When Austria’s second round of voting in its Presidential elections is done and the ballots are counted this Sunday, we might be witness to the latest triumph by a far-Right party in Europe. If he wins—and the latest polls show him ahead—Norbert Hofer, the Freedom Party’s disarmingly friendly public face, would only hold an office with largely ceremonial powers. But the victory would represent the next phase in the slow dawning of a new political era on the European continent—an era where far-Right parties are competitive in parliamentary elections and stand every chance of getting into government.
The Austrian situation is telling. The current ruling coalition would only get 43 percent of the vote if parliamentary elections were held today, while the Freedom Party has the plurality with 34 percent. Like elsewhere in Europe, the “sensible” mainstream parties have made noises about banding together to deny the far-Right a chance to govern. But this is a recipe for further disaster. Far-Right voters are already motivated by their distrust of scheming, bloodless, technocratic elites. Keeping a legitimately-elected party from power through back-room deals is the equivalent handing a loaded pistol to the populists and offering up one’s temple for a target.
An almost identical dynamic is playing out in the Netherlands, where Geert Wilders’ PVV is far ahead in the polls but still lacks an outright majority. In Germany, the bulwark against the anti-immigrant Alternative für Deutschland is far stronger, but AfD has been slowly gaining over the last few months at the expense of the ruling coalition’s junior partner, the SPD.
As the political situation on the European continent has grown more and more fraught, elites across the West have been looking for answers. Here in Washington, it’s almost impossible to go to an event at a think tank before someone trots out the idea that we are facing a “crisis of values”. This profound-sounding observation is usually followed by several minutes of well-intentioned hand-wringing about how the West has lost its way since the fall of the Berlin Wall. And then, soon thereafter, the conversation often turns to how Russian propaganda and money is to blame.
We’ve made no secret here at The American Interest that we believe Russia to be serious threat to the U.S.-led world order. We have pointed out time and again when we’ve thought weak or short-sighted leadership, coming from both Brussels and Washington, has played into Putin’s opportunistic hands. And we’re not about to dismiss the effects that Russian money and messaging is having on the margins of European politics. Marine Le Pen’s Front National did indeed receive generous financing for its campaigns in 2014, and there are indications that various other parties across the continent are getting similar (if much smaller) bundles of aid.
But at the same time, it’s would be a big mistake to overstate the case. As our own Karina Orlova argued in an excellent essay earlier today, it’s quite likely that the Russian propaganda machine is hopelessly inefficient due to the endemic corruption and cronyism that besets most of that great country’s initiatives under the criminal kleptocratic regime of Vladimir Putin. And furthermore, it’s also a mistake to assume that the Kremlin is guided by some kind of coherent ideological agenda—apart from rank opportunism. As Orlova wrote, “The Putinist regime as a whole has one single goal it has been pursuing for years: to stay in power for as long as possible—an unavoidable consequence of continually looting the state.”
It’s far beyond the scope of this short essay to try to diagnose what exactly is wrong with Europe and the West. But my intuition, having watched closely as Europe has careened from crisis to crisis, and bounced from unforced error to unforced error, ever since the 2008 financial collapse, is that the problems are less lofty and conceptual, and more concretely institutional.
Jamie Kirchick, writing in Foreign Policy earlier today, hit on part of the problem in comparing the way Sweden and Denmark have handled their respective immigration crises:
The Swedish political and media establishment’s longtime uniformity on immigration — brooking no dissent from an open-borders policy and labeling any criticism of it as morally beyond the pale — allowed for the rise of the Sweden Democrats, a once-marginal, far-right party that is now the third largest in the country. Even further to the right of the Sweden Democrats are paramilitary groups that have taken to harassing and beating migrants. In Denmark, by contrast, where immigration skeptics were never written out of the political conversation, alternative views have always been part of the political system. Though the Danish People’s Party is often mischaracterized as “far right,” it is not nearly as extreme as the Sweden Democrats. Anti-migration sentiments are thus channeled in a healthy way — the parliamentary process — and not onto the streets.
Perhaps it’s not our values that are in crisis, but our political institutions. As long as Western democracies are unable to incorporate legitimate nationalist sentiments into the ordinary political process, they will continue to face anti-liberal eruptions from the likes of Mr. Hofer.