Europe's Disoriented Right Print
Written by Yascha Mounk   
Friday, 20 August 2010 16:05

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AT NO time since the Second World War has Europe been so firmly in the grip of right-wing leaders. From old hands like Angela Merkel in Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy in France, and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, to the recently elected David Cameron in the UK, the center Right now governs the biggest European countries. Even the figureheads of the EU—including the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament—have an impeccable conservative political pedigree. The only notable left-wing holdout, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, will likely be defeated at the polls when he stands for reelection in less than two years.

With such unprecedented power, it would seem that the Right has a rare opportunity to reshape Europe in its own image. Left-wingers might fear that their adversaries will roll back the achievements of the last decades. What major political reforms, they might ask with terror in their voices, is the Right implementing? In what fundamental ways will it change Europe over the next five to ten years?

The hegemony of the Right is cause for serious concern. Even so, scared questions about the transformative political vision of Europe’s current leaders smack of hyperbole. In reality, they are strangely toothless. Their policies barely deviate from those of their left-wing predecessors. The question is: why?
THERE ARE many partial answers. In the wake of the recession and the Euro crisis, the sword of Damocles hangs over Europe. Governments everywhere are tying their hands over their heads in anticipation of a mighty economic blow to come. On social and cultural values, meanwhile, the Right has abandoned its traditional positions. In most respects, European elections, hardly a momentous clash of irreconcilable ideologies, now look like a technocrat’s version of Donald Trump’s The Apprentice: different teams of wannabe celebrities competing for a job any sane person wouldn’t want in the first place.

Part of the explanation, then, lies in big and potentially lasting shifts. But an equally important part of the answer lies in the more prosaic details of who got elected, when, and how. Over the last ten years, Conservative and Christian Democratic parties failed to win elections when they fielded hardline candidates. In Germany in 2002, Edmund Stoiber, then the Prime Minister of Bavaria, was unable to defeat a rather weak center-left government, precisely because voters were skeptical about his populist rhetoric and neoliberal economic policies. In Britain, meanwhile, Tory candidates from the party’s right wing, like Michael Howard in 2005, got drubbed at the polls because the electorate did not want to return to the divisive days of Margaret Thatcher.

Under pressure from such humiliating defeats, right-wing parties eventually put up centrist candidates. The rank-and-file of the German Christian Democrats have deep reservations about Angela Merkel. The same is true of David Cameron and the Conservative Party. But Merkel and Cameron, not Stoiber and Howard, are the ones who managed to get their parties back into government. For now, holding on to power satisfies their base.

The electorate did not just express its preference for moderate policies by rewarding centrist candidates; it also denied governments the robust majorities they would need to take more radical steps. This was most evident in the UK elections: voters clearly wanted to get rid of Labour, but they did not give a clear mandate to the Tories. The result was a hung parliament that forced an unexpected coalition between Conservatives and Liberal Democrats—that is, between the party that until recently seemed furthest to the right and the party that until recently seemed furthest to the left. This rather strange constellation seems nonsensical, an accident of history brought about by an indecisive electorate and a bizarre voting system. Yet it may turn out to track the policy preferences of the British public rather well. The Liberal Democrats will be unable to put in place some of their sensible but unpopular policies on immigration and Europe. The Tories, meanwhile, have already given up on the most radical parts of their platform, like proposed cuts to the inheritance tax.

In Germany, too, it seems as though voters want to see the Right govern, but only up to a point. From 2005 to 2009, Merkel’s Christian Democrats were at the helm of a grand coalition with the Social Democrats. Impressed by her calm and moderate leadership, Germans gave the chancellor a more robust majority at federal elections last year. Since then, the Christian Democrats have been able to rule with their favorite partner, the economically conservative Free Democrats. The new government’s coalition agreement signaled a clear shift to the right: it proposed substantive tax cuts, a socially regressive reform of the health insurance system, and a renewed commitment to nuclear energy. Radical change seemed in the offing. It is now clear, however, that the window of opportunity for a real reorientation of policy has closed. The coalition spent its first months, when it enjoyed a majority in both chambers of parliament, arguing about what reforms should take priority. The more Germans heard about these plans, the more they grew to dislike them. At the recent regional elections in Nordrhein-Westfalen, they handed a painful defeat to the governing coalition. As a result, Merkel and her allies have lost their majority in the Bundesrat, the federal upper chamber whose consent they need to pass most major bills. The government—possibly to Merkel’s secret relief—has had to shelve its more ambitious pet projects.

