Democratic Despair

The latest municipal elections in France have been analyzed and interpreted as a rebuff for the so-called “socialist” President, Hollande, and a major success of the far right party known as the National Front (FN in its French acronym). This assessment is quite accurate, as far as it goes – but one could use these election results to make a larger point about how democracy in the oligarchic West functions or dysfunctions.

Whenever the party or coalition of parties in power are rejected by the people in an election, another party or coalition is voted in before it too disappoints citizens who then vote once again for the original party or coalition they had booted out. The US is, of course, familiar with this electoral dance between Democrats and Republicans who vary somewhat but are mostly, to use Gore Vidal’s phrase, the two wings of the business party. Britain swings between Labor and the Tories, but Blair became the best heir of the Iron Lady. Hollande is a neoliberal and spineless as Sarkozy was neoliberal and brash, but their economic policies are like two peas in a pod.

The municipal elections in France showed how unpopular the socialists were, notably because a lot of left wing supporters stayed home and did not take part in the vote. Yet instead of a strong left wing push or a vote for left environmental parties, voters overwhelmingly chose to vote for the right or the far right. The austerity package imposed upon France, though lighter than the one the Greeks or the Spanish have to suffer from, should or could have led to what Americans call a “populist turn,” or, in European parlance, a swing to the radical left. It did not happen and the far right has now become a sizeable force in politics. The end of the perennial pseudo-left vs. real right swinging game led to massive gains for an anti-immigrant, demagogic party which flirts with very shady characters.

In a few places, such as Grenoble, a left wing coalition of environmentalists and radical leftists was voted in but these left victories are overshadowed by the many victories of the so-called moderate right (which in some matters is as moderate as Marco Rubio) and the National Front. In the case of national elections, following the money of the plutocracy helps explain why progressives are outspent and therefore outvoted. In the case of municipal elections in places run by the left ,this explanation falls short.

The far right is doing well because the traditional left or pseudo-left has stopped caring about what is still called the “working class” in Europe or what Americans call the middle class. The topic of economic inequality does not make headline news. Gender equality is often debated in the media, especially when the right makes a fuss about non-existent theories, yet the old socialist raison d’être, fighting economic domination and denouncing the mechanism of domination, is certainly not at the top of the political agenda.

In times of crisis, xenophobia and simplistic demagogic discourses flourish. Americans may recall the rantings of Father Coughlin or Huey Long in the 1930s or know that both Hitler and Mussolini rode to power on the back of such crisis-generated discourses. Closer to the present, the Tea parties also feed on fear and rejection of the other and a revamped social Darwinism that the GOP often mobilizes. France, and Europe more generally, is on the cusp of a similar development. John Pfeffer is certainly right to warn about the rise of right extremism in Europe in his Foreign Policy in Focus article: “Brown is the New Black“.

Dissatisfaction does lead to a slight resurgence of leftist rhetoric, but mostly benefits the right and the far right. Many politicians, mostly, but not exclusively from the right, are involved in shady dealings and are facing trials in various courts for corruption or illegal acts. Yet these politicians often won re-election in their towns. After swinging from one wing of the business party to the other, some voters have now moved to the third option, the far right National Front which they consider as a cleaner option – in spite of its many unsavory aspects, revealed by media that many distrust.

The swing of the pendulum between Democrats and Republicans in the US, socialists and the right in France, Labor and conservatives in Britain was not stopped by a new populist movement but by the demagogues on the far right. Recently, Adolph Reed wondered in a Harper’s article entitled “Nothing Left” if the left still existed in the US (a version of this can be found at: ) While the left may not have totally disappeared in Europe, the same question could apply. The left, the real anti-domination one, has very little electoral clout and has even lost the street to demagogues of the Tea Party type. France and many other countries in Europe could the move from bad to worse. Adolph Reed advocated a new grassroots activism to stop the slide toward neoliberalism, but there are no signs that this is happening in France or Europe. Democracy could help give birth to a newly-energized right wing radicalism precisely at a time when Europe, like the US, needs more genuine democracy or democracia real as the Spanish indignados call it.