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David Polansky: Note to the EU—the Right winning elections isn’t a threat to democracy. It is democracy in action

Commentary

Supporters of French far-right National Rally react at the party election night headquarters, June 9, 2024 in Paris. Lewis Joly/AP Photo.

The suppression of the East German uprisings of 1953 inspired Bertolt Brecht to produce the following satirical poem:

After the uprising of June 17th
The Secretary of the Authors’ Union
Had leaflets distributed in the Stalinallee
Which said that the people
Had forfeited the government’s confidence
And could only win it back
By redoubled labour. Wouldn’t it
Be simpler in that case if the government
Dissolved the people and
Elected another?

One strongly suspects that the European politico-media establishment shares this sentiment following the twin surprise outcomes of the (planned) European parliamentary elections and the subsequent (unplanned) French ones this past week.

The long and short of it is that throughout much (though not all) of Europe, right-wing parties saw significant political gains against their centrist and left-wing counterparts. These included France’s Rassemblement National, Italy’s Fratelli d’Italia, and Germany’s AfD. Meanwhile, in France, the incumbent President Macron, a centrist technocrat, called for new national elections following his party’s losses on the European stage to establish a new governing coalition at home.

It should be emphasized that these results did not signify a radical realignment in the continent’s politics, but rather an unexpectedly strong showing from once marginal segments of the political spectrum. Nonetheless, these upsets were greeted with mixed shock and incomprehension by many politicians—a reaction shared by a wide swathe of political commentators, too many of which have a tendency to observe the effect but not the cause. But these political developments did not arise in a vacuum and it is impossible to understand them without considering the major events of the past decade.

The effects here have been repeatedly classified as either “far-Right” (one of those terms like “root causes” or “grave danger” where the modifier appears more often than not) or “populist” (which is not actually the same thing). Now, populism is one of those terms in which familiarity through overuse has become a substitute for clarity—a mnemonic device: populism is when democracy does things you don’t like. More seriously, references to populism tend to be a way of talking about the defects of democracy without attributing them to democracy as such.

Of course, the democratic process is the clearest and most peaceable method for the ruled to signal their preferences to the rulers, regardless of how the latter feel about the results. At the same time, this basic tension between rulers and ruled is general, and further, it probably inheres in the structure of the postwar European project, in which political integration would have to proceed bureaucratically rather than openly. The not-implausible view was that after two catastrophically destructive world wars, the conventional politics that had prevailed across Europe were no longer viable.

Nonetheless, this accountability gap remains and the bad conscience it produces among the leaders who are notionally committed to democratic ideals tends to produce highly charged rhetoric when things don’t go their way. The sheer range of political differences here could fill several books, but two are especially relevant for the recent electoral outcomes.

The first is the normalization of ambitious environmental policies that threaten to have deleterious impacts on Europe’s economies. One of the interesting trends—not limited to Europe—has been the increasing acceptance among technocratic centrists of what was once considered radical environmental views, along with an increase in the political power of Green parties to shape parliamentary coalitions. The trouble is that the legitimacy of technocratic centrism rests upon a broad recognition of their ability to effectively steward the economy. A leadership class that can plausibly promise to generate wealth and fairly distribute its benefits is going to enjoy a certain degree of democratic popularity even in the absence of charismatic figures. But it cannot be a surprise that a far more dour economic outlook has failed to resonate with voters.

We’ve already seen significant evidence of political discontent with the Dutch farmers’ protest. Shocking as this might sound, telling people who are mostly not especially wealthy already that it is their duty to accept an indefinite reduction of their material situation is not a winning message.

But the second major theme—arguably more important than eco-radicalism—is immigration, which has shaken up much of the continent over the past decade. It is certainly conceivable that demographic fears would have become a political issue regardless, but Angela Merkel’s 2015 decision to allow over a million migrants into Germany undoubtedly turbocharged it, and its political ramifications are still taking form (among much else, it proved a major catalyst for “Brexit,” though Great Britain’s disengagement from the EU was poorly planned and managed, and ironically proved to have little impact on immigration numbers).

This was (to borrow a metaphor from Europe’s favourite sport) a colossal own goal, and one hardly needed to be some sort of racist to recognize its implications. Immigration is never zero-sum, but there are diminishing returns when it is not managed strategically. More importantly, there are numbers at which it begins to produce recognizable demographic and social changes, and the failure of mainstream parties to grapple with those has allowed challengers from the Right to reap the benefits.

As it happens, the “far-Right” headlines oversimplified the electoral outcomes across the continent. For example, Denmark, among other countries, did not witness the same political upheaval, having already taken broadly popular steps to curb immigration, thus removing it as a source of political leverage for the Right.

In sum, we in fact have a kind of semi-controlled experiment here: where political systems offer relatively liberal parties that nonetheless favour sensible restrictions on immigration, they will find favour with at least a plurality of voters, while more far-Right alternatives will not. But in countries like Germany and France, where more moderate options have not succeeded, the story looks different.

