In this week's Greek elections, the far-right, ultranationalist Golden Dawn party, whose members perform Nazi salutes at rallies, got 7 percent of the vote and entered Parliament for the first time. A sick joke, you say. What's 7 percent? But Golden Dawn's gains are a symbol of a protest vote that fed extremes in Greece and decimated centrist parties, making it impossible to form a government in a country on the edge of economic collapse.
That's a pattern that has emerged in elections across Europe. The center cannot hold, things fall apart, and angry voters, hurting from unemployment and economic distress, migrate to the extremes. Fascism isn't (yet) on the real rise, but governmental paralysis is, at a time when leaders are desperately needed to navigate Europe's economic crises. Europe's failures will be felt here.
So it's a good time to take a look at those European elections, as America enters a campaign season defined by anger. Our centrists, too, are derided by political purists, especially on the right. If you want to see where the politics of anger can lead, when the focus is on finding scapegoats rather than solutions, take a look at Europe's election season up close.
In the Netherlands, the anti-Islam, anti-immigration, anti-Europe Freedom Party brought the government down last month by pulling out of the governing coalition.
In France, Marine Le Pen's far-right National Front won its highest-ever count, nearly 19 percent, in the first round. Le Pen refused to steer those votes to center-right incumbent Nicolas Sarkozy, whose loss to Socialist Francois Hollande in the second round was fueled by anger over austerity measures. Hollande blithely promised a 75 percent tax on the rich, a lower retirement age (in France it's already 62), and retention of the 35-hour workweek. France can't afford any of this, and when the truth comes out, the politics of anger will get another boost.
Greece is now rudderless, which increases the chance it will default and exit the eurozone.
In Serbia, driven by anger over high unemployment, voters denied a mandate to either of the two leading parties, and gave the Socialists once led by war criminal Slobodan Milosevic the kingmaker role.
And then there's Russia, where Vladimir Putin was coronated, whoops, I mean sworn in, for his third term as president this week. Putin floated back to power on a sea of oil. But even in Russia, research by a respected think tank indicates widespread anger at the massive corruption under Putin, reflected by the demonstration of tens of thousands in Moscow this week.
What's clear from this cascade of elections: Free-floating rage against austerity and elites is ripe for manipulation, especially when leaders prove unable to address the economic roots of that anger. Which brings us back to the U.S. election season. In these confused times, when the Republican Party has been taken over by fringe groups that deride a centrist president as a foreigner, a socialist and a traitor, the compromises that used to make American politics work are impossible.
And yet, the United States is still in a far better position than Europe to assuage voter anger. Serious leaders, not thwarted by ideologues, could find a compromise that encourages growth while cutting spending. The failure to do so will only fuel the anger that, at present, is all too often directed not at extremism but at those who try to hold center ground.
If you want a preview of where that will lead, just look at Europe's election season. Look hard.