Vicente Peláyez

Le cordon sanitaire


ISSUE 70 | SAFE | DEC 2016

As skeptical as we may be of “American exceptionalism,” it is remarkable that the United States is the world’s second-oldest republic, based on the world’s longest-lasting written national constitution. There’s something very stable about our system, you might say, although it’s also benefitted from accidents of geography and history. But like any system it has its weak points, and those weak points are currently being tested. We may soon find out whether our system is as unshakeable as the Trump voters believed it to be.

Even before Trump, American intellectuals had been casting wistful glances towards the parliamentary systems that rule other modern democracies. A long line of books, articles, studies, blog posts, and tweets, dating back at least to Woodrow Wilson’s Congressional Government, have touted the benefits of a parliamentary system, in which a legislature with democratic legitimacy chooses an executive branch (usually from among its members) that remains answerable to it. Parliamentary systems, even those that use our first-past-the-post voting model rather than proportional representation, are more conducive to an array of parties that can negotiate and form alliances. Proponents believe this system is more effective and less prone to corruption and authoritarian collapse. It also tends to be better suited to multiethnic or otherwise bitterly divided countries in which a coalition government is preferable to winner-take-all majority rule.

But we’re stuck with what we’ve got, thanks to that long-lived constitution bequeathed to us by a generation of slaveholders and appeasers. This is a shame, to say the least, in light of the sudden worldwide rise of populist nationalism, which has particularly virulent effects on American-style presidential systems. In this country, Trump needed only to capture the nomination of a major party with a plurality of the vote—helped by a fractured field of conventional competitors and an already weakened party establishment—and suddenly he had an electoral platform that, in a country where each major-party candidate is guaranteed close to half the vote, was capable of carrying him to the presidency.

Many of the same factors that rendered Trump’s victory possible—the binary choice presented to voters, the winner-take-all nature of the contest, widespread disillusionment and disgust with the power elite—also contributed to the other two great right-wing nationalist successes of 2016. The Brexit vote that shocked the world in June was crucially different from a normal British parliamentary election, in which fringe parties like the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) have had vanishingly little success; instead the vote was conducted in a nationwide referendum, only the third in the history of the United Kingdom, which offered voters a binary choice in a single-stage vote, mimicking the environment of a U.S. presidential election. Meanwhile in Austria, the candidates of both major parties failed to advance past the first round of a presidential election for the first time ever, instead coming in fourth and fifth with about 11% of the vote each. The second round therefore pitted Alexander van der Bellen, a 72-year-old ex-Green Party politician born to Eastern European refugees in Vienna, against Norbert Hofer, the 45-year-old Islamophobic candidate of the Freedom Party who promised to keep refugees out, stop free trade agreements, and “put Austria first.” Although Hofer won a clear plurality in the first round, Van der Bellen eked out a bare majority in the second round with 50.3%. Then in July, the Constitutional Court nullified the second round results due to technicalities. The re-vote is scheduled for Sunday, December 4. Unless the European left or center has made an undetected comeback in the past few months, the election will likely enthrone the first far-right head of state in Western Europe since 1945.

The successes thus far of Hofer, Trump, and Brexit have been cheered by the other insurgent nationalists of Europe, including Marine Le Pen’s Front National (France), Frauke Petry’s Alternative für Deutschland (Germany), Geert Wilders’s Partij voor de Vrijheid (the Netherlands), Golden Dawn (Greece), Jobbik (Hungary), the Sweden Democrats, and Nigel Farage’s UKIP. These parties have a lot in common: a right-wing worldview anchored by Islamophobia, skepticism or hostility towards the European Union, a revisionist view of their country’s history of Nazism or fascism (where applicable), derision for political elites and establishment parties—and the fact that none has entered government despite, in many cases, skyrocketing poll numbers and vote totals.

