The writer’s new book ‘Homelands: A Personal History of Europe’ will be published next spring
The deepest power is that of determining what people consider normal. If you can persuade others that your way of doing things is normal, you have won. At the moment, many mature democracies are experiencing the normalisation of the anti-liberal far right. It’s vital to keep insisting that their norms are no part of an acceptable normality.
The term “normalisation” came to prominence after the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968. It meant the attempt to return a European society to Soviet communist norms. I have never forgotten a Czech friend telling me in 1984, “if someone stands up to speak his mind in public, his colleagues will say ‘he’s not normal’”. But five years later, people all over central and eastern Europe were saying “we just want to be a normal country”. By normal they meant somewhere like West Germany, France or the US. The west had won the battle of norms.
This western, liberal democratic version of normality prevailed for many years, but it is now besieged. After Donald Trump was elected in 2016, David Remnick, the editor of the New Yorker, wrote a passionate appeal for Americans not to normalise Trump and Trumpism. Yet six years later Trump remains the single most influential politician in the Republican party, even if his candidates did not do as well as he hoped in the midterm elections. Hundreds of elected Republican representatives peddle the plain falsehood that Trump actually won the 2020 presidential election, and millions of Republican voters tell pollsters they believe it. Empirically speaking, Trumpism has become part of American normality.
In France, the far-right politician Marine Le Pen gained a shocking 41 per cent of the vote in this year’s presidential election and her National Rally party did well in subsequent parliamentary elections. Now its MPs sit with her in France’s National Assembly, neatly dressed, civil (for the most part, except for the occasional shout of “Go back to Africa!”), observing the niceties of parliamentary conduct and doing everything to demonstrate that their politics are, well, normal. In Italy, a post-neofascist, Giorgia Meloni, is prime minister, and Silvio Berlusconi, of all people, counts as the most moderate of the three party leaders in her coalition government.
It’s not easy to combat such creeping normalisation. The 19th-century German legal philosopher Georg Jellinek wrote compellingly of the “normative power of the given” – the tendency for what is widely experienced in real life gradually to be accommodated in ethical and legal norms. In democracies, there’s an added difficulty. If a far-right party has significant parliamentary representation, there’s a strong temptation for more moderate, centre-right parties to go into coalition with them or, as in Sweden today, to govern with their parliamentary support. (Of course, the same is true of centre-left parties in relation to far-left ones.) Thus the very working of democracy can contribute to undermining liberal democratic norms.
For precisely that reason, it’s important that democratic politicians of the centre right don’t appease the far right by adopting or tolerating its language. An instance was offered recently when Suella Braverman, the British home secretary, described the arrival of refugees and migrants across the English Channel as an “invasion”. The word “invasion”, suggesting a deliberate hostile incursion, is a buzzword and mutual recognition sign of the far right. Yet instead of sharply distancing himself from her inflammatory wording, prime minister Rishi Sunak tried to explain it away as a mere figure of speech used to emphasise the scale of the problem. Awkward though it might be to criticise an embattled minister you have just (unwisely) appointed, politicians of the democratic centre right need on every occasion to sharpen this line, not blur it.
To counter the creeping normalisation of the far right, we can learn from the great Czech dissident Václav Havel’s resistance to the original “normalisation”. This means upholding a standard of normality, for decades if need be, which may differ from the empirically normal in the society around us. “This is not who we are!” say US politicians, when confronted with another horrendous school shooting or other hate crime. Empirically, that’s not, alas, strictly true: these things are now chronically present in American society. But “this is not who we are!” is both a statement of principle and an emotionally intelligent attempt to summon people back to their better selves.
So whenever you hear the word “normal”, remember this: the battle for the future of liberal democracy is also a struggle over the definition of normality.