Filed under: Europe
The American tendency to interpret the entire world through a manichaean pro- or anti-American, pro- or anti-capitalist lens is something I hope will gradually go away over the next few decades, but then I also hoped it would go away in the immediate aftermath of the fall of the USSR, and that sure didn’t happen. Matthew Yglesias flags this instance of Anne Applebaum getting caught up in the familiar bipolar confusion over the recent elections for European Parliament and deciding the represent a “victory for capitalism” (over…what?) since they shifted the European political landscape somewhat to the right.
I think the main impediment for Americans in understanding these kinds of developments is a deep unfamiliarity with political systems in which there are more than two, or even three, parties. Over the past few days I’ve spoken with four Finnish journalists about what the elections meant here. I have a tendency to report these kinds of big continental stories from very small and relatively insignificant countries — I’m the guy who reports on East Asia from Vietnam, rather than China — but what happened in Finland is pretty representative of what happened in most European countries.
In a nutshell, as a reporter for Ilta Sanomat explained to me in the smoky bar downstairs from the newspaper’s ultra-modern headquarters a couple of nights ago, there are three powerful major parties in Finland. Always have been. One is a Christian Democratic party. Another is a standard labor/social democratic party. And the third is a “liberal” (free-market) party. These three parties trend in different directions, but they converge (he drew me a Venn diagram) around the “Nordic social model”: high taxes for high public services like education and public transit, income redistribution, health insurance and the social safety net. That part of the model is untouchable. If a major party attacked it, they would no longer be a major party.
What happened in the elections was two things. First, support shifted away from the social democrats, and towards the Christian democrats. And second, a small right-wing party that’s descended from the 1950s-era agrarian/farmers party, whose main platform is anti-immigrant and anti-Europe, picked up a lot of votes, and in fact that party’s charismatic leader was the single largest vote-getter in the elections, pulling about 130,000 votes (which is huge in 5-million-strong Finland). But that party still isn’t actually in the government, and it has no positive governing agenda. And even if it did, that governing agenda would almost certainly have nothing to do with free-market economics.
It is a historical accident that in the US, the populist nativist rural/exurb party is also the party that embraces free-market economics. It’s actually quite weird that the GOP combines these two elements, since in most countries they’re generally opposed to each other. And it leads American commentators to interpret victories for nativist parties like the French Front National or anti-Muslim “charismatic” politicians like the Netherlands’ Geert Wilders as victories “for capitalism” and “against socialism”. They have nothing to do with each other.
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