When the hard right first regrouped under the Tea Party banner, South Carolina Republican Senator Lindsey Graham met with them several times. The meetings, he told the New York Times, could be extremely contentious. During one session in Charleston he asked them,"'What do you want to do? You take back your country — and do what with it?'…Everybody went from being kind of hostile to just dead silent."
Earlier in 2010, Graham told the Times, "The problem with the Tea Party, I think it's just unsustainable because they can never come up with a coherent vision for governing the country. It will die out."
Three years later, it's still very much alive. No longer such a force on the streets — dressed in period costume for the benefit of Fox News or disrupting town hall meetings with belligerent bunkum — but in Congress, where its outsize influence is primarily responsible for the government shutdown. The roots of the drama — the nation's apparently endless flirtation with dysfunctional collapse on a scale that would qualify it as a failed state — is less the product of a partisan divide than an ongoing internal schism within the GOP. The Tea Party advocates and their allies who have led this and previous confrontations have been branded by their fellow Republicans as "wacko birds" distracted by "shiny objects" while chirping "Box Canyon, here we come." These insults are difficult to translate, but the phenomenon is increasingly easy to understand. For in much of Western Europe the mainstream right is struggling to muster the support to govern effectively, either exclusively or with its preferred allies.
Pretty much every European country has its version of the Tea Party — albeit usually with a lot less guns and a little less God. Only in most places they no longer embed themselves within the mainstream but have struck out on their own. Most recently in Germany, there was the Alternative for Germany, an anti-tax party campaigning against bailouts for poorer European nations and for abandoning the euro and returning to the Deutsch mark. It won 4.7 percent of the vote (not enough to get into Parliament, but enough to rob Angela Merkel of a working majority and her former coalition partners of representation, too). In France, there is the National Front (18 percent) depriving the Gaullists of their right flank; last year in the Netherlands the government fell after Geert Wilders's Party of Freedom (PVV) refused to back it over austerity measures; in Britain, Conservatives head the first peacetime coalition government for more than seventy years, while the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) keeps making gains.
Each is specific to its national context. The National Front and the PVV concentrate on attacking Islam and immigration; the UKIP is obsessed with the European Union. But they share basic characteristics with the Tea Party. They are generally pro-market populists who find their support primarily among lower-middle-class whites anxious about neoliberal globalization in all its forms and consequences — outsourcing, immigration, war, terror—and are retrenching into their nationalistic and racial laagers.
The difference between the increasingly conservative mainstream and these increasingly strident margins is one of degree rather than principle. Lindsey Graham is no moderate, and John McCain chose Sarah Palin as a running mate. Merkel has hardly been a soft touch on bailouts, and the British Tories are deeply euroskeptic.
But strategically, they could not be more different. The mainstream, including the Republican establishment, aspires to govern — an objective that comes with certain rhetorical and tactical constraints. If your aim is to take power and people take that aim seriously, then people will expect you to do as you say — and what you say you will do is supposed to bear some relationship to what is possible.
The Tea Party and its European doppelgängers, however, gain their currency from seeking not to join the political class but to undermine it. The attraction of their key demands — whether defunding Obamacare, bringing back the Deutsch mark or leaving the EU — lies not in their feasibility but futility. Although, through obduracy and sophistry, they may gain concessions along the way, their central function is not to challenge the course of events but to protest their inevitability. They articulate an impotent, shrill and resentful rage that seeks an audience rather than a cure.
Indiana GOP Congressman Marlin Stutzman put it best during the shutdown when he insisted, "We're not going to be disrespected. We have to get something out of this. And I don’t know what that even is."
The presence of such belligerent and tactless operators within the Republican fold has its benefits for the GOP. It was primarily thanks to the Tea Party that Republicans were able to take back the House in 2010. Had these activists set up a party on their own — barely a feasible option given the winner-take-all system and the nature of American political funding — they would have split the right-wing vote the way Ross Perot did in 1992.
But for the most part, they have proved a huge liability. A small, dedicated, reckless minority can arguably do more damage from the inside than out. Were it not for Tea Partiers nominating unelectable candidates in winnable seats like Delaware and Indiana, the GOP would now control the Senate. Meanwhile, the Republicans’ avowed post-election determination to adjust to the nation’s demographic and cultural trends or suffer electoral irrelevance has been put on hold while the country watches Ted Cruz read Dr. Seuss before they shut down the government.
All this they have done in the name of the Constitution and American exceptionalism. But the harsh reality for the Tea Party advocates in Congress is not only that they are acting out — they're acting like Europeans.