The Danger of Democracy

What America could take away from the recent EU elections.

Scratch an American liberal and more often than not you’ll get a supporter of European parliamentary democracy. When inveighing against the filibuster or the Electoral College, they will use the language of democracy and majority rule.

Just beneath the surface, however, you’ll see that they love the efficiency of the majority—when they are in the majority, naturally—being able to enact its program at will. Ever notice that when Democrats win the presidency, liberal commentators frequently declare debate over the issues discussed during the campaign settled?

The ascendancy of right-wing parties in Europe ought to give liberals pause. The parliamentary system gives more opportunities for smaller parties, and thus, discontented conservatives, to have an effective voice than the American two-party system.

Consider the failure of conservative third parties in the United States. The most successful, the Conservative Party of New York State, has mostly become an appendage of the Republican Party. The Buchananite takeover of Ross Perot’s Reform Party, which now barely exists, was short-lived. The Constitution Party has yet to crack 200,000 popular votes in a presidential contest after more than two decades in operation.

The Tea Party was something of an attempt to create a third-party movement within the GOP. Those who would pronounce the Tea Party dead are exaggerating greatly, but this project has stalled. The big Tea Party triumphs this year have come in contests for open seats. No incumbent federal Republican has been toppled by a conservative insurgent this year, though Sen. Thad Cochran is looking vulnerable to Chris McDaniel in Mississippi.

Even Ralph Hall, the ninety-one-year-old congressman who somewhat unexpectedly lost his primary to a conservative challenger in Ted Cruz’s Texas, is an exception that proves the rule. Hall was old, but not really establishment. Tea Party pillars Ron Paul and Michele Bachmann both endorsed him for reelection, as did religious-right leader Mike Huckabee. If he was even a decade younger, the World War II vet probably would have won.

Texas is also home to the only incumbent the Tea Party has knocked off so far in this cycle. Dan Patrick soundly defeated David Dewhurst in the primary to lieutenant governor. But Dewhurst was damaged from his 2012 battle with Ted Cruz for Senate. And becoming lieutenant governor of Texas is a far cry from toppling Washington icons like Mike Castle and Richard Lugar.

America is a more conservative country than most Western parliamentary democracies and the GOP—thanks in no small part to the Tea Party and its predecessors—is much more conservative than most major European center-right parties.

But the Republicans don’t have anything on the UK Independence Party or the French Front National, two populist-nationalist parties of the right that took the European parliamentary elections by storm. And even the Tea Party has given little direct voice to the concerns millions of Americans have about borders and sovereignty, the issues driving the relative success of the euroskeptic parties. Indeed, the main Republican behind the Gang of Eight immigration machinations in the Senate was Marco Rubio, widely considered a Tea Party success story.

The European far right, like the more marginal American variety, contains its undesirable elements. Fascists and neo-Nazis are everywhere a terrifying sight, but especially so in a continent where fascism and Nazism once reared their ugly, genocidal heads.

Nevertheless, UKIP is moving closer to Thatcherite conservatism than the position once occupied by Nick Griffin and the British National Party. Parties like Front National could have been contained if the major parties were even mildly interested in dealing with the concerns of those who feared mass immigration and multiculturalism were threatening French values. To the north, the Canadian Alliance decimated the old Progressive Conservatives before the right reunited as the Conservative Party. Prime Minister Stephen Harper is a veteran of the Canadian Alliance and its predecessor, the Reform Party.

In the United States, the House has bottled up amnesty for illegal immigrants—frequently coupled with less remarked upon increases in legal immigration—for eight years. But the GOP caucus’ top two leaders, John Boehner and Eric Cantor, have frequently signaled they are open to some kind of deal on the issue.

Even aside from the loose labor markets, cultural tension, and national-security concerns some fear will result from overly lax immigration policies, there is a serious downside to the two major parties turning this debate into a monologue. The political space for intelligent and humane criticism of mass immigration will instead be filled by bigots and demagogues.

That is to some extent what happened in Europe. Let us hope the maturation of the European right wing continues—and that the U.S. nonparliamentary system keeps making radical change in either ideological direction difficult to achieve.

W. James Antle III is editor of the Daily Caller News Foundation and author of the new book Devouring Freedom: Can Big Government Ever Be Stopped? He tweets at @jimantle.