Europe Keeps Moving Right

Europe’s politics continue to move to the right, for reasons far more broad than the Euromess

I have written before about how many Americans perceive European governments as far more left-wing than they are today. This chart from The Economist is from June of 2011, but is still accurate in terms of the long-term trend of left-wing governments being put to the torch by European voters.


To which it might be replied: What about France? France elected an old fashioned Socialist government less than 18 months ago. But it’s already in big trouble. Marine Le Pen’s National Front Party, after romping to a majority victory in the Brignoles byelection, is now the leading choice of French people in the next election for the European Parliament.

Meanwhile, right next door, the new King of The Netherlands used his first speech before Parliament, which lays out the policy views of the ruling party and Prime Minister, to announce that the traditional Dutch welfare state is not sustainable.

Some attribute the rise of the European right to the Euromess, but as the chart shows, the shift started around 2000, well before the current crisis. Also, it’s not just Eurozone countries that are moving right: Norway has just elected a right-wing coalition government as well. Long-term Europe-wide factors, most notably immigration, seem more important as drivers of the rightward shift.

Author: Keith Humphreys

Keith Humphreys is the Esther Ting Memorial Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University and an Honorary Professor of Psychiatry at Kings College London. His research, teaching and writing have focused on addictive disorders, self-help organizations (e.g., breast cancer support groups, Alcoholics Anonymous), evaluation research methods, and public policy related to health care, mental illness, veterans, drugs, crime and correctional systems. Professor Humphreys' over 300 scholarly articles, monographs and books have been cited over thirteen thousand times by scientific colleagues. He is a regular contributor to Washington Post and has also written for the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Monthly, San Francisco Chronicle, The Guardian (UK), The Telegraph (UK), Times Higher Education (UK), Crossbow (UK) and other media outlets.

28 thoughts on “Europe Keeps Moving Right”

  1. Meanwhile, right next door, the new King of The Netherlands used his first speech before Parliament to announce that the traditional Dutch welfare state is not sustainable.

    This is true, but quite misleading. See the comments on Crooked Timber here.

    The “King’s Speech” is written by the ruling party (as in Great Britain), so it’s important to note that it doesn’t represent the King’s opinions, but the Prime Minister’s.

    1. The “King’s Speech” is written by the ruling party (as in Great Britain), so it’s important to note that it doesn’t represent the King’s opinions, but the Prime Minister’s.

      Yes, I know (and our readers are sophisticated enough to know it also)– hence the reason I raise it. It tells you something about the PM’s policy views.

        1. OK, you persuade me that I made a mistake by not saying that in the post. I have amended above and appreciate the heads up.

  2. Some attribute the rise of the European right to the Euromess

    The rise of the European right is both a cause and an effect of the Euromess. Foolish policy led to bad results, encouraging more foolish policy. It’s a dangerous negative feedback loop.

    1. “The rise of the European right is both a cause and an effect of the Euromess. Foolish policy led to bad results, encouraging more foolish policy. It’s a dangerous negative feedback loop.”

      Amen to that. If one sees Euro-politics as a lagging indicator of the influence of American politics, as it often has been during and after the Cold War, it’s not surprising to see the rise of reactionary politics.

      Then there’s the question of how “left” many of these parties actually are. Most are cut from pretty much the same cloth as the American Dems, it’s just that the parliamentary system in place allows a wider range of views to be expressed than in the US. If the left was actually accorded formal access to the ballot in the US, we might look a lot more like the Europeans.

      The overarching story here is global capitalism’s regulatory capture of members of the ECU and other European states and the political power to pressure even the most powerful of government institutions. The dictates of big money, sloshing rapidly around the world, have pretty much eviscerated any substantive official or internal challenge to capitalism and made an abject surrender to global elites, where the only loyalty is to money. That is what the chart is graphing, the discouragement with a left prohibited from governing in their national interests and the reactionary swing to the right in disgust as much of the electoral left surrenders to the dictates of capital. Will that pendulum swing the other way? Yes.

      1. Yes, I think US politics is long overdue for a realignment along European lines,
        with a labor-friendly Social Democratic party corresponding to the leftish 70%
        of the Democrats, plus the fringe Greens etc who have nowhere to go right now;
        a center-right business-friendly Christian Democrat party spanning the
        right-wing Democrats plus any remaining respectable non-xenophobic Republicans;
        and an explicitly nativist/xenophobic/evangelical rightwing National Front party.

        That would be more representative of the main clusters of public opinion on
        most issues, would end the dog-whistle racism of the Southern strategy,
        and would give voters a choice between two different, but sane, alternatives.

