The lesson of elections in France and Greece—and of the many other European governments that have toppled over the last year—is quite simple: if you are in, you are out. (Take note Obama.) It doesn't matter if you're from the left or right, a crooning populist or a colorless technocrat. Against the backdrop of Europe's financial crisis, any leader winds up torn between the bond markets that demand belt-tightening to the point of suffocation and a public that yearns desperately to breathe easy. All the challengers have to say is, "We can do better"; the reaction of the voters, fairly or unfairly, tends to be, "Couldn't do worse." But as the crisis drags on the goals of austerity and growth appear impossible to reconcile. As centrists fail and the technocrats fail, the extremes take over. And when they fail, then what?
Are we entering one of those quickening cycles of craziness that periodically afflict democratic societies and sometimes destroy them? Not yet, certainly, but the atmosphere now is such that it's hard to say not ever.
At least since the last world war, most of the developed world has lived with the idea that popular suffrage is self-correcting. The moment arrives when the people, notwithstanding all their mixed motivations and the often dubious information on which they base their judgments, will sniff out the least of the evils presented to them in order to preserve tranquility and prosperity. But European history suggests that when financial markets fail to self-correct, democracies may fail to do so, too.
In Europe, where memories are long, it's the period before that last world war that still haunts older politicians like a half-remembered nightmare.
Not to put too fine a point on it, Germany's leaders still hold up the hyperinflation of the Weimar Republic in the 1920s as the horror story that keeps them on the straight-and-narrow path of fiscal conservatism in the 21st century. Then, economic chaos fostered political chaos that opened the door to the Nazis. Now, the Germans will impose economic order through austerity, and all will be well.
Except that it won't. Greece is going down the tubes. Politicians on the extremes of right and left won some 40 percent of the vote by rejecting the draconian bailout package the two major mainstream parties signed onto. Syriza started as a communist splinter group but managed on Sunday to take some 16 percent of the vote, emerging as Greece's second largest party. It could wind up being asked to form a coalition government—and probably will fail, leaving the country rudderless in the storm. The ultra-nationalist kick-out-the-immigrants New Dawn Party, which flirts with Nazi rhetoric and symbolism, won almost 7 percent of the vote and may have 21 seats in Parliament. Under the circumstances, meeting the multiple deadlines of the bailouts negotiated so painfully over the last year with the European Union and the International Monetary Fund looks just about impossible.
Other less heralded political events on the continent have ominous overtones as well. In Serbia the party of the late Slobodan Milosevic, a murderous tyrant, now holds the key to power. In the Netherlands, Geert Wilders, an unapologetic Islamophobe and canny political opportunist, brought down the center-right government because he refused to buy into its austerity plans.
In France, the fifth-largest economy in the world with the third-largest nuclear arsenal, a combination of popular discontent and cynical opportunism by President Nicolas Sarkozy opened the way for the shrewd far-right leader Marine Le Pen to bring her party almost into the mainstream. Sarkozy thought he'd win over her voters. But he lost the election. Marine Le Pen's father may have flirted with fascists when he built the National Front, but now she's flirting with real power in a bid to become a major force in next month's parliamentary elections.
This is not a pretty picture. But it is one in which the new president of France, François Hollande, now holds an especially important and potentially positive role.
Hollande may be a little boring. He may want to emulate, sometimes almost slavishly, the late President François Mitterrand, his political godfather. Mitterrand was known as "the Sphinx," because of his aloof remove from the political fray. Hollande already shows signs he'll be "Son of Sphinx." But Hollande is not radical at all in French or European terms. He is working to develop a vision of the future that is essentially mainstream. Tax a little more, spend a little more, do what it takes to grow and build a future based on French traditions, not necessarily the prescriptions of countries—like Germany—that have their own history, their own nightmares.
Hollande may well fail. In truth, he does not inspire enormous confidence, even among many of the people who voted for him (or, rather, against Sarkozy). But his aim is not to smash the model of Europe that's been developed these last 60 years, but to tweak it. And only when a positive vision of the future is articulated clearly—and implemented—will the quickening cycle of craziness be broken and extremists banished once again to the fringes, or oblivion, where they belong.