The apparent triumph of the Right, then, conceals an equally strong triumph of moderates over hardliners. These moderates took office not because conservative positions have suddenly gained in popularity; on the contrary, they get to rule the continent because they have abandoned conservative positions wholesale.

MUCH INK has been spilled in the pages of Dissent about the disorientation of the Left. We all know the story by heart. With the end of the Cold War and the rise of globalization, the goals and recipes that motivated postwar social democracy have come to seem outdated. We apparently face an unenviable choice. Do we represent social democracy’s old constituency, the shrinking industrial working class—to the exclusion of the middle class, the unemployed, and immigrants? Or do we embrace the more affluent, upwardly mobile constituency to which Tony Blair directed his pitch—which would require us, as Blair did with a vengeance, to cozy up to big business and the big banks?

Among all this worry and self-pity we have failed to notice that Europe’s Right has suffered a similar crisis of meaning. The Manichean worldview of the Cold War hid the outmoded elements of Christian as well as of social democracy. In the aftermath of 1989, uncomfortable questions, conveniently hushed up for decades, posed themselves anew. What continuing political role can the Christian values that lend so many European right-wing parties their name have on an increasingly secular and religiously diverse continent? How can the Right reconcile its charitable concern for the meek and weak with its increasing support for neoliberal economic policies? Globalization is also as much of a threat to the Right as it is to the Left. While social democrats worry that a globalized world will do away with hard-won social protections, Christian democrats fear that it will erode local traditions and weaken the nation-state.

In America, the rise of neoconservatism, in both its cultural and foreign policy guises, has masked this crisis of the traditional Right. But in Europe, neoconservatism never won much traction. Neoconservatives, whether their branding is Tory or Labour, have been able to land a few punches in British debates about foreign policy. (The Guardian recently described Tony Blair’s appearance at the latest inquiry into the Iraq War as “a seminar on neoconservatism for slow learners.”) But when it comes to other issues that arouse the passions of their American brethren—like religious education, the (un)truth of evolution, homosexuality, and abortion—the tiny set of true British neocons couldn’t be more out of step with their compatriots. The same holds true all over Western Europe. No major right-wing party is inclined to declare the European version of the culture wars. If it did, the Left would surely be overjoyed. On the contrary, Merkel, Cameron, and Sarkozy got elected because under their leadership the Right has fully endorsed left-liberal views on family, lifestyle, and procreation.

The new generation of European leaders has made its peace with the social and cultural consequences of 1968—even though, unlike most of their leftist predecessors, they had no sympathy for the student protests at the time. Consider the leading personnel of Germany’s government. Angela Merkel, born in 1954, came of age as a Protestant, pro-American dissident in East Germany just as the most radical wing of the West German student movement took up arms in its struggle against U.S.-style capitalism. As for German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, it is hard to escape the impression that he opted for a career with the Free Democrats—a party which, until recently, publicly defined itself as catering to those with a “superior income”—primarily because his intellectual and linguistic capacities were insufficient for making it big in international business. Meanwhile, Horst Seehofer, the head of the Bavarian Christian Democrats, is a traditionalist representative of rural Bavaria, the last part of the country in which nostalgia for an idyllic past comes naturally to a majority of the population. Biographically, Merkel, Westerwelle, and Seehofer couldn’t be more distant from the counterculture of the 1960s.

