Who's Right Now?

Several months ago, American journals -- mainstream and progressive both -- were filled with alarm about the rise of the far right in Europe. But recent election results in Germany, Sweden, Austria and elsewhere make clear that the panic button was pushed prematurely.

In Germany, the coalition of Social Democrats and the Greens eked out a close victory in September. In Sweden, the ruling Social Democrats scored an unexpected victory, handily beating the predictions of the pollsters. Recent elections also saw center-left governments take the reins in Poland, Hungary and the Czech Republic.

Meanwhile, the fortunes of the far right have fallen on harder times. Following the media frenzy over Jean-Marie Le Pen's success at making it to a runoff in the French presidential election, the anti-immigrant zealot drew just 18 percent support at the polls, and his party failed to win a single seat in the balloting for the National Assembly. In Austria, Jorg Haider, the personification of resurgent European ultranationalism for the better part of the last decade, received his comeuppance when, in recent elections, his Freedom Party received less than half the popular vote that it had pulled down in the previous vote. And after a stunning performance in the Netherlands by the assassinated Pim Fortuyn's party, bickering among its members led to the collapse of the new government late last year. Fortuyn's party could virtually disappear after elections are held on Jan. 22.

Any assessment of the seesaw fortunes of the right in Europe must begin with the recognition that the entire political spectrum there is far to the left of our own. Europeans still have free health care for all, from the cradle to the grave; free education through the university level; comparatively generous retirement for their elderly; and an average of five weeks paid vacation, plus more sick leave, parental leave and a shorter workweek with comparable wages for workers. (French workers, with their 35-hour workweek, toil on average nearly a full day less per week than their U.S. counterparts, who work on average 42 hours per week.) Social spending in Europe runs some 50 percent above that in the United States. Environmental, food-safety and labor laws, meanwhile, are the envy of activists in the United States.

In short, the European political center is where the American left would love to be. Europe's famously generous welfare state is still alive and mostly well, though under attack by globalization and corporations that would like to bury it and make Europe more like the United States. And it is in this context that one must understand the recent roller-coaster ride of the European far right.

The leaders and parties of the European right do not for the most part seek to overturn the European welfare state, or to put an end to a proactive role for government activism or regulation. On the contrary, they accept the need and legitimacy of this kind of governmental role far more than most U.S. Democrats do. Any Democratic Party candidate or leader who espoused the welfare-state policies of the European far right would likely be hounded by centrist Democrats into a backbench seat -- or retirement.

Indeed, the far-right parties attained their recent electoral successes in some European nations by defending governmental benefits and regulations that the social-democratic and center-left parties had been rolling back, in the manner of Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, for the past few years. In the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway, for example, the various far-right parties demanded such things as a reinforced commitment to comprehensive and quality public health care, elderly care, mass transit and subsidized housing. They also emphasized the protection of the public-pension and education systems.

By many measures, the far right in Europe has not been nearly as successful as the far right in the United States. Here, fundamentalist Christian Tom DeLay -- a critic of the separation of church and state who has compared the Environmental Protection Agency to the Gestapo -- cruises to re-election in Texas time after time, and as the new majority leader, is now one heart attack away from becoming speaker of the House. From his perch atop the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, Jesse Helms held veto power over much of American foreign policy during the 1980s and 1990s. David Duke came much closer to winning the governor's mansion in Louisiana than France's Le Pen ever did to winning real regional power. And Trent Lott -- well, you know about Trent Lott.

While the parties and leaders of the European far right have long supported health care for their countrymen, the leaders of the American right -- mainstream as well as far -- have consistently opposed universal coverage. Their ideology has reams of excuses for why it's perfectly acceptable that 45 million Americans, many of them children, have no health coverage, or why spiraling education costs have shut out many of their countrymen's children from quality education. And like the parties of the European far right, American mainstream parties are not above bombastic, xenophobic rhetoric or policy, as anyone who recalls Pete Wilson and Dianne Feinstein's 1994 anti-immigrant campaigns can attest.

The partial renaissance of the European right is also a function of the swing of the political pendulum from right to left and back again. The center-right political parties dominated European governments throughout the 1980s and early 1990s. Then the various center-left and social-democratic parties prevailed, primarily because the right had finally run out of steam and alienated enough swing voters that a Third Way left supplanted it. Now the pendulum is swinging back, and it has certainly received a special shove from nativist sentiments unleashed in the aftermath of September 11.

Moreover, the influx of immigrants in many European nations is heavy. Germany has a greater percentage of foreign-born persons than the self-professed "nation of immigrants," the United States. Holland, a nation of 16 million, has 1 million immigrants. Austria -- with 8 million people, it's a little less populous than New York City -- has been the crossroads in recent years for migrants fleeing various ethnic conflicts.

Unfortunately, the far right has often been the only sector addressing -- prejudicially and demagogically -- the hard questions concerning not only immigration and crime but also the generous European welfare state, and how it is being affected by globalization. As one European commentator has written, "The Social, Christian and Liberal Democrats have left discussion of the continent's most important issues in the hands of obscure demagogues, amateurs and con artists." The legitimate question of how rapidly the most generous of nations can absorb and incorporate the immigrant influx has been shunted off to the right. According to one far-right leader in Denmark, "It is very difficult to have a welfare state if the borders are open. The responsibility and the will to pay a lot of tax, as we do, must be there." That's not reaction, that's common sense.

The reaction, of course, is there, too. As in the United States, racism and xenophobia are very much present in Europe. The idea of European society as a "melting pot" or "rainbow quilt" is alien and new, and undoubtedly there will be strains for some time to come. But for the American media and punditry -- right, left and mainstream -- to portray the situation as one in which Nazis and fascists are gaining a real foothold in Europe is erroneous and hyperbolic.

As American politics and media have been engulfed the last two decades by a right-wing, free-market conservatism, the real Europe emerges more and more as the most viable countervailing force -- a mainstay of social democracy, government regulation, political and media pluralism, and proportional representation. Playing the fascist card too quickly undermines this vital European model and contributes to the conservative agenda of those who wish to attack Europe as the ideological opposition to a free-market United States.

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