Europe’s Tea Party Moment
FlaglerLive | May 27, 2014
Europe to most Americans is like literature: something distant to flip through once in a while, with Instagrams as quotes from a visit. No one this side of the ocean really knows, or cares, who the president of France or the prime ministers of Britain or Germany might be, though in fairness Americans aren’t better informed about their own. Ask a Floridian to name his two senators, and he’s likelier to name Rick Scott—who’s barely a governor—and pass on the second name, than get either right (Claude Pepper and Reuben Askew, of course). Ask him to name the senator of another state, any other state, and he might name a Fox News talking head. Tell him that 28 European countries went to the polls this weekend to elect members to the European Parliament, and he’ll wonder when the United Nations changed its name.
But it’s worth paying a little attention to what Europe did this weekend in those continent-wide elections: “Four days of balloting across 28 countries elected scores of rebellious outsiders, including a clutch of xenophobes, racists and even neo-Nazis,” the Times reports this morning. “In Britain, Denmark, France and Greece, insurgent forces from the far right and, in Greece’s case, also from the radical left stunned the established political parties.” Anti-immigrants are fueling the anger in Britain and France. Austerity is fueling it in Greece. A grab-bag of nativist and anti-immigration issues animate the rest.
Though the Eurobashers, as The Economist calls them, increased their seats in 10 of 14 countries where they’re represented, the gains are not nearly enough to tip voting blocs in the insurgents’ favor. “But the insurgents’ success has nonetheless upended a once-immutable belief, laid out in the 1957 Treaty of Rome, that Europe is moving, fitfully but inevitably, toward ‘ever closer union.’ It also threatened to redraw the domestic political landscape in several core members of the 28-nation bloc, putting pressure on mainstream parties, particularly in Britain and France, to reshape their policies to recover lost ground.”
In sum, Europe is discovering its tea parties.
Doing so, it’s adding perspective to America’s own reactionary wave of the last few years, making it less exceptional and closer to a western phenomenon, and perhaps an inevitable one: as the liberal moment passed and its triumphs aged, a generation that took full advantage of it has grown in its wake, strong, self-assured and arrogant with an edge of invulnerability, a generation enough removed from the upheavals of the 1930s and 40s to lump those upheavals with the blurred mirror of, say, the 13th century. We’re not talking about a cohesive generation, which includes immigrants, but a particular segment of that generation: older, whiter, more strictly European, Christian (whether protestant or Catholic), and resentful of the continent’s browning and perceived Islamicisation.
There is no such Islamicisation. The largest proportion of Muslims in any one western European country is under 8 percent, in France. It’s 6 percent across Europe, but that 6 percent includes the high proportion of Muslims in Bulgaria and Russia. But as in the United States, even a minority that has no distinct political or cultural power on its own—blacks, for example, still account for roughly 13 percent of the population—is a threat once it asserts itself separately, or at least independently, from the majority that has for so long dominated it, expecting silence and submission rather than independence. The tea parties in the United States are driven in large part by the sense that white Americans are losing their grip on the nation they’ve mastered for its entire history. Obama’s election was a wake-up call to the nativists who jumped on any occasion as a pretext to go on the attack, dissimulating the attack’s outright racism behind the subtler masks of political dissatisfaction dressed up as upsets over taxes, Obamacare, climate change, the VA hospitals—whatever fits the bill of insurgency in garb more respectable and defensible than bigotry.
So it is in Europe, where the unquestionably racist far-rightists and neo-Nazis get very angry when tagged as racists, claiming instead to be speaking for “traditional,” “Christian,” “family valued” Europe. They see the European Parliament the way tea parties see Washington: as an overbearing usurper of local power and culture, as intruders who presume to reshape society, engineer it and impose abstract ideals that diminish freedom and marginalize local identity. All euphemisms for a simple complaint: white, Christian Europeans are diminishing, and they’re scared of losing their power. Curiously, high taxes are not on the populists’ radar, as they always are here when all else fails.
The European Union has its issues, aside from this populist movement. But its difficulties are more financial and political rather than cultural, social or religious: The European Union is no more a threat to local identity than the existence of a federal government in the United States can threaten the independence of an ashram in Oregon or of socialist-pinko single-payer medical care in Vermont. But populists need pretexts.
They need simple-minded issues that resonate with their simple-minded followers. The anti-immigration movement is one such pretext. It thrives on fears, however bogus the fears. Its irrationality is its strength: you can’t reason with zealotry.
More enlightened Europeans have reason to worry. Even fringe movements, as tea partiers have shown us in the United States, can hijack a continent’s politics and reset the agenda. The extremism eventually self-destructs. It’s in its nature: look at the United States, where the tea party moment is over. Meanwhile, the damage can be immeasurable. With luck, the populist movement in Europe will not only self-destruct, but it will galvanize more sensible Europeans to get their act together, counter the movement and emerge with a stronger—dare we say more perfect?—union.