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Among the many takeaways of the U.S. midterms, one of the most striking is the alarming number of election deniers that were on the ballot, often in uncontested districts. Across the country, dozens of candidates for House, Senate, and state-level positions who have refused to recognize the 2020 election results are coming to office. As such, they are the latest signs in what some observers see as a dangerous democratic decline across the West. According to this view, what has happened in the United States since the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol has found echoes in Western Europe, where far-right parties recently achieved stunning success in Italy and Sweden and shown new strength in France.
Witnessing this trend, commentators are consumed by fears that, as the nonprofit group Freedom House puts it in its latest global survey, “around the world, the enemies of liberal democracy … are accelerating their attacks.” Just as many see the large number of election deniers, conspiracy theorists and insurrection trivializers in the Republican party as evidence of the erosion of long-held democratic norms, they see the victories this fall of the Brothers of Italy and the Sweden Democrats, parties with far-right roots, as a sign that fascism is returning and democracy is imperiled—even in Western Europe, where it has long been taken for granted.
But this doomsday view overlooks the varied political contexts in which these developments are playing out. There are, of course, many reasons to worry about far-right movements, particularly when they deny election results or otherwise seek to undermine democratic institutions. But there are crucial differences between what has happened in some European countries, where once far-right parties have moderated over time, and the United States, where one of the mainstream parties has embraced far-right, antidemocratic ideas. Indeed, rather than showing that European democracy is endangered, the evolution of the Brothers of Italy and the Sweden Democrats offers reasons for cautious optimism. Like many other right-wing parties in Western Europe, these parties have extremist roots but have recognized that winning votes and political power requires moving away from those roots, moderating their appeals and policy platforms, and pledging to adhere to democratic norms.
The evolution of the Brothers of Italy, the Sweden Democrats, and other Western European right-wing populist parties reflects something critical but counterintuitive about the relationship between extremism and democracy: whether extremist groups will become significant threats to democracy depends less on the groups themselves and more on the nature of the democracies in which they emerge. When democratic norms and institutions are weak, extremists may have little incentive to moderate, since they will be able to gain supporters and even actual power without playing by the rules. But where democratic norms and institutions are strong, extremists will be forced to moderate because there will be little constituency for explicitly antidemocratic or radical appeals and because if they don’t, other political actors and institutions will be able to keep them from power in any case.
This dynamic bears directly on how threats to democracy can be managed, including in the United States. Moreover, while unfolding political events can be hard to judge dispassionately, radical or extremist political movements have challenged democracy on numerous past occasions as well, and these can be evaluated with the benefit of hindsight. A particularly illustrative case is the fate of communist parties in Western Europe during the interwar period and after World War II. During these decades, the political systems of European countries faced large-scale changes—whether toward or away from democracy—and examining the course of those events offers insight into the factors that shaped these parties’ behavior.
Although interwar Europe is primarily remembered for the rise of fascism and Nazism, democracy during this time was also challenged from the left. After 1917, the Russian Revolution triggered the formation of revolutionary, insurrectionist, antidemocratic communist parties in almost every European country. In Italy, the party that initially had the greatest strength, the Italian Socialist Party, had little interest in democracy, and it cheered the endless riots, strikes, and insurrections plaguing the country. Taking an even harder line, some socialists broke away to form the openly revolutionary Italian Communist Party in 1921, which soon increased its own insurrectionary activity and helped to dismantle Italian democracy. Indeed, at the PCI’s 1922 congress, party leader Amadeo Bordiga focused on the need to fight social democracy rather than fascism, even though the Fascist Party was only months away from being handed power.
Similarly, in Germany’s Weimar Republic, the Communist Party consistently attracted around 10–15 percent of the vote and maintained an armed militia that engaged in street brawls and insurrections. When the Great Depression caused chaos in Germany during the early 1930s, the KPD’s vote share grew, as did its violent and antidemocratic activity. Indeed, so eager was the KPD to hasten the republic’s downfall that it joined with the Nazis in September 1932 in a vote of no confidence, toppling the existing government and ushering in the election in November that would bring Hitler to power.
