Wednesday, September 22, 2010

Europe's Far Right and the Tea Party

After elections last weekend, Sweden has become the latest European country with a parliament featuring a anti-immigration, anti-Islam far-right party. Like the Netherlands, home of the unabashedly anti-Muslim Geert Wilders, who is the closest thing the European far-right has to a transnational star, Sweden has enjoyed a reputation as a paragon of tolerance and and liberalism. The far-right is still weak in Sweden relative to in many other European countries, but it is rising in popularity and speaks to xenophobic fears among the Swedish people. As La Stampa points out, Sweden is indicative of a growing problem in Europe - and in the West overall - which the global economic downturn has naturally accelerated. Centrist leaders like Nicolas Sarkozy have fended off the political right by trying to attract its voters, as in the recent deportations of Roma to Romania. Such nationalist and xenophobic actions, as EU Justice Commissioner Viviane Reding expressed, betray European values and summon the ghosts of a dark past.

Aside from expressing worrisome intolerance among European populations, such electoral results as Sweden's can make governing difficult. With the Swedish Democrats reaching about 5.7% of the vote and entering the Riksdag, they hold the balance of power between the two tradition center-right and center-left blocks. In order to remain prime minister, Fredrik Reinfeldt will need support from the Greens. The entry of a new extremist, populist party unacceptable as a partner to the others has led to near-political-paralysis in other European parliamentary states. Wilders' Freedom Party won 24 of 150 seats in the Dutch elections in June and the country has still not been able to form a government. In Germany, the 2005 success of the Left Party, which has roots in the East German Communist Party, led to the awkward grand coalition government between the two largest parties. In another solution, the Danish People's Party, still seen as too toxic for a formal coalition government but the third-largest political force in Denmark, has informally supported minority governments of the center-right in exchange for concessions on its issues, principally immigration.

The rise of the right has real costs. Immigration to Denmark has become all but impossible. The French Roma policy is discriminatory as well as expensive and without much purpose, as the EU ensures freedom of movement and many Roma deported from France say they will soon return. Anti-foreigner measures undermine the moral authority that Europe pretends to and indeed requires on the global stage in order to fight climate change, prosecute war crimes, etc.

While Sarkozy, Hungary's Viktor Orban, and Slovakia's former prime minister Robert Fico have thrown bones to the far right to gain support from its voters (indeed, Fico's popularity among the nationalists cannibalized his smaller coalition partners and led to him losing his job when one of them didn't make it into parliament in this year's elections), Germany's Angela Merkel has refused to pander to the right, governing as a true moderate (her stance against Turkish EU membership is conservative, but perhaps the most widely shared position across the European right, and does reflect the center of European opinion as few countries' populations favor enlargement). But some worry that in doing so she is leaving an opening for the development of a far-right force in German politics. Erika Steinbach, the head of a group of Germans with ancestry in modern-day Poland, left the Christian Democratic leadership structure after her latest in a long series of insensitive comments that angered Poles. Steinbach warns that an opening is being left on the right. Meanwhile a book by a Bundesbanker Thilo Sarrazin (who was driven out of his job after its publication) entitled "Germany Does Away With Itself" labels immigrant Muslims seeking generous social benefits in Germany as genetically inferior. The New York Times notes that all that may now be missing for the rise of a far-right party in Germany is a charismatic leader willing to unite the nationalist and anti-immigrant strands and take the heat of the inevitable Nazi comparisons.

The United States is protected from extremism by its rigid two-party structure, which requires candidates to tack to the center when they face moderate electorates in November. Indeed, this is one of the major pluses of the often frustrating limited options of a bipartisan system. But extremists can win elections, and some fairly radical Tea Party candidates are probably headed to the United States Senate in January - from purple (Colorado, Nevada) and maybe blue (Delaware) states as well as red (Kentucky, Alaska, Utah) ones. Sarah Palin has a very real chance of winning the Republican nomination for the presidency, and possibly even the office itself if the economy stays bad.

The rise of the Tea Party is an interesting development, a real conservative street movement which is purging the GOP for idealogical purity through elections, eviscerating the party's already weakened moderate wing. Like the European nationalists cursing the EU and Brussels, they wrap themselves in the flag and rail against the capital, which they see as remote. They worship the Constitution and the Founding Fathers, although giving them a one-sided reading. As George Washington and Alexander Hamilton biographer Ron Chernow points out, both the father of the country and his most trusted aide believed in a strong federal government, and the Constitution of 1787 strengthened the federal government because the previous set-up of a national government under the Articles of Confederation had been to weak to act in a coherent fashion. And the American Revolution was not against taxation per se, but against taxation without representation. The only district in the continental United States that currently lives under this condition is the District of Columbia, so perhaps it is its citizens which should be flooding the public spaces of state capitals across the nation in protest.

The primary argument of the Tea Party is a radical economic one - taxes and the national debt and deficit must all be slashed as soon and as much as possible, and we should do this by drastically cutting government services, including eliminating the Department of Education, scrapping unemployment benefits, etc. I believe this is disastrously bad policy and unrealistic, but it is not inherently racist, despite the fact that it would harm minorities even more than whites. Less government has more appeal to rural residents than urban residents for natural reasons: they see fewer services, don't like to pay for them, and pride themselves on their independence (with notable exceptions of farm subsidies, and the limited system of socialized medicine i.e. Medicare which America has already enjoyed for decades).

But there is a significant xenophobic element to the conservative Tea Party movement as well. The fears of older, white, rural (and suburban) Americans that their country is becoming more diverse and that they are losing political power were displayed when the right defeated President Bush's centrist immigration reform in 2007. More recently, they have been exposed by hysterical conspiracy theories over President Obama's exotic background and left-of-center politics, fanned by Fox News and mainstream politicians such as Palin, Newt Gingrich (who embraced Dinesh D'Souza's ridiculous theories about "the roots of Obama's anger"), and some who actually currently hold elected office like Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell. And fear of Islam has led to fury over a Muslim community center planned for an old Burlington Coat Factory building in Lower Manhattan, and a Florida preacher's threat to burn the Quran on 9/11 has already led to more protest-related deaths in places like Afghanistan and Kashmir than the preacher has souls in his flock, and undermined the security of the United States.

America continues to make social progress - we have elected a black president, and his successor could well be a woman or a Mormon. The GOP, long embarrassingly undiverse, features rising politicians like Cuban-American Marco Rubio and Indian-American Nikki Haley in the South. But the use of code language against Obama is at best cynical and dangerous, anger against Islam and the Muslim world is counterproductive to our national security, and the populist conservative approach to immigration costs the country and, given demographic trends, will cost the Republican Party in the near future if it does not evolve.

It remains to be seen whether the Tea Party can achieve its goals beyond winning (and losing) some elections. Judging by the national Republican Party's new Pledge to America, the new GOP is really the same as the old GOP (though many conservative commentators have blasted the stale ideas of the pledge, and if Palin and her allies win control of the party, perhaps we might see something new): the American right in of the 1980s, the 1990s, and the 2000s. In Europe on the right, this isn't the case. The postwar consensus of social protection and European integration continues to splinter, slowly.

No comments:

Post a Comment