Sanity Takes Control In Britain And France – Can It Happen Here?

Heather Cox Richardson

I have spent the weekend struggling mightily with a new manuscript and have had little time to study the news.

The most notable event from the day is that in a stunning upset, French voters have rejected members of Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Rally party in legislative elections. After the first round of votes, National Rally candidates appeared to be comfortably ahead, but left-wing and centrist candidates combined forces to prevent splitting the vote, and voters then flooded the polls to elect the candidates that coalition fielded. 

Le Pen has said her policies are the same ones advanced by Russian president Vladimir Putin and former president Trump. 

On Thursday, elections in the United Kingdom saw a landslide victory for the center-left Labour Party for the first time in 14 years. Lauren Frayer and Fatima Al-Kassab of NPR noted that it was the worst defeat for the Conservatives in their almost 200-year history. 

There are always many factors that go into any election, but these results at least raise the question of whether western politicians are finding effective ways to counter the techniques of Russian disinformation. France has been flooded with Russian disinformation trying to create divisions in society as Putin seeks to break European support for Ukraine. Russia openly supports Le Pen.    

The U.K. also has been similarly flooded with Russian disinformation for years now. Russian trolls lie on social media websites and populate the comments sections of popular websites both to end support for Ukraine and to exploit wedge issues to split people apart.

These efforts were part of what Russian political theorists called “political technology”: the construction of a virtual political reality through modern media. Political theorists developed several techniques in this approach to politics: blackmailing opponents, abusing state power to help favored candidates, sponsoring “double” candidates with names similar to those of opponents in order to confuse voters on the other side and thus open the way for their own candidates, creating false parties to split the opposition, and, finally, creating a false narrative around an election or other event in order to control public debate.

These techniques perverted democracy, turning it from the concept of voters choosing their leaders into the concept of voters rubber-stamping the leaders they had been manipulated into backing.

This system made sense in former Soviet republics, where it enabled leaders to avoid the censorship that voters would recoil from by instead creating a firehose of news until people became overwhelmed by the task of trying to figure out what was real and simply tuned out. But those techniques dovetailed with the rhetoric of homegrown far-right figures as well.

It has always been a question what people who have embraced a virtual world will do when they figure out that the narrative on which they have based their government is fake. It seems possible that they create centrist coalitions and turn out to vote in huge numbers to reassert control over their politics and their country. 

The United States has had a similarly contentious relationship with political technology, Russian disinformation, and far-right leaders echoing that disinformation as they seek to take power by dividing the American people.

And long before anyone had begun to call disinformation political technology, the United States had a small group of elite enslavers seeking to take control of the nation by hammering on their narrative that the only true basis for society was racial slavery and using racism to divide their opponents. 

When they managed to get Congress and the Supreme Court to give them the right to move slavery into the American West, where new slave states could work with southern slave states to make slavery national, voters woke up. Disagreeing about immigration, internal improvements, public education, tariffs, and finance—all hot-button issues in the 1850s—they nonetheless built a centrist coalition to stop elite enslavers from replacing democracy with an oligarchy. 

Indeed, their coalition was so effective that Illinois senator Stephen A. Douglas, who had sponsored the 1854 Kansas-Nebraska Act that permitted enslavement to move west, objected that it was unseemly for abolitionists who opposed human enslavement in principle to work with those like Illinois lawyer Abraham Lincoln, who focused on the Constitution and argued that it protected enslavement in the slave states. 

In 1854, Lincoln answered Douglas: “Our Senator…objects that those who oppose him in this measure do not entirely agree with one another…. [H]e…says it is not quite fair to oppose him in this variety of ways. He should remember that he took us by surprise—astounded us—by this measure. We were thunderstruck and stunned; and we reeled and fell in utter confusion. But we rose each fighting, grasping whatever he could first reach—a scythe—a pitchfork—a chopping axe, or a butcher’s cleaver. We struck in the direction of the sound; and we are rapidly closing in upon him. He must not think to divert us from our purpose, by showing us that our drill, our dress, and our weapons, are not entirely perfect and uniform. When the storm shall be past, he shall find us still Americans; no less devoted to the continued Union and prosperity of the country than heretofore.” 

Six years later, that coalition of voters elected Lincoln to the White House.

The French elections left no party in an absolute majority, so governance will be messy. Spanish prime minister Pedro Sánchez nonetheless cheered tonight’s results: “This week, two of the largest countries in Europe have chosen the same path that Spain chose a year ago: rejection of the extreme right and a decisive commitment to a social left that addresses people’s problems with serious and brave policies,” Sánchez posted on social media.

“The United Kingdom and France have said YES to progress and social advancement and NO to the regression in rights and freedoms. There is no agreement or government with the extreme right.” 

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