This surprising lack of success is attributable to the parliamentary systems of Europe, which turn out to have a strong point corresponding to one of our own system’s weaknesses. The moment a racist horror-clown managed to muster the support to win some Republican primaries, the American political system buckled before him; he’ll be inaugurated next month, despite the near-unified front presented by mainstream America over the past year. The multiparty parliamentary systems of Europe, on the other hand, have additional lines of defense against extremists and demagogues. Far-right, far-left, or otherwise toxic parties may be able to gain a few members of parliament when they could never hope to win a U.S. congressional election, but those MPs do them little good during coalition talks thanks to the tactic of the cordon sanitaire. The term, originally meaning a quarantine to contain the spread of disease, was introduced into the political context in Belgium in the 1980s, when parties across the political spectrum agreed to shun the far-right Flemish nationalists of the Vlaams Blok (and its successor party the Vlaams Belang). The accord held even when VB came in second in the 2004 regional elections in Flanders, forcing the conservative, liberal, and socialist parties to form a coalition government together.

The cordon sanitaire has been used across Europe against fascists and ethnic nationalists (and occasionally Communists), and as a result the direct influence of the far right on government policy has been far less than its raw support would suggest. Earlier this year Germany’s two major parties lost seats in five out of five state elections, and the Alternative für Deutschland, running a nearly single-issue anti-refugee campaign, roared into second or third place everywhere but Berlin. In the aftermath, state ruling coalitions have realigned or expanded to include more parties, but nowhere has the AfD been invited to join a government. In general the cordon sanitaire is employed by mainstream parliamentary parties to thwart extremists, but at times, particularly in France, it has been used by the mainstream voters themselves. The two-round electoral system used to elect members of the Assemblée Nationale and the French president allows voters to hold their noses and unite behind an obnoxious mainstream candidate if necessary rather than hand victory to the Front National, as when FN founder Jean-Marie Le Pen lost the 2002 presidential election to unpopular incumbent Jacques Chirac in the biggest landslide in French history.

Two rounds of voting allows for this kind of popular cordon sanitaire, but a system that relies on its people to hold their noses to defeat the fascists is as likely to produce Norbert Hofer or Donald Trump as Jacques Chirac, at least in 2016. A parliamentary system, on the other hand, allows the political establishment itself to keep out the riff-raff. For this reason the parliamentary systems will likely be the last to fall to the nationalists and xenophobes. The far-right fringe entered the legislature early in Europe, but it will be kept out of government there until late in the game. Semi-presidential systems like that of France may present an intermediate case, as a parliamentary cordon sanitaire is unlikely to hold should a far-right leader like Marine Le Pen manage to win the presidency.

Of course, no system can hold out indefinitely against a sufficiently large basket of deplorables. One ingenious effect of a cordon sanitaire is that it not only nullifies but also dampens popular support for the cordoned-off party: if you’re a far-right nationalist who knows your preferred party will never be allowed to join a government, you may resign yourself to voting for the conventional party that comes closest to your views. But if your shunned party nonetheless gains support and rises in the polls, you may come out of the woodwork of the establishment parties. Meanwhile those parties themselves, transformed by the accidental entryism of extremists, may grow unwilling to maintain the cordon. In the final analysis, techniques such as the cordon sanitaire, as well as constitutional checks and balances such as separation of powers and judicial review, are only mechanisms of delay. Like levees against a rising tide of illiberalism, they are effective only if the storm fails before they do.

Alas, our own countermajoritarian constitutional system has proven no match for the changing climate. In America, Trump’s single unlikely victory is enough. The moving parts built into our system to check lawless demagogues by elites suspicious of democracy have long since rusted into desuetude or been abolished. Our electoral college has the power to reject a repugnant candidate regardless of the vote totals, but instead it will anoint Trump, who failed to win even a plurality of the national vote. The Republicans of the deliberative, aristocratic Senate to whom the left now looks for protection are far more concerned with their primary-voting constituents. With a bit of luck Trump can transform the Supreme Court, the ultimate countermajoritarian institution, in a single four-year term. Over the past two centuries our system has largely resisted the tides of extremism, until it didn’t. Now we are the first to fall, and soon, elsewhere, the cordon sanitaire will be put to its greatest test.


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