose approval ratings are in the teens—is widely expected to lose his election next year, should he run.
Accompanying these political developments have been a string of reports in the mainstream press warning of Europe’s dramatic “swing to the right,” with headlines that affirm and reinforce the distress many liberals feel. Some useful examples include: “In Europe, Xenophobia is Winning over Rationality“ from CNN; this one from the Washington Post, warning that “‘Rhetoric of Fascism’ is Rising in the U.S. and Europe;” The New York Times’ recent announcement that “‘Brexit’ Has Given License to Xenophobia;” and most recently, a dramatic piece entitled “How Republics End“ by Paul Krugman, also at The New York Times, which beseeches reader to take note of the “parallels between the rise of fascism [in the 1930s] and our current political nightmare.”
Such articles almost always frame Europe’s political situation as a sudden embrace of the “far right” rather than as part of a widespread rejection of the liberal status quo. Have Trump and the opposition parties gaining popularity in Europe really hoodwinked millions of people into directing the West down a dark, nationalistic road toward disaster? Or are more complex dynamics at play, which require a deeper explanation than screams of “xenophobia?”
How Popular Are ‘Far Right’ Parties, Really?
Before we accept the notion that Europe is truly lurching toward right-wing nationalism, let’s examine how popular far-right parties really are in the West.
A handy chart published by The New York Times shows how in the latest European elections, right-wing opposition parties only received more than a third of the vote in three countries: Austria’s Freedom Party won 35 percent of the vote in this year’s presidential election; Hungary’s Fides-KDNP coalition brought in a combined 45 percent of the vote in 2014 parliamentary elections; and the Law and Justice Party received 39 percent of the vote in Poland’s parliamentary elections of 2015. These parties’ electoral success was not sudden: all three have been politically active and steadily gaining in popularity throughout the past decade, years before the EU’s current immigration crisis.
France and Switzerland constitute the two countries with the next most popular right-wing parties. The National Front, headed by Marine Le Pen, brought in 28 percent of the vote in elections last year and 27 percent in regional elections this year. However, the party was soundly defeated by center-right candidates in the second round, and failed to win any region in France outright this year. The Swiss People’s Party (SVP), meanwhile, received 29 percent of the vote in the 2015 parliamentary elections. Although this was the most of any Swiss party, the SVP still faces significant political opposition, and earlier this year the public voted against them on refugee policy reforms.
Beyond these, the far-right parties in essentially every other European state—including the Netherlands, Germany, and the U.K.—achieved electoral gains that hover around 15 percent or less in the latest elections, with center-right and leftist parties preserving their political power. Recall that European political systems differ greatly from that of the United States, and when a party “wins” an election, that most often means it won a plurality—not a majority—of votes from the electorate. Some countries, like Denmark, have a prime minister that runs a “minority government,” meaning the ruling party must rely on coalitions with other parties to pass legislation.
So while right-wing opposition parties have achieved increased popularity in recent years throughout Europe—sometimes leading to electoral gains—for the media to indicate that right-wing populism is rapidly devouring the whole of Europe is, based on this data, overstated at best and deeply manipulative at its worst.
Is It Xenophobia, Or Something Else?
Coupled with media reports about the far right’s “rise” in Europe is the assertion that xenophobia constitutes the primary or exclusive force driving these electoral shifts. To be sure, some of Trump’s comments about immigrants are shameful, and the various leaders of emerging right-wing opposition parties in Europe have made some very disturbing and outright racist remarks. In both the United States and Europe, there have been documented acts of aggression towards minorities, and every political party has its share of self-proclaimed racists who use their prejudices to inform their politics.
But just as it is profoundly ignorant to espouse the narrative that 60 million Americans suddenly turned into racists this election cycle, it’s also misguided to correlate the rhetoric of opposition party leaders in Europe with their increasing popularity and assume that one is exclusively the cause of the other. Indeed, doing so not only ignores the fact that economic and employment issues are the primary motivators for voters (in both the United States and Europe), but it also excludes the voices of many Europeans, whose testimony paints a far different picture.
In a piece put together by the Times that profiles opposition party supporters, right-wing voters cite the migrant crisis as a motivating issue without expressing any fear or hatred of brown people. Instead, they exhibit frustration first and foremost about the power of the European Union, which dictates so much regarding immigration, from the flow and direction of refugees to what reporters can say about them in the press when they commit crimes.
Others, like Brexit voters, talk about how their governments divert welfare funds to thousands of incoming impoverished refugees—including those who are also white Europeans—and how when native citizens question the wisdom of these policies, mainstream politicians and press respond by labeling them white supremacists. They’re disturbed not by exotic cultures that immigrants might bring along with them from the Middle East, but by the fact that European governments opened their borders with little forethought given to the social consequences of integrating unassimilated refugees into their (mostly homogenous) societies.
So to characterize the election of Trump and the growing popularity of right-wing leaders as little more than a symptom of Western bigotry takes willful ignorance to the fact that the millions of people now supporting opposition parties are the same people who voted Barack Hussein Obama and his liberal comrades abroad into power.
A Response to Global Liberalism
The two trends among right-wing voters often passed off by the media as xenophobia, namely economic pessimism or “anxiety” and opposition to unfettered immigration, instead indicate a rejection of a post-war strain of liberal ideology. This philosophy embraces international institutions, promotes multiculturalism, and celebrates globalization.
Indeed, we can see this clearly manifested in the growing dissatisfaction with the European Union, which has been a recurrent theme in the platforms of Europe’s right-wing parties. The migrant crisis offers an obvious and compelling illustration of how the E.U. strips European states of their sovereignty, but the regulatory oversight by unelected E.U. officials has grown to include many other policy realms. Whereas once the E.U. was important for stability and economic freedom in a post-war world recovering from war and confronting global communism, perhaps Europeans now recognize that it’s morphed into an anti-democratic, “supranational bureaucracy,” which is no longer in Europeans’ best interest.
The E.U.-enabled massive influx of refugees, meanwhile, has led to a situation in which thousands of low-skilled immigrants desperate for work have increased job competition and undercut wages, pushing some portions of the working-class into unemployment. This, coupled with the stagnation of wages that has accompanied economic liberalization, has driven people away from the status quo—for better or worse—in search of alternative solutions like the protectionism offered by opposition parties. Like it or not, these frustrations are only compounded when the state attempts to force these same people to embrace and tolerate the newcomers, many of whom don’t speak the language, adhere to social norms, or acknowledge the prevailing national identity.
It’s understandable that in their search for an explanation of events this year, frustrated liberals feel tempted to blame hatred—something that, like 2016, they can claim they don’t understand. But the situation in the West is far more complex, just like the human beings that created it, and without an acknowledgement of this fact, I’m afraid liberals won’t find answers any time soon.