How Western Europe’s Far-Right Moderated
Panicking over far-right parties fosters polarization.
It is hard to be hopeful about democracy today. We are bombarded with headlines proclaiming democracy’s “retreat,” “crisis,” and perhaps even “death.” In the United States, both Democrats and Republicans believe democracy faces serious threats and President Biden has addressed what he views as widespread sentiments that “democracy’s best days [are] behind us.” Across the Atlantic, meanwhile, recent electoral victories by the Brothers of Italy, the Sweden Democrats, and the French National Rally—parties with far-right, even neo-Nazi roots—led many to proclaim that “fascism was returning” and democracy in danger even in Western Europe, a region where it has long been taken for granted. That’s become the reflexive framing for many commentators addressing European politics. The Guardian, for instance, declared Spain’s election, held this past weekend with the right-wing Vox party potentially poised to enter a ruling coalition, “a key battle in the Europe-wide struggle against neofascism.”
This pervasive pessimism is not justified. Far from being a sign that democracy is imperiled in Western Europe, the evolution of the Brothers of Italy, the Sweden Democrats, and the French National Rally should make us cautiously optimistic. These parties have come to recognize that in order to win votes and political power they had to move away from their far-right roots, moderate their appeals and policy platforms, and pledge to play by the democratic rules of the game.
The evolution of these and other Western European right-wing parties reflects something counterintuitive about the relationship between extremism and democracy: whether extremist parties become significant threats to democracy depends less on the parties and more on the nature of the democracies they face.
When democratic norms and institutions are weak, extremists have little incentive to moderate, since they will be able to gain supporters and potentially power without playing by the rules of the game. But where democratic norms and institutions are strong—as they have been for decades in Western Europe—extremists tend to be forced to moderate because there is little constituency for explicitly anti-democratic, extremist appeals. And until they moderate, other political actors and institutions are able to keep them from power.
Understanding these dynamics has implications for how we assess and respond to threats to democracy today.
Throughout the post-war period a number of extremist parties like the German Reich Party, the Dutch People’s Union, and the British National Front emerged in Western Europe. Most attracted little support and faded into oblivion. Some, however, survived and are the predecessors of parties we fear today. Yet while it is important not to forget or whitewash these parties’ origins, the reason such parties have survived is precisely because they recognized that, if they did not moderate, their fate would be the same as that of other extremist groups: their support would remain limited and they would be blocked from political power.
An exemplar of this phenomenon is the French National Front (NF), one of Western Europe’s oldest and probably its most influential right-wing party. The National Front emerged from France’s far-right scene in the 1970s. During its early years, it garnered few votes, but its vote share expanded during the 1990s and 2000s before falling back to 4.3% in the 2007 Presidential elections. The party’s success was understood to be limited by its radicalism, and particularly the racism and Holocaust denialism of its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The result was a palace coup by Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, who forced her father out of the party and embarked on a concerted effort to “de-demonize it.” Marine Le Pen changed the party’s rhetoric on its signature issue of immigration, distancing herself from racism and anti-Semitism, claiming instead that the party aimed to defend French Republicanism and secularism from those who rejected them. To enhance her respectability, Le Pen surrounded herself with technocrats, many of whom were defectors from conservative and center-right parties. More recently, Le Pen has tried to moderate her party’s image even further, changing its name to National Rally, dropping her rejection of the European Union, distancing herself from Putin, whom she had long been soft on, and presenting herself as a kindly “cat lady.”
The evolution of the Sweden Democrats and Brothers of Italy has paralleled that of the National Front. The Sweden Democrats (SD) were formed in 1988 by members of extreme nationalist and neo-Nazi organizations. Like its predecessors, the SD initially received few votes and was shunned by other parties. To change this, the SD excluded members with ties to neo-Nazi groups, changed its symbol from a somewhat threatening flame to a blue-and-yellow flower, and made clear its commitment to democracy. The SD continued to emphasize immigration but moved away from the more openly racist appeals previously associated with it, claiming instead that it merely objected to immigrants who refused to assimilate by speaking Swedish and accepting “Swedish values” and to levels of immigration that strained government resources.
