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As proudly patriotic as it is, the Tea Party is not exceptional -- or at least not in the ways it likes to think. The angry conservative group, which accuses U.S. President Barack Obama of betraying the constitution and driving the United States toward “European-style” socialism, epitomizes a libertarian strain of thought and action with deep roots in its country’s past. The same alarm -- that the United States needs protecting from a leviathan state supposedly alien to the cherished values handed down by the Founding Fathers -- has been raised by the Liberty League in the 1930s, by the John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s, and by the Christian right from the 1970s to the present. Grassroots activists who embraced that credo propelled Barry Goldwater to the Republican presidential nomination in 1964 and Ronald Reagan into the White House in 1980.
But subtract the colonial-period costumes and the “Don’t Tread on Me” flags, and Tea Party events are not easily distinguishable from the political rallies organized by parties across the Atlantic. Antagonism to taxes, corporate regulation, a strong central government, expensive welfare systems, and recent immigrants (particularly Muslim ones) are central to the platforms of the Party for Freedom in the Netherlands, the Independence Party in the United Kingdom, and the Lega Nord in Italy, among others. Until recently, the National Front in France embraced the free-market agenda too, and it certainly shares the anti-immigrant fervor of its counterparts. All these parties demand a return to the supposed traditional cultural values -- and racial demography -- of their native lands. They view the European Union the same way that the Tea Party views the federal government: as a tyrannical bureaucracy that robs ordinary men and women of their liberties.
Most of the right-wing parties in Europe predate the Tea Party, but they are motivated by the same big fear: that a state run by cosmopolitan elites is taxing native-born citizens with middling incomes to help a lazy, immoral rabble that has no love for the nation that coddles it. As the platform of the Independence Party puts it, “the rescue of the British people depends on withdrawal from the EU to regain our self-governing democracy, so allowing the relief of business from crushing regulation and the less well off from the burden of taxes, shutting off the flood of immigrants and freeing enterprise.”
In reality, what distinguishes the Tea Party from its European brethren isn’t its platform but the degree of influence it has managed to acquire. Unlike populist parties in Europe, the Tea Party has the structure of its country’s political system on its side. In the United States, there are only two parties that matter, and a well-organized faction of fervent ideologues can gain great influence by affiliating itself with just one of them.
That faction doesn’t need to gain support from a majority of Democrats or Republicans; it just has to campaign successfully for a healthy number of congressional candidates, or else show an ability to defeat lawmakers in its own party whose views it detests. Nearly every district with a strong Tea Party is a Republican stronghold, which enables the insurgent group to rack up more victories than it would if it were trying to attract swing or Democratic voters.
In contrast, nearly every nation in western and central Europe has a parliamentary system with multiple parties. In theory, these systems should enable right-wing parties with sizeable followings to hold the balance of power. But most have difficulty winning enough seats in national legislatures to threaten the dominance of their more established, mainstream rivals. Even when they do make it into parliament, they are rarely more than very minor partners in governing coalitions that are committed to preserving the EU, a welfare state, and a relatively tolerant policy toward immigrants.
The consequence is that, in Europe, gains in popular support for the populist right seldom translate into the power to enact laws or prevent them from passing. Consider France’s National Front, which is currently one of Europe’s most popular anti-establishment parties on the right. According to a recent poll, the National Front would take 24 percent of the French vote in next year’s election to the European Parliament, a relatively powerless body that, ironically, the Front would prefer to abolish. But France’s two-tier national electoral system prevents the Front from gaining as many seats in the National Assembly as its popularity might warrant. Several of its candidates lead in the first round, in which major and minor parties all appear on the ballot. But in the second, run-off round that includes just two candidates, voters of the left and mainstream right usually band together to back the one who opposes the National Front. In last year’s legislative elections in France, the Front won just two seats in the 577-member National Assembly. And those were the only seats that the party had won in fifteen years of trying.
Compare that dismal performance to the lofty, if now embattled, status of the Tea Party. In a recent Gallup poll, conducted just before the government shutdown, 22 percent of Americans considered themselves supporters of the populist conservative group, a small dip since 2011. But the power it wields surpasses anything the National Front has managed to achieve since its founding, in 1972. The nearly 50 members of the Tea Party Caucus compelled House Speaker John Boehner to spur a major crisis of government by refusing to agree to the raising of the national debt ceiling. In the Senate, Tea Party favorite Senator Ted Cruz filibustered himself into political celebrity. Few Republican politicians are willing to be critical of the hard-right faction because they know it represents the largest, most dedicated, and hardest-working faction in the GOP. According to a recent Pew poll, almost half of all Republican primary voters identify themselves with the Tea Party.
Ironically, the Tea Party seems ambivalent about its own power. Activists like to grumble about corrupt and cowardly politicians. But if they bolted the Republican Party en masse, they would only guarantee that the Democrats would control both houses of Congress. “Vive la difference!,” Tea Partiers might say, if they were not inclined to mistrust anyone who speaks that “socialist” tongue.
On the other hand, the zealots at the grassroots of the American right have yet to appreciate that with great influence comes great responsibility. In the wake of their failure to stop Obamacare, the Republican Party’s more pragmatic lawmakers wish that the Tea Party would powder their wigs, oil their single-shot muskets, and leave the governing to others.