Doing away with Common Sense

While watching the video presentation of Johannes von Moltke, I was struck by the phrase “cast aside common sense and dive far below the surface of empirical reality,” as it so succinctly summarized one of the worst tendencies of the far right.  Being able to critically analyze and dissect what politicians, internet personalities, analysts, and anyone involved in the political realm are saying is such an essential skill, as it allows us as citizens to identify what is factual and what is simply self-serving rhetoric.  However, individuals who buy in to the far-right’s rhetoric and fall victim to this casting away of common sense pose a threat to this traditional pillar of democratic societies. 

Holding politicians and decision makers accountable for the words they use and the actions they commit is a key aspect of maintaining democratic stability, as when a seemingly altruistic politician commits serious moral or legal violations, we can change our opinion of him or her and our party affiliation as we see fit.  However, when even a relatively small section of a population refuses or is incapable of thinking critically, and blindly follows certain individuals, adhering to and believing whatever they say without thought, it degrades the legitimacy of the democratic institutions present in the country.  The fact that so many of these far-right individuals are adopting this outlook because of memes specifically is all the more concerning.

The Universalism of the New Right

While doing the three readings for this week and preparing for the discussion lead, the theme that stuck out to me the most was how universal the ND’s features were in their application.  Specifically, the use of the “scientific truth of differences and inequalities in nature, and the sense of belonging and hierarchy that, in the animal world, is the origin of a genetic disposition to defend one’s territory.” Personally, I believe that comparing animal’s base instincts to human’s is misleading, dangerous, and while I am not a biologist, scientifically incorrect.  We as humans are far too complicated, unpredictable, and evolved to use animal instinct to explain popular movements and political orientations that span the entire globe.  There are simply too many other variables to dumb it down to this degree.

However, just because I disagree with these ideas, does not mean they are not powerful.  Wanting to belong somewhere and defending what you love and cherish are feelings most if not all humans experience.  Individuals who struggle to find this sense of belonging or who have been victims of loss or slight, perceived or real, can easily buy into this rhetoric.  These are universal principles that people will connect and relate to regardless of their country of origin, the colour of their skin or any other perceived differences, and that is one of the strengths of the ND, regardless of how critically we view the movement.  As we are academics who study populism and authoritarianism in detail, we can easily identify the flaws and shortcomings of these ideas, but we often forget that we are the minority, and most people do not have the education and analytical skills we do.

European Elections in 2021 – An Opportunity for the Far-Right

The rise of populist and far-right politics in Europe over the last two decades has befuddled political analysts and theorists.  2021 will be a key year in the battle for Europe’s political soul as multiple elections are scheduled to occur.  Unfortunately, there is reason to believe that the far-right’s position in Europe will grow and strengthen before it diminishes.

We have arrived at a watershed moment.  While Joe Biden’s victory in the American election has given liberal and progressive individuals around the world hope for a change in course, the results of upcoming European elections will determine the future of populist politics.  Portugal, the Netherlands, and Germany all have general elections scheduled in 2021, while France and Bulgaria are set to undergo parliamentary or regional elections.  In all these countries, the far-right is polling at least third in the running, with projections that they will perform well.

The two most important of these elections are in Germany and the Netherlands.  Germany is the continent’s largest economy and often seen as the de-facto leader of the European Union, with Angela Merkel serving as a figurehead of the Union during her long tenure as chancellor.  If the country’s political system were to succumb to far-right politics, it would embolden other populist movements throughout Europe, signaling to them that they too could succeed in winning power through the electoral process.  While the German government has taken measures to curb the danger posed by the Alternative for Germany (AfD), Germany’s far right political party, some of these policies may only strengthen the position of the far-right.

For example, Germany’s recent decision to place the AfD under surveillance will only push individuals on the centre right and right further towards the AfD.  At the risk of over stereotyping, as we have seen in recent American politics, individuals susceptible to far-right ideals tend to suffer from a victim complex.  They believe domestic policy targets them even if it does not, they think every immigrant is coming for their job specifically, and they believe whenever they are legitimately flagged or targeted that it is for illegitimate reasons.  As Germany takes more steps to curb the danger posed by the AfD, individuals’ feelings of ostracization will only strengthen the position of the far-right.

