Whether it’s on the right or on the left, voters usually have a fundamental aversion to backing complex policy solutions and to lending their support to anything that requires either personal sacrifice or incremental change. Whether it’s Reagan’s borrowed vision of a shining city on a hill or Obama’s clarion call to the ideals of hope and change, people like getting behind candidates that move them at a gut level and whose appeal is evident within minutes of first laying eyes on them. From Gore and Kerry during the Bush years and McCain and Romney under Obama, the presidential campaigns that have struggled the most in recent years have generally been those that had difficulty articulating their message in a direct, consistent and convincing fashion. If a political candidate or party can properly gauge the sentiment of the voting public and effectively tailor their message to tap into that zeitgeisty vein, there’s no telling how far they’ll be able to go.
The most recent example of the supremacy of simplicity and fervor over complexity and sober entreaty has been the recent referendum on whether or not the United Kingdom should leave the European Union. From the time that the referendum was proposed by Prime Minister David Cameron in an effort to appease the eurosceptic wing of his party, it was virtually unthinkable that the people of the UK could vote to leave the EU when such a move was almost uniformly seen by sociopolitical and economic experts as falling somewhere on a continuum from mildly harmful to utterly disastrous. Surely, with the backing of the Tory, Labour and Scottish National Party leadership, there was no way that this “Brexit” vote could ever be decided in favor of a Leave camp led by a coalition of right-wing conservatives and a minority party of Islamophobic, anti-immigrant blowhards.
As you will no doubt know if you haven’t spent the last few weeks in a medically induced coma, the citizens of the UK shocked the world, voting to Leave the EU on the back of fearmongering and the propagation of egregious falsehoods from the United Kingdom Independence Party and its leader Nigel Farage, who had the gall to go on television the day after the referendum and admit that his campaign’s main talking point was complete nonsense. By the time Farage made his brazen non-admission of guilt, the British pound had sunk to its lowest level in over 30 years, financial markets across the globe were plummeting and the leaders all across Europe began to brace themselves for far-right, eurosceptic calls for referendums in their own countries.
Back in America, the breakdown of political reaction to the Brexit vote was fairly straightforward, with the key players in the States largely in large part mimicking their British counterparts. Like the establishment wing of the Labour party and Prime Minister Cameron, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were solidly in the remain camp and Donald Trump—a man who is essentially less witty, more uncouth version of Nigel Farage—supported the Leave campaign in true Trump style, taking a break from inspecting his refurbished golf course to congratulate the Scottish people for having “taken back their country”, despite the fact that 62% of Scots voted to stay in the EU. For his part, Bernie Sanders’ stance was fairly similar to the position of his opposite number in the UK, freshly minted Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, that was characterized by nominal support for the UK remaining in the EU, but accompanied by a muted desire to attach the result to the failures of neoliberalism in a way that bolsters their own movement.
The only real separation between the US and UK reactions to the Brexit verdict came with the differences of opinion held by each country’s Green party, specifically that of Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein. In the immediate aftermath of the EU referendum, Stein released a statement that took the veiled Eurosceptic sentiment espoused at times by Corbyn and Sanders to another level, placing the blame for the Leave vote at the feet of the EU and neoliberalism writ large, and coming within a hair’s breadth of celebrating the decision.
In the statement, Stein starts off by saying that, “The Brexit vote is a direct result of the effects of neoliberalism on economically stressed voters harmed by decades of austerity, corporate free trade and globalization that serves the economic elite.” She does bring up the anti-immigrant, xenophobic, Islamophobic sentiment that drove the Leave campaign to victory, but only to demonstrate how they are direct result of neoliberalism and the militaristic policies of the United States and NATO. Later on, she contends that, “the only answer to this crisis is truly progressive policies”, among which she lists economic equality, the right to a living wage and respect for the needs and rights of immigrants.
To a large extent, Stein’s analysis of the policies and events that have gotten us to a point where 52% of Britons want to leave the European Union are sound. The rural voters in the UK who propelled the the Leave campaign to victory were an odd coalition of voters from both sides of the ideological spectrum, with a significant number of Labour members voting alongside their Tory and UKIP counterparts as a response to a post-industrial Britain where economic opportunities had become fewer and far between. Similarly, if it hadn’t been for the disastrous foreign policy of the Bush and Blair administrations in the early 2000s and the West’s mishandling of the crisis in Syria, the refugee crisis that was arguably the biggest catalyst for the Leave campaign’s success would likely not have happened. However, there was one key part of Stein’s statement that was patently untrue, and that is the idea that the only answer to this crisis lies with progressivism.
It would be wonderful if that were indeed the case, but the fact of the matter is that we are in the midst of a right wing resurgence in Europe the likes of which haven’t been seen since the 1930s and there is no comparable left wing movement looming on the horizon. From the anti-immigrant Front National in France, whose leader Marine Le Pen is currently polling at levels that would have her beat embattled Prime Minister Francois Holland in a head to head match up and Geert Wilders’s militantly anti-Islam Party for Freedom, which is currently slated to be have more seats in parliament than any other single Dutch political party, to the looming electoral re-run in Austria where the far right Freedom Party’s Norbert Hofer has a very good chance to become president, prosperous Western European democracies are falling prey to the siren song of hyper-nationalism and xenophobia in ways that would have been unimaginable even 15 or 20 years ago. Meanwhile, in Eastern Europe, the populist far right surge is even stronger, with Poland’s right wing Law and Justice Party recently winning the presidency and a significant majority in parliament and Hungary veering hard to the right, with more than 3 in 5 active Hungarian voters supporting the right wing Fidesz and Jobbik parties.