Crucial to these developments was the weakness of European democracy in this period: in addition to being unable to respond to the demands of their citizens, many governments were unable to prevent communists and other extremists from fielding private militias and engaging in extraparliamentary activity. At the same time, in many countries liberal parties collapsed, and the other main forces capable of defending democratic institutions—social democratic and socialist parties—proved unable or unwilling to do so. Without governments able to enforce the democratic rules of the game and other parties able to make extremists pay a price for antidemocratic behavior, communists and their right-wing counterparts had few incentives to moderate their behavior.
When the dust cleared at the end of World War II, communist parties reemerged in many Western European countries. In many cases, these parties received even more support than they had before the war, because of the communists’ heroic wartime resistance and the prestige enjoyed by the Soviet Union for its role in defeating Hitler. The communist parties’ initial postwar strength—combined with their destructive role during the interwar period and their close ties to the Soviet Union—led many to view them as a threat to fragile democracies. (In his famous Iron Curtain speech in 1946, for example, the former British Prime Minister Winston Churchill referred to these parties as “fifth columns.”) Yet over the coming decades all Western European communist parties moderated dramatically, dropping their support of violence, committing themselves to democracy, and distancing themselves from the Soviet Union.
Take the French Communist Party. It began its postwar career as a particularly rigid and Moscow-centric party, as it had been during the interwar years. It received 26 percent of the vote in France’s first election after the war, and as a result was asked to join the government. Yet by 1947 it had been pushed out of power because of its extreme and unyielding positions. The party initially responded to its ouster by reverting to radicalism, proclaiming its commitment to revolution, and trumpeting its strong ties to the Soviet Union. But as the context facing the PCF changed, so did the party. Strong postwar economic growth and the formation of the Fifth Republic in 1958 stabilized French democracy, diminishing the constituency for radicalism and revolution. In 1969, a new (democratic) socialist party, the Parti Socialiste, emerged and quickly drew significant support. As a result, the Communists agreed to join with the PS and the left Radicals, a center-left social-liberal party, in an electoral alliance, abandoning a host of communist symbols and principles, including the hammer-and-sickle insignia and the concept of the dictatorship of the proletariat. The PCF also took a more critical stance toward the Soviet Union. At its 1976 congress, the party proposed the idea of “socialism in French colors,” reflecting its commitment to France, as opposed to Moscow, as well as its full acceptance of democracy. Its days as an antidemocratic revolutionary force were over.
When democratic norms and institutions are weak, extremists may have little incentive to moderate.
The postwar Italian Communist Party followed a similar trajectory. It won 19 percent of the vote in Italy’s first postwar election and was included in the government but was kicked out in 1947. Over the coming years, the Italian economy boomed and Italian democracy stabilized, and a strong, unified, democratic center-right Christian Democratic party kept the PCI out of power at the national level. Although a spate of terrorist incidents committed by far-left and far-right fringe groups rocked Italy during the 1960s and 1970s, these incidents, in contrast to those in the interwar years, were broadly condemned, and the PCI succumbed to pressure to explicitly denounce violence. In addition, the party made clear its commitment to playing by the democratic rules of the game, distanced itself from the Soviet Union, and moved to the forefront of an emerging Eurocommunist movement committed to a Third Way between Soviet-style communism and social democracy. The party also sought alliances with other parties on the left and even made clear its willingness to work with the Christian Democrats and to accept Western alliances and NATO membership, which the far left had previously shunned. In short, like the French Communists, the PCI ceased to be a threat to democracy long before the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 1990s.
In fact, the steady moderation of Europe’s postwar communist parties was primarily a response to the growing strength of democracy. As governments delivered unprecedented economic growth and built strong welfare states, popular support for radicalism diminished. In turn, the growing legitimacy of democratic institutions enabled these governments to constrain and, if necessary, punish antidemocratic actors. Democracy was also buttressed by the development of strong center-right and center-left parties that were fully committed to upholding democratic institutions and accordingly unwilling to ally with extremist forces. These factors led European communists to recognize that if they wanted to gain support and influence, their interwar playbook had to be cast aside. Over time, this trend was solidified by the emergence of a new generation of communist leaders and supporters who understood and were prepared to play by the democratic rules of the game.
