EssaysLiberal Democracy in Question

How to Deal with Extremists? Post European Election Reflections

Considering the dilemmas of dealing with parties suspected of wanting to undermine core elements of liberal democracy

In the wake of this past spring’s European elections, in which far-right parties did very well, an old conundrum for liberal democrats is posed with renewed urgency: how to deal with extremists? Should one talk with them? Or should one only talk about them? Or not even that — in other words, should they just be ignored, or perhaps be contained with a cordon sanitaire that all other political parties agree on? The answer cannot be given in a vacuum — much depends on the nature of the party in question and on the political system in which it operates. Intellectuals and scholars who pretend that political philosophy or history provide easy answers are likely to do more harm than good here.

How liberal democrats should deal with those suspected of wanting to undermine core elements of liberal democracy is a notoriously difficult issue. John Rawls considered it a “practical dilemma which philosophy alone cannot resolve.” But in conjunction with what can philosophy solve it? Certainly not just history, as some like to imagine, because history offers no clear-cut lessons. In retrospect it appears obvious that the Weimar Republic might have been saved, had the National Socialists been banned in time. But bans might not have halted Germans’ disenchantment with liberal democracy; a ban might still have been followed by an authoritarian regime. It is also worth noting that some countries have drawn the exact opposite lesson about preventing authoritarianism from the one that post-war West Germany did after Weimar (in West Germany a neo-Nazi party and the Communist party were prohibited in the 1950s; currently an application to have the extremist National Democratic Party — which scored almost five per cent in the Saxony elections last Sunday — banned is pending before the Constitutional Court). Particularly in Southern and Eastern Europe dictatorship came to be associated with the suppression of pluralism — one reason why Greece, for instance, has no provisions for banning parties and now appears so helpless in the face of the neo-fascist Golden Dawn.

This diversity in responses to authoritarianism does not mean that one could not work out at least some normative principles to guide militant democracy. It is clear that a party which engages in violence, whether directly or indirectly (or even one that condones violence), ought to be banned — and that there is no reason in any way to engage with its spokespeople. Parties in liberal democracies that question or actively undermine the state’s monopoly on the legal use of force — for example through militias — also cannot be tolerated. This is not a question of ethics or even political judgment — it is a matter of criminal law.

In the same vein, the ban of a party that explicitly declares that it seeks the abolition of liberal democracy can be justified — except perhaps in cases where such parties are so marginal that they have no chance of acquiring power and (a crucial second condition) where their existence does not have a wider, quasi-pedagogical effect on citizens. Allowing such parties in well-established democracies — example: Britain — seems a risk worth taking in the name of a very relaxed understanding of freedom of association (it’s a different matter in unconsolidated or only semi-consolidated democracies such as Hungary). But even if taking such a risk can show how secure such a long-established democracy feels about itself, not all speech and practices by a party have to be tolerated. In Britain, the far-right BNP was forced to change its rules about who could be a member, because tolerating the BNP’s whites-only stance would have amounted to condoning islands of politically organized and perpetuated racism within a liberal-democratic polity.

That still leaves the question whether politicians should ever directly engage with the representatives of extremist parties. We can distinguish three scenarios: if one thinks that a party ought to be banned, but party bans are legally impossible (as in Greece), it is legitimate to ostracize the politicians of that party, no matter how many votes they got. Citizens have a right to vote (and, as the American political theorist Alexander Kirshner has recently pointed out, one cannot just take way people’s legitimate interest in political participation). But they don’t have a right to vote for particular parties or see very particular preferences realized in politics (what if no party matches my preferences? Does the state have an obligation to create one? Surely not).

Secondly, if militant democracy (that is to say: the possibility of party bans) is available, then one ought to push for banning the party. If one does not succeed, one can continue political ostracism, although this is much harder to justify. For instance, if an application to ban a party is rejected by a constitutional court, such a decision effectively certifies such a party as a legitimate political contender (a dilemma the German constitutional court is now struggling with in regard to the NPD). It is for this reason that politicians have sometimes shied away from seeking a ban, even though they at the same time kept insisting that a particular extremist party was unconstitutional. This is an unprincipled and in the end unjustifiable stance.

