Why Europe could be less vulnerable to populists

I have a theory about why Europe might be able to withstand the populist/fascist onslaught better than the US or the UK. It could potentially give a bit of hope in these troubled times. Alternatively, it could be cited as an example of wishful thinking if Wilders, Le Pen, the AfD, and Brexit win after all. In any case, I wanted to publish it before the elections.

My theory is really simple: any political system that gives voters more than two options to choose from will be able to withstand the populist surge better than one that has only two options.

Having more than two parties keeps the populists and the mainstream right separate from one another, and although they have the option of forming a coalition, there’s no requirement to do so. The Dutch mainstream right will maintain its free agency after the elections, something the Republicans and Tories lost long ago.

The Netherlands

Dutch mainstream right-wing voters don’t feel that their parties are obliged to cooperate with Wilders. In fact, some of them prefer a coalition over the centre — see also the debates within the CDA during the formation of the VVD+CDA Rutte I government that was supported by Wilders.

Rutte went over right in 2010, partly because the alternative would be a four-party coalition over left that included the PvdA, and partly in order to show that Wilders is not suitably governmental — and that was proven in 2012 when Wilders walked out and caused new elections, which he lost. Rutte was free to go over the centre now, and formed the first government to sit out its allotted timespan in nearly twenty years with the PvdA. This proves he was a free agent — and he’ll remain a free agent during the upcoming formation as well.

In Germany, Angela Merkel’s CDU will be in roughly the same position after the September elections. She has her hands free to rule with centre-left SPD if she feels like it — few CDU voters would demand a hard-right coalition with the AfD.

The US

Contrast this easy back-and-forth switching of the mainstream right to the situation in the US, where the Republican Party has been taken over by the groups that were supposed to be their obedient voting cattle until they developed a political will of their own. Of course the mainstream Republicans had the bad judgement to egg on the Tea Party and the reactionary evangelicals, and to provide them with mainstream cover, but in the end the American two-party system forces the mainstream and the populists to be locked into an eternal coalition.

There is no way out of Trumpism for Republicans except by splitting the party, which would cause a Democratic victory. In other words, mainstream Republicans have no free agency: they’ll stand or fall with Trump.

The UK

In the UK, meanwhile, the Tories are very afraid of UKIP, and the only reaction they could think of was copying the entire UKIP programme, as well as its general air of bigotry. Couple this with a Little-England-inspired total lack of interest in the rest of the EU, with which they’re supposed to start the most important negotiations of a lifetime pretty soon now, and we see the problem in its full glory.

The Tories gave up their free agency and voluntarity locked themselves into a coalition with the populists. The process is less advanced than in the US, but giving up on populism and veering to the centre would hand an election victory to Labour. (On the other hand, Labour, too, has its share of Brexit problems, and one could even argue it’s also voluntarily giving up its free agency.)

First-past-the-post is the problem

The idea that the mainstream right will keep the populists in check hinges on the mainstream being free to form any coalition it chooses. The Republicans never had that option. and the Tories gave it up. Both will now have to live with the consequences.

All this could be prevented if the US and the UK just got rid of their silly first-past-the-post system which caps the maximum number of parties at two, and which leads to a good guys/bad guys division that reinforces the mainstream/populist coalition. “Hey, the populists may be distasteful, but at least they’re not Democrats/Labour.”

There’s some hope for the UK, since it is now effectively a more-than-two-party system. The LibDems are down, but not out. If both the Tories and Labour support Brexit — well, a principled Remain stance might help here. And, as the history of D66 shows, a liberal, cosmopolitan, ever-so-slightly-left-of-centre party can attract many voters under the right circumstances — though at other times voters will extend their sympathy but vote for other parties. As D66 founder Van Mierlo once said, “they should love us less and vote for us more.”

I see less hope for the US. The Democrats would have exactly the same problem if it was the extreme left that was causing the instability instead of the extreme right. It’s baked right in to the American political system, and the only way to solve the problem is getting rid of congressional districts and introducing some kind of proportional representation. Fat chance. It’ll probably be un-American or something.

<— Debate results | Update: Turkish minister —>

This is the political blog of Peter-Paul Koch, mobile platform strategist, consultant, and trainer, in Amsterdam. It’s a hobby blog where he follows Dutch politics for the benefit of those twelve foreigners that are interested in such matters, as well as his Dutch readers.

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1 Posted by Algy Taylor on 8 March 2017 | Permalink

Regarding the UK, the Tory party have had battles between their pro-EU and anti-EU sections for much longer than UKIP has been around. I worked behind the bar at one local tory party meeting, and there's little difference in the views of the grass roots members of either party IMO.

I agree with your points, although I'm less positive about the UK's position. Unlike the US it's not a solid two party state (eg the Lib Dems, Greens, Plaid Cymru, Scottish National Party, plus the Northern Irish parties have seats) - but in those constituencies, it's still by-and-large a two horse race, even if those are yellow/orange horses in northern Scotland (SNP/Lib Dems).

2 Posted by Michael K on 12 March 2017 | Permalink

This is an interesting topic, certainly. I first started reading about Dutch politics after my Canadian politicians drummed up a whole load of fear about coalitions. I do like the idea of coalitions, but I don't think any of our politicians do. We at least have three (or four, if you count Green) parties, though only the liberals and conservatives ever get the prime-ministership. That makes me feel like we're at risk of populism, at least a little.

Our current liberal government was elected partly on the promise of electoral reform to our first-past-the-post system, but it's proving difficult to hold them to account.

Luckily, I haven't seen much about populist leanings.

3 Posted by Henry Schlechta on 16 March 2017 | Permalink

"In Germany, Angela Merkel’s CDU will be in roughly the same position after the September elections. She has her hands free to rule with centre-left SPD if she feels like it — few CDU voters would demand a hard-right coalition with the AfD."

I'd question whether this will actually happen, especially if the CDU ends up weaker than SPD and the CDU has to support Martin Schulz as Chancellor. Remember, during the 2005-2009 term when such coalition was formed, with Merkel leading, the SPD lost support (their vote fell 11%) and parties to their left gained support (The Left +3%, Green +3%, Pirates +2%). Does it not seem possible that something similar could happen to the CDU?

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