BERLIN – There is an alarming political shift to the right occurring on both sides of the Atlantic, linked to the growing force of openly chauvinist political parties and figures: Donald Trump in the United States, Marine Le Pen in France. Other names could be added to the list: Hungary’s prime minister, Victor Orbán, who advocates “illiberal democracy,” or Jarosław Kaczyński and his quasi-authoritarian Law and Justice party, which now rules Poland.
Nationalistic, xenophobic political parties had been on the rise in many European Union member states long before Syrian refugees first arrived in appreciable numbers. There has been Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, the Vlaams Blok (succeeded by today’s Vlaams Belang) in Belgium, the Freedom Party of Austria, the Sweden Democrats, the Finns Party, and the Danish People’s Party, to name just a few.
The reasons for such parties’ rise and success vary greatly at the national level. But their basic positions are similar. All of them are raging against the “system,” the “political establishment,” and the EU. Worse, they are not just xenophobic (and, in particular, Islamophobic); they also more or less unashamedly embrace an ethnic definition of the nation. The political community is not a product of its citizens’ commitment to a common constitutional and legal order; instead, as in the 1930s, membership in the nation is derived from common descent and religion.
Like any extreme nationalism, the current one relies heavily on identity politics – the realm of fundamentalism, not reasoned debate. As a result, its discourse takes an obsessive turn – usually sooner rather than later – in the direction of ethno-nationalism, racism, and religious war.