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Bill Downs on the Recent Elections in Europe
The recent elections on the other side of the Atlantic continue to cause concern around the planet and news coverage in the United States is both short on explanation and perspective. That is why I asked Dr. Bill Downs to help sense of it all. Downs serves as Associate Dean of Social and Behavioral Sciences at Georgia State University and is the author of numerous books and articles on contemporary politics in Europe. His most recent book, Political Extremism in Democracies: Combating Intolerance (Palgrave Macmillan, 2012) examines xenophobia and anti-immigrant parties across the continent. According to Georgia State University political science graduate student Veronica Armendariz, Downs is the busiest person she has ever encountered. That is saying something because Armendariz is the hardest working graduate student you are likely to meet. So I count myself lucky in having persuaded Downs to answer the following questions.
Hickman: News coverage in the U.S. of the recent French and Greek elections framed both as rejections of economic austerity but immigration was also important as an issue. The parties of the far right performed well. So is this intense anti-immigrant sentiment actually a Europe wide political phenomenon or is it something constructed for news audiences?
Downs: This month’s elections in France and Greece were, first and foremost, about budgetary discipline and austerity measures prompted by Europe’s currency and debt crises. They followed a rather frenzied 15 months of political instability that saw incumbents tossed or resign from office in Ireland, Portugal, Greece, Italy, and Spain. Belt-tightening reforms are massively unpopular, with general strikes and street violence accompanying voter volatility at the polls. Anxious and unhappy electorates are vulnerable to populist appeals, and some entrepreneurial party leaders have indeed exploited voter fears—including those about foreigners—for electoral gain. This is not a media concoction, and it is not limited to France and Greece. Nor is it particularly new. Instead, it is a phenomenon that has appeared in different guises and to varying degrees across the continent for decades.
Hickman: So why does it seem new in the news coverage?
Downs: Understand that the May 6 election in Greece saw Antonis Samaras’ center-right New Democracy party come in first (although dropping 14% from its previous vote share), but it doesn’t have a clear path to power. Coalition bargaining is underway. Most observers note that the surprise showing in this election was by Golden Dawn, a nationalist far-right party that entered parliament for the first time ever with 21 of the assembly’s 300 seats. Opponents accuse Golden Dawn of xenophobia, anti-Semitism, and attacks on foreigners. The issue of immigration is especially salient because the majority of illegal immigrants entering the European Union do so through Greece. Golden Dawn’s trademark salute and modified swastika logo draw criticism for being Nazi-like (although the party denies any connection). In isolation, a party garnering a modest 7% of the national vote may not appear especially menacing, but in a multiparty system such as Greece’s (where no single party won more than 19% of the popular vote) even the smallest legislative groups have influence.
In the French presidential election, voters punished incumbent Nicholas Sarkozy in a rather clear and damning appraisal of his leadership on the economy. Sarkozky attempted to woo voters from across France’s various rightwing camps, including the National Front. He failed, and Socialist candidate François Hollande rode a wave of anti-incumbent protest to victory. The National Front, one of Europe’s longest surviving far-right anti-immigrant parties, captured an unprecedented 17.9% of the first round vote, which may alarm observers as you rightly point out. However, the Front’s presidential candidate (Marine Le Pen) didn’t actually make it into the second-round runoff as her father (Jean-Marie)succeed in doing a decade ago. For perspective we need to note that the party’s “strongest ever” first round showing this year is only 3.5% better than its performance almost a quarter century ago in the 1988 election. We shouldn’t, therefore, overly dramatize the fortunes of France’s far right this year, as they actually don’t represent too great of a departure from what we’ve been observing for some time.
This isn’t just about France and Greece. Parties stigmatized as rejectionist and anti-immigrant can be found throughout Europe. They defy easy classification, so we should be wary of too quickly and too simply labeling them. Terms such as “neo-fascist,” “neo-Nazi,” “extremist,” and “radical” are too frequently bandied about and are all too often misapplied. What we do know is that parties capitalizing on voter opposition to immigration have scored recent successes in Switzerland (Swiss People’s Party), the Netherlands (Party for Freedom), Finland (True Finns Party), Hungary (Movement for a Better Hungary) and beyond. Even in countries where the electoral systems make it difficult for small parties to win legislative seats, we still find niche parties competing (for example, the British National Party in the United Kingdom and the German People’s Union in Germany).
Hickman: Then where should we be looking for an explanation?
