The Greek government’s crackdown on the country’s far-right Golden Dawn party has revived a vexing question that seemed to have disappeared with the Cold War’s end: Is there a place within liberal democracies for apparently anti-democratic parties?
To be sure, liberal democracies have felt threatened since communism collapsed in 1989 — but mostly by foreign terrorists, who tend not to form political parties and sit in these countries’ parliaments. So, should extremist parties that seek to compete within the democratic framework be outlawed, or would such a restriction on freedom of speech and association itself undermine this framework?
Above all, it is crucial that such decisions be entrusted to non-partisan institutions, such as constitutional courts, not other political parties, whose leaders will always be tempted to ban their competitors. Unfortunately, the moves against Golden Dawn are mostly identified with the government’s interests, rather than being perceived as the result of careful, independent judgement.
On the face of it, democratic self-defense seems a legitimate goal.
NO ‘SUICIDE PACT’
As US Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson (who was also the chief US prosecutor at Nuremburg) put it, the constitution is not “a suicide pact” — a sentiment echoed by the Israeli jurist Aharon Barak, who emphasized that “civil rights are not an altar for national destruction.”
However, too much democratic self-defense can ultimately leave no democracy to defend. If the people really want to be done with democracy, who is to stop them?
As another US Supreme Court justice, Oliver Wendell Holmes, put it, “if my fellow citizens want to go to Hell, I will help them. It’s my job.”
So it seems that democracies are damned if they ban and damned if they do not ban.
Or, in the more elevated language of the 20th century’s most influential liberal philosopher, John Rawls, this appears to be a “practical dilemma which philosophy alone cannot resolve.”
History offers no clear lessons, though many people like to think otherwise. In retrospect, it appears obvious that the Weimar Republic might have been saved had the Nazi Party been banned in time.
‘JOKE OF DEMOCRACY’
Joseph Goebbels, Adolf Hitler’s propaganda minister, famously gloated after the Nazis’ legal machtergreifung (“seizure of power”): “It will always remain one of the best jokes of democracy that it provided its mortal enemies with the means through which it was annihilated.”
However, a ban might not have halted the German people’s general disenchantment with liberal democracy, and an authoritarian regime still might have followed. Indeed, whereas West Germany banned a neo-Nazi party and the Communist Party in the 1950s, some countries — particularly in southern and eastern Europe, where dictatorship came to be associated with the suppression of pluralism — have drawn precisely the opposite lesson about preventing authoritarianism. That is one reason why Greece, for example, has no legal provisions for banning parties.
The fact that Greece nonetheless is effectively trying to destroy Golden Dawn — the parliament just voted to freeze the party’s state funding — suggests that, in the end, most democracies will want to draw the line somewhere, but just where, exactly, should it be drawn?
For starters, it is important to recognize that the line needs to be clearly visible before extremist parties even arise. If the rule of law is to be upheld, democratic self-defense must not appear ad hoc or arbitrary. Thus the criteria for bans should be spelled out in advance.