      2. “Will that pendulum swing the other way? Yes.”
        The trouble is, what damage is done in the meantime. Here in sweden the “Moderates” (the Righties know how to market) have been selling off the national assets at bargain basement prices since they came to power (six years ago?) while lowering taxes on the wealtiest, raising taxes on the less affluent and cutting benefits to you know who. The list of liquidated assets include schools, hospitals, nursing homes, the national monopolies on retail pharmacies and retail alcoholic beverages. No doubt there are other things that have escaped my notice. Lapses in service, hikes in prices and scandals are already ensuing. Swedes are waking up to the reality that untold damage has been done to their national inheritance and it is probably too late to do a damned thing about it.
        A documenary on the scandalous situation in eldercare showed film of US business men gloating what easy pickins the swedish nursing homes are and bragging how much money there is to be made. They are the charicature of the ugly american. Swedes are outraged but at a loss how to unbreak the vase outside of investing in regulation and enforcement that here to fore was not needed.

    2. Not to go full pedant on you, but it is actually a positive feedback loop.

      Oh, let me go full pedant…

      A negative feedback loop is one in which something increases (decreases) and this sets off a sequence of events that end with the first thing that increased (decreased) decreasing (increasing), i.e., moving back toward its original position.

      A positive feedback loop is on in which the sequence of events reinforces the original change causing it to grow further, rather than to revert toward its original unchanged position. (I am being sloppy here with pronouns, but I hope the drift is clear).

      A classic supply & demand model of the market is a good example of a negative feedback loop. In this analysis, an increase in demand leads to a pricei increase and this leads to a smaller increase in demand than would be the case if price remained unchanged. A situation where a rise in demand leads to a fall in price (e.g. with increasing returns to scale) is one in which the first increase in demand leads to a second increase in demand, etc. This is a positive feedback loop.

      1. Indeed. In terms of idiomatic expressions, a ‘vicious circle’ or ‘virtuous circle’ is a positive feedback loop, whereas saying ‘the pendulum will swing back’ is to say that you think there is a negative feedback mechanism.

  3. I would add that liberals and leftist a have committed political suicide (IMHO) by conceding to the right on economic issues.
    They’ve delivered misery, and the right has taken advantage of it.

  4. The only government of Left or Right in a major industrialised country that has bucked the austerian consensus and adopted full-blooded Keynesian policies is the Japanese one – and it`s headed by a right-wing nationalist. Shades of Hjalmar Schacht. (Well, there´s also Iceland.) Hollande´s version of ¨old-fashioned socialism¨ is strong on protecting public-sector unions, null on breaking up and regulating banks. He did raise taxes on the rich, symbolically. European Right-wing parties accept the welfare state, unlike US conservatives. So there´s usually no significant economic downside in a cultural, anti-immigrant, anti-scrounger vote for the Right.
    BTW, Rajoy´s popularity in Spain is in the tank. When things are terrible and you can´t change them, there´s no advantage in incumbency.

    1. It’s complicated in Japan. The fiscal side of Abe’s stimulus is heavily shaped by LDP politics as well as the need for stimulus, as Noah Smith explains here (they basically dump money into construction companies in exchange for said companies serving as unofficial campaign staff and promoters). The real revolution is that Abe finally adopted a higher inflation target monetary policy despite being right-wing.

  5. That looks more like a product of the recession than anything else, since the number of left-wing governments plunged following 2009. If or when they recover is when we’ll see if it was anything more than “screw the incumbents” sentiment at work.

    I won’t rule it out completely, especially since British youth appear to be more libertarian than those older than them.

    1. @Brett: That isn’t a complete analysis of the data — look at the first half of the aughties. Quite a fall off in left wing governments well prior to the financial crisis.

  6. And this isn’t even getting to the disasters in the european periphery, where the Troika has imposed policies that would make the most right-wing loon in less downtrodden countries blench.

  7. I’d put the Economist article in the “not even wrong” category. Sort of like Storks deliver babies (p = 0.008).

    First of all, the article tries to find an EU-wide correlation, when in actual fact a lot of the election results turned on very specific national factors, some of which run counter to the Economist’s thesis.

    For example, in 2005 the German social democratic/green government lost because … it had enacted welfare cuts. The election still turned out a solid left of center majority, but because too many votes had gone to the post-communist Left party, the only practical solution was a social democratic/conservative coalition. Eventually, the conservatives got most of the credit for the good parts of that coalition government and the Social Democrats most of the blame for the bad parts, which after the 2009 election gave rise to a center-right coalition between the classical liberal Free Democrats and the conservative CDU/CSU. The FDP tanked in the 2013 elections (part incompetence, part being party of the rich), and the 2013 election again resulted in a majority left of center. Again, because of the Left party, this looks as though it will result in a social democratic/conservative or green/conservative coalition. Note also that Angela Merkel has quite a bit to the left: Aside from the new focus on renewable energies, she has most famously started to support a minimum wage and other traditionally left-wing policies.

    In the UK, there was a center-left majority as well as a center-right majority after the 2010 election. Because Nick Clegg opted to enter a coalition agreement with David Cameron instead of Gordon Brown, it became a conservative government. However, while the LibDems had campaigned as a social liberal party, they governed as a classical liberal “Yes, Prime Minister” party. Since then, they have lost the majority of their 2010 voters, and if elections were held today, we would likely again have a two-party parliament (with a few other MPs mixed in for color), with Labour having the majority.

