Yascha Mounk: Europe's Disoriented Right

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Yascha Mounk is editor of The Utopian and a PhD Candidate at Harvard University, with research interests in political theory, European politics, and intellectual history.]

AT NO time since the Second World War has Europe been so firmly in the grip of right-wing leaders. From old hands like Angela Merkel in Germany, Nicolas Sarkozy in France, and Silvio Berlusconi in Italy, to the recently elected David Cameron in the UK, the center Right now governs the biggest European countries. Even the figureheads of the EU—including the presidents of the European Commission, the European Council, and the European Parliament—have an impeccable conservative political pedigree. The only notable left-wing holdout, José Luis Rodríguez Zapatero of Spain, will likely be defeated at the polls when he stands for reelection in less than two years.

With such unprecedented power, it would seem that the Right has a rare opportunity to reshape Europe in its own image. Left-wingers might fear that their adversaries will roll back the achievements of the last decades. What major political reforms, they might ask with terror in their voices, is the Right implementing? In what fundamental ways will it change Europe over the next five to ten years?

The hegemony of the Right is cause for serious concern. Even so, scared questions about the transformative political vision of Europe’s current leaders smack of hyperbole. In reality, they are strangely toothless. Their policies barely deviate from those of their left-wing predecessors. The question is: why?...

MUCH INK has been spilled in the pages of Dissent about the disorientation of the Left. We all know the story by heart. With the end of the Cold War and the rise of globalization, the goals and recipes that motivated postwar social democracy have come to seem outdated. We apparently face an unenviable choice. Do we represent social democracy’s old constituency, the shrinking industrial working class—to the exclusion of the middle class, the unemployed, and immigrants? Or do we embrace the more affluent, upwardly mobile constituency to which Tony Blair directed his pitch—which would require us, as Blair did with a vengeance, to cozy up to big business and the big banks?

Among all this worry and self-pity we have failed to notice that Europe’s Right has suffered a similar crisis of meaning. The Manichean worldview of the Cold War hid the outmoded elements of Christian as well as of social democracy. In the aftermath of 1989, uncomfortable questions, conveniently hushed up for decades, posed themselves anew. What continuing political role can the Christian values that lend so many European right-wing parties their name have on an increasingly secular and religiously diverse continent? How can the Right reconcile its charitable concern for the meek and weak with its increasing support for neoliberal economic policies? Globalization is also as much of a threat to the Right as it is to the Left. While social democrats worry that a globalized world will do away with hard-won social protections, Christian democrats fear that it will erode local traditions and weaken the nation-state.

In America, the rise of neoconservatism, in both its cultural and foreign policy guises, has masked this crisis of the traditional Right. But in Europe, neoconservatism never won much traction. Neoconservatives, whether their branding is Tory or Labour, have been able to land a few punches in British debates about foreign policy. (The Guardian recently described Tony Blair’s appearance at the latest inquiry into the Iraq War as “a seminar on neoconservatism for slow learners.”) But when it comes to other issues that arouse the passions of their American brethren—like religious education, the (un)truth of evolution, homosexuality, and abortion—the tiny set of true British neocons couldn’t be more out of step with their compatriots. The same holds true all over Western Europe. No major right-wing party is inclined to declare the European version of the culture wars. If it did, the Left would surely be overjoyed. On the contrary, Merkel, Cameron, and Sarkozy got elected because under their leadership the Right has fully endorsed left-liberal views on family, lifestyle, and procreation.

The new generation of European leaders has made its peace with the social and cultural consequences of 1968—even though, unlike most of their leftist predecessors, they had no sympathy for the student protests at the time. Consider the leading personnel of Germany’s government. Angela Merkel, born in 1954, came of age as a Protestant, pro-American dissident in East Germany just as the most radical wing of the West German student movement took up arms in its struggle against U.S.-style capitalism. As for German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle, it is hard to escape the impression that he opted for a career with the Free Democrats—a party which, until recently, publicly defined itself as catering to those with a “superior income”—primarily because his intellectual and linguistic capacities were insufficient for making it big in international business. Meanwhile, Horst Seehofer, the head of the Bavarian Christian Democrats, is a traditionalist representative of rural Bavaria, the last part of the country in which nostalgia for an idyllic past comes naturally to a majority of the population. Biographically, Merkel, Westerwelle, and Seehofer couldn’t be more distant from the counterculture of the 1960s....

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