Downs: Public opinion surveys routinely show that Europeans rank immigration among their top five most pressing concerns. There is also evidence that voters often see the issue of immigration intertwined with trends in unemployment, crime, cultural degradation, and terrorism. We also know that voters supporting pariah parties in Europe often do so not because they themselves are racist and xenophobic but because such parties appear as vehicles to express a range of “anti-“ sentiments (anti-incumbent, anti-EU, anti-bureaucracy, anti-tax). Appeals to identity, sovereignty, and tradition resonate with these voters. When parties on the outer edges of European democracies can mix anti-immigrant rhetoric with other forms of populist rejection, they produce a potent electoral cocktail. Our media haven’t constructed these phenomena, but media filters do excessively simplify and sensationalize them. Europe isn’t descending into some new form of its old darkness; instead, it is struggling with how best to tolerate (or combat) the intolerance that exists in all open societies.
Hickman: If it is Europe wide, then is it also something common to all of the wealthy liberal democracies?
Downs: This is absolutely the appropriate follow-up question. I think we would be dead wrong to conclude that European countries have a monopoly on popular angst over immigration. Again, this isn’t “New Europe” simply going back to being “Old Europe” at the first sign of economic malaise. Instead, we can observe similar debates here at home in the US, in Canada, and in Australia, New Zealand and other liberal democracies. One of the terms we often hear in these countries is “welfare chauvinism”—where years of affluence and economic expansion facilitated generous forms of social security, only to have taxpayers turn against groups receiving those benefits now that budgets have contracted. There’s ample evidence of such backlash across all democratic systems.
I think it’s important here to distinguish between anti-immigrant sentiments and anti-immigration preferences. They’re both present across democratic systems, but they can mean quite different things and shouldn’t always be used interchangeably. The former really refers to a rejection of groups of people for who they are, how they look, and whom they worship. Such rejection can imply racism and an inherent belief in the superiority of one group over another. The latter, however, refers to opposition to immigration policy and need not necessarily constitute an illiberal rejection of others. Reasonable people can disagree about whether to increase the numbers of immigrants admitted to a country or the criteria for doing so. In democracies where legitimate debate over immigration policy is suppressed and those who oppose greater openness are demonized, there is a tendency for radicalization.
Hickman: Why are we observing simultaneously intense anti-austerity messages and intense anti-immigration messages now? Does the Left have a monopoly on anti-austerity sentiment and the Right on anti-immigration sentiment?
Downs: People are uncertain and angry. Whether in reaction to “change” or “integration,” citizens fear the loss of security. If Europeans are told they must endure lower wages, higher prices, and fewer benefits in order to save their common currency, then it would be surprising to witness anything other than public outcry. Austerity means that economies are shrinking, and competition for increasingly scarce resources reinforces group identities, reawakens stereotypes, and increases the appeal of those offering easy solutions. If the size of the economic pie is shrinking, and there are more (and different looking) people sitting around the table wanting to share your diminished slice of that pie, then the sentiments likely to ensue are predictable.
We should not see any side of the ideological spectrum, Left or Right, as laying exclusive claim to angst. Actually, if you look at public opinion surveys and national election studies, you’ll find that far-right parties are drawing some support from disaffected leftists. Likewise, rightists often join leftists in opposing austerity packages, albeit for different reasons (i.e., rightists are worried about threats to sovereignty, reduced national greatness, and increased governmental intrusion in the market).
Hickman: Am I wrong in thinking that all this echoes the sort of general economic and social crisis that Europe experienced in the 1930s? Should that be read as ominous or have I watched too much History Channel?
Downs: If I must confess, I watch that channel, too…and there is nothing necessarily wrong with embracing the vigilance that derives from historical understanding. That being said, wouldn’t you think we’d bridle at European observers invoking the American Civil War every time racism or intolerance rears its head here in the South? And wouldn’t we roll our eyes (or worse) if Le Monde, The Times, or Der Spiegel interpreted recent debate rhetoric by Republican presidential hopefuls in South Carolina and Florida as echoes of earlier eras?
Hickman: Well I suspect that some Americans might be nodding in agreement rather than rolling their eyes at the kinds of parallels you suggest, but I take your point. Not every contemporary event reprises something from the past. How should we understand what is happening now?
Downs: Protracted economic downturn heaps pressure on incumbent governments and too often turns people against groups at society’s margins. That’s happening now. But this isn’t Europe of the interwar period. The continent’s financial woes don’t rival those of last century’s Great Depression, and we don’t have a country at Europe’s heart (e.g., Germany) suffering under the weight of humiliating international sanctions as was the case from 1919-33. The safe money today is on Europe’s now mature democratic political cultures and institutions to withstand the kind of periodic challenges that might have more easily destabilized it in the past.