The Netherlands is the sixth largest economy in Europe and serves as an important trading hub due to the country’s ports.  The Party for Freedom, the country’s far-right political party, has recently earned support for criticizing the stringent lockdown protocols recently implemented by the incumbent government.  Popular support against lockdown features and Covid-19 as a public health crisis is rising, with more radical individuals taking matters into their own hands.  As recently as two days ago, a Covid-19 testing center was the target of a homemade explosive device, showing how far some individuals are willing to go.  In effect, the pandemic served as an accelerant for far-right movements throughout Europe, but now that the vaccine is being distributed, it is possible that the spike in far-right activity will weaken.  However, the pandemic exposed glaring flaws in the ability of states to deliver basic services.  This, as well as other inevitable crises in the future, will serve as an easy source of ammunition for far-right movements.

Regardless of how well the far-right parties perform in the upcoming elections, I predict that populism and far-right ideals will become more prevalent in European politics before they diminish.  While we like to imagine people as kind-hearted individuals who care about their fellow man and woman regardless of the colour of their skin, their country of origin, or their religious ideology, the reality is most people are not that altruistic.  People will side with who and what they know, turning inwards when things deteriorate around them, and the last two decades have arguably been more tumultuous than any since the end of World War Two.  The deadliest terror attack in history, the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, unprecedented waves of refugees, and the worst global pandemic in a hundred years are just some of the events that have rocked the Western world since 2000.  I believe there are more crises lurking somewhere in the near future, and as they continue to unfold, the far-right in Europe and elsewhere will continue to grow in strength and numbers.  This year’s upcoming elections will serve as a test run as to how the people of Europe respond to these unseen dangers, and many people including myself will be watching the results unfold with a healthy dose of pessimism.

The Foreseeable Rise of Women in the Far Right

There seems to be a stereotype of far-right individuals in Europe that has developed over the last decade.  Young, disenfranchised, angry European males who struggle to find employment and opportunity due to any number of reasons, but who end up taking their frustration out on immigrants, minorities, and other typical targets of far right and fascist rhetoric.  While far right movements, parties and protests in Europe have typically been dominated by men, Chrisafis, Connolly and Giufridda point out that this trend is changing. 

This stereotype ignores the fact that women often undergo the same conditions and hardships that men do.  Suffering from unemployment, being unable to provide for family and loved ones, and a feeling of worthlessness are felt by both men and women in the 21st century.  At the same time, women are just as likely to fall victim to far-right trappings because of these hardships.  Scapegoating certain demographics, fostering bigoted and hateful ideals, advocating antigovernmental measures and even perpetrating violence are all trademarks of fascist movements, and are as easily done by women as they are men. 

This newfound female far-right presence is interestingly not unique to Europe.  In the United States, a number of female Republican Representatives and Senatorial candidates such as Lauren Boebert and Kelly Loeffer have espoused increasingly far right political ideals.  In Canada, Kellie Leitch performed alarmingly well in the 2017 Conservative Party of Canada Leadership Race, running on an anti-immigrant platform.  With immigration being the largest motivator of far-right ideals according to Chrisafis, Connolly and Giufridda, women’s role in far right movements is likely only to increase as more and more countries are affected by climate change, leading to greater and greater surges of refugees and immigrants.

New President, Same Foreign Policy

While Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election has given Americans hope for a new domestic policy course, pundits are not optimistic that this change will occur in foreign policy.

It seems a pattern has developed over the last few decades, in which an incumbent president, left leaning or right, intervenes in another country’s domestic politics, leading to war, instability, and a loss of American credibility.  Consequently, a challenger will emerge, promising a new foreign policy approach that will return the United States to its former integrity and greatness.  Whether it was Bush advocating for an end to nation-building, Obama’s intent of ending the wars in the Middle East, or Trump’s promise to reduce foreign deployments, the most recent American presidents have promised sweeping changes to America’s foreign policy, and all of them have failed to fulfill them.