    Another big problem with the article is that it counts left-of-center governments. That’s only a crude proxy measure for the popular vote; it ignores the constraints of how coalitions are formed (see Germany and the UK for examples) or how Finland went from a center-right to right-left coalition.

    Electoral politics in continental Europe are generally complicated. There has been a move towards more parties and coalition governments; I don’t see a move towards the right, but a fight for control over the political center (while some parties are fighting a two-front war, trying to occupy the center while also trying to prevent their base from defecting to parties further to the left/right). More coalition governments also means fewer purely left/right governments (e.g. Ireland and Finland). Importantly, the placement of the political center can vary considerably by country; in general, it seems to have shifted more towards the left amidst concerns about rising inequality after having been moving rightwards in the mid/late 20th century). Importantly, the principles of the welfare state got enshrined in the EU Charter (article 34, “Social security and social assistance”, and article 35, “Health care”).

    And yes, certain members of the genus Conservativus Americanus are clueless about what European social democracies look like; but they’re the same people who think Obama is a socialist. In other words, they don’t know the meaning of the words they are using.

    1. The late Professor Bill Lockwood of Reading (a youthful Communist, he was too left-wing to get a more prestigious chair) solved the stork problem in retirement. He showed that the etymology for Storch is a variant of a German word for stick. It´s sticks – penises – that bring babies. Nothing picturesque about it.

      1. Sticks? Penieses?

        The Republicans will have none of that nonsense. They demand that storks be written into all elementary science books or the country defaults on its national debt.

        Katja wrote:
        “Importantly, the principles of the welfare state got enshrined in the EU Charter (article 34, “Social security and social assistance”, and article 35, “Health care”).”

        Yes, an important difference. There are no such curbs against ideological excess in American politics. When Obama starts swerving to the right, he’ll be able to go clear into the conservative ditch with hardly anyone noticing. If he tried to turn the least little bit to the left, say to get back across the centerline and at least end up in the lane the Dems claim as their own, the Jersey barriers of of our smothering two-party system will deflect him back into the Republican lane.

        American politics: Where a game of drunken vehicular chicken decides the fate of the nation, so long as the 1% always win.

    2. “I’d put the Economist article in the “not even wrong” category.”

      That was my first thought – the Economist is famous for this sort of ‘analysis’.

      Remember that they hired Megan McArdle.

      1. I used to subscribe and read the Economist cover to cover every week. Until
        they backed the invasion of Iraq. And then I figured, what’s the point of
        reading a magazine that pretends to be smart, if they’re actually dumb
        enough to get the biggest decisions totally 100% wrong, just because they
        don’t like the DFH’s ?

  8. Well, let’s not get carried away. A typical Europen country with a “rightwing”
    government has a higher ratio of government spending/GDP than the USA does with
    a “leftwing” government, e.g.

    USA 38.9%
    Germany 43.7%
    France 52.8%
    Netherlands 45.9%
    Norway 40.2%
    Poland 43.3%
    Portugal 46.1%
    Spain 41.1%
    UK 47.3%
    Denmark 51.8%
    Belgium 50.0%

    … so essentially everywhere in Europe is more “leftwing” than
    the USA, regardless of recent election results.

      1. I hadn’t really thought of that – directly and indirectly, that’d take the USA’s non-military spending share down quite a bit.

        1. USA military is 4.4% of GDP, UK is 2.5%, other major European counties are in
          the 1.5-2.3% range. Also I don’t think anywhere else has anything remotely
          like the $80B+ CIA/NSA, so maybe that’s another 0.5% of GDP. And then there’s
          Homeland Security … Anyway, subtracting this military+intelligence spending,
          you’d probably find the remaining government spending is around 34% in USA,
          against maybe 41-45% in most of Europe (and about 50% in France). And that
          gap is probably almost as big as the gap between the current US spending, and the
          drown-it-in-the-bathtub dreams of Grover Norquist and Paul Ryan.

    1. The article is about Europe vs Europe not Europe vs USA. So if we’re talking about movement (right|left) then don’t we need to look at the differential over time rather than the current magnitude?

      1. Yes. But the post is about “how many Americans perceive European governments as far more left-wing than they are today”,
        and it seems to me that the high levels of government spending, the provision of healthcare, unemployment
        benefits, and pensions, the relatively low military spending, and the greater power of unions, all suggest
        that European governments are indeed quite “left-wing” relative to the center of US politics. And that the
        policy positions of the UK’s Conservatives, Germany’s Christian Democrats, or France’s Sarkozy, would all
        correspond roughly to the positions of the business-friendly right wing of the Democratic party, rather than
        anybody in the current not-a-penny-of-taxes Obamacare-is-the-devil Republican party.

  9. It’s a sad and fearful thing, but I, too, would guess that immigration/xenophobia/bigotry is/are driving the rightward slide. If right wingers can kill our economies, people will get angry, and will rally against the “other.”

    Scary times.

Comments are closed.