Extremist politics is on the rise on both left and right in Europe and America. We have just witnessed a far-right rally take place in Charlottesville, Virginia, with members of the Ku Klux Klan and neo-Nazis taking part. They clashed violently with members of Antifa, a far-left group.
One of the far-right demonstrators ploughed his car into the counter-demonstrators killing one. The far-right demonstrators were protesting against plans to remove a statue of General Robert E. Lee from the town centre. Lee was head of the Confederate army during the American Civil War and therefore fought for the right of Southern States to preserve slavery. The presence of his statue, and those of other Confederate heroes, is deemed offensive to black Americans who are, of course, the descendants of slaves.
The clash between far-right and far-left demonstrators called to mind similar clashes between far-right and far-left paramilitary groups during the Weimar Republic in the run-up to Nazi rule in Germany. Is America now at that point? Absolutely not, but the echoes are there in a way we would not have thought possible only a short time ago.
In Europe, we are also witnessing the rise of the far-left and the far-right. In Ireland, there is no far-right to speak of, but there is a strong far-left and several of its representatives sit in the Dáil.
In France recently, Marine Le Pen of the far-right National Front made it into the second round of the French presidential race, the round which sees the number of candidates reduced to two. She won a third of the vote. Although she was defeated two-to-one, winning a third of the electorate to her cause, one that once attracted only a very small minority of French voters, is no mean feat.
Meanwhile in countries like Greece, the far-left Syriza party won power and in Spain the far-left Podemos is doing very well in the polls.
In the Netherlands, far-right parties are growing in strength, even if they didn’t do as well as expected in the recent elections. It is the same even in countries like Denmark and Sweden and Finland, while in Eastern Europe several right-wing, strongly nationalist parties hold power.
What is going on? Why are the old, mainstream parties losing support? I believe there are four explanations. One is the recession that forced governments to make huge spending cuts and hike taxes, while the second is the immigration question. The third is related to the second, namely economic globalisation which sees low paid workers in the West being undercut in the labour market by lower paid workers in the developing world.
These three things are combining to make voters feel insecure. It is now extremely hard for the State to expand any further. But people want a good healthcare system, good schools and a strong safety net in times of unemployment. They also want to pay less in tax. How can these things be reconciled, especially with public debt so high?
Mass immigration is making a growing number of voters wonder at the effects on their societies. Sections of the Muslim community in Europe are radicalised and are launching terrorist attacks in our major cities. The result is soldiers on the streets in places like Rome, Paris and Brussels. This is deeply unsettling.
A fourth factor is the rise of identity politics. More and more groups seem to feel aggrieved, especially when they can claim minority status. Women, although they make up slightly more than half the population, count as a minority because even in the West they are considered to be oppressed.
Muslims are considered to be an oppressed minority, as are various racial groups. You criticise them at your peril. Free speech is under threat as politically correct speech codes strive to ostracise those who criticise one or another minority as ‘bigots’. Any criticism of Islam, for instance, is denounced as ‘Islamophobia’.
Some of the speech codes are backed by law. You can now be charged with a ‘hate crime’ for criticising certain groups in certain ways.
A backlash against this is clearly underway and it helps to explain the election of Donald Trump who peddles his own version of ‘America first’ nationalism which has the support of a majority of white voters.
Where is the Catholic Church in all this? It has to be a voice against extremism of all kinds. It is itself under constant attack as a source of ‘hate’ because of Christian teaching with respect to the family, human sexuality and the right to life. It finds itself buckling under the attacks and many of the Church’s leaders have fallen silent on these issues.
In the 20th Century the Church sometimes made very questionable alliances, for example with Franco in Spain who it saw as a bulwark against communism there.
But the political philosophy of the Church itself, based as it is on broad principles, is moderate. It puts the common good at the centre of politics and the common good is partly a via media between the extremes of capitalism and State-led socialism. Christian Democracy, which waxed strongly in Europe for several decades after World War II, was the essence of moderation, a response to the extremes of left and right which had torn Europe apart and in the case of the left, still dominated Eastern Europe until 1989.
Christian Democracy has now waned, but has anything good taken its place? The answer is certainly, no. For the most part, the parties that were once Christian Democrat, like Fine Gael, are now thoroughly globalist, liberal and secular. They are helping to cause the current electoral backlash across Europe.
The Church ought to find the nerve once again to preach a form of Christian Democracy. It is a ready remedy to many of the ills that currently ail the body politic.