The Politics of Resentment EJINSIGHT

Not so long ago, the far right in Europe was associated with seedy old men nostalgic for the good old days of order and ankle boots. Far-right political parties in France and Italy, now led by women, were founded by former SS officers, veterans of the collaborationist Vichy government and other dubious figures emerging from the shadows of the Second World War. The same goes for the Democrats in Sweden, who won 20.6% of the vote in the last election.

Obviously, a lot has changed in the European post-fascist firmament. Giorgia Meloni, leader of the far-right Brothers of Italy party, will be the first woman to be Italian Prime Minister. Marine Le Pen’s National Rally won 89 seats in the French parliament. And the Swedish Democrats will have a strong voice in national politics, even if they will remain outside the government.

Not only women, but also young men, usually smartly dressed in tailored suits, are now setting the tone for Europe’s far right. Moderate conservative parties in Europe have not yet been taken over by extremists, as happened with Republicans in the United States, but fear of losing votes has pushed them further to the fringe.

That doesn’t mean we’re about to wake up in 1933. History never repeats itself the same way. Meloni is not Mussolini, and there is no Hitler, so far, hiding behind the scenes. In any case, there are many versions of right-wing extremism. The same was true of pre-war fascism. Each country has its own history, and its own brand of demagoguery.

Yet all forms of right-wing populism have some things in common. The politics of resentment appeals to people who feel left out and ignored. In most countries, the deeper one goes into the provinces, the more resentment one encounters towards the so-called elites. The breed plays its usual corrosive role in the United States. Many rural whites resent the rise of blacks in public life. And everywhere, fear and discontent find an easy outlet in hostility towards immigrants.

Then there are those who feel humiliated by a lack of recognition or achievement: failed writers, third-rate academics or, increasingly, young men of good family, who can no longer take the privileges of their class for granted. . This explains the rise of what might be called the “fraternal boy right”, stronger in Europe than in the United States, and the propensity for eye-catching costumes.

The recent electoral successes of far-right parties are often seen as a failure of their main rivals, who are widely blamed for their lack of coherence. We don’t know what they really represent.

It’s not quite fair. What traditional parties like Labor in the UK or Democrats in the US stand for is pretty clear: international institutions, global trade, flexible and generous immigration policies, and so on. The problem is that this hardly distinguishes them from moderate conservative parties.

President Bill Clinton’s policy did not fundamentally differ from that of his predecessor, George HW Bush, and neither did Tony Blair and David Cameron in the UK, or Gerhard Schröder and Angela Merkel in Germany. In Europe in the 1990s and 2000s, many European governments were formed by coalitions made up of moderate left and moderate right parties. Government by technocrats or political managers has become the norm. As a result, right-wing populists, like Donald Trump, have exploited a hatred not only of the left, but also of the conservative establishment.

But there’s a good reason progressives are even more resented than conservatives: people hate hypocrisy. It is of course true that a certain degree of hypocrisy is essential in an open society. Moral or ideological purism is the enemy of liberal democracy, just as always saying exactly what you think is not a sign of good manners. But there is a particular type of left-wing hypocrisy that many people find particularly irritating.

Traditional progressive parties now get most of their votes from relatively well-educated people in big cities, people who travel for work, speak more than one language, appreciate cultural diversity and have a stake in the global economy.

There is nothing inherently wrong with their worldview. Economic globalization has lifted many people out of poverty. International cooperation in common institutions is preferable to nationalism and border walls. And a generous attitude towards asylum seekers and immigrants is humane, culturally enriching and brings new dynamism to a society.

But not everyone benefits from the liberal world order. The middle class in Italy is feeling the pinch. Former industrial workers in the American Midwest are suffering. People from the French provinces feel marginalized by Paris. Moderate conservatives tend to take a harsh view of these complaints. Stop whining and work harder, they say.

The reaction from the left is more moralizing. People who complain about immigrants are denounced as racists. Those who doubt international institutions or world trade are called xenophobes. But because the left always claims to defend the underprivileged, it often has a strong undertone of self-serving duplicity. Not only do progressive and educated city dwellers benefit from the liberal world order, but they also wish to gain the upper hand morally and lecture those who lack education or prosperity.

This is one of the reasons people vote for Le Pen, Meloni, Trump or the Swedish Democrats. If educated Londoners support joining the European Union, we will vote for Brexit. If the “elites” talk about face masks or climate change, we will believe that they are hoaxes concocted by George Soros or Bill Gates. It is revenge for the offended, the politics of resentment.

Trump has shown us that the politics of resentment is generally destructive and not conducive to successful government. Can Meloni and other far-right leaders lucky enough to govern do better? I’m not holding my breath.

Copyright : Project Syndicate
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Ian Buruma

Author of The Churchill Complex: The Curse of Being Special, From Winston and FDR to Trump and Brexit

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