For their part, the European left wing has been underwhelming in their response in some places and completely absent in others. At the present moment, the only European nations being led by center-left or left wing heads of state are the Czech Republic, France, Greece, Italy, Malta, Slovakia and Sweden. Of these, only Greece’s Syriza-led government could be considered left wing and, given Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras’s breaking with the will of his own party’s voters and many of its MPs to accept bailouts from the Troika and introduce new rounds of austerity measures, that distinction is debatable. What isn’t up for debate is the fact that the center left and left wing in Europe have been in a tailspin in recent years and that they have been unable to find a way to successfully convey their message to the majority of voters in the current political climate.
All of which brings me back to the idea of running political campaigns with a simplicity of message. There is a common thread among all of these far right movements both in Europe and here in America that plays on 2 of the most basic human responses: fear and anger. When Geert Wilders says that, “Islam is the Trojan Horse in Europe” and advocates banning the Koran because it’s a terrorist handbook for an ideology that seeks to destroy the West, it goes straight past the prefrontal cortex and directly into the amygdala and the brain stem of his supporters. When Donald Trump or Nigel Farage starts shouting about how immigrants are devious, immoral, job-stealing blights on society, their words resonate with voters who have been cast aside by the post-industrial world that no longer needs their labor, regardless of whether or not their arguments have any basis in fact. The scapegoating of Muslims, of Jews and of LGBT people are proven mechanisms for mobilizing disaffected white populations and there is nothing about the 21st century that precludes it from replicating the tragedies of the 20th.
Up to this point, the European left has been unable or unwilling to successfully engage the forces of contemporary right wing tyranny. Fortunately for us here in America, our demographic diversity provides a powerful and natural counterweight to far right extremism. You don’t need complex arguments to convey to black and brown Americans that very real and insidious danger inherent in a man like Donald Trump and, more importantly, in the violent potential of his supporters. In countries like the Netherlands or Poland or Austria, they don’t have that automatic buffer against this sort of nationalist race-baiting, Islamophobia and anti-semitism. How do they tailor their message to populations that are so clearly swinging in the opposite ideological direction? How does a party or a movement run candidates on a platform based on “respect for the needs and rights of immigrants”, as Jill Stein put it, at a time when the very existence of their far right opposition is due to a public that increasingly blame those same immigrants for their problems?
Well, if history is any indication, the two things that opposition parties on the left and center left cannot afford to do if they want to shift the pendulum back in their direction are to underestimate the strength of the far right movements they are going up against and devoting more of their time to fighting each other than their common enemy on the right. This doesn’t mean that social democrats and greens and labour members and even centrists and moderate conservatives need to agree on everything or even most things. What it does mean is that they all need to be on the same page when it comes to attacking the far right opposition and, regardless of their personal beliefs, they need to come together at a certain point to do what is in the best interest of their fellow citizens.
For instance,this sort of an approach doesn’t require that someone on the left in Britain who is Euroskeptic agree with some of his or her green and labor counterparts who buy into the idea of the EU. If you are a Euroskeptic on the left who views the EU as a truncheon used by the neoliberal elite of Europe to beat the poor and disenfranchised over the head with and don’t believe reforming it from the inside is possible, that’s fine. However, when the Leave vote is widely seen as being harmful to Britain’s economy and its people and is being driven by a anti-immigrant sentiment and there is no discernible or viable plan for the left to shape the direction taken by a post-EU UK, then you should probably try and help out the Remain camp.
As was the case last year when the conservative Les Republicans, centrist parties and the socialists in France engaged in strategic voting to deny the Front National from making gains in the country’s regional and departmental elections, there are times when it benefits warring parties to set down their arms and join together to defeat a much more dangerous opposition. Despite what the more zealous members of the left and disgruntled independents in Europe and America might claim, neoliberalism and neofascism are not in any way equivalent evils.There is a world of difference between a Nicolas Sarkozy and a Marine Le Pen or a Hillary Clinton and a Donald Trump and to pretend otherwise is to willfully disregard the lessons of the recent and more distant past that show otherwise.
If the center and the left in Europe want to further fracture themselves in the spirit of ideological purity and party loyalty, they are entitled to do so. But, hopefully they do so with the knowledge that, with the exception of certain former Eastern European nations whose Soviet Bloc experience and less developed economies predispose them to embracing the sort of totalitarian, uber-nationalist governments favored by the far right, most right wing movements in EU member nations can only grasp and maintain power if they get a massive assist from their opponents all across the political spectrum. It is worth remembering that in the last free and fair German election in the fall of 1932 before the Nazi seizure of power, the National Socialists only won 33% of the popular vote, which, unnervingly, is right where Austria’s Freedom Party is sitting in the latest Austrian legislative poll. What happened then can happen again, but only if the left and the center balkanize themselves into impotence.
*For those who are interested, I have drawn up a bunch of political climate charts for each of the 28 (soon to be 27) European Union member states. Each one uses either the results of a recent parliamentary/legislative election or the latest poll numbers from an upcoming race to gauge how the political ideological spectrum is represented in that nation’s government. With 28 of them, I couldn’t put them in the article, so I have created a page on Pinterest that houses all of them if you would like to look.