The French election shows: These days, radicals are setting the tone, not the moderates any longer.
There were times in which parties preferred nothing more than camping in the middle of the political landscape. Although they dauntlessly stepped on one another’s toes there, they all knew that elections were to be won in the middle — and there alone. These days, the situation has visibly changed. One cannot get anywhere any longer with moderate views and fairly responsible political platforms. Instead, centrifugal forces are calling the shots, making their way briskly to the left, to the right or full speed into anti-politics.
Naturally, the first round of the presidential elections in France was primarily a referendum against Nicolas Sarkozy. The populists elected him in 2007 to have a respectable president in the Élysée Palace. Instead they got a hyperactive whirlwind who does a lot in France, just not consistently conservative politics.
A striking radicalization of the electorate is to be read from the numbers as well. Counting left-wingers and right-wingers together, the contingent of those who want to shatter the established system stands around 30 percent. And for the voters of Marine Le Pen and Jean-Luc Mélechon, it is not only a matter of sheer protest; many of them actually believe the crude slogans against the financial markets, the EU and the establishment. For the run-off election, that will mean that François Hollande and Nicolas Sarkozy will need to convincingly shape their political courses further to the left and right respectively.
The consequences that will yield can be observed in the Netherlands or also in Belgium and Austria, where inane populism nearly ranks as good common practice. But movements like the lively amateurish Pirate Party in Germany, the Movimento of the Italian cabaret artist Beppe Grillo, which, according to surveys, is thought to be in third place in the eroding Italian party system, or the fundamentalist zealots of the tea party in the United States show the consequences that this leads to.
The most menacing consequence of this retreat from the middle is an increasing difficulty with fulfilling the balance of interests in Western-style democracies. Where extremists set the tone, compromise becomes difficult. And where compromise as a democratic quality for itself is only partly possible, democracy itself is in danger. Especially those politicians who recklessly yield to the temptation of extremist rhetoric, instead of giving voice to political reason, need to be told this.
What this can mean can be deduced for the last two years primarily in the U.S., where the political system has become dysfunctional by the rigidity of the Republican positions in Congress. In Washington, hardly anything is accomplished because there is no longer a “common ground” where mutual agreements can be made. That will remain this way as long as the screamers of the tea party influence the political debate.
The question is whether the cousins of these screamers of all colors in Europe can also capture the political discourse so that the voters become deaf and blind to the essentials. Subversions are not the stuff of democracy; its essence is compromise in the middle of society.