Even so, none of the leaders of the current coalition—not Merkel, not Westerwelle, not even Seehofer—would have been viable candidates for high political office had it not been for the cultural shift initiated by 1968. Merkel is a childless woman whose shy husband remains largely absent from public events. Westerwelle is a gay man who brings his partner along on official state visits. As for Seehofer, he temporarily left his wife for his pregnant mistress. All three are beneficiaries of the liberalizations set in motion by 1968. They are leading the kinds of life that generations of German Social Democrats have fought to make possible—against the objections of generations of Christian Democrats. Their policies reflect the fact that they have no desire to turn back the cultural clock.

Economic policies do no better in distinguishing Left and Right. This is counterintuitive. Social issues seemed to be the Right’s weakness: European voters were willing to hand the continent to its current masters only once they were reassured by the Right’s newly liberal stance. The economy, by contrast, seemed to be the Right’s strong suit. Wasn’t the Left’s handling of economic issues the very reason why voters longed to oust it from office? Doesn’t this give today’s center-right governments a strong mandate for a radical reversal in economic policy?

Not quite. In reality, many voters grew disenchanted with the Left’s economic policies because they judged them to be too tough on—rather than too mindful of—the poor. In the latter half of the twentieth century, social democratic parties succeeded because they managed to win over middle-class voters; then, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, they were roundly ousted from government because they lost the support of the working class. Where did this disappointed constituency go? Some of them voted for the hard Left. Others stayed at home. Others still opted for the new guys in the vain hope that things would somehow, painlessly, get better. Overall, governments with a more neoliberal brand of economic policy eked out a majority as a result. But in light of the reasons for their election, this is hardly to be taken as the expression of a widespread desire for more neoliberal economic policies.

Europe’s finance ministers thus face a well-nigh impossible task. They have to satisfy the expectations of their economically conservative supporters, who are clamoring for tax cuts and business-friendly policies. But they also realize that, after years of cuts, further reductions in social welfare measures for the poor and unemployed would be deeply unpopular among their more centrist voters. Add to this the perceived necessity to move toward more balanced budgets in the wake of the recession, subsequent stimulus spending, and the crisis of the Euro—a necessity unquestioned in most European countries by moderates on either the Right or the Left—and the room for political maneuver becomes negligible.

THE EUROPEAN RIGHT now finds itself in an odd position. It is finally in power, but it can do very little. It has come to accept the status quo on social issues. And while it would perhaps like to implement some radical economic reforms, it realizes that it simply cannot do so now. As a result, whether or not the Right’s dominance of European politics will have any lasting impact now depends overwhelmingly on governments’ ability to set clear priorities even as they make vast spending cuts.

Merkel, Cameron, and co. realize this. They try their best to pretend that slight variations in the levels of proposed cuts amount to substantive policy initiatives, or even to a coherent political vision. But Merkel’s refusal to make any cuts to federal funding for education and research is hardly the stuff of a true paradigm shift. Neither is Cameron’s insistence that the budget of Britain’s state-run health system be spared. Even cuts that are likely to bring substantive institutional changes—like the abolition of compulsory military service and other reforms of the Bundeswehr, which will supposedly save German taxpayers two billion Euros a year—are as acceptable to left-wingers as they are to right-wingers.

The Right’s lack of impact so far might seem like cause for celebration. It is not. First, so long as the precise nature of the proposed cuts remains as vague as it is now, the jury is still out on how much damage they will do to Europe. In recent months many governments have published some information concerning their proposed cuts. But the details will remain unclear for a while to come. The German government, for example, promises 5.6 billion Euros in spending cuts through Globale Minderausgaben, or general cuts in spending—not exactly a transparent description of the hardships on the horizon. In Britain, the government is resorting to innovative methods in its search for areas where it can save money. Over the coming months, ministers will have to defend every significant item in the budget in front of a “star chamber” of their senior colleagues, who then get to vote on which expenditures can be abolished. It is these kinds of line-by-line budget decisions that will determine what kinds of government services and subsidies European countries are able to rescue. It would be rash to predict the real legacy of Europe’s current governments before they have taken these painful decisions.

