The Slatest

Terrorism Is Bringing Out the Worst in Voters All Over the World

Migrant men stand in front of electoral posters for National Front President Marine Le Pen in Calais, France, on Dec. 7, 2015. 

Photo by Philippe Huguen/AFP/Getty Images

On Sunday, French voters went to the polls for the first time since the November terrorist attacks, and they rewarded Marine Le Pen’s far-right National Front, or FN, which has capitalized on fears of immigration, open borders, and Islam.

Exit polls for Sunday’s elections for regional governments show the FN leading in six of 13 regions. The party won about 30.8 percent of the total vote, nationwide, leading the recently rebranded center-right Republicans, led by former President Nicolas Sarkozy with 27.2 percent, and current President François Hollande’s Socialists with 22.7 percent. A second round of voting will be held on Dec. 13. In the past, France’s mainstream parties have banded together in run-offs to keep the Front out of power, and the Socialists have announced they are withdrawing from several contests to avoid splitting the anti-FN vote in the run-off. But Sarkozy, who has adopted some of Le Pen’s rhetoric on immigration and the EU, has ruled out an alliance with the Socialists.

The National Front, which also got the most votes in last year’s European Parliament elections, is now the most popular party in France. It’s getting much harder to dismiss the possibility that Le Pen could win next year’s presidential election—a remarkable shift for a party seen as an untouchable xenophobic fringe movement just a few years ago. Part of this shift is thanks to Le Pen’s success in making the party more palatable to mainstream voters by cutting ties with her father, the party’s founder, who embarrassed her with overt anti-Semitism and jokes about the Holocaust. But the party’s core nationalistic message has also undoubtedly gained more appeal as a result of the two horrifying Jihadist attacks in Paris this year. That’s a cause for concern, and not just for France.

As Gideon Rachman writes in the Financial Times on Monday, “In confusing and scary times, voters seem tempted to turn to ‘strong’ nationalistic leaders — western versions of Russia’s Vladimir Putin.” If trends continue as they are now, he suggests a nightmare scenario for 2017: “President Trump, President Le Pen, President Putin.” (It’s worth keeping in mind that both Le Pen and Donald Trump have wholeheartedly endorsed Vladimir Putin’s controversial intervention in Syria.)

The Nobel Prize–winning behavioral economist Daniel Kahneman has argued that there are cognitive biases that lead voters and leaders to favor more hawkish, adversarial responses to security threats. In modern politics, this tendency tends to benefit the political right. There’s some empirical evidence for this from Israel, a rare country with enough elections and terrorist attacks for a decent sample size. A 2008 Rand Corp. study found that a terrorist attack in a given locality in Israel within three months of an election caused a 1.35 percent increase in that locality’s support for the political right.

It’s not hard to think of examples elsewhere. The U.S. midterm elections of 2002 saw gains for George W. Bush’s Republicans a little more than a year following 9/11, bucking a well-established historical trend in which the president’s party loses seats in midterm votes. Putin, with his brand of strongman nationalism, was propelled to the presidency thanks to the threat of terrorism, and the continuing perception of outside security threats is a big reason Russians still overwhelmingly support him despite the country’s cratering economy. Last month’s Turkish election saw President Recep Tayyip Erdogan’s increasingly authoritarian AKP Party win back a majority it had lost just a few months earlier following a series of major bomb attacks and escalating violence with Kurdish militants.

As my colleague Josh Voorhees has written, some mainstream commentators clearly hoped the Paris attacks would lead Republican voters to come to their senses and support an experienced, establishment candidate in the Jeb Bush mold. Instead, the attacks only increased the support for Donald Trump, with his promises to “bomb the shit out of” ISIS.

I’m not suggesting these leaders are all alike in their policies. Le Pen is actually skeptical of French military action in Syria, and Trump has blasted Jeb Bush for his brother’s war in Iraq. But in times of perceived danger, voters like candidates who can clearly define the enemy and project strength and aggressiveness. Le Pen’s increasing electoral success and Trump’s stubborn refusal to bow to the laws of American politics and go away certainly demonstrate that.

In an address to the nation Sunday night, U.S. President Barack Obama made the case that “tough talk” is no solution to the threat posed by terrorism and that Americans shouldn’t give in to Islamophobia or overly aggressive military policies. I think he’s right. I also think it’s going to be a tough sell.