Democracy and Extremism


An age-old question in political theory is how democracies, particularly democracies trying to be inclusive to use the terminology ofWhyNationsFail, should deal with extremist groups.

If inclusiveness is about preventing the monopolization of political power in the hands of any segment of society or the sidelining of different opinions by the dominant ideology, perhaps giving some public space even to unsavory views and characters can be justified.

One can also argue that not providing such public space is likely to lead to a spiral towards greater extremism, and violence, among the supporters of such groups.

Take the Greek far right party, the Golden Dawn. Is the recent clampdown, triggered by the murder of the rapper and activist, Pavlos Fyssas, the right way to deal with it, or will it push some of its supporters to further extremism, for example as suggested by The New York Times?

There seems to be a lot of evidence that the Golden Dawn is not only a neo-Nazi party, as hinted by their swastika-like symbol, but it has also been involved in pervasive violence against immigrants and opponents, all sorts of crimes and racketeering.

But beyond this specific case of the Golden Dawn, for which sympathy would be hard to muster, there are two general reasons why democracies may need to take a hard line against extremist groups, even those organized as political parties.

First, these groups are often constituted around the intimidation of, and even violence against, marginalized groups, such as immigrants, ethnic, religious and sexual minorities, and sometimes civil society activists. Their unrestrained mobilization thus threaten to further reduce the political power and the voice of those who have already been sidelined by existing institutions and norms in society.

Second, their activities are often supported by elements within the security forces and even established political parties. It has now been documented that many in the police force and the military have tolerated, or even been complicit in, Golden Dawn’s violence against immigrants or perhaps also their more radical agenda, and several high-ranking police and military officials have now been removed from their posts because of their links to this organization.

In fact, the German experience with the rise of the Nazi party provides the starkest warning on how extremist parties receiving implicit support from a large part of the political and bureaucratic establishment can rapidly gain strength and even rise to a situation of national power. Richard Evans’s magisterial The Coming of the Third Reich links the ascent of the Nazis to the sympathies that many in the German establishment had to their cause and their animosity both against the Weimar democracy and the minorities.

Though the rise of a fringe extremist party to power appears — and of course is — far-fetched, it is not far-fetched to imagine that their intimidation could have a major effect on national politics and also start shaping the policy agendas of mainstream parties, particularly when there are many elements within the establishment sympathizing with their cause.

Lawful activism against these extremist groups from parts of the judiciary and the establishment opposed to such extremism may then be an important tool for democracy to defend itself and those that are already marginalized and mistreated by existing institutions.

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