Share this story
Close X
Switch to Desktop Site

Buchanan and Europe's Far Right

Economic nationalism, fear of outsiders are also hot issues elsewhere

RUSSIA has no presidential primaries, but Vladimir Zhirinovsky lost no time in trying to get a "bounce" from New Hampshire in his campaign to be the next Russian president. A message fired off by the ultranationalist candidate not only congratulated Pat Buchanan on his primary victory there but suggested that, as Russia and the United States both have a Jewish population, the two countries could solve the problem of this "small but troublesome minority" by rounding up all the Jews for resettlement.

The vileness of the thought, reminiscent at once of Hitler's concentration camps and Stalin's forced exile of millions, was promptly noted and rejected by the Buchanan campaign as the "politics of hate." No matter: Mr. Zhirinovsky's gesture doubtless played well with his domestic constituency.

About these ads

Before dismissing Zhirinovsky's ravings, Americans might consider the implications of this wake-up call from the East. US commentators are struggling to explain the Buchanan phenomenon in the context of America's populist past. In Europe, his campaign resonates against a backdrop of similar political movements that have recently become an important force in several countries.

Dangerous politics

As we reflect on populist forerunners in the American past, from William Jennings Bryan to George Wallace, it is well to remember that people generally resemble their times more than their ancestors. This is a moment of deep anxiety and consequently of volatile, dangerous politics throughout the Western world. Right-wing groups built around opposition to European integration and immigration have been on the rise in Europe. The response to Buchanan's campaign so far suggests that the US may be catching up with a trend that began to surface in Europe in the 1980s and picked up momentum after the cold war ended. If Europe's experience is any guide, it will not be easy for Republicans or Democrats to chart a steady course in the face of a powerful populist challenge to traditional party structures.

Variously labeled neofascist, populist, or ultranationalist, such groups have gained support from adherents of European far-right movements, from disaffected voters drawn from centrist parties, and even from former Communists abandoned by their Soviet god. Allowing for significant local differences, the basic appeal is to three main groups of voters: economic nationalists afraid of losing control of their country's resources; displaced workers shoved aside by transformations in the global economy; and cultural nationalists and religious conservatives fearful of being overrun by darker-skinned people, often of other faiths.

Such movements have continued to gain strength, despite strenuous efforts of more-centrist parties to stem their growing popularity. In France, Jean-Marie Le Pen of the National Front polled 15 percent in last year's presidential elections. Austria's Jorg Haider did even better, with more than one-fifth of the voters supporting his far-right Freedom Party in December elections, the same day that Zhirinovsky's ultranationalist party finished second to the Communists in Russia's parliamentary vote. Mr. Haider predicts that his party will rule Austria before the millennium is out. In Italy, the neofascist National Alliance party was invited to join the Berlusconi government during 1994-95, after garnering 13 percent of the vote in national elections; this in addition to the 8 percent showing of the xenophobic Northern League, also part of the ruling coalition.

These percentages understate the far right's impact, because such groups affect the entire political spectrum. Trying to undercut the far-right's appeal, centrist parties have sometimes tightened up on immigration and welfare policies, or have slowed European Union expansion. The rise of populist parties from the fringes to an influential role, and the adjustment of established parties, represents a sea change in European politics during the 1990s, second only in importance to the demise of communism and, in part, its result.

Mr. Buchanan's rhetoric resembles a political discourse now commonplace on the Western European scene. He complains about illegal immigrants and promises to seal our borders. In Europe the interlopers cited hail from North Africa or Eastern Europe, and the EU's open borders are seen as a threat to national sovereignty. Buchanan blames heartless corporations for mass layoffs, while European rightists blame multinationals along with "Eurocrats" for unemployment rates twice those of the US. Brussels, the EU headquarters, carries the same negative freight as does Washington in American antifederal imagery.

About these ads

Shameless scapegoating

Buchanan and his European counterparts all blame society's ills on "outsiders" - unfaithful allies, unfair trading partners, ungrateful foreign-aid recipients, international organizations, or minority groups at home. Too often European populists' rhetoric invokes the traditional vocabulary of Jewish scapegoating. Given this context, it is plausible for Buchanan's critics to see his frequent attacks on Israeli policy and its supporters, on banks, and on Jews who hold political office as sly innuendo in the same tradition.

But however stereotyped, populist discourse reflects real grievances. Buchanan reinforces the decade's lesson for Western leaders: Listen more closely to citizens who are anxious about their prospects for a decent life. With crime rates high, family and community structures weakening, the supply of good jobs drying up, and the gap between rich and poor growing wider, people have plenty of reasons to doubt the established parties' capacity to deal effectively with social ills. Buchanan deserves credit for bringing economic insecurity front and center in national politics.

Much depends on whether centrist political leaders can demonstrate that they understand the impact of these destabilizing trends and take steps to reverse them. The populists' rise does not make this any easier. By focusing the anger and anxiety of the voters, by engaging in the rhetoric of violence and conflict, they have made governing more complicated, weakening already-fragile social bonds. In Europe, increased violence against immigrants and minorities has been the outgrowth of such a political culture. Should centrists fail to respond to the economic insecurity and other conditions that breed fear and resentment, the West may well see the revival of a politics of ethnic and religious division, class conflict, and nationalistic rivalries - a formula that has proved disastrous throughout the 20th century.

Follow Stories Like This
Get the Monitor stories you care about delivered to your inbox.