Only if Trump wins will it be time to really worry
Times are bad - but the centre is holding and parallels with the 1930s just don't stack up, writes Dan O'Brien
Published 24/07/2016 | 02:30
These are unsettling and uncertain times. Almost every week brings a shock, a change, a major event. Some weeks recently have brought more than one. Last week's instalment included mass murder in Munich and the confirmation that the ranting narcissist Donald Trump, the most different candidate the two major US parties have put up since World War II, will represent the Republicans in November's presidential election.
It is hard not to sense that things are sliding towards something even worse, given recent events and all that has happened over the past eight years.
The crash of 2008 led to the worst slump since the middle of the last century. Few developed economies have fully recovered. For the first time in generations, huge swathes of people have seen no improvement in their material standard of living over almost a decade.
From the euro crisis to Brexit, the continent's political order has been transformed. One country - Germany - has risen to a position of influence that is unhealthy for everyone, Germans included. More widely, relations among European countries have soured and the solidarity that, for example, led to the bending of the rules to allow Greece to join the euro, now seems like naivete. It has been replaced by a more old-style assertion of national interests.
And as if these internal economic and political problems were not bad enough, add into the mix the aggression of Vladimir Putin, a migration crisis, instability and authoritarianism in Turkey, Islamist hyper-terrorism and a ring of fire that has ignited to encircle Europe - from Libya through the Middle East and north into Ukraine.
When things seem to be sliding towards disorder and even chaos, it is natural to think back to the worst of times. The worst of times in living memory followed the great crash of 1929. We all know how things turned out in the 1930s.
But today, by contrast, the centre continues to hold in the vast majority of our continent's countries. Talk of the rise of the extremes in Europe remains exaggerated. Parallels with the 1930s just don't stack up when one compares the past eight years with the first eight years of those awful times.
Just four years after the great crash of 1929, Adolf Hitler was in power in Germany and Antonio Salazar was beginning a four-decade dictatorship in Portugal. In the years that followed, democracies gave way to authoritarians of various hues, from Estonia in the north to Greece in the south.
For all the talk about the rise of extremists today, eight years on from the crash that still defines our age, the moderate centre has held in democratic Europe. While frustrated voters now rarely give governments a second term, most switch to other centrists parties. In only a handful of countries - Hungary, Greece and Poland - could it be claimed that governments are not fully signed up to liberal democratic values.
Another stark contrast with the 1930s is militarism. Eight years after the great crash of 1929, a massive arms build-up was taking place in Europe, France had built its huge Maginot Line defences along its border with Germany, and the continent was sliding rapidly towards world war.
Things could hardly be more different today, with the partial exception of some countries' relations with Russia. Europe has never been less militarised. Spending on armies and weapons as a share of GDP has never been lower. West of Russia, not even the most rabid of today's reactionaries proposes remilitarisation or the threatening of their neighbours with armed aggression. While it would be wrong ever to take peace for granted, it is truly hard to conceive of a set of circumstances that would lead to, say, France and Germany again being at daggers drawn.
Much of that has to do with countries' internal politics.
Take France. There is near endless talk about the rise of Marine Le Pen and the National Front. It tends to reach a crescendo after each appalling terrorist atrocity, with commentators predicting that the carnage will drive French people into the arms of the reactionaries. They don't give the French nearly enough credit.
As it happens, elections took place within weeks of the attacks in Paris in both January and November 2015. In neither case did the National Front make the predicted breakthroughs. As of now, the party holds one seat in the national parliament. It controls not one of the 17 regional councils and none of the 101 departments. Le Pen may well make it into the second round of the presidential election next spring, as her father did in 2002, but she has as little chance of winning as he did. Anyone who believes that on any given day in the foreseeable future Le Pen would win over 50pc of the vote doesn't know France or the French.
In Germany, extremist and populist parties have made even fewer inroads than their counterparts in many other countries. There are even signs that the centre ground is strengthening. In recent weeks the anti-almost-everything party Alternative for Germany has fallen apart, sundered by personality clashes and policy differences. The halving of its support in opinion polls in just one month means that the already slim chance it had of making a real impact in next year's federal elections is dwindling.
All this could hardly be further from the 1930s, something that is perhaps best illustrated by the treatment of minorities. In Germany eight years on from 1929, plans to commit genocide against those classified as "other", most notably Jews and gypsies, were already well advanced. Today, eight years on from the modernday equivalent, Germany is working on plans to integrate the one million people from very different cultures and backgrounds to whom it has opened its doors to over the past 18 months.
The picture is much the same around Europe. While there is plenty of anti-immigration sentiment and it is true that in most countries the centre has weakened, it is not collapsing. Majorities almost everywhere, however grumpy they may be, continue to keep faith in democracy and moderation.
There are good reasons for this. One relates to want and the distance we have come from living close to subsistence levels. In the 1930s, losing a job could quickly lead to hunger and life on the side of the street. Tented cities filled with gaunt, underfed people are not a feature of even the worst-hit European countries today. That, in turn, is because countries are far richer than they were 80 years ago and their social safety nets are unrecognisably wider, stronger and better funded. Mass disaffection may well be real, but there is not the sort of mass desperation that would drive majorities into the hands of demagogues.
Ideas matter too in holding the centre. However difficult things may be today, three generations of western Europeans have enjoyed mass prosperity. Liberal democracy may not be generating as much additional wealth as in the past, but no system has a better track record. In the 1930s, by contrast, liberal democracy had not yet delivered the goods.
At the same time, alternative ideologies could claim to have more to offer and had not yet been discredited - even as Roaring Twenties came to an end, fascism was long established in Italy and communism even longer established in Russia. Both could point to real achievements.
Today the alternatives are the likes of Jeremy Corbyn and Donald Trump. Both rail against the ills of the world but neither has any real solutions. If it proves correct that neither will ever win power in their respective countries - as is my strongly held view - then it will provide further evidence that the moderate centre continues to hold. Only if that proves wrong, and we'll know in one case in exactly four months, will it really be time to start worrying.