The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Why Fringe Figures Are Holding Democracies Hostage

WASHINGTON, DC - FEBRUARY 13: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) (C) attends a news conference following a GOP caucus meeting at the U.S. Capitol Visitors Center February 13, 2019 in Washington, DC. McCarthy said that he supports the framework of a bipartisan spending deal that would avert another partial federal government shutdown but is waiting to read the bill before deciding on whether he would vote for it. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) (Photographer: Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images North America)

Minorities occupy a special place in liberal democracies, their rights safeguarded by institutions from the tyranny of the majority. Several of the world’s leading democracies are now grappling with quite a different phenomenon, however — what might be called a tyranny of the minority.

In the United States, not only did an incompetent demagogue become president, he emboldened fringe figures who now control the Republican Party and hold hostage one chamber of Congress. The governing Conservative Party in Britain, likewise, is being pushed further and further to the right by a minority of ideologues — on “Europe” in particular. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s new government in Israel cannot function without support from far-right ministers who would have been dismissed as dangerous fanatics just a few years ago.

These minorities’ views diverge from those held by most of their fellow citizens, which tend toward the middle-of-the-road. Yet, to a greater or lesser degree, the radicals now dictate policy for their nations as a whole.

Old or malfunctioning electoral rules are partly to blame. Party leaders or candidates in the US and the UK are chosen by a small subset of voters, often noisier and more radical than the mainstream. In the US, the archaic Electoral College gives so much power to small rural states that presidents can be elected without winning a majority of the popular vote.

Also, in de facto two-party states, the main parties used to act as sponges, absorbing extremists and rendering them relatively harmless. This no longer appears to be the case in the US and the UK, where the authority of moderate elites has been diminished. Israeli politics are hampered by a complicated system of proportional representation, which can mean — and now does mean — that a large conservative bloc such as Netanyahu’s Likud cannot govern without support from smaller extremist parties.

The main problem, however, is a paradoxical combination of too much and too little ideology. Ideologues in the US, Israel and the UK have come to the fore by making deals with leaders who don’t believe in anything much. Donald Trump may be a dangerous narcissist, for instance, but he never had any coherent political ideas apart from wanting to be president.

In the UK, Boris Johnson exploited Brexit fanatics to become prime minister, even though he was an agnostic on that issue. It is hard to know what exactly Rep. Kevin McCarthy, an erstwhile moderate, now believes, but he bent a knee to the most radical fringe of the GOP just to become Speaker of the House of Representatives. Netanyahu, too, was so eager to become prime minister again that he handed important posts to extremists.

Major political parties once stood for clear political and economic interests. Progressive parties, whose leaders often emerged from trade unions, represented the interests of industrial workers. Conservatives stood for big business and the settled middle class. One side wanted a larger role for the state, the other side a smaller one. Cultural issues, to do with race or sexuality, played a relatively minor role, to be paid lip service at best.

Since the end of the Cold War, however, progressives and conservatives have largely converged in a broad consensus about globalization, international finance and liberal free trade. As the old ideological battles over economic interests became increasingly irrelevant, fights over cultural, national and racial identities began to take their place.

Instead of clear interests, politics now appeal more and more to people’s emotions, about what it means to be British (or English), or American, or Jewish, or White, gay, transgender or Black. When those emotions involve existential fears of losing status to outsiders, or immigrants, or ethnic and religious minorities, extremist appeals become much more potent.

This is why former British Prime Minister David Cameron, a privileged moderate who lacked firm convictions, felt he needed to give way to Brexit fanatics, why Israel now has a national security minister who was once convicted of inciting racial hatred, and why the Republican Party is still in thrall to a man whose hardcore followers believe in international conspiracies involving socialist pedophiles who want to replace the White population in America with criminal immigrants.

It is difficult to see how such radicalism can be tempered in the short term. Changing the way party leaders and presidents are elected would be a start, but there is little prospect of that happening. A return to focusing on economic interests rather than culture, race and identity would certainly help. The electoral success of Democratic candidates in the midterm elections who paid special attention to local economic problems bore this out.

The Republicans at this moment appear to have little to say apart from stirring up nationalist feelings and fighting against “wokeism,” which is all the more reason for Democrats to temper their own tendency towards identitarianism. Britain will have to wait for a possible change of government in two years’ time to take the sting out Tory extremism. It is hard to see any solution to the existential rages in Israel, which is precisely why the lunatics have taken over the asylum. The rise of the radicals did not take place overnight; neither will their fall.

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This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Ian Buruma is professor of human rights at Bard College. His latest book is “The Churchill Complex.”

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