If opposites attract, they aren’t opposites

All over the world, extremists on the putative Right and the so-called Left have more in common with one another than either has with the political mainstream.

It may be that time again

This isn’t an intellectual deduction. It’s merely an empirical observation, borne out throughout history and highlighted by the current elections in France.

More than half of the French voted for assorted fascisoid parties in the first round. All but one, Le Pen’s National Rally, have been eliminated.

Those rioting students of France’s best universities didn’t get their way: their Trotskyist darling Mélenchon failed to get into the runoff. The choice is now between Macron and Le Pen, as it was in the previous election.

Yet a funny thing happened on the way to 2022. Five years ago, once Mélenchon got eliminated, most of his support shifted to Macron, who then romped to a landslide. Now a crowd of Mélenchon voters are dropping into Le Pen’s lap.

It’s hard to know the exact size of that crowd or whether or not it’ll be big enough to produce the national (and international) catastrophe of a Le Pen presidency. The polls aren’t reliable because the French are reticent about admitting to a preference for Le Pen.

My département de l’Yonne has been going to various Le Pens by a wide margin in one election after another. Yet no one ever admits to having voted that way for fear of committing a social faux pas.

I’m not qualified to make an accurate prediction of the outcome. I’m not sure anyone is. However, certain trends are observable one way or the other, and not only in France.

These days, people all over the West tend to opt not for the greater good but for the lesser evil. They vote not for one candidate but against the other. Come election time, and voters in the three countries I know intimately, the US, Britain and France, sing the same song in unison: X is useless, but it’s impossible to vote for Y.

So far the Y category has predictably included fascisoid extremists, whether tagged Right or Left. The mainstream parties may be perceived as infernal, but most people in the age groups likeliest to vote would rather be stuck with the devil they know, whichever hue he is painted.

That may be changing. Throughout Europe and, as it appears from afar, elsewhere, people feel (and resent) that the gap separating them from the ruling elites is turning into an unbridgeable abyss.

Some of this resentment has to do with the growing economic chasm separating the uppers from the lowers. One example: the income difference between board members of US corporations and their lowest-paid employees is now some 12 times greater than it was in the second half of the 19th century, a period known in popular mythology for its bloodsucking robber barons.

Yet the primacy of economics, the dominant superstition across the political board, is a Marxist fallacy. Most people can’t judge the economic implications of voting for this or that candidate anyway.

They don’t just want more money, although they certainly want that too. But above all, they crave more respect from the candidates, and closer emotional kinship with them.

The more acute that need, the wider the opening that clever demagogues can exploit – and the narrower the path to popular appeal that mainstream parties can tread. At some point that need overshadows whatever differences exist among various fascisoid parties, if any.

What they appear to be becomes more crucial than what they are. If they can believably claim to feel and share the voters’ pain, the people will focus on what unites the extremists, ignoring whatever sets them apart – especially when the pain is excruciating.

A point is reached sooner or later when political nomenclatures lose whatever little meaning they ever had. People are no longer willing to play the game of political Hokey Pokey, putting the right foot in or the left leg out.

It no longer matters to them that, say, Le Pen is supposed to be on the Right or, say, Mélenchon on the Left. People may not be able to explain, political philosophy and academic economics in hand, that neither term means anything at all. But they begin to sense it viscerally.

Then what psychologists call confirmation bias kicks in. Voters post-rationalise their intuition by looking for similarities in the two brands of extreme politics on offer. These aren’t hard to find: even a cursory glance uninformed by a degree in economics will show that, in that area at least, Mélenchon and Le Pen are dizygotic twins – as near as damn.

More important, both are perceived to be of the people and with the people, whereas Macron is seen as more up the people’s. Replace Macron with Johnson or Biden, and the popular sentiment will be identical.

People drift away from the mainstream, sailing towards what is called populism. Like most political terms of modernity, this one is a misnomer. All parties competing in more or less fair elections are populist – they can’t be anything else. They all depend on putting together blocs of votes, which can only be done by making attractive promises to large swathes of the populus.

However, when the mainstream parties are consistently in default of their promises, the minds of the electorate slam shut – and they are seldom wide-open to begin with. People start thinking with their viscera, which increasingly resemble a cocktail of resentments and insecurities.

Suddenly, politicians who appeal to that humour directly, either bypassing reason altogether or only using it in an auxiliary capacity, have a fighting chance. In that respect, there is little difference between your Hitlers and Mugabes, Peróns and Trumps, Le Pens and Mélenchons.

Some of them may have something of substance to offer, others may not. But when people refuse to use whatever reason they possess (and, when it comes to millions of voters, it’s never much), substance no longer matters. Only what today’s lot call ‘memes’ do.

That’s why, if Le Pen moves to the Elysée on Monday, I’ll be appalled and scared. But I won’t be surprised. The combined effect of such blights as Covid and Putin is producing a sweeping change in the world, and such changes, produced by such factors, are never for the better.

A major Western country is again bound to turn to fascisoid politics in the near future, and France is a likely candidate – if far from the only one. I can only hope this won’t happen this weekend, nor at any time when I’m still around.

I’m beginning to understand Madame du Barry who, when she was about to be beheaded by the guillotine of victorious modernity, cried: “De grâce, monsieur le bourreau, encore un petit moment!” – “One more moment, Mr Executioner, I beg you!”

3 thoughts on “If opposites attract, they aren’t opposites”

  1. In 2009 the British National Party won two seats in the European Parliment. I recall TIME magazine wailing about Britain’s apparent lurch to the ‘far right’- what actually happaned was a protest vote on the part of those white, working class folks, who felt betrayed by New Labour. This coupled with the fact that most Britons did not give a hoot about continental elections, made it seem as if fascism was on the rise. It was of course, a storm in a tea cup. I mean, can you for one moment imagine a party like National Rally, being within arms length of office in this realm of England? I for one cannot. There is something rotten in the state of France!

    P.S. Richard Dawkins was being somewhat facetious when he coined the term ‘meme’- I wonder how he feels about his creation today….

  2. I think you give too much credit to voters (at least in the first half of the article). I think very little thought goes into the decision for most voters. And while being let down by elected leaders is now standard, I do not think most voters can match their current state to what their favorite candidate claimed it would be. Certainly here in America, when disadvantaged voters are once again kept down by progressive policies that have 60 years of evidence stacked against them, the Democrat candidates just yell “Republicans hate you!” and we start all over again. And no voter can determine the economic outcome of voting for a particular candidate – economists cannot even do it! But the electorate are whipped into a frenzy by claims that successful businessmen somehow take money that they themselves could have earned – and most believe it.

    I wonder if it will take a major Western country going fascist for the rest of us to wake up and see what we are doing to ourselves?

  3. Within context as I understand this post by Alex, it is more that the left and right both agree that change of a radical nature needed and not agreeing on the measures needed to achieve change.

    “Gimme some change” says the beggar with his hand out!

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