Second, even though the Right may have no master plan, or even desire, to abolish the welfare state, the magnitude of the cuts they will have to make by general consensus is staggering. Recent center-left governments, like the Red-Green coalition in Germany, have inadvertently damaged the social fabric—not because they were ideologically primed to cut spending for the poorest members of society, but because they felt they had to. These cuts, however, pale in comparison to what lies ahead.

IT IS cold comfort that Europe’s Right lacks a grand political vision. Yes, it would be scary if, at a moment when they enjoy unprecedented power, the likes of Merkel and Cameron were determined to reshape the continent. But their lack of ideas is even scarier. The ideological disorientation of the Right—coming as it does on top of the long-standing ideological disorientation of the Left—suggests that all parts of Europe’s political spectrum are unsure how to rescue what they value.

A decade from now, Europe is likely to be a continent of less comfort and less solidarity. This won’t be the result of the current political hegemony of the center Right, however. Neither will the willingness of the last wave of center-left governments to enact significant cuts to the welfare state be to blame. On the contrary, the single greatest factor now shaping European economic policy is a lack of political will and imagination.

This is also the single biggest threat to the future of Europe’s political system. The governments of Merkel and Sarkozy are already deeply unpopular. Support for Germany’s governing parties has fallen to 34 percent, the lowest level ever recorded by Forsa, a renowned pollster. In France, Sarkozy has the lowest approval rating of any president in living memory. In Britain, the government is too new to be in such steep decline, but many observers predict that a similar fate awaits Cameron’s troops. Even Italy’s Berlusconi may finally be in trouble. The Left, meanwhile, remains everywhere in disarray. Despite Merkel’s unpopularity, support for Germany’s Social Democrats has stagnated at a disappointing 28 percent. In France, viable presidential contenders for the Parti Socialiste seem so hard to come by that, improbably, the Left’s hopes are now invested in a triumphant return of the head of the IMF, Dominique Strauss-Kahn. As for the Labour Party, it is unlikely to liberate itself from the shadow of Blair and Brown anytime soon.

The far Right is threatening to fill this political void. If moderates on both the Right and the Left fail to formulate coherent, forward-looking political programs, it is these dangerous populists who are most likely to profit. They blame Europe’s problems on a simple scapegoat: immigrants. This strategy is all the more effective because, in the short-run, it is virtually impossible for responsible politicians to do much about the issue. Unlike in the United States, where most popular ire is ostensibly directed against recent illegal immigrants, in Europe the targets of hatred are, by and large, legal migrants who arrived long ago. For decades hardly anything was done to help them integrate; even if better policies were adopted now, they would take another few decades to bear fruit. In the meantime, those who are more comfortable with inflammatory rhetoric than political reality can readily exploit this increasingly fierce anti-immigrant sentiment.

Optimists can explain away the center Right’s current dominance of European politics as yet another instance of the old swinging-pendulum thesis. In the wake of the center-left governments of the late 1990s and early 2000s, voters were looking for something new. But their change of mood was temporary. As recent polls show, the pendulum is already swinging back. The center Left will soon reap its just rewards.

But this would be too facile a conclusion. Even if we assume that this pendulum fully explains why Merkel, Sarkozy, and Cameron are in power right now, it does not follow that it is sure to swing back in good time. At some point in the future, the pendulum might suddenly run out of momentum. The timing of that breakdown is as unforeseeable as its consequences. It could just as well come in the distant as in the immediate future. And yet today there is particular reason for us to worry. The concurrent weakness of both the established Left and the established Right is unprecedented since the Second World War. So are the depth of the economic crisis and the virulence of anti-immigrant agitation. Great upheavals could be around the corner—upheavals for which Europe’s political class, both government and opposition, is woefully unprepared.


Yascha Mounk is editor of The Utopian and a PhD Candidate at Harvard University, with research interests in political theory, European politics, and intellectual history.

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