But it was not just Europe’s communist parties that were forced to moderate during the postwar period. In the 1960s and 1970s, extremist, neofascist parties such as the German Reich party, the Dutch People’s Union, and the British National Front emerged in Western Europe. Yet most of these groups attracted little support and faded into oblivion. The few that survived are the predecessors of the parties that are feared by commentators today, such as the Brothers of Italy and the Sweden Democrats. Although it is important not to whitewash these parties’ origins, the reason they have survived is because they, like the communists, recognized that if they did not moderate they would be consigned to irrelevance: their support would remain limited, and they would be blocked from political power by the state and other political actors.
Consider the French National Front, one of Western Europe’s oldest and probably its most influential right-wing populist party. The National Front emerged from France’s far-right scene in the 1970s. During its early years, it garnered few votes, but its vote share expanded during the 1990s and the early 2000s, partially as a result of rising concerns about immigration, Islamic fundamentalism, and national identity, before falling back to 4.3 percent in the 2007 presidential elections. Over time, members of the party recognized that its success was limited by its perceived radicalism, and particularly the racism and Holocaust denialism of its leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. The result was a palace coup by Le Pen’s daughter Marine, who forced her father out of the party and embarked on a concerted effort to dédiabolise—undemonize—the National Front. Le Pen changed the party’s rhetoric on its signature issue of immigration, distancing herself from racism (and anti-Semitism), claiming instead that the party aimed to defend Republicanism, secularism, and French values from those who rejected them. Le Pen also shifted the National Front’s policy profile, most notably by repositioning the party as the champion of France’s “left behind” citizens. To enhance her respectability, Le Pen surrounded herself with (often young) technocrats, many of whom defected from conservative or center-right parties. And in the run-up to France’s 2022 election, Le Pen sought to moderate her party’s image even further by changing its name to National Rally, dropping her rejection of the European Union, and presenting herself as a kindly “mother of cats.” Although she has not brought her party to power, she has increased her party’s vote share in every presidential contest in which she has run, most recently gaining 41 percent of the vote against incumbent French President Emmanuel Macron in April 2022.
Europe’s right-wing populists have been forced to significantly temper their radicalism.
The Sweden Democrats and the Brothers of Italy have followed a similar path. The Sweden Democrats were formed in 1988 by representatives of extreme nationalist and neo-Nazi organizations. Like its predecessors, the party initially received few votes and was shunned by other parties. To change this, its politically astute leader, Jimmie Akesson, who took over the party in 2005, when he was 25, began to distance the party from its extremist, neo-Nazi roots, excluding members with overt ties to such groups, changing its symbol from a somewhat threatening flame to a pretty blue flower, making clear its commitment to democracy, and expanding its policy profile to appeal to disaffected Swedish voters, particularly those from the working class. The party has continued to emphasize the dangers of liberal immigration policies, but it has moved away from the more openly racist appeals and the ethnic conception of national identity that it had previously been known for, claiming instead that it objects to immigrants who refuse to assimilate by speaking Swedish and accepting “Swedish values” and that it opposes levels of immigration that strain government resources. In making this shift, the Sweden Democrats have attracted growing popular support and ultimately enabled other conservative and center-right parties to form alliances with them, including the country’s current conservative minority government.
Similarly, the Brothers of Italy has among its ancestors the Italian Social Movement, founded by fascists after World War II. But its leader, Giorgia Meloni, has distanced herself from fascism and suspended members who openly praised or had ties to extremist groups. Meloni calls herself a conservative and claims that her party advocates “traditional conservative values and policies” such as low taxes, strong borders, limited immigration, the centrality of the family, and the importance of Christianity to Western and Italian identity. Meloni also now stresses her support for the European Union and for Italy’s Western alliances, having previously criticized the former and raised concerns about her commitment to the latter. In adopting these positions, Meloni facilitated the Brothers of Italy’s electoral success in September 2022, which made her Italy’s first female prime minister.
