The near victory of Marine Le Pen in the French local elections could prove to be only a deferred triumph. For she was only turned away by the big established parties that concentrated their forces — and suspended the democratic competition.
It did nothing but arouse bitter feelings among National Front followers, who felt cheated out of elections in which they were entitled to success. The concerted actions of the allegedly hostile democratic camp have also strengthened the impression that the representatives of liberal democracy stand with their backs to the wall. The propaganda of the right-wing extremists — that the era of the “liberal” order is rapidly drawing to a close — only adds fuel to the fire, and could legally drive more voters to them.
The advancement of right- and left-nationalist movements in Europe takes the advocates of Western transatlantic democracy as a kind of permanent defensive front. Anyone who tries to tell them otherwise, that this is only a result of social upheavals and EU political mistakes, falls short.
This view is based on the premise that the liberal-pluralist constitutions of the modern, supranational structures of integrated European societies is something of a normal case corresponding to a historical development, and that only an economic aberration will avert ever larger electorates of its principles.
In fact, it expresses itself in the current anti-liberal movements as a deep-seated wariness with the freedom model, as it has prevailed since 1945 in the West, and since 1989 in Eastern Europe. This nagging uneasiness with liberal democracy has long been — possibly above all else — recognized as part of the social center. Now it turns out that Europe, or more precisely continental Europe, has developed from a relationship with liberalism that is substantially weak.
The Inheritance of the Collapse
The ignominious collapse of democracy in Europe in the 1930s is considered, in the grand scheme of history, not too long ago. Its inheritance is in the Europeans as if it were genetic.
The liberal and universalist constitutions in post-war Europe were, without wishing to detract from the performance of the great pioneers of the vision of European unification, dictated with guidance from the United States, and were essentially guaranteed by it.
Underlying anti-Americanism, which existed not only at the political margins but also continued to billow into European elites, was kept a secret with the view that without American supremacy, Europe would be defenseless against Soviet totalitarianism.
Now, a quarter of a century after the end of the Cold War, it is increasingly believed that [Europe] no longer needs American protection. This resentment of the United States as a supposed oppressive power that over the decades has prevented the self-development of Europe and its nations has come to light.
This means that the aversion toward the notion of a liberal-individualistic society has reactivated. This aversion previously had ended in the 1930s, the democratic phase after World War I — a period during which much of the American democratic missionary work was initiated and embodied by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson.
The establishment of fascism in Italy a few years after World War I had already signaled how fragile the foundations of liberal democratic ideas in Europe were. The demise of the Weimar Republic was not an isolated German phenomenon, but was, so to speak, a trend of the time. As Nazism began its war of extermination, democratic Eastern European countries such as Poland were already regressing into authoritarianism.
Lonely British Resistance
France collapsed under the onslaught of the German war machine; not only due to the military weakness of working together miserably, but also because its democratic defenses were largely extinguished. Without the lonely British resistance, the democratic idea had been well eradicated on the continent for a long time.
Even after World War II, the triumph of liberal democracy in Europe was by no means self-running. In the late 1950s, De Gaulle led a temporary semi-authoritarian regime in France. The last dictatorships in Western Europe — Greece, Portugal and Spain — fell in the late 1970s.
And the Eastern European nations swallowed by the Soviet empire could not participate in the European process of democratic self-discovery for decades. The fact that the universalist-democratic model in the end prevailed with no alternative was thanks to the United States, which unlike after World War I, did not retreat from Europe.
Russia Has an Apparent Alternative to the Open Society
But this American presence has become noticeably weaker in recent years. With Putin’s Russia, an anti-liberal counter-power has appeared that offers an apparent alternative to the donated U.S. model of an open, multi-ethnic and pluralistic society.
Putin’s authoritarianism is committed not to an open dictatorship, but to behave like a genuine executor of the people’s true collective will in an ethnically homogeneous nation. This meets with the ideology of the Western European New Right, but also serves the “anti-imperialist” reflexes of the extreme left, who see the United States as the source of the problems of unfettered capitalist globalization.
In anti-Americanism, it is no coincidence that the common denominator of all “populist” forces is from right to left. The two seemingly opposite extremes are their strongest, most connected ideological drive. An exception also forms from the national conservative trend in Poland, which is at least decidedly pro-American in foreign policy, because they do not trust Western European assistance, as affirmed by bad historical experiences.
The European democracies cannot withstand the onslaught of right- and left-wing authoritarian powers if they are not aggressive, especially toward the transatlantic dimension of their identity. Because the democratic European project is inconceivable without an American interest.