Comparing Political Extremism in Europe and America

People often ask whether America or Europe fare better or worse in terms of political extremism. Yet, in a race to the bottom, what matters most is the direction.
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In both Europe and America, the rise of "extremist" politicians has become a matter of recurrent concern. France's recent presidential election was marked by the relative success of candidates on both the extreme-right and extreme-left, which reflects a broader trend in Europe. In the United States, Democrats often depict modern-day Republican leaders and Tea Party activists as "extreme." Meanwhile, Republicans frequently charge that President Obama is a "socialist" or "radical" liberal. These developments provide an opportunity to assess the nature of political extremism in comparative light.

At the outset, it is noteworthy that contemporary America does not have an influential extreme-left, unlike Europe. For instance, Left Front candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon garnered 11 percent of the vote in the first round of the French presidential election. He has notably argued that people fuss too much about "supposed political prisoners" in communist Cuba, which is not a dictatorship in his view. While Republicans tend to describe Barack Obama as an extreme leftist, that is not correct by either international or American standards. The Obama administration's economic, financial, and environmental policies generally range from center-left to center-right within the Western world's political spectrum. Similarly, Obama's controversial efforts to reform health care are hardly extreme considering that universal health care is widely accepted by both the right and left in other developed nations. The allegation that "Obamacare" is a far-left policy is even more doubtful given that it was based on past Republican plans, including Mitt Romney's.

The influence of right-wing political extremism provides greater basis for comparison given that it has been rising in both Europe and America. Certain European nations, such as France and the Netherlands, are particularly affected by this trend. Marine Le Pen, the hard-line National Front candidate, received a full 18 percent of the vote in the first round of the French presidential race. In the Netherlands, the notorious Party for Freedom was part of the governing coalition until recently, after obtaining 15 percent of the vote in the 2010 general election.

The main driving forces of right-wing extremism in Europe are two-fold. First, there is resentment towards the political "establishment," including the European Union, due to the average person's seemingly diminishing station in society at a time of European economic stagnation. Second, there is hostility towards (legal or illegal) immigrants, who are accused of taking away precious jobs and resources while contributing to higher crime rates and making little effort to respect European customs -- a concern that is at times animated by Islamophobia. These factors foster the rise of leaders who promise to defy the establishment and who scapegoat immigrants for society's problems. (Many of the people they consider "immigrants" are actually second or third-generation citizens.)

These driving forces of extremism also exist in America, as illustrated by animosity towards illegal aliens and diverse forms of Islamophobia. One can equally find resentment towards the establishment, especially Washington insider politics. However, these factors have comparatively less weight in America than two other factors that are largely absent in the rest of the Western world, namely Christian fundamentalism and radical anti-governmentalism.

Christian fundamentalism is virtually nonexistent in the developed world except in conservative America, where it carries significant influence, as was recently illustrated by Rick Santorum's presidential campaign. Fundamentalists support policies that are quite extreme by Western standards: repealing the right to abortion, narrowing access to contraception, abstinence-only sexual education, barring gays from the military, promoting creationism, etc.

Deep-seated suspicion of government is another major driving force behind extremism in modern-day America. The GOP increasingly defends a purist ideology sometimes described as "free-market fundamentalism." It is characterized by the notion that "big government," taxes, and regulation are the causes of nearly all economic problems. As a matter of principle, it is also unconcerned about the nation's acute wealth inequality. This ideology is atypical in the modern Western world, where other major right-wing parties generally have a far more moderate approach to laissez-faire economics and share reservations about unbridled individualism. It is notably common for European right-wingers to stress the need for basic "solidarity" in certain areas, such as health care, whereas Republicans tend to dismiss such preoccupations as "socialism."

Radical anti-governmentalism is fostered by the relative importance of misinformation in the United States. Nations with universal care have much lower medical costs than America and better or equal health levels while ensuring treatment to everyone. By contrast, at the time of the 2010 Democratic health care reform, approximately 50 million Americans were uninsured and millions of others were seriously underinsured. Scores were denied treatment due to preexisting conditions and exorbitant medical bills already caused over 60 percent of U.S. bankruptcies in 2007, before the financial crisis and economic recession. Almost 80 percent of these persons had medical insurance but were ruined by out-of-pocket costs. Nevertheless, Republicans convinced much of the public that America offered excellent access to treatment and that universal health care is too expensive. Many GOP leaders advanced ludicrous claims about universal health care, such as Sarah Palin ("death panels") or Santorum (disabled children "don't survive" in Europe because "care is rationed" and treatment "simply refused"). It is likewise remarkable that nearly half of Republicans have been prepared to believe other far-fetched conspiracy theories about Obama being a covert Muslim with a fraudulent birth certificate.

While misinformation and conspiracy theories have arguably less weight in contemporary European politics, their appalling aspects cannot be underestimated. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the founder of France's influential extreme-right party, the National Front, has suggested that the gas chambers of the Holocaust may not have existed and that, at any rate, they are "a detail of history." He argued that the Nazi occupation of France was "not particularly inhuman." Still, both he and his daughter, Marine Le Pen, have managed to draw the support of practically one in five French voters in several presidential elections by appealing to anti-immigrant sentiment. Even though a vote for the National Front is a quasi-fascist vote, certain French commentators describe it euphemistically as a "protest vote" against the establishment and the status quo it represents. But many ordinary people formerly construed their support for Hitler or Mussolini as a protest against the establishment as well.

People often ask whether America or Europe fare better or worse in terms of political extremism. Yet, in a race to the bottom, what matters most is the direction.

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