The importance and distinctiveness of the evolution of Western European right-wing populism becomes particularly clear when compared with comparable developments in the United States. During the late 1990s and the early 2000s, when many Western European right-wing populist parties were recognizing that if they wanted to gain votes and power they would have to moderate their rhetoric and behavior, one of the two mainstream U.S. parties, the Republican Party, began moving in the opposite direction. As exemplified by Newt Gingrich’s 1994 “Contract With America,” the party’s rhetoric became increasingly divisive and negative, its policy profile shifted from moderate to conservative, and its behavior in Congress grew increasingly obstructionist. The election of Donald Trump, in 2016, turbocharged these trends. Trump had little regard for democratic norms and institutions, and rather than checking his impulses Republicans indulged or even condoned them.
After Trump’s loss, in 2020, the party radicalized further, refusing to forthrightly condemn Trump’s election denialism or even a violent insurrection against Congress that was designed to prevent a lawful transition of power. It also repudiated those leaders within the party, such as Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming and Senator Mitt Romney of Utah, who were willing to stand up for democratic institutions and deviate from the party’s increasingly antidemocratic path. That this trend has continued has been shown in the midterms, in which the party fielded nearly 300 election deniers, in races in 48 out of 50 states. And while some of the more extreme candidates lost—including Pennsylvania gubernatorial candidate Doug Mastriano, who participated in the pro-Trump rally at the Capitol on January 6—radical, conspiracy-minded figures such as Marjorie Taylor Greene and Matt Gaetz are now firmly ensconced in the party.
Over the past few years, many observers have become increasingly pessimistic about democracy’s future. Citing the spread of authoritarianism in many parts of the world, they have come to view contemporary developments through an undifferentiated dystopian lens. But there has been no return to fascism and there is no immediate threat to democracy in Western Europe. Instead, Europe’s right-wing populists have been forced to significantly temper their radicalism. That this moderating process has occurred even in Italy—a country that has never fully confronted its fascist past and that has been plagued by political instability and economic stagnation for decades—reflects the strength of democracy in such a place and also that healthy democracies in general are able to resist destructive forces.
By failing to understand this process, scholars and commentators risk only reinforcing the movements they are concerned about. For one thing, alarmist discussion of the populist far right may foster fear and polarization. Calling a party “fascist” creates panic among those who do not support the party in question and resentment among those who do; it is also likely to have very little effect on the party’s vote share. Second, labeling a party “antidemocratic” contributes to misunderstandings about what is going on with democracy today. Despite pervasive pessimism, most of the West’s wealthy, long-established democracies remain robust and flourishing. Indeed, the United States is less an example of a general trend than an outlier, as one of the only countries in this category in which democracy is in significant peril. (Notably, Freedom House and other groups that track democratic development, such as V-Dem, have noted a marked decline in the strength of American democracy but have found no similar decline in Western Europe.)
It is possible, of course, that the efforts by Le Pen, Meloni, Akesson, and other right-wing populists to bring their parties into the mainstream is purely tactical; in their hearts, perhaps they do harbor extremist, antidemocratic sentiments. But that was surely the case with many early postwar communists, as well. Nonetheless, because communists recognized that radical and antidemocratic positions were limiting their votes and barring them from power, they gradually ceased advocating them. Over time this approach became institutionalized in the parties’ appeals and policies, thus conditioning a new generation of communist leaders and sympathizers to the rules of democratic politics. Anyone interested in strengthening democracy today should favor pushing right-wing populists along a similar path—but this will not be possible if their moderation is derided rather than rewarded.
The threats to American democracy in particular should not be understated, even though the courts and other officials were able to block attempts to overthrow the results of the 2020 presidential election. But to properly understand the nature of the threat posed by populist far-right parties, we should spend less time trying to peer into the hearts of their leaders and more time focused on the incentives and constraints that these parties face. If democracy is effective and responsive, there will be little constituency for explicit antidemocratic or radical appeals, and governments and other political actors will be able to enforce the democratic rules of the game. In such contexts radicals have only two choices: marginalization or moderation.
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