Thomas Lawton is a visiting professor at the Tuck School of Business at Dartmouth.
In the first round of France's 2012 presidential election, the far-right Front National, led by Marine Le Pen, received just under 18 percent of the votes, and the far left Front de Gauche of Jean-Luc Mélenchon took a little over 11 percent. Together, the extremes garnered about 10 million votes. This mirrors recent elections or opinion polls across many European Union countries. This is true from the European Union's westernmost borders—where the far left Sinn Féin regularly poll up to 20 percent and constitute Ireland's de facto main opposition party—to the eastern parameters where hard right nationalist parties such as True Finns in Finland and Jobbik in Hungary finished just behind the main opposition parties in the last national elections. In the case of Greece, the cradle of democracy, both the far left Syriza party and the far right Golden Dawn exceeded expectations in the June elections.
These once-fringe parties are united in their opposition to both European integration and globalization. As we have seen in Hitler's Germany or Stalin's Soviet Union, the distance between far left and far right is not as great as either supporters would have you believe. Like Christopher Columbus's view of the world, if you sail far enough in one direction, you will soon arrive at the other side.
So should we be concerned that Europe appears to be in the clutches of extremist views and protectionist, xenophobic tendencies? In short, yes, we should. But we should also remember that this trend is not irreversible, particularly if the centrist parties finally decide to embrace one essential norm: open and robust debate of a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.
Although I reside in Europe, I spend time each year in the United States. This year was particularly vibrant, as it is of course an election year and my time in New Hampshire was dominated by the Republican Party primaries. I found the European media coverage of this process particularly derisive and often ill-informed. Many European journalists appear to think they have a greater understanding of the U.S. political process and society in general than they actually do. As someone who lives and works between two European countries, hails from a third, and has a wife from a fourth, I found the Republican primaries a lively and refreshing alternative to anything I have witnessed on the old continent. Of course there were some extreme views and outlandish proposals. By its very nature, discourse was skewed more right than left of center. However, virtually no issue or idea was off the table and all were debated freely and forcefully. Over the course of a grueling 12 months or so, the process has finally produced Mitt Romney as the presumptive nominee. The United States is by no means a perfect democracy (the influence of money and vested interests is pervasive) but these primary contests are in many ways emblematic of the vitality that remains at the core of the U.S. political system and society at large.
Compare this with European political arenas and contests. Coalition government has been the preferred option for much of Europe since World War II. Consequently, voters rarely know what government they will ultimately get and whether or not their voice was genuinely heard. The politics of austerity was preceded by the politics of largesse. Both denote the state in control and elected officials deciding who gets what, and why and when they get it. Individual liberty and freedom of choice are largely abstractions for many Europeans, particularly when you add the extra layer of governance and regulation that the European Union provides. Ironically, in reality and in contrast to common perceptions, the European Union has often brought great choice to citizens than existed at a national level. Witness the deregulation of air transport and telecommunications markets for instance.
The politics of cozy consensus has come to an abrupt end. This would have happened eventually but it was hastened by the global downturn and the euro crisis. Voters—particularly the less skilled and poorly educated—are asserting their views and their prejudices, for so long ignored by mainstream political parties. Europe's post-war political classes increasingly rejected ideals and ideologies in favor of political systems characterized by consensus and compromise.
The resulting void has been eagerly filled by once marginal parties that have moved from pariah status to kingmakers in countries as diverse as Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, Ireland, the Netherlands, and Slovakia. The rise of nationalism, protectionism, and at times xenophobia is therefore due in no small part to Europe's political elites—both at an EU and national level—ignoring or refusing to engage with a wider spectrum of problems and perspectives. This is where the U.S. primary process and grassroots activism from movements such as the Tea Party serve a purpose within democracies. They push or place issues onto the mainstream agenda that may be uncomfortable but need to be discussed in an open forum.
In Europe, politicians of all hue need to vigorously debate big issues such as personal freedom, religious expression, and national identity. It was assumed that these matters had been resolved in the welfare state utopia that was built after World War II. The 10 million voters who recently voted for nonmainstream parties in France's presidential elections appear to disagree.