Right-wing parties also sell out across Europe

On September 1 in Philadelphia, US President Joe Biden warned Americans against authoritarian-minded Republicans. Strangely, a slew of liberals as well as conservatives criticized Biden for being “divisive.” His speech actually came too late: Biden should have inaugurated his presidency with a clear description of global threats to democracy.

Indeed, the radicalization of an increasingly trumpified GOP should alert us to a phenomenon that is still unevenly reported and under-analyzed: many once-respectable right-wing parties outside the United States are also collapsing.

In this month’s elections in Italy, Giorgia Meloni, a former minister in a centre-right government, is likely to become the country’s first far-right leader since Benito Mussolini. His coalition partner Silvio Berlusconi is an old and loyal friend of Vladimir Putin; another of his electoral allies, Matteo Salvini, also admires the Russian demagogue and fulminates against immigrants and the European Union.

Meloni herself opposes same-sex marriage and abortion rights for women. Like most far-right activists, she is obsessed with eradicating “revivalism”. As she said in a speech at the Conservative Political Action Conference in Florida in February, “I see canceling culture zealots in our institutions who are tearing down statues, tampering with books and comics, changing names of streets, show a common history that they would like to rewrite.”

Meloni’s rise is not only important because Italy has been an indicator of far-right movements in Europe since the beginning of the 20th century. More importantly, Manfred Weber, chairman of the European People’s Party (EPP) – a family of traditional centre-right parties across the continent – has publicly backed Berlusconi’s coalition with Merloni.

Unlike many non-Western countries, right-wing parties in Europe and North America have long adhered to democratic standards. Take the EPP. It has the largest presence in the European Parliament; European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen is a member. Recent leaders such as former German Chancellor Angela Merkel have worked hard to isolate far-right elements. The EPP, for example, kept its distance from the German xenophobic Alternative für Deutschland (AfD).

In this, the party was part of a long tradition. For decades after the calamities of the Nazis and Fascism, even conservative European politicians were quick to marginalize the far right, recognizing that its hateful ideology was fundamentally incompatible with the core values ​​of democratic societies.

Until 2018, for example, Sweden’s conservative moderate party rejected any collaboration with the Swedish Democrats, a party rooted in Nazi ideology. This cordon cordon has now been broken and the Swedish Democrats are now on their way to becoming the second largest party and an important power broker in parliament.

Against this backdrop of mainstream outcasts, Weber’s joining a far-right-dominated alliance seems particularly sinister. This weakens the European Union’s own criticism of illiberal regimes in Hungary and Poland and further legitimizes neo-fascist movements such as Vox in Spain, which has already entered the Spanish political mainstream through its partnership with the center-right People’s Party.

Writing in El Pais, Spanish philosopher Josep Ramoneda described the endorsement as a sign that “we are in a regressive phase of European democracy”. Yet it was barely covered in the American and British media.

Indeed, criticism of Biden’s speech in Philadelphia confirms that many mainstream politicians and journalists are either indifferent or ready to normalize the rapid degeneration of once-respectable right-wing parties. Britain’s most prominent politicians and journalists have continued to bolster the disastrous Conservative government of former Prime Minister Boris Johnson, despite mounting evidence – from his attempt to illegally prorogue the UK Parliament to the breaking of an international treaty on Northern Ireland – of its disregard for democratic standards and the rule of law.

A cursory glance at UK newspapers and tabloids would reveal that the same rapturous reception is being given to Johnson’s replacement, Liz Truss – a far-right figure who has already launched unprecedented attacks on the ‘wake-up call’ in the British civil service and the police.

As growth slows, inflation rises, heat waves and floods become commonplace, energy shortages loom, and more and more citizens feel powerless in the face of such changes, right-wing parties in Western Europe and the United States are in danger of becoming more extremist. They have few new solutions to today’s destructive economic and environmental crises. They can, however, channel social unrest to their advantage by reheating identities of race, religion and ethnicity and retailing myths of national greatness.

Let there be no doubt: the ongoing transformations of the economy and the environment will make the right more dogmatic, sterile and authoritarian, rather than more flexible, innovative and democratic. To deny this, or to chastise Biden for speaking the plain truth, is to become complicit in a ruinous political trend.

More other writers at Bloomberg Opinion:

• Biden doesn’t see why US democracy is in trouble: Clive Crook

• Republican paranoia could cost the party dearly: Jonathan Bernstein

• Not everything you dislike is “undemocratic”: Tyler Cowen

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the Editorial Board or of Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Pankaj Mishra is a Bloomberg Opinion columnist. He is the author, most recently, of “Run and Hide”.

More stories like this are available at bloomberg.com/opinion

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