“our modern, liberal democracies are probably not under any catastrophic threat – at least not yet”

2016 will doubtless be remembered for the political earthquakes of Brexit and Trump. These somewhat unexpected victories have generated significant levels of debate fuelled by the high levels of uncertainty each has created.

These uncertainties stem, in part, from the nature of both political campaigns which were mired by numerous allegations of racism, chauvinism, and xenophobia.

The victories come at a time when radical-right parties are experiencing a period of resurgence across Europe that may lead to significant political breakthroughs in France, the Netherlands and Italy over the next eighteen months (the Austrian Freedom Party having already obtained 46.7% of the national vote in the recent presidential election).

This has led some to suggest that we are witnessing the revival of a politics associated with the rise of Fascism in the inter-war period. Such comparisons are, as James McDougall points out, fraught with dangers.

In a rush to highlight what appears to be striking similarities, it is easy to ignore the more complex and contrasting dynamics that shape politics in any particular era. This is certainly true in any comparison between the 2016 elections and politics during the 1930s.

In the first instance, it is important to recognise that many European states were still forging their democratic institutions during the 1920s and 1930s having only relatively recently discarded more authoritarian regimes.

This transition was far from easy and many at the time remained unconvinced about the merits of democracy – ideas of anatural social and political hierarchy remained influential.

Such views have been significantly undermined and democracy today is unquestionably much better embedded than it was during the 1930s.

As such, even with the apparent rise of a radical right across Europe, and perhaps the US, the institutions of democracy are much less vulnerable than they were in the 1930s to being overwhelmed or undermined by the momentum of extremist politics.

A second consideration – associated with the idea of natural hierarchies – is that the political culture of the period continued to be influenced by such concepts as social Darwinism and eugenics.

In parts of Europe this helped to generate a particular form of nationalism that advocated a hierarchy of races (largely conflating the concepts of race and nation) and was seen to justify warfare.

Such views had played a prominent role in generating the conditions for war in 1914 but remained influential during the 1920s and 1930s; certainly they formed a central plank of Nazi ideology.

Today, although there is much evidence to suggest a rise in negative attitudes towards minority groups and immigrants, strong nationalist sentiments are not driven by such ideas – beyond, perhaps, a small minority on the very extreme fringes.

Despite these important differences, similarities between the contemporary era and that of the thirties unquestionably exist, and it is useful to better understand these and the dynamics that spring from them.

When we consider Germany in the late 1920s, for example, we note that a number of important elements combine that contribute to the rise of the radical right.

The continued prevalence of aggrieved nationalist sentiment; the unpopularity of political institutions – symbolised by the Weimar Republic; the hugely detrimental impact of the Great Depression; and the strong anti-Semitism of the period – all served to generate a growing sense of public anger and detachment from the establishment.

Hitler, with his theatrical oratorical style and populist politics filled the gap. As one biographer, Joachim Fest, describes:

Hitler…appealed to bewildered people terrified of being declassed…and who blamed the existing system for having failed them. The program Hitler outlined rejected everything…it conjured up its dire visions of the future along with nostalgic pictures of the good old days…he kept asserting that he was in no way responsible for the prevailing misery, and that those conditions proved how right he was in condemning the existing state of affairs.

Of huge importance was his recognition that such a detachment existed across the social divide and, as such, he sought to build a national movement that ‘could offer room to persons of every background, every age, every motivation’.

Many of these themes are evident in 2016. Both Trump and the Leave campaign rallied against unpopular political establishments – and institutions – that, they argued, were detached from the needs of a population suffering under the economic hardships of a global recession.

Both placed emigration as a central theme of their campaigns and this included emphasising (exaggerating) the threats posed to western society by radical Islam. What is more, both have sought to build movements that transcend traditional class lines and which mobilise people with very different political outlooks and priorities.

So what does a comparison between the 1930s and 2016 tell us about current political dynamics?

Despite the rise of a radical right (and irrespective of what each party might stand for), our modern, liberal democracies are probably not under any catastrophic threat – at least not yet. Whether a threat does come to exist will depend largely on how the established political parties react to current political trends.

Mainstream parties must reflect upon and respond to the very real detachment that now exists between large sections of the population and their elected representatives/political institutions – a detachment that leaves them vulnerable to the narratives of the radical right.

There is certainly a need to move beyond the type of reactions that the Trump and Brexit victories have generated wherein the main parties (and the “liberal elite”) have come to question democratic outcomes and even to look down on the electorate for their decisions.

The comparison also raises a further dynamic that is likely to have a negative impact over the coming years – the return of a xenophobic nationalism.

Within a UK context, this has been particularly evident in England through the political campaigning of groups such as the BNP and UKIP but it has also crept into the political mainstream in a way that serves to give it increased legitimacy.

From Gordon Brown’s policy of “British workers for British jobs” to David Cameron’s idea of migrants “swarming” into Europe, we have witnessed a process of “Othering” that is generating a dangerous divide between “Us” and “Them”.

This has manifested itself in relation to the exaggerated threats posed by Islam to Western ideals and to migrants who are often, in popular tabloids, presented as little more than petty criminals and rapists.

What twentieth century history shows us is that democracy is always a work in progress. When we become complacent about that progress, democracy can be threatened.

What 2016 perhaps demonstrates is that there is a very real need to re-energise democracy for the twenty-first century.

  • Zorin001

    A succinct and refreshingly level headed take on the political situation of 2016.

    I await the BTL comments awash with conspiracy theories about “Liberal Elites” and swarms of Islamists out to subvert the pure White race and create a mongrel Caliphate of Europe.

  • notimetoshine

    I’m not sure that Brexit and the Trump election are in and of themselves a risk to liberal democracy, as you say we have strong democratic institutions in much of the western world now. After all we have seen disruptive electoral events and dodgy presidents before, and damaging as they may well be, western society should weather them.

    However, I am concerned about the seeming inability of the liberal democracies to rationally respond to political, social and economic challenges that face them. Brexit, Trump and this wave of European populism are responses to the issues faced over the past ten years. Unrest in the middle east, economic crisis, new communication methods and increasing globalism have all reared their ugly heads of late.

    But looking at the disproportionate response of electorates in the face of these challenges makes me fear what will happen to western liberal democracy when presented with a serious challenge, such as it did with the rise of fascism and the second world war. Whether it is the outright refusal to acknowledge expertise of the brexit referendum (looking at you Gove) or the election of a sinister clown in the US, one can’t help think that either politics and civics have become too complicated for the electorates to deal with, or the electorates are simply no longer as resilient in the face of what are (in western history) relatively minor obstacles.