Glenn Greenwald and Scott McConnell have both picked up on a certain obvious double standard that will be applied in the international reaction to the prospect of Yisrael Beiteinu joining the next coalition government after tomorrow’s election. This is unfortunate, but if there is any problem here it is in the other examples of international condemnation of election results and the climate of fear and intimidation that critics of various parties want to create. Arguably, one might make an exception for Yisrael Beiteinu, whose leaders were so keen to ban certain Israeli Arab parties and whose policy positions are infinitely more offensive than anything to be found among European nationalist parties, and who therefore have the least claim to sympathy, but part of the trouble is the willingness to make exceptions to democratic norms supposedly in the name of defending democracy. So long as political parties do not call for their members to use violence, it is extremely difficult to justify banning a party or penalizing a country for including it in its government.
Of course, we are almost certainly not going to see the same outrage over Yisrael Beiteinu as we have seen in other cases, just as few in the West cared that extreme Ukrainian nationalists made up a significant part of the support for Viktor Yushchenko (he was “pro-Western”!) or that Saakashvili was a hot-headed nationalist demagogue with militant aspirations (he was anti-Russian, so all was well) or that the Croatian government of Tudjman was the direct descendant of the Ustasha. This is a simple guide for understanding when such groups are democratic and when they are anti-democratic. First of all, the “anti-democratic” parties are actually democratic in practice and in ideology–this is why some people find them threatening. They actually want the voices of their constituents heard and their views implemented as policy! Very frightening. Pro-Western “democrats” are often authoritarian in practice, or they are willing to engage in brutal treatment of their minorities, or they at least have neo-Nazi or Stalin-sympathizing supporters. Obviously these are the people the West needs to support against their enemies, and so we have and continue to do. The difference between the parties treated as harbingers of democracy and those treated as democracy’s enemies is a fairly simple one: the officially good parties are on board with what Washington and Brussels want to do, and the officially bad parties are those that object to the goals of either one or both. Pretty predictably, then, European reaction to Yisrael Beiteinu’s success is going to be fairly negative, while the U.S. response will be mildly critical or possibly even positive. If anyone thinks that this depends significantly on which party is in power in Washington, he is going to be surprised.
Let’s review the cases of the “anti-democratic” parties in Europe. In Belgium, the Flemish nationalist party, then the Vlaams Blok, was outlawed and scarcely anyone in the West so much as blinked. The party has since reformed under another name, but its popularity along with the paralysis of Belgian government that we saw for about half of 2008 are pieces of evidence that the Flemish nationalists represent a legitimate protest of the middle-class, Flemish-speaking population against a government that they have ceased to respect and which they believe does not govern in their interests. The late Joerg Haider’s party joined the Austrian government in the late ’90s, and Austria was penalized with diplomatic and other sanctions by other Western governments. This was mostly because it was more aggressive and outspoken in its opposition to mass immigration, which is a position that most center-right parties across Europe have now adopted. The FPO had the bad taste to be among the first, and the People’s Party Chancellor had the gall to respect the results of that election rather than try to form another bankrupt consensus government with the left. Recognizing that the protest that empowered the FPO was the result of a stifling consensus between the two major parties, the Chancellor brought them into the government. Le Pen’s advance into the final round of presidential voting in 2002 was widely treated as an apocalyptic event that very nearly excluded France from the civilized world, or at least that was how the media treated it. In the end, the vote was held, Le Pen lost and that was that. We should also not forget the pre-election hysteria surrounding Pim Fortuyn’s list in the Netherlands along the same lines, which more or less directly led to his assassination.
At least in the French case the election went ahead, albeit in an atmosphere of hysteria and groupthink the likes of which some communist dictators might envy, and French voters settled the matter themselves at the ballot box. In the other three, there were attempts to make an end-run around the electoral process or penalize voters in a sovereign country for voting the “wrong” way. Of course, one is free to oppose the positions these parties espouse, but it is always very dangerous when a country’s judicial system, international institutions, or foreign governments believe that they are justified in banning or punishing parties and countries that vote for them. Obviously, it is completely unacceptable for individuals to murder democratic politicians whom they regard as dangerous, but it is worth bearing in mind that such attacks do not occur in a vacuum. Would-be assassins can find justification in the exaggerated rhetoric of partisans, and things would generally be much better if we all carefully avoided stoking passions over these election outcomes.