How safe is democracy in Europe? Observers of extremist political movements have sometimes described them as “self-disqualifying” — that is, the louder they shout, the less they are heard (or at least listened to) by mainstream voters and parties. If this were true, and established democracies really have such a built-in circuit breaker, we would have little cause for alarm.
The “nothing to fear” crowd will also point to the fact that 43% of extremist groups now active in Europe have been active since before 2008, which seems to contradict expectations that the current crisis will increase the danger of extremism. (This statistic comes from a valuable comprehensive report on political extremism in Europe, just released by the Athena Institute, an independent NGO based in Budapest.)
But I’m not convinced that there’s so little to fear.
The latest Reuters report from Greece show that the neo-fascist Golden Dawn movement continues to benefit from the social and economic crisis there. Most worringly, the supposed circuit-breaker does not appear to be working: as Reuters reports, “Violent behaviour by Golden Dawn members, who often stroll through run-down Athens neighbourhoods harassing immigrants, seems to boost rather than hurt the party’s standing.” And as described in my earlier posting here, there’s worrying evidence that the Greek police are cooperating with Golden Dawn.
What all of this indicates is that ideas and behaviours once considered extreme are now becoming mainstream. In short, the aforementioned circuit-breaker is not functioning. When will Europe’s leaders recognise the real and present danger posed by political extremism?