The most modern example of this contradiction between stated intent and action is the current Civil War in Yemen.  The conflict began in 2014, with Saudi intervention beginning in 2015.  Obama was faced with the choice of letting Saudi Arabia proceed alone, or indirectly participating to maintain some level of control over the crisis.  Even though Obama had promised a reduced role for the US in the Middle East, and even though the country was still entangled in Afghanistan and Iraq, Obama choose to participate anyway.  Trump campaigned on a promise of putting America first, one component of which was reducing America’s expenses and military missions abroad.  However, upon assuming office, not only did he renegade on this promise, he also vetoed a bipartisan resolution that would have forced an end to US involvement in the Yemeni conflict.  Many believe this decision was spurned by Trump’s close relationship with Mohammed Bin Salman, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia.

Along comes Joe Biden, a lifetime politician who made his name on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.  A harsh critic of authoritarian rule, Biden has been consistently critical of far-right regimes throughout his political career.  He personally met and criticized Slobodan Milosevic during the 1990’s and was in support of ousting Saddam Hussein from power in the early 2000’s.  As the democratic presidential candidate, he promised to restore international faith in the United States as one of the bastions of democracy, freedom, and equality.  While Trump’s foreign policy decisions were so damaging that it seems impossible for Biden to make matters worse, there are reasons to be skeptical.

American politicians have always espoused the notion that America is the principal defender of democratic values. In Biden’s own words, America’s most sacred democratic values are “defending freedom, championing opportunity, upholding universal rights, respecting the rule of law, and treating every person with dignity”. However, the US has historically been selective in who these principles are applied to.  Whether it be Latin American countries throughout the Cold War or countries in the Middle East throughout the War on Terror, American administrations have repeatedly bent international and domestic law to further their own interests while denying the people of these countries the very values that Biden claims are sacred.

It is difficult for the US to position themselves as the defender of freedom and the champion of universal rights while simultaneously applying a seemingly authoritarian and oppressive foreign policy on non-complicit states.  While calling America’s foreign policy history a fascist one might be a stretch, there are millions of people throughout the world who are justified in their anger and frustration with the last few decades of American foreign policy decisions.  Due to Biden’s history of cooperation and candor with America’s allies, Biden has a chance to succeed in repairing alliances damaged during Trump’s tenure as well as re-engaging the US in international agreements and forums.

However, while the Biden administration has announced steps in the right direction such as reversing the designation of the Houthis as a terrorist organization and appointing a special envoy to Yemen, these are superficial changes that allow the Biden administration to state they are reversing Trump’s foreign policies while keeping the door open to future American imperialist projects. Biden has outlined ambitious plans to steer America away from its history of foreign policy abuses, but until they materialize, many people, myself included, will maintain our skepticism.  Therefore, while the dominance of far-right politics has been temporarily curtailed in domestic American politics, this will not translate to American foreign policy. 

Trade-Offs within Fascist Regimes

When examining fascist regimes from an outside perspective in the 21st century, it is important to objectively acknowledge the realities on the ground within those countries.  While horrible atrocities were being committed in Germany and within Nazi occupied Europe throughout the Nazis’ time in power, for many German citizens life continued relatively unabated.  As Baranowski points out, many people jump to the conclusion that the Nazis terrorized the people of Germany into tacitly complying with the new regime, but this explanation is too superficial and simplistic.

Baranowski discusses the principle of trade-offs, with how the loss of personal freedoms and discrimination against subcultures were acceptable prices to pay for the reinstatement of legislative efficiency and the reclamation of German national pride following the treaty of Versailles.  This idea of tradeoffs is essential to understanding why the people of Germany bought in to the Nazi framework and ideology.  We often associate fascism with violence, coercion and force, but Baranowski’s writings show how this was not always the case, and that the Nazis pitched and sold the ideology to the people of Germany through ideas such as the tourism and leisure program. 