Thirdly, if you think that the party ought not to be banned,it can still be legitimate to try to construct a kind of cordon sanitaire: you agree with other parties never to enter into a coalition with them, no matter what a particular election outcome might be. A reasonable justification is that even if an extremist party might have become more moderate on the surface, it will try to implement policies reflecting its genuine beliefs once it has any power. To be sure, it is an often-repeated argument that actual responsibility in government will make extremist parties become pragmatic problems-solvers and thereby move to the center (if for no other reason than the prosaic one of wanting to get re-elected). But this often turns out to be an illusion. Ideological parties need to prove to their core clientele that they have not abandoned their ideology, not that they are pragmatists. Even where cooptation into government seems to have worked initially in weakening a party, in the long run such supposed “taming” simply legitimates the core ideology of the party; think of the Freedom Party in Austria, seemingly destroyed by its coalition with the mainstream Christian Democrat Wolfgang Schüssel at the beginning of the last decade, but now stronger than ever (polls currently have them in first place). Other examples would be the Swiss People’s Party and the Danish People’s Party, both of which managed to re-shape national party systems as a whole, rather than being tamed by traditional parties.

Does this mean that one should not even talk with extremists (or that television stations should never invite them on their programs)? No. For one thing, not talking to them reinforces their claim that they are both a persecuted minority and actually the silenced majority who are kept down by the liberal elite. Talking with them can expose extremists for what they are: people who have sanitized their rhetoric up to a point, but whose racism will eventually come out clearly when they are put under pressure (as opposed to the echo chamber of extremist politics in which nobody ever debates them). The appearance of the BNP leader Nick Griffin on the BBC’s flagship program Question Time is a case in point.

Having said that: not everything needs to be debated and, in particular, not everything should be debated on extremists’ terms. In the wake of the European elections one heard again the claim by mainstream politicians that particular topics, such as immigration, should not be left to extremists. But think about the logic here: ultimately, extremists get to dictate the topics, themes, and possibly even the terms of any political debate. The outcome is that if they want to talk about the “Roma problem,” we have to talk about the “Roma problem,” instead of focusing on de-industrialization, for instance. If they want to talk about how the EU, in the words of Glen Newey, dumps Romanians and human rights on poor Britain, then that’s how we have to talk about the EU. Politicians and self-styled iconoclastic liberals sometimes go further and say that there should not be any taboos. But some taboos are a good thing, and sometimes even just responding to topics that extremists want to talk about sends the wrong message. Whether the Holocaust really happened, or differences in intelligence among different races, are not up for debate, and pretending that they are — for “the sake of argument” — is not a sign of being a good liberal.

Clearly, the worst of all worlds consists in wannabe-Machiavellian mainstream politicians fooling themselves into thinking they can satisfy the far right’s voters through rhetoric or even policy proposals stolen from the far right. People will always prefer the original, especially if the original remains pure in the sense of not having had to make any compromises in implementing policy. Nicolas Sarkozy’s attempts to outflank the Front National only strengthened the latter in the long run and helped to make the FN, in the words of Marine Le Pen, “le premier parti” of France. Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orbán’s game of presenting himself as the last bulwark against the neo-Nazi Jobbik party to the outside world, while selectively appropriating Jobbik’s program domestically, has only helped Jobbik become an established part of the Hungarian political landscape.

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Jan-Werner Mueller

  • Zachary Sunderman

    The irony of the potential for a democracy to undo itself by popular election of anti-democratic actors is a particularly striking and salient example of the impossibility of unqualified freedom. The cause of liberal democracy requires democracy to go against its own principles in order to ensure the survival of those very principles. As you said, this is a context-specific problem that warrants serious consideration beyond absolutes.

    • Zack, your comment confirms for me that the problems raised in this post are a manifestation of “the social condition,” as Iddo Tavory and I understand this term.

      • Zachary Sunderman

        I agree. If I understand your thoughts on the social condition correctly, they are very similar to thoughts I’ve developed while tracing out the implications of various ideologies and prescriptions for the betterment of society. This is something I hope to work on further as well. I feel that very few who wish to instigate change are honest with themselves about the projects they support, beyond of course an enamorment with the ideals that spur them. We need a theory of impurity, of imperfection, of inherent tension, in order to make sound judgments on which courses are best for society to take.

  • Great stuff. I’ve recently moved from the US to France, and am still trying to reconcile myself to the vastly different political climate. It seems reasonable, as you suggest, to form some quarantines so as to determine just what IS an “extremist”. Surely there is a difference between an openly neo-nazi group and the Front National, and it is necessary to find the baselines for participation. But after that, engagement seems to me the only route. You might despair that we are stuck talking about the Roma rather than de-industrialization, but that is up to you (and yours) to change. The people in my city just recently did vote heavily for the FN, at least in the first round, but they are not bloodthirsty nazis. They’re people extraordinarily frustrated with the current status quo, and inevitably think immigration is a big part of the problem. So yes, I think their position needs an intelligent and persuasive response, which they by and large have not received. But this does not mean there is a similar responsibility to respond to lunatics promoting slavery or holocaust denial, as you rightly point out.

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