Transatlantic populism

The rise of populist parties on the Old Continent seems to echo the success of the Tea Party in the United States. But the two movements have different histories, writes the Boston correspondent for De Morgen. The result, though, is the same: governments threatened with paralysis.

Published on 6 May 2011 at 15:12

In the American media recently there has been a lot of talk of the “European Tea Party.” The Old Continent is supposed to have become acquainted with this movement following the victory of the True Finns in elections in Finland and the rise in the polls in France of the leader of the Front National, Marine Le Pen.

The emotions that animate the Tea Party, it would appear, have crossed the Atlantic to Europe. When it rains in Washington, a few drops will fall in Helsinki, Paris and Flanders. And when the American Tea Party revolts in Washington, the European Tea Party rises up against Brussels.

Let’s be clear: apart from a few loners with a Facebook page, the notion of a “European Tea Party” makes precious little sense. It’s actually the other way around. The Tea Party is an American outlet for sentiments that in Europe have been venting for years in parties like the Vlaams Blok, which became the Vlaams Belang [VB, Flemish nationalist party of the far right] in Flanders, the Front National in France, the Pim Fortuyn List [dissolved in 2008] in the Netherlands and the Northern League in Italy. Filip Dewinter [head of the VB] was making speeches while Sarah Palin [muse of the American Tea Party] was still content to help her husband with his fishing business in Wasilla, Alaska. We have some right, therefore, to claim ownership of what is happening here in Europe.

What is called the “European Tea Party”, we might also note, worries about holding onto social gains, while the American version recoils with dread at the idea of ​​a welfare state on the European model. [US President Barack] Obama cannot even lift a finger for a social initiative without loud cries of “Communism!” The differences are legion. Nevertheless, the origins of the resentments are very similar.

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At bottom, it’s about the existential fears of white, middle-class workers. On both shores of the Atlantic, the white taxpayer fears that his country is being held hostage, that he is being crowded out by immigrants and witnessing the end of the world where he has lived so long in comfort. On both sides of the ocean there is the same dislike of arrogant elites who look down on ordinary people and despise their own national characteristics.

And the populist right is spending a lot of time on trans-Atlantic phone calls. Tim Phillips, president of Americans for Prosperity, one of the Republican lobby groups in the shadows of the Tea Party, recently visited Norway to teach the Progress Party, a far-right party, how to emerge in no time as a “spontaneous” grassroots movement. Vlaams Belang has known links with the United States, and the nationalist Flemish leader Bart De Wever draws his inspiration from the British journalist Theodore Dalrymple, whose writing is also appreciated in Tea Party circles in the US And the personal adviser to Geert Wilders [leader of the PVV, a populist Dutch party] is Paul Beliën, husband of Alexandra Colen, a member of Vlaams Belang who has excellent contacts with the thin-skinned American right.

Common ground here is anti-Islamic paranoia. The “Eurabia” hypothesis, which holds that Muslim immigrants are the fifth column in the Islamisation of Europe, is popular on both sides of the ocean. In some U.S. states initiatives are underway to keep Sharia [Islamic law] from being applied in the courts – which, however, is never applied anyway. What this shows is that the Tea Party is closer to people like Geert Wilders and Philippe De Winter than one might think.

No surprise there, really. As early as 1964 the American historian Richard Hofstadter described in his now classic essay, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, the creeping fear of elites who seemingly run everything from the shadows. While members of the Tea Party believe that Obama is a Muslim secret agent, their European colleagues are certain that Brussels is trying to establish a European super-state dictatorship. Whether in Europe or America, everywhere conspiracies against the little white taxpayer are feared.

The situation has clearly begun to fester throughout the West. The world of yesterday, once so safe, will never return. The Great Recession has taken its toll on both sides of the Atlantic. Unemployment, poverty and uncertainty about the future are spreading. There are problems with immigration. Add to that a series of revolts in the Middle East whose outcomes are uncertain and it’s all somewhat disquieting, at the least.

In a growing number of countries this situation is giving rise to hostile reactions in the electorate, who are trying to persuade themselves that everything would be so much better if the rest of the world would just go away and let them get back to living in an idyllic past, set roughly in the 1950s. All those who fail to share this view are intellectuals aloof from the people, or “bad Flemings”, or not quite “true” Americans or Finns. Legitimate distress with the state of the world risks slipping into irrational reactions that could make things worse.

On both sides of the Atlantic, a self-destructive vicious circle threatens. It is highly probable that those who are currently supporting the populists will turn even more hostile at voting times, which will let the populists go on gaining ground and make it even harder to find rational solutions to problems that are no less real.

Potential disasters aside, the outcome is an increasingly inability to govern and a growing incapacity to act to resolve the pressing issues of the day. This is as clearly seen in Washington as it is in Helsinki and The Hague, and in the European and Belgian political capitals in Brussels.

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