Harry Geels: Erosion of the rule of law comes both from below and above

Harry Geels: Erosion of the rule of law comes both from below and above

Harry Geels

This column was originally written in Dutch. This is a English translation.

By Harry Geels

Last weekend, De Volkskrant and NRC presented a dangerous frame in which the 'radical right' was said to erode democracy. First, the left-right dichotomy is flawed and polarizing. Secondly, the erosion of democracy is not reserved for the 'radical right'.

It seems that voters worldwide are adrift. In Argentina, a libertarian experiment is taking place under the leadership of Javier Milei, who was appointed president in December 2023. In the Netherlands, the PVV – essentially an authoritarian-nationalist party – suddenly became the largest after four Rutte cabinets had pursued a globalist-liberal policy. During the French elections, the world turned upside down after voters, fearing a nationalist government by Marine Le Pen, suddenly opted for a 'deep' socialist backlash.

What is striking in these discussions is the recurring contradiction between the 'radical right' and the 'hard left', as if the political landscape were a dichotomy instead of a continuum. There seems little room for a middle ground. For example, through a cover story this weekend, De Volkskrant lashed out at the 'radical right', which was said to be eroding democracy. Remarkably, the NRC did the same under the title 'Tampering with the rule of law'. What drives these newspapers, and many other political commentators, to persist in incorrect, one-dimensional thinking?

Left-right frame is no longer correct

Let's start with what, in my humble opinion, is wrong with the left-right frame. First, there are several dimensions along which we can rank political movements. Figure 1 shows two dimensions that were previously used in my improved voting guide in the last national elections in the Netherlands. The first dimension is between parties that are more nationalist or more globalist. Nationalists consider the national state, respect for its borders and the (original) culture of a country to be important.

Figure 1: Overview of political movements

20240709 - Harry Geels - Figuur 1

On the other hand, globalists place more emphasis on international cooperation and policy direction from supranational organizations such as the EU, the UN and the WHO. The other contradiction is between liberal and anti-liberal. The first emphasizes issues such as personal freedom and private property. The anti-liberal movements believe that the government should prescribe norms and values, that the government works better than the free market, and that property or ownership should therefore be public rather than private.

The second complication of the left-right frame concerns changing views as a result of what is happening in the world. New crises such as wars, pandemics, inequality and climate change encourage political movements to shift their course, or to adjust their visions and promote other interests. The cartoon in Figure 2 is a (too) simplistic example of such a change process of the 'old left', insofar as it existed. On the other hand, the 'right' has nowadays conspicuously managed to present itself as the savior of the poor people.

Figure 2: Cartoon: 'how old left became new left'

20240709 - Harry Geels - Figuur 2

Erosion of democracy also comes from below

The second complication of the current polarized debate is the claim that the erosion of the rule of law or democracy comes from the 'radical' or 'extreme right'. Apart from the fact that 'right' is not defined, we do indeed see political movements, such as fascism and authoritarian nationalism, that are anti-democratic or anti-rule of law (shown above left in Figure 1). However, communism is also antidemocratic, because the government decides everything. History shows that free elections and communism do not mix.

But globalism also has an anti-democratic character from below, or at least it is at odds with national democracies. Policy is often devised in supranational organizations that must then be adopted into national regulations 'take it or leave it', despite the fact that a majority of citizens in a country, or the national parliament, may be against this. On the one hand, we have committed ourselves to the international treaties, but on the other hand, the legislation and regulations and the administrators behind them are often not voted on.

Further considerations

The left-right frame is too simplistic and polarizing. Moreover, it divides voters into two groups that are very diverse. It further has a stigmatizing effect. 'Right-wing' people are therefore seen, for example, as anti-democratic, racist or against the climate transition, and 'left-wing' people as climate pushers who are against free speech. However, (social) problems are often nuanced. For example, wind turbines kill (rare) animals and we need (rare) raw materials to conduct electricity. And although the Netherlands may become overcrowded, we also have a shortage of people in education and healthcare.

A solution to combat polarization is to associate political parties with the underlying political movement. The PVV is authoritarian nationalist, the VVD neoliberal, the PvdA and VOLT are globalist-socialist, Groenlinks green socialist and the SP conservative socialist. The second solution is a thinking technique, namely realizing that scientific research has shown that people who think multidimensionally are more intelligent than those who only see two sides.

This article contains a personal opinion from Harry Geels