Tuesday

28th Mar 2017

Opinion

Right-wing extremism fuelled by a sick society

  • Austria's presidential elections were the latest in the the recent rise of ring-wing populists accross Europe. (Photo: Hofer's campaign)

Just after the United States voted Donald Trump in as its president elect, I had lunch and a somber conversation with a successful businesswoman friend of mine.

She insisted on paying the bill.

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Signing the credit card slip in a downtown Budapest restaurant, she remarked: “I know you are not a male chauvinist, but today I cannot allow having even the faintest doubt that women matter, or that we cannot pay our bills.”

Our waitress grinned her approval, I sat in disbelief.

It suddenly struck me that the world’s biggest democracy has just endorsed gender inequality, a form of discrimination that progressives like me had recently considered dying out in the developed world.

Having observed European politics for years, I know extreme right candidates—often people like Trump, openly ridicule and demonise the very population's progressives have tried to empower, are here to stay.

But what frightens me most is that the mainstream parties and media have endorsed and given platforms to these extremist views in a short-sighted grab for votes and clicks.

By failing to embed respect for rights deeper into our societies, progressives have done great damage to the principles that hold up democracies.

Inequality feeds extremism

All of this can be backed up by the numbers, including the climate that has made democracies across the world ripe for rising extremism.

In 2015, 10 percent of the richest countries in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) had incomes that were 10 times higher than the poorest 10 percent.

In 1980, the same ratio stood at seven times. Accumulated wealth, including stocks, assets and liquidities, are even more concentrated at the top.

This gap is shocking.

It is also persistent, growing in both good times and bad, driven by a surge in incomes for high earners and much slower income growth – and even declines during economic downturns – for low earners.

It’s true that in the early days of capitalism and before democracy took root, income inequality was even greater than it is today - often it was either enforced by brutal means or deemed to have been prescribed by God.

But today people know much more about the elites in their country than they ever did before.

In part, because of improving mechanisms for accountability, in part, because of large-scale leaks of confidential documents by organisations like WikiLeaks, we are living in a time of unprecedented transparency about the work of governments around the world.

Unfairness at the heart of populism

If people feel that government exists only to benefit the elites, they rightly recognise that as injustice.

When that sense of injustice is coupled with staggering inequality, they revolt.

Mainstream parties failed to do something about this simple yet profound phenomenon, thinking instead that they could continue to muddle through.

By failing to respond to the needs of significant portions of their populations, they have left people little choice but to turn to extremist groups who tailored their message accordingly.

Earlier this year, 200,000 Austrians of Serbian descent voted for radical right candidate Norbert Hofer in the second round Austrian elections, to be repeated in December because of problems with voting envelopes.

The main reason for their votes: Hofer promised to protect all Christians, Orthodox and Catholic alike, from the Muslim “invasion.”

Only a couple of years ago, the Austrian radical right saw those of Serbian decent as less-than and devoted considerable energy to attacking them.

But we live in times of unholy, shifting alliances.

A new concept of multi-cultural society is emerging, and the radical right is shaping it, pitting one minority against another.

Austrian-Serbs against Austrian-Turks. Pakistani and Indian communities in Britain turning against Polish immigrants in the Brexit campaign.

Perhaps this is to be expected from the radical parties.

Politicians look to populism to solve political woes

What we shouldn’t expect is the reaction of mainstream parties in those countries and others, who – rather than promoting policies that affirm their values – immediately adopted the anti-immigrant rhetoric of their opponents.

We can see this unfolding in Britain where Theresa May, now the country’s prime minister, said earlier this year that the UK should leave the European Convention on Human Rights.

This would be an astonishing regression, and the idea is not new, as it follows one proposed by then Conservative party leader David Cameron prior to the 2010 general election to replace the Human Rights Act with a “British Bill of Rights,” which would be set forth by the UK parliament.

The ability to alter what constitutes a "right" would thus ultimately rest with the parliament of the day.

It’s easy to see how British citizens might be granted more rights than non-nationals, immigrants, or asylum seekers.

These are not remote possibilities: to suit the rhetoric of the Brexit referendum, toughness on terrorists and hate preachers was recast as toughness on dangerous “foreign nationals”.

In France, president Francois Hollande proposed stripping citizenship from dual-nationals convicted of terrorism.

In the United States, Trump has suggested that the United States do away with birthright citizenship.

Trump makes good TV

The media, lauded as a pillar of any democracy, has also played a role in allowing extremism to take hold.

Left to the markets, TV stations have been subject to perverse incentives: the more they broadcast Trump, the more viewers tuned in, bringing higher profits.

Driven in part by interest in the 2016 presidential campaign, increased at all cable news channels.

The combined revenues of Fox News, CNN, and MSNBC) were projected to increase by 10 percent in 2015, to a total of $4 billion, according to a Pew Research Center analysis of SNL Kagan data.

In order words, Trump sells. But at what cost? The traditional media funding model remains in place to the detriment of our democracies.

We need to do something about perverse incentives that allowed Trump to dominate the airwaves.

In Europe, there are many examples of serious and responsible state or private media.

Other countries, took on a more hands-on role. Greece all but prohibited the right-wing party Golden Dawn on any stations that the party didn’t own.

The world has shifted in a clear departure from the values underpinning US and European democracies.

But now is not the time to bemoan our circumstances.

Instead, we must begin anew in the struggle to strengthen those values in our communities and in our daily lives.

For mainstream political parties, that will mean listening instead of talking for a change.Today is as good as any day to start.

Goran Buldioski directs the Open Society Foundations work in Europe

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