Around the west, authoritarian right wing parties are fighting the changes to the world that scare them. Protecting western liberalism is a challenge proponents of the democratic project are only just beginning to address.
The world’s powers need to unite to face the manifold challenges of the climate emergency. Instead too many are battling a paranoid nostalgia that is leading to a rise in authoritarian politics. In the EU, the right longs for old imperial grandeur, pining for a past greatness allied to concepts of ethnic purity. In Britain, this took the form of Brexit. From the east, Putin is working to recreate a Russian land empire that he appears to believe is the only bulwark of virtue against a dissolute west.
The USA spends more on its military than the next nine countries combined. Its history indicates its decision-makers believe that war is easier than diplomacy. Both factors suggest that the Thucydides Trap theory will apply (where the hegemonic power in decline is more prone to war with the rising power). This trend is made more likely by the fact that the Republican Party has become a far right movement over the past few years.
The EU has just begun to fight the rising wave of authoritarian right political forces within its member states. The fact that a right wing, conspiracy-connected coup has recently been interrupted in the EU’s heart, Germany, makes this even more urgent. Putin’s support for far right political and nativist groups throughout Europe has fostered this threat.
Now that Putin has made himself such an outlier figure in western politics, through assassinations, invasions and nuclear threats, his mantle as leader of the new right has been taken up by Viktor Orbán. Orbán proudly touts Hungary as an illiberal democracy. Gerrymandering, control of the courts and the media have all made the democratic contest more illusion than fact. Minority rights are under attack, and prejudice is deployed to harness the substantial bloc of regional voters that outcompete the city dwellers who would like to oust Orbán’s Fidesz government. Cronyism and corruption are rife.
The European Union has as common values “democracy, the rule of law and fundamental rights, including those of minorities.” This dedication to the underlying principles of liberal democracy – that every individual has worth and should have freedom and representation within the parameters of the social contract – has been impinged upon by increasingly regressive states within and around the Union. In 2020 the EU introduced compliance mechanisms to pressure its states to adhere to these ideals.
Viktor Orbán’s Hungary is the first target of these measures. The EU has threatened to withhold the substantial subsidies the Union grants him if steps are not taken to reverse his attacks on the democratic processes and functions in Hungary. The nation stands to lose $11 billion euro in support. These substantial “cohesion funds,” intended to benefit poorer EU members, are a vital part of Hungary’s wellbeing.
The nostalgia for an ethnically pure Hungary, Christian and patriarchal, is matched throughout the right’s European partners. Older voters are captured by dreams of long ago – even of old communist regimes like the Thuringian villagers who would support Prince Heinrich XIII’s German coup. Heinrich himself, by contrast, is believed to be driven in part by fury at what his noble lineage lost to the communist regime of East Germany, spending years in the courts in failed attempts to win back the “stolen” properties. The hunting lodge where the coup was plotted, Heinrich had to buy back. He is also a noted antisemite and conspiracy purveyor, entwining him with Germany’s radicalised special forces’ Neo Nazis.
Giorgia Meloni’s Brothers of Italy government is driven by nostalgia for the fascist years of Italian empire. For this government, Italian blood, procreation and wealth are the goal. She is depicting herself as a conservative leader but the fascist goals are understood. The media in Italy is under attack as a key strategy to suppress the truth of the government’s longterm goals (provided it can endure in Italy’s notoriously unstable political sphere).
Orbán’s far right friends throughout Europe share his rejection of climate action. Many of the leading authoritarians helm petrostates, and the petrodollar helps distort the debate. Climate activism and journalism are suppressed and threatened. While most of the 2019 German Day X movement’s antagonism was directed at people who welcomed refugees, figures who promoted renewable energy were also selected as targets for assassination.
The authoritarians’ most overt propaganda battles attack LGBTQI existence, and women’s equality and bodily autonomy. These leaders are antisemitic, despite Orbán’s disingenuous claims to be an exception. Their uniting hatred, above all, is against immigrants who are neither white nor Christian; the longing for ethnic purity is often coded as a defence of Christianity and the west.
Orban’s Christian chauvinism is interconnected with American evangelical Christian Nationalism, a theocratic and fascistic politics. Both forces are at work radicalising Australia’s “conservative” politics.
Australia and America had somewhat heartening elections repudiating aspects of the radical right in 2022. The EU faces more diverse challenges amongst its member states. It will take 2/3 of them, for example, to place the financial screws on Orbán to check corruption and reverse his authoritarian power grab. An increasing number of EU states have Putin-supporting far right politicians willing to challenge collective action, making it difficult to achieve. From its neighbours, the Union faces Russia’s invasion adding additional pressure to European cost of living, and now Ottoman Empire-nostalgic Turkey is threatening military action on Greece to rile up its own authoritarian leader’s base of support.
Nostalgia for past greatness, and for a mythical ethnographic monoculture, is imposing challenges on national and global politics. Conservative regions are being radicalised towards violence by authoritarian (and aspiring authoritarian) leaders against more diverse and tolerant cosmopolitan spaces. Post-communist areas can find the shift towards diversity rapid and confronting in the face of old intolerances.
The survival of human society may depend on us finding a way to confront the authoritarian and populist right. Western democratic liberalism is flawed, but may be our hope.