by Frank Thomas
Robert Reich Says : “The Demagogues Are Loose in Europe. ” BUT, This Is More Fiction Than Fact!
I greatly admire Robert Reich’s tireless energy and knowledge to explain in simple, straight language – to Americans of all colors, convictions, and class – what is truly happening to the U.S. economy and main-stream America. Namely, Social Darwinist inequality is at the heart of the system calling for reduction of the social net, forcing average Americans to rely on their own resources in a competitive environment where the fittest will survive – and the rest will get what they deserve for their lack of work ethic initiative and responsibility.
This ultra-conservative agenda perversely promotes primacy of the market economy over all else – “Reagan’s casual wisdom that “government is the problem not the solution.” This has resulted in Paul Ryan-type social-economic policies that have been driving many working class people to the edge of economic ruin. It has fostered a fertile ground for ultra right political and media pundit demagogues who operate at a demagogic intensity unheard of in Europe … where multiparty coalition consensus systems are generally far more reflective and less doctrinaire.
However, I must take issue with Dr. Reich’s over-generalization that “demagogues are loose in Europe” (and the U.S), concluding that “In Europe, fringe parties on the left and right are gaining ground”… also suggesting that fringe parties are led by demagogues. First, what exactly is meant by fringe parties? European multi-party proportional representation (PR) government systems, with the Netherlands as an archetypal example, form the very basis of European “social democracies.” Such systems check extremist agendas and effectively marginalized demagogues. Such systems generate a broader competition of ideas where ultimately more balanced and progressive ideas often emerge.
All parties are treated with respect since the number of seats won in the Parliament (House of Representatives comprising 150 seats and 76 being necessary for a majority, i.e., to form a viable coalition government. ) is proportionate to the number of votes received. A party that receives 30% of the votes gets 30% of the seats. There are no electoral districts. Proportional representation (PR) systems tend to produce a proliferation of parties, while single member electoral districts stimulate a two-party system. PR allows small parties to be represented in Parliament which is considered to be a GOOD THING! Such systems facilitate legislative balance, fairness, and alertness to real life happenings, problems, needs in a typical pluralistic society having a uniquely ingrained European national cultural heritage .
As already noted, an exceptionally democratic feature of coalition systems I’ve observed, after 30 years living /working in Europe, is that they insure inclusive legislative policy-making and effectively marginalize “demagogues” from exercising undue influence. I´m referring to fact that in the Dutch Parliamentary government, the Cabinet formation consists of 12 Ministers and 8 Junior Ministers who are divided equally among the coalition members, regardless of their respective size. In other words, the current minority coalition government is comprised of the conservative VVD party with 31 seats and the centrist CDA party with 12 seats. BUT, each of these ruling parties receives 6 Ministers and 4 Junior Ministers!
The Dutch government fell because Geert Wilders´ far right PVV Freedom Party with 21 seats, as a non-coalition member, did not agree with the center-right minority coalition government´s budget plan based on a EU 3% of GDP deficit level in 2013. For the hard-core U.S. conservative Republicans or Democratic liberals, it may seem incomprehensible that Dutch coalition members and non-members do not necessarily blindly follow the party line as happens in America. For example, Geert Wilders far right PVV party is leap years philosophically different than our far right conservative Tea Party. On one hand, he´s against severe budget cuts in welfare, health, unemployment benefits, and opposes any decrease in the purchasing power of pensioners and lower income earners. On the other hand, he wants to scrap the euro, return to the guilder, stop all non-Western immigration including from Eastern EU member countries, and drastically diminish the power of Brussels.
Does this make Wilders a wild demagogue leading a fringe party with 14% of 150 Parliamentary seats, all achieved in less than two years? I think NOT! Is Wilders a team player willing and able to make the necessary coalition compromises in the country’s interest at a most serious economic time? I think NOT! Will some parts of Wilders´ social thinking – and that of the SP socialist party or PvdA labor party – be eventually incorporated in a final budget plan? I think, YES!
A culture of give and take, compromise, merger of the best policy initiatives under multi-party coalition governance systems – where no one party ever secures an overall majority of votes – is a much understated strength and support for consensus democracy in mature EU countries. Of course, another giant plus is the fact that European political representatives and processes are not bought by special interest money.
The U.S. all right or all left purist governing paradigm is avoided. This is reflected in the recently agreed budget plan of the newly formed 5-party interim coalition. Despite a sudden political move to left of center, the 5-party new plan agreed to in two days does NOT represent a complete rejection of austerity measures. ALL parties, including non-member coalition parties, fully recognize the need to balance the budget and implement fiscally responsible austerity measures. The ongoing debate until the September elections will focus on how far these measures should go, where the burden should fall, when should stimulus measures be activated.
In the final analysis, multi-party systems require a precise coordination of coalition strategies, programs, personnel choices that give confidence and a sense of reliability to the vast majority of voters. Assumptions about the goals coalition parties pursue and rules of the bargaining process determine the disintegration or success of multiparty proportional representation systems. On balance, however, effective PR coalition systems have NOT been an easy playing field for demagogues in their actions as members of traditional, new or rising fringe parties.
To further illustrate the check and balance features of coalition systems, it would seem to be certain political suicide, if not an outright impossibility, that a far right new Dutch until late rising strongly but now falling conservative party led by Geert Wilders, a far left new Dutch rising socialist party led by Emile Roemer, and a far left French traditionalist socialist party led by Francois Hollande (now challenging Sarkozy) have almost as much in common as they have at odds with each other … a concurrence of views unimaginable between Democrats and Republicans. None of these party leaders, or any others I can mention, are fringe party demagogues.
All three are against the timing of the EU 3% deficit rule. All three are vehemently opposed to deep budget cuts that reduce purchasing power of the elderly and lower income groups. All three want to set measures to increase economic growth. All three have a deep distrust of globalization. Two argue for a drastic cut back in immigration, especially from Islamic lands – an exception being the Dutch SP socialist party which is more multicultural minded, but has also been critical of immigration policy as a capitalist tactic to drive down wages.
Lately in Europe, there has been a clear trend of views shifting to left of center in even the fiscally austere countries. Denmark, The Netherlands, Belgium, France, and Germany to a smaller extent are beginning to question the certified wisdom of continuing strict economic austerity programs. New coalitions are forming to force a democratic reassessment of this policy. Some coalition partners want to maintain a reputation for fiscal discipline. Some want a different mix of cuts and tax increases and decreases. Some, like the PVV, SP and PvdA, want a greater emphasis on growth measures.
This is the profoundly unique and healthy contribution of the multiparty governing process in Europe, despite its tendency to political stalemate and lengthy debate. It spurs a natural questioning of assumptions, more sharing of ideas, and realigning of policies to deal fairly, humanly, pragmatically with continuing economic stagnation and high debt situation …while simultaneously tempering the casino game of government ad hoc printing of money to solve all problems and keeping the lid on irresponsible acceleration of national and household debt levels.
In contrast, this is what I don’t see happening in the our broken government system. Absent completely is the European style of questioning sacred, purist ideologically driven dogma; civilly engaging other ideas; striving to adapt, share, merge the best of policy initiatives. If ever there is a healthy playing field for demagogues, it’s the black and white thinking of left vs. right and “winner-takes-all” U.S. political system … that class divides people, fosters constant two-party warfare, and destroys any chance of constructive, balanced policy making in the interest of ALL citizens.
If ever there’s a place where “demagogues are running loose” in force, it’s in the good old USA.
The Netherlands May 4, 2012