In Italy, the Brothers of Italy has among its ancestors the Italian Social Movement, founded by fascists after the Second World War. But its leader, Giorgia Meloni, distanced herself from fascism, saying it had been “consigned to history” and suspending a candidate who praised Hitler. Meloni calls herself a conservative and claims her party advocates “traditional conservative” values and policies like low taxes, strong borders, limited immigration, the centrality of the family, the importance of Christianity to Western and Italian identity, and so on. Meloni also now stresses her support of the European Union and NATO. At the recent NATO summit, for instance, she claimed, in reference to Ukraine, to be “determined in the defense of international law.”
That these parties have moderated reflects the underlying strength of democracy in Western Europe. Not recognizing this has consequences.
First, it fosters fear and polarization. Calling a party fascist when it is not creates panic among those who do not support the party and resentment among those who do. Once fear and polarization take hold, it is all too easy for those trends to snowball, resulting in a gradual weakening of the democratic norms and institutions that provide guardrails against extremism.
Second, calling a party fascist when it is not has proven to be ineffective at diminishing these parties’ vote shares. Research on populist voters in Western Europe has shown that while many of them are dissatisfied with party politics and the current functioning of democracy, they are not anti-democratic; they don’t want to overthrow democracy itself, as interwar fascists, for example, clearly did. Calling them and the parties they support fascist thus often only increases their resentment of “establishment” parties and bolsters their narrative of being righteous “outsiders.”
Third, calling parties fascist when they are not contributes to misunderstandings about the state of democracy today. There has certainly been significant democratic backsliding among countries that made transitions to democracy during the late twentieth century. But this is not surprising: all previous democratic “waves”—such as those occurring in 1848 and after the First and Second World Wars—had significant undertows. Notwithstanding, many more democracies have survived the late twentieth century wave than did previous ones. And among established wealthy democracies only one—the United States—has experienced significant democratic decay. It is quite remarkable that democratic norms and institutions have held even in countries like Italy, where the economy has been stagnant for decades and the party system long ago imploded; or in Greece, which experienced a Great Depression deeper than the one that toppled many democracies in the 1930s. The development of democracy in Spain and Portugal has been similarly impressive. Widespread concern about the Vox party—whose leader had called for the LGBTQ rainbow flag to be removed from government buildings and for domestic violence to be rebranded as an “intrafamilial” issue—reached a fever pitch this summer when the party appeared poised to enter government in a “kingmaker” role as part of a conservative coalition. Instead, Vox disappointed at the polls, losing 19 seats. Even in a scenario where Vox ends up in a coalition with the center-right People’s Party, the leading vote-getter, the resulting conservative government would be highly unlikely to be so far-right as to be a threat to democracy.
Fourth, throwing around the term fascist and promoting fears of democratic decline can lead us to miss opportunities to promote salutary trends. Recognizing the pattern of moderation among Western European right-wing parties does not mean being complacent about the potential for future problems. The American Republican Party, for example, has gone in the opposite direction from most of its Western European counterparts: it has moved from being a center-right or conservative party to a far-right one. This reflects underlying weaknesses in American democracy and deep divisions in American society and shows that under such conditions even wealthy, long-established democracies can experience democratic decay. It is possible that the moderation of parties like the National Rally, the Brothers of Italy, and the Sweden Democrats is purely tactical; deep in their hearts the leaders of these parties may harbor anti-democratic aspirations. But anyone interested in strengthening democracy should favor pushing right-wing parties further along a moderate path or beginning to push parties like the Alternative for Germany, which have a questionable commitment to democracy. But this will not be possible if moderation is derided or dismissed as impossible rather than incentivized and rewarded. If the contemporary National Rally, Sweden Democrats, and Brothers of Italy are treated as coterminous with interwar fascists and National Socialists—parties that never hid their desire to overthrow democracy and whose violent, insurrectionist behavior was never moderated by their participation in elections—democrats will miss an opportunity to strengthen those within these parties who believe moderation is the best way forward.
Finally, when it comes to evaluating how to respond to right-wing populist parties it is critical to distinguish between policies one does not like and policies that threaten democracy. Policies one opposes can and should be fought against via elections, civil society, the press and all the other means democracy offers. As long as right-wing populists continue to respect laws, constitutions, and the democratic rules of the game, this is the best way forward: trying to lure voters away from these parties with better ideas. The more successful democratic parties are at convincing voters that they have the best solutions to contemporary problems, the more right-wing populists will face incentives to moderate—and the stronger democracy will become.
Sheri Berman, a member of the Persuasion board of advisors, is a professor of political science at Barnard College, Columbia University. Her most recent book is Democracy and Dictatorship in Europe: From the Ancien Régime to the Present Day.
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