If you haven’t read part I, it’s probably best to go back and do that first. Although it’s critical of the far left, you’ll see that I don’t really treat it symmetrically with the far right. The far left, as I put it, are sometimes “giving active encouragement to the barbarians,” but the barbarians themselves are coming from the far right.
Some would dispute that, and would point to historical experience to argue that the far left in power would be every bit as barbaric, and that therefore they represent, at least in principle, an equally serious threat.
That’s not a foolish thing to think. I don’t agree; putting it crudely, I think there are good moral reasons why the democracies fought against Hitler in alliance with Stalin, and not vice versa. But it’s a controversial point – I plan to touch on it again in part III.
For now, however, I’m going to concede the point for the sake of argument. Assuming that far left and far right are morally equivalent, are there good practical reasons why we should worry about one more than the other?
I think there are; I think there are two key differences that make the far right much more something to worry about.
The first is the size of the problem. Far-right parties are on a roll in a way that their counterparts on the far left are not. To try to get some measure of that, I looked at the party systems in the 28 countries of the European Union, plus the three main near-members, Iceland, Norway and Switzerland, building on something I did a couple of years ago.*
Of those 31, 23 had a far-right party winning more than 1% of the vote at their most recent election. The median vote for those parties was 10.6%. Across the whole 31 (counting anything less than 1% as zero), the average far-right vote amounts to 8.5%.
Compare that with 20 years ago: as of 1998, only 17 had had a far-right party in their most recent election, and their median vote was just 5.0%. The average across the 31 came to 4.1%.
While I think the media often exaggerate the size of the problem, that’s nonetheless quite an impressive growth rate.
In the same period, there has been some growth on the far left, but it’s much less pronounced. In 1998, 22 of the 31 had far-left parties (again, with more than 1%) at their most recent election. As of today, that number has actually dropped, to 19.
Their median performance, however, has risen from 5.4% to 8.0%, producing a rise in the overall average far-left vote from 4.9% to 6.5%.
In other words, the typical European democracy has more than twice as many voters on the far right as it had 20 years ago, and only a third as many voters again on the far left.
But that understates the difference, because what were mainstream centre-right parties have also been dragged towards the far right – most obviously Law & Justice in Poland and FIDESz in Hungary (and perhaps also the Conservatives in Britain). There is no comparable movement on the left.
(Of course there is always scope to argue about classifications; I’ve relied on a variety of sources, including the membership of EU party groups on both right and left. I think the overall picture is sufficiently clear to not be affected much by the doubtful cases, but I’m happy to discuss them if people are interested.)
The second difference largely follows from the first. Because they have generally been around longer and have more stable levels of support, the far-left parties have established a place for themselves in political systems in a way that those on the far right have not.
Typically, parties on the far left have acquired, if not respectability, at least a sort of predictability. While they are often shunned by the mainstream parties (and often return the favor), they are capable of entering into parliamentary calculation when necessary; sometimes they give crucial support to a centre-left government at arm’s length, and occasionally they are taken into junior partnership.
One far-left party is currently heading a government: SYRIZA in Greece, which may well be on the way to losing its far-left tag and becoming something like a normal social democratic party, having largely destroyed Greece’s traditional centre-left party, PASOK. Cyprus’s far-left party, AKEL, is also the main force on its country’s left, although it is currently in opposition.
Given the current woes of the centre-left, it is possible that other far-left parties may come to repeat SYRIZA’s achievement, although there is not much sign of it so far. But if they do, they will build on a record of democratic participation that allows voters to see them as an option within the system, not an alien threat from outside it.
Dan Hough, an expert in far-left politics, explained this back in 2015 after examining such parties’ record in government:
On account of their more radical positions, left parties in power are often viewed by others with suspicion. However, although these parties have found governing hard, they are by no means alone in this. Left parties’ policy decisions generally haven’t rendered them “unelectable” next time, and they certainly haven’t fallen apart. Left parties, in other words, have behaved in remarkably similar ways to parties of other stripes.
The question is whether far-right parties can achieve the same sort of acceptance by (and of) the system. Some certainly seem to be moving that way: Austria’s Freedom Party is now a junior partner in government for the second time, as is the Slovak National Party in Slovakia. Others have used the balance of power to support centre-right governments.
But this process of taming the far right (if that is what it is) is still at an early stage; such parties are still widely seen as posing an existential threat to democracy. The experience of Poland and Hungary, mentioned earlier, stands as a warning. And as long as their phase of relatively rapid growth continues, even well-intentioned far-right parties will struggle to win acceptance.
So even if one thinks (as I do not) that there is morally nothing to choose between them, parties of the far left in today’s democracies have reached a level of domestication that those on the far right have not. Neither extreme should be regarded with complacency, but there is good reason why the far right currently attracts most of the concern.
In the next instalment, I will relinquish the assumption of moral equivalence and ask whether it’s possible for far-left parties to become allies in the defence of democracy.
* I’ve confined the study to Europe because that’s what I know best, but I think the conclusion would hold for other developed democracies. In 2016 I also included the four candidate countries in the western Balkans, but their party systems were still very fluid 20 years ago so I have left them out.