Resisting the Siren Song Stopping the Advance of the Right-Wing Populists
The recent election in the Netherlands has sparked hope that the march of the right-wing populists has been halted. But it's important that populism be answered with democratic confidence rather than misguided imitation.
Populists like to claim that they alone have the courage to tell the truth. That only they are bold enough to say what the aloof elite and the politically correct mainstream deliberately hold back. The result are truths such as Mexicans are rapists and North Africans are gropers. And that no upstanding German wants a neighbor with dark skin. And more such nonsense.
Convicted racist Geert Wilders sought to win the Dutch election last week with the truth that Moroccans are "scum." And now those who don't share Wilders' view are relieved that only 13 percent of voters agree with him.
But while Wilders' election defeat may be pleasing, it is still too early to sound the all-clear. This election too delivered plenty of evidence that right-wing populists dominate the public debate.
As things currently stand, the multimedia circus frequently delivers absurdly distorted images of political reality, particularly here in Europe. In the weeks leading up to the Dutch election, a Geert Wilders festival was celebrated in print, radio, television and internet outlets, almost as though the other 27 parties participating in the Dutch vote didn't even exist. The same can currently be said of France, where the press makes it seem as though only Marine Le Pen's ideas are up for debate. And there is hardly an article about Italian politics that doesn't include images of the slobbering populist Beppo Grillo. Here in Germany, entire media seminars could be held focusing on the hysterical attention being paid to the ups and downs of the Alternative for Germany (AfD) party.
The dual shock of Brexit and Donald Trump's election may have magnified the tendency to exaggerate the ugly. In both cases, the inability to see what was coming increased the media's self-doubt, shook the political classes and unsettled entire societies. But it would be a cardinal error to conclude from Brexit and Trump that the theories and tirades of right-wing troublemakers automatically represent the "voice of the people" and are thus the expression of justifiable concerns.
No matter what one might think of public opinion polls, they regularly agree that the greatest concern voters have is not the Islamization of the West or a "population swap" being secretly planned by shadowy powers. No, the greatest concerns are completely normal, mundane issues like work, prosperity and health. People are worried about good schools, adequate penions and social equity. There is, of course, also unease as to whether Germany can handle so many refugees and there is, increasingly, significant anger when the impression arises that politicians are in cahoots with business in opposition to the public good or are more dedicated to balancing the budget than fixing the plaster crumbling from school walls.
It's Time To Take on the Troublemakers
Fighting the populists and preventing them from enjoying election day success first requires a rejection of their misplaced agenda setting. We have to both understand and point out that populists aren't just seeking to take advantage of problems that exist, they are also seeking to create new problems. It is urgently necessary for the democratically minded, for citizens interested in national consensus, to confront the nationalist troublemakers and racist rabble-rousers with self-confidence. Even if not everything is perfect and some of their procedures can be annoying, there simply is no reasonable alternative to our free democratic principles or to the European Union.
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Whatever the case, all attempts to counter populism with populism are ill-advised and only result in bad policy. Nonsensical, political symbolism only benefits right-wing populists because the worse traditional politicians govern, the better it is for the fringes. Populist parties are primarily popular because they provide voters the opportunity to transform their ballots into protest banners.
In the Netherlands last week, fewer people did so than originally feared. But in France in late April, it could once again turn out to be more than hoped. Still, it is beginning to look as though Brexit and Trump's election will not mark the beginning of a series of populist victories. But rather they will instead stand isolated as cautionary monuments to political casuistry.