This idea of trade-offs has become extremely relevant in the 21st century, with how rapid technological advancements have limited the personal freedoms and privacy of citizenries while amplifying the power and invasiveness of governments.  While we are not in the same situation as individuals were in interwar Germany, the rate at which these tradeoffs are occurring in 2021 is arguably more rapid than they were during the interwar period.  While this does not mean that the rise of fascism is inevitable in the 21st century, it does mean that citizenries must remain politically engaged and informed of the trade offs that are occurring.

The Dangers and Advantages of Comparison

In The Trouble with Comparisons, Moyn acknowledges the need for comparison between states and political systems but emphasizes the need for the careful and meticulous distinction between pertinent similarities and differences.  In my opinion, the most valuable element of the article is when Moyn points out how “without acknowledging differences, comparison is partisan”.  This one quote summarizes how easily political parties, factions, and individuals can subjectively manipulate comparisons to further their own agenda, one of the problems facing political systems in 2020.  While I agree with Maier and Nolte that comparisons between Nazi Germany and the US and other modern authoritarian states are thrown around far too frequently by people that fail to understand the specifics of the terms, the actions of the American populace, particularly those who zealously support Trump are cause for concern.  While these comparisons are disingenuous and overused, and while Republican leaders are spurned by different motivations and ideologies, the conduct of Trump supporters and other populist movements in countries like the US and Brazil and do eerily resemble the conduct of individuals in early and mid-20th century authoritarian countries. 

While Moyn’s article was concerned with the dangers of comparisons between political systems, specifically fascism and authoritarianism, Gordon’s article relates to the comparison of historical events, past and present.  Of all Gordon’s points, the one I found most insightful was the discussion of the special historical status the Holocaust has inherited as the “timeless signifier of absolute evil.”  One can acknowledge the horrors of other 20th century genocides such as those in Rwanda, Cambodia and Armenia as Gordon does while still recognizing the historical importance of the Holocaust.  In conclusion, while I agree with Moyn’s conclusion that comparisons between political systems and governments have become partisan and over relied on, I lean more towards Gordon’s argument, in that the fact that fascism can and is being used as a modern style of authoritarianism means that comparing it to contemporary political failings is necessary.

Gordon, Peter E. “Why Historical Analogy Matters.” The New York Review, 7 Jan. 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/01/07/why-historical-analogy-matters/

Moyn, Samuel. “The Trouble with Comparisons.” The New York Review, 19 May 2020, nybooks.com/daily/2020/05/19/the-trouble-with-comparisons/

Introduction – William Handfield-Jones

Hello everyone,

My name is William Handfield-Jones, and I am a fifth year Public Affairs and Policy Management student.  I have specialized in international policy with a concentration in conflict as well as taking a history minor which is why I am currently enrolled in this class.  Most of my research throughout university has focused on International Humanitarian Law, the Canadian military and Canada’s role on the world stage.

My interest in these fields stem from my family’s history in the Canadian military.  Both my parents as well as two uncles and my grandfather all served, and this allowed me to live in Europe throughout my high school years as my father was posted in Belgium.  While there I was able to meet the offspring of military members from other NATO countries, who I am still friends with to this day.  Some of these friends are from Eastern and Central European countries, and their families’ experiences living in the USSR spurred my interest in European history and politics, especially when related to authoritarianism.  As many of these countries have mandatory military service, and due to my family history, I was inspired to join the Canadian military, and am currently in the process of enrolling as an infantry officer.

In my personal time, I enjoy spending time with my roommates whether it be watching tv, board games or anything else that helps pass the time in these weird days.  I have a number of friends who work in the Byward Market and am looking forward to paying them visits in the future once everything has opened up again.  I enjoy travelling a great deal, so hopefully once I am done Basic Training, I will posted somewhere abroad that I have yet to see.

I look forward to getting to know you all better.