Two Sides of the Same Coin: Fringe Groups of Europe and the U.S.

Although they forced the government into a partial shutdown, Tea Partiers still failed to strip the Affordable Care Act of funding – not that they thought they would. The coalition’s “fool’s errand,” however, successfully turned congressional politics on its head and made the Tea Party the closest thing to a third party congress has seen in a century.

Many Americans are confused and outraged that a minority faction could be so obstructive. We are accustomed to knockdown, drag out face-offs as the United States “has lurched from crisis to crisis over the past few years.” But these confrontations traditionally take place between the Republican and Democrat parties, blocs that represent large swaths of the electorate. Tea party representatives hail from only the farthest right wing districts in the country.

While a small ideological faction wielding legislative power is a foreign concept to Americans, the convention is quite common in Europe. Political parties of the extreme left and right have strong roots in European democracies and frequently win seats in their legislative bodies. The ultra conservative groups of Europe share many ideological similarities with the Tea Party; but European political systems are equipped to absorb these groups, while the U.S. experienced chaos and legislative paralysis while contending with a rogue Tea Party. Of the causes for this distinction, Europe’s system of multiparty governing and the Tea Party’s hostility to compromise are the two chief reasons for the widely different experiences of European and American legislatures parleying with far-right political parties.

Two Sides of the Same Coin

Following the 2008 economic crisis, European and American ultra conservative groups experienced a surge in popularity. Voters responded to campaign platforms that championed the common man and espoused distrust in government and economic elites. Though American and European conservative  parties naturally have vastly different policy platforms, both groups are ideologically rooted in nativism and populism.

European nativism centers itself on defending cultural homogeneity: Geert Wilders, the leader of the Dutch Party for Freedom (PVV), is notorious for his Islamaphobia – he is in favor of a “head rag” tax for burqa wearers. France’s leading conservative party, Front National, advocates for dramatic reductions in immigration. The Tea Party is also in favor restricting immigration, particularly illegal immigration from Mexico. But the Tea Party’s most significant nativist policy is its creed to restore American government to original constitutional principles.

Populism, the other tenet of ultra conservatism, manifests itself on both continents by deep distrust in perceived social, political, and economic elites. For European groups, hostility towards central banks and the EU are par for the course. PVV and FN advocate for their respective country’s exit of the Eurozone and the EU. They found solid support in a European middle class shaken by instability following the economic crisis and frightened of globalization. The PVV’s 2012 party platform featured the image of an EU flag in a trashcan.

Tea Party Republicans rail against elite “D.C. insiders.” Indicative of the fault lines the GOP is currently splitting along, Tea Party Republicans galvanize their voting base with criticisms of GOP politicians entrenched in the party establishment. By denouncing politicians with strong ties to interest groups or a track record of compromise, as RINO’s (Republicans in name only), the Tea Party has adopted the mantle that they are the soul of the conservative movement.

Where the U.S. Goes Wrong

The far right parties of America and Europe are founded on similar principles of institutional suspicion, fear of globalization and protection of nativist principles. Why then has the Tea Party’s impact on the American political system been drastically more onerous than that of conservative European parties on France, Italy and the Netherlands’ democracies?

The principle answer lies in institutional differences between the democracies of America and Europe. Most countries of Europe are multi-party democracies owing to proportional representation voting (a system that award seats in the legislature based on percentage of votes won.) In Denmark, Italy, and the Netherlands, amongst others, political parties must form coalitions in order to achieve a majority in parliament. Fringe parties that typically run on one issue – as the Tea Party ran on American debt – risk being frozen out of policy making entirely if they are hostile to compromise.

The PVV, for example, suffered this fate during the Netherland’s 2012 budget deal. After the party’s leader, Wilders, pulled out PVV’s support for the proposed cuts, two coalition parties and three minority parties created a majority in the Dutch parliament and passed a budget. PVV was excluded and unlike Ted Cruz, Wilders had no power to obstruct or influence the deal.

When he was asked to comment on the budget showdown in Washington, Olli Rehn, the EU commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, said, “perhaps it is now the time for the U.S. policymakers to go Dutch.”

America’s two party system is not exclusively to blame. As I mentioned while describing Tea Party populism, Tea Party representatives believe themselves the true conservative response to compromising GOP-establishment politicians. As a result, the suicide caucus considers any degree of compromise or negotiation anathema to its identity. Unfortunately for Congress, this creed is unlikely to change. Following the most recent budget battle, it is evident that obstructionism works for the Tea Party. Ted Cruz captured America’s attention for 21 hours, forcing the nation to pay attention to the federal debt and primed himself nicely for a 2016 presidential run. By prompting a government shutdown, the Tea Party coalition inspired greater distrust in the government. It drew attention to Obamacare and sewed seeds of belief that it will fail. Lastly, the media crowned Tea Partiers the victors by the end of the face-off, despite their sinking approval rating.