To be sure, there are some real concerns and we have already witnessed some tragic events…most notably the killing spree last July in Norway by a man bent on driving the perceived evils of multiculturalism from his country. Yet, unlike Europe of the 1930s, there is little worry that democracies will fall victim to overthrow or internal deconstruction by domestic foes plotting radical change. Instead, established democracies could find themselves witnessing a gradual erosion of core values and group protections if mainstream parties are tempted into outbidding the extremes on issues such as immigration in order to stay in office. That would be, to use your word, ominous enough.
Hickman: With the exception of the French, Europeans have rather limited modern historical experience of dealing with large number of immigrants who do not share some ethnic affinity. Has the debate about immigration changed conceptions of national identity? Are Europeans getting worse rather than better at dealing with immigration?
Downs: Here I might just quibble with you a bit on the question’s premise. True, the French have a long tradition of allowing non-Europeans into the country and in many cases granting them citizenship. However, they’re clearly not alone. West Germany pioneered guest worker programs in the 1950s-70s, bringing in large numbers of presumably temporary laborers (primarily Turks). Although not on the same scale, the Dutch, Belgians and Swiss made similar arrangements. I think here also of Britain, which has seen substantial increases in its foreign born population (originating primarily from former colonies in such places as India, Pakistan, the Caribbean, and Kenya). Germany and others also absorbed large numbers of asylum seekers from the east during the early 1990s, including those fleeing conflict in the Balkans. What’s really changed in Europe is the ease with which persons admitted to one EU country can now access life in any of the other EU member states. The elimination of internal border controls means a very open intra-European immigration system; however, worries that non-European immigrants will move at will throughout the continent have given policymakers incentives to heighten the walls around Europe.
The persistence of immigration as a troubling issue for Europeans means that they have yet to achieve any kind of policy consensus or to reconcile their various competing identities with the expectations of a multicultural society. Are they getting worse at dealing with immigration? Certainly not, if the point of comparison is Europe’s not too distant history. The present struggle is, paradoxically, a product of the progress Europeans have made during the last 60+ years…having advanced to become net receivers of immigrants, European countries now wrestle with the practical consequences of a new openness.
Hickman: I should ask the same question about Americans. Are we getting worse rather than better at dealing with immigration?
Downs: There’s a great political cartoon that I saw some months back that perhaps captures our own dilemma. The cartoon shows the feet and base of the Statue of Liberty inscribed with the famous words of Emma Lazarus: “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free…” Below that plaque, the cartoonist has added a modern update, “Note: Some restrictions may apply.”
Are we getting worse in this country at dealing with immigration? That’s a tough one. On the one hand, we owe our origins and the richness of our diverse culture to immigration. It is a core element of our character and national story, and it is one that we routinely celebrate. I see its living legacy every day in Atlanta. We’d be wrong, though, to characterize the “land of immigrants” storyline in romanticized simplicity and lament the loss of a bygone era when peoples from across the globe landed on our shores and pulled themselves up by their own bootstraps. Sadly, intolerance and exclusion are also part of our national narrative. Nativist movements have appeared throughout our own history, variously targeting immigrant groups for opposition. So, it is a bit illusory to talk of the halcyon days of immigration in this country.
What generates so much debate for Americans today is not immigration per se, but illegal immigration. The scale of such illegal immigration (estimated to be between 7 and 20 million persons) makes it a huge political and policy challenge. Because of our federal structure, we can see state-level efforts to deal with illegal immigration; to illustrate, we can recall the recent passage of controversial laws here in Georgia as well as in Arizona and Utah. Such localized solutions are less frequently observed in Europe.
Some would argue that Americans outperform Europeans on immigration because “at least we don’t have anti-immigrant parties here.” Perhaps, however, I can leave you with something of a “what if” counterfactual… If the United States were to reform its electoral system and adopt some variant of proportional representation (as is commonly found in Europe), would we not soon see the emergence and electoral success of one or more anti-immigrant parties? Our two-party majoritarian system tends to subsume and dilute such sentiments within large parties that gravitate around the ideological center. Replace that system with one that grants seats in proportion to votes won, and American politics might quickly begin to resemble what we see in Europe. We’re likely not inherently more welcoming or more tolerant than our European counterparts; politically, our system simply inhibits the success of organized intolerance.
Watching the news of recent events in Europe, we should be careful not to dismiss what we see. Even though our respective political systems produce different dynamics, we share common policy challenges. The opportunity for some mutual transatlantic learning is great.
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