In 1981, when the French elected a member of the Socialist Party as their president, free marketeers looked on uneasily. “Is Francois Mitterrand’s election just a regular and welcome democratic change, with one team of competing politicians replacing another?” asked Henri LePage, reason‘s correspondent in France, in that year’s September issue. “Or is it a precursor to much more dreadful events, the beginning of a true socialist revolutionary process that would have terrible consequences for the whole Western world?”
Thirty-five years later, a vote by the United Kingdom to leave the European Union this summer provoked analogous concerns: Though many supporters of Brexit said they were motivated only by a desire to take back national sovereignty from Brussels, strong anti-immigrant sentiments were also a major part of the movement. Since a key component of the economic union is that it permits free travel across borders, pulling out was seen as a way to tamp down access to Great Britain by a flood of mostly Muslim refugees from Syria and elsewhere, as well as Eastern European economic migrants.
Just as Mitterand’s election made some people anxious that the socialist left was picking up steam, the question now is whether the Brits’ decision harkens a new moment for right-wing nationalism. Will other European countries, spooked by the volume of immigrants they’re seeing, begin closing their borders as well? Marine Le Pen, leader of the ultra-Eurosceptic French National Front, told Paris Match that the vote had “given [her] wings.” And a recent study by Pew Research Center found that large numbers of Europeans believe the refugee influx increases the likelihood of terrorism in their country.
Across the pond, where the Republican Party’s presidential candidate rose on a platform of building a wall along the Mexican border and turning away all adherents of the Islamic faith, the fear is even more pointed: Could the United States really be poised to elect a protectionist buffoon like Donald Trump to the highest office in the world? In the wake of Brexit, an outcome that looked like a pipe dream last year seems all too possible today.
The collectivist revolution LePage fretted about in 1981 never materialized. Bernie Sanders’ presidential run notwithstanding, genuine socialism is mostly relegated to the political fringes in the U.S. and Europe. Those of us who believe in the free flow of goods and people should pray the same will be true for the nationalistic mood threatening the West in 2016.