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Perspective: What’s behind the surprising turn to the right in Western Europe

U.S. politicians should take note that voters are tired of extremes on both the right and the left

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Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, known as PVV, smiles after announcement of the first preliminary results of general elections in the Netherlands, on Nov. 22, 2023.

Geert Wilders, leader of the Party for Freedom, known as PVV, smiles after announcement of the first preliminary results of general elections in The Hague, Netherlands, on Wednesday, Nov. 22, 2023.

Peter Dejong, Associated Press

The incredible gains made by Geert Wilders’ right-wing party in the recent Dutch election have stunned many observers. With 37 seats — doubling what they won in 2021 — Wilders’ party, the PVV, now holds the plurality of votes in the Dutch Parliament. But observers should have seen this coming; this trend toward the right has been striding across Western Europe for some time. We can see it in Sweden, Italy, Austria, France, Spain, Finland and Switzerland, not to mention the continuing electoral success of the right in Eastern Europe, such as that of Viktor Orban in Hungary. This turn to the right is even happening as far away as New Zealand.

The reason for shock is that the political left in Western Europe prided itself as being on the right side of history, and therefore believed continued political success was inevitable. That has proven to be an illusion. Given how impressively the tide has begun to turn — in Western Europe of all place — perhaps it’s tempting to ask who’s on the right side of history now.

But that would be the wrong question to ask. Political power stems from one of two sources: the barrel of a gun or the votes of the people. In the nations where the right has recently gained in political strength, the votes of the people made that happen. It’s thus worth asking why people are voting differently than they have in the past. 

One might immediately blame inflation and the rising cost of living, and that certainly contributes to dissatisfaction with the status quo.  But unlike the United States, these nations moving toward the right are multiparty systems, which means voters could have chosen a different left-leaning party with a platform more effectively addressing these economic issues — but they did not. They voted for the right instead, many for the first time in their lives.

There’s something deeper going on, and I’d suggest that deeper problem is that the will of voters no longer coincides with what the left considers to be the right side of history. Because it doesn’t, the left feels it cannot move closer to the positions of the voting public.  Instead, all it can do is denounce the public as being reactionary, selfish and deplorable. Unfortunately, it’s hard to convince someone to vote for you while you are telling them that.

Three issues dominate this turn “away” on the part of voters: unchecked immigration, gender ideology and climate change policy.

Unchecked immigration has been, in my opinion, the biggest catalyst for this new right-ward political trend in Western Europe. Consider that the Netherlands, a land of only 17 million people with very high population density, has seen almost a half a million foreign migrants arrive each year. There is literally no place to put them, with the government attempting to house them on passenger ships and ferries, and allowing migrants to skip to the head of the line for new housing (which is in very short supply due to climate change policy). The government itself has noted the disproportionate number of migrants involved in crime as both perpetrators and victims.

Gender ideology has also been a sore spot for the electorate. Even though Dutch researchers pioneered the use of puberty blockers and cross-sex hormones for those suffering from gender dysphoria, further investigation has caused the Dutch to repudiate their own protocol. In addition, the concern over gender themes in education prompted Wilders to promise that his party would end what he calls the “indoctrination of school children in gender insanity.” As one new Wilders voter put it, “‘Only four years ago ... you didn’t even dare speak out about what you thought about transgender lessons being taught in schools, telling 5-year-olds they can be a boy or a girl and that there are 72 different genders to choose from. Now things have changed.”

Climate change policy was also an important factor in the election. The platform of Wilders’ party asserts, “We will stop the hysterical reduction of CO2, with which we, as a small country, mistakenly think we can save the climate.” Dutch farmers have been especially hard hit by the nation’s aggressive climate change policies, leading to huge protests. Indeed, “energy poverty” in several countries most adherent to climate change treaties is rising, and with it, deep political discontent. Adding insult to injury, ESG “green investing” is actually losing money for investors.

Note that each of these issues are also concerns in the U.S. presidential election, and candidates on both the left and the right should pay heed.

The turn to the right will not, however, cure what ails us. The right has also shown itself just as willing to flout the will of voters. The abortion issue in the U.S. is a prime example: after the Dobbs decision, several conservative states passed egregiously bad, even inhumane, laws that voters are now rebelling against, as we’ve seen recently in Ohio. Being ideologically pure on this issue was more important than listening to the common sense of the electorate; in its own way, the right was accusing voters of being deplorable, or alternatively, immoral.

Both the right and the left have been guilty of undermining democracy by ignoring what the majority of voters want. Voters are tired of purity spirals on the left and on the right. What they are waiting for are political figures willing to govern on the basis of what voters prefer, and not on the basis of ideologically pure notions about the arc of history. As one Wilders voter put it, “We voted out stupid stuff. We welcomed back common sense. I have not stopped smiling since.”

We saw a small glimmer of that possibility of common sense here in the U.S. in the Republican debates where Nikki Haley was willing to admit, in so many words, that a federal abortion ban was not acceptable to the majority of American voters, and Republicans should stop dying on that hill. She emphasized there were ancillary issues on which all could agree, such as expanding tax credits for adoption, which should be sought instead. Whatever else you think of Haley, that was an impressive breakthrough for a Republican presidential candidate. She was not coming from a position of purity, but from a position of real democracy, even of real common sense.

We can imagine what the possibility of common sense would look like on the Democratic side, as well. It would look like a candidate who was willing to say, for example, that people with nontraditional gender identities should be free from discrimination in housing, employment and so forth, but that sex would still be important where bodies matter, such as in sports, prisons and domestic violence shelters. Unfortunately, I have seen no glimmer of that possibility on the left as of yet.

Until that glimmer appears, the electoral trend we are seeing across the Atlantic and the Pacific is liable to reach American shores as well. It’s time for both major U.S. political parties to respect the more centrist will of the majority, rather than dismissing it for being deplorable (from the left) or immoral (from the right). In other words, it’s time for both Republicans and Democrats to recommit to respecting and supporting democracy.

Valerie M. Hudson is a university distinguished professor at the Bush School of Government and Public Service at Texas A&M University and a Deseret News contributor. Her views are her own.