As it happens, the belief that immigration restrictions are necessarily illiberal—even fascist—is now widespread, but it has little basis in theory or fact. Certainly, there are modes of border control or other restrictions that would be illiberal, such as detention without trial or physical mistreatment of asylum-seekers. And while negative reactions tend to be coded as “right-wing,” concerns about the makeup of one’s country are not antithetical to liberal democracy; in many ways, they arise from it.

As the political scientist Rogers Brubaker observed:

“Citizenship in a nation-state is inevitably bound up with nationhood and national identity, membership of the state with membership of the nation. Proposals to redefine the legal criteria of citizenship raise large and ideologically charged questions of nationhood and national belonging. Debates about citizenship…are debates about what it means to belong to the nation-state. The politics of citizenship today is first and foremost a politics of nationhood…The central question is not ‘who gets what?’ but rather ‘who is what?'”

This is, in the end, a political struggle within democracies—not a battle with antidemocratic forces. Call it further testament to the strength of Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis: for the fact is none of the oppositional parties has managed to develop a true ideological alternative to the prevailing postwar consensus. Right or Left, political parties are still compelled to navigate within broadly liberal democratic parameters. What is often forgotten is that these still afford a wide degree of latitude, and many views that are lately considered déclassé remain well within the bounds of democracy. For, defining democracy as the regime that only produces one’s own preferred outcomes reflects a child’s understanding of politics. Yet this appears to be precisely how political and media elites both in and outside of Europe have chosen to interpret this week’s developments.

The real question is why more mainstream parties steadfastly refuse to adjust their policies to suit the preferences of their electorates, even to the extent of handing political victories to movements they claim to fear so much (for all their differences, in this at least, Canada’s political establishment resembles much of Europe’s.) Instead, the conventional establishment has pursued what are in fact historically extreme policies on a number of major issues. Those who remain dissatisfied (and in some cases bereft) by this week’s developments might be encouraged to consider what true moderation would look like. Who knows? It might even be popular.

Marc Edge: If the NSICOP report on foreign interference won’t name Canadian media outlets, I will

Commentary

Stacks of The Globe and Mail and the Toronto Star sit in a news stand in Toronto on April 26, 2012. Nathan Denette/The Canadian Press.

The irony could not have been more delicious as Globe and Mail columnist Andrew Coyne threw around the T-word—Treason!—recently in connection with the National Security and Intelligence Committee of Parliamentarians (NSCICOP) report on foreign political interference. “What else do you call it when people conspire against their own country?” asked the headline on his column.

Our reluctance to call the allegations against unnamed MPs what they really are might come from public indifference and a decline in expectations brought by decades of scandal, mused Coyne, or simply from not taking them seriously enough. “Treason, we feel, is not the sort of thing that happens in Canada. It’s too big, too bad, too real.”

The irony is that Canadian mainstream news media are also included in the report’s allegations.

While the specifics have been omitted, I believe the Globe and Mail has been among those most complicit.

It’s not something you will read much about in our mainstream press, especially in Canada’s newspaper of record.

From what I can tell, this angle has so far only been reported by right-wing websites True North and Rebel News, along with a Red Deer Alberta local news site called Todayville. Coyne did, however, at least mention the allegations in a subsequent column.

“It is not illegal to pay Canadian media to produce coverage that portrays a foreign state in a positive light or to amplify the official policy of a foreign state,” noted the NSCICOP report.

“When that state conceals its involvement, however, this activity is no longer within the bounds of acceptable diplomacy and lobbying: it is foreign interference.”

When it comes to covertly influencing Canadian opinion through media, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been the “most capable,” the report continued. Sources in the intelligence community noted that it has been “interfering with Canadian media content via direct engagement with Canadian media executives and journalists.”

The next six sentences were deleted “to remove injurious or privileged information,” the report explained, revealing only that they “described examples of the PRC paying to publish media articles without attribution, sponsoring media travel to the PRC, pressuring journalists to withdraw articles and creating false accounts on social media to spread disinformation.”

A 2020 report by NSICOP was slightly more forthcoming about China’s foreign influence media strategy called “borrowing a boat to go out into the ocean” to co-opt mainstream media into publishing its propaganda. “This often takes the form of strategic partnerships with media to provide free PRC-approved messages for China-related news, similar to a wire service. Sometimes, the content is supplemental and paid for through advertisement.” One example it noted was the multi-page supplements appearing in large newspapers around the world, including the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post, and the Daily Telegraph. 

“These inserts, called ‘China Watch,’ look like part of the newspaper, but are propaganda for which the Telegraph alone reportedly receives EUR750,000 (approximately C$1.3 million) annually,” they conclude. What they fail to mention is that these Chinese propaganda brochures (put out by the Publicity Department of the Chinese Communist Party) have also been featured prominently here in Canada.

While often taking a hawkish editorial stance and reporting approach on the rising world superpower, the Globe and Mail has been featuring paid CCP propaganda in its pages since at least 2016, when an eight-page section of China Watch headlined “A new Trudeau, a new era.” was published. A small line of type at the top of every page noted that the supplement had been “produced by China Daily and distributed in the Globe and Mail.”