In the wide world of contemporary politics, there are now two Tea Parties.
© The Associated Press
Far right party National Front leader Marine Le Pen poses for photographers before addressing reporters at the party's headquarters in Nanterre, west of Paris, Sunday May 25, 2014, following the victory of her party in the European Elections.
The first, created five years ago, is the U.S.’s well-known Tea Party.
The new one, on the far side of the Atlantic, doesn’t carry that name and many of its policies are quite different.
The core similarity between them is that both aren’t so much political parties as they are social movements. Both believe that the government that governs the least governs the best. Both believe that countries should be governed not from the top down by a nation’s presumed best and brightest, but rather by the opinions and instincts of ordinary people.
Both of them, this is to say, are believers in populism. They believe, thus, in direct democracy rather than in the representative democracy that has dominated politics in almost all industrial democracies during the three-quarters of a century since the end of the Second World War.
The transatlantic equivalents to the Tea Party aren’t new. But all of the earlier ones were too small and too extreme to need to be taken seriously. Most memorably, British Prime Minister David Cameron once dismissed them as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.”
The global political vocabulary has been transformed by a single evening of vote-counting in Europe this past weekend. According to French Prime Minister Manuel Valls, what happened amounted to “an earthquake.”
That was an overreaction. The newly elected European Parliament will still be dominated by the usual safe and steady centrists.
The scale of the change, though, is still stunning. In France, the far-right, anti-immigrant Front National won the largest number of seats, while support for President François Hollande dropped to a historic low of 14 per cent. In Britain, the look-alike UKIP (United Kingdom Independent Party) was as successful, if more narrowly so. This time, Cameron limited his comments to a grudging acceptance that voters were “disillusioned.”
In Demark and Greece, outsider parties achieved similar, first-ever victories.
Among these results there were differences. Greek voters were responding to the scale of the pain imposed by austerity. These voters expressed their anger, though, by turning to an extreme far-left party, Syriza. By contrast, in Austria, the far-right Freedom Party achieved major gains even though that country’s rate of unemployment is the lowest in Europe, at 4.9 per cent.
Disillusionment thus is general, with the condition of the local economy or the ideology of the party protesting against it being secondary.
The complaint of a great many Europeans, it is now clear, is with Europe itself.
The specifics are easy to identify. Anger at the failures of the European common currency. The lack of controls over immigration now that so many newcomers from Eastern Europe have the right to move to the wealthier countries.
And, far from least, a widespread sense that the European Union’s bureaucrats and its politicians have lost touch with the people.
In her victory speech, the National Front leader Marine Le Pen gave this explanation of why she had won: “The people no longer want to be led by those outside our borders, by EU commissioners and technocrats who are unelected. They want to be protected from globalization and to take back the reins of their destiny.”
Those clever commissioners and technocrats will find ways to cobble the EU back together.
But it’s hard to see how the once bright dream of a united, confident Europe will ever again be achieved.
Richard Gwyn’s column appears
every other Thursday. firstname.lastname@example.org.