It is not unusual for the president’s party to lose seats in U.S. midterm elections. What is unusual about Tuesday’s contest is that the surge on the right mirrors gains by right-wing parties in Europe earlier this year. As ordinary voters wait for the economic recovery promised by their leaders, what unites them — from Tea Party rallies in the United States to anti-immigration marches in Europe — is a yearning for financial security.
Europe has seen gains by far-right, anti-immigration parties in Hungary, the Netherlands and Sweden. Their reaction mirror hand-wringing here over the influence of the Tea Party, a conservative grassroots movement whose adherents say the federal government has overstepped the bounds of the U.S. Constitution, spent recklessly and grown too large. In both places, the result is the same: shifting power to those who plan to shrink the size of government, which voters interpret as a step toward financial security.
In Hungary earlier this year, a young supporter of the anti-Gypsy Jobbik party explained her vote in financial terms: "The Gypsies are a real problem here. They don’t work, don’t vote. Jobbik has a program for this. The Gypsies won’t get any state support unless they work."
GlobalPost's Thomas Mucha explained this reaction back in the throes of the financial crisis when he looked at labor unrest through the lens of the Davies J-curve. When a government cannot meet its citizens' expectations, they revolt. In the strong democracies of Europe and the United States, this revolt has (for now) taken the form of a change in government.
In Europe, those new governments are enacting their mandates for change. Last month, Britain’s new conservative government announced historic budget cuts. The Netherlands’ new Prime Minister Mark Rutte has promised to inaugurate an era of austerity.
In the United States, where the House of Representatives changed hands, but the presidency and Senate remain Democratic, will the government as a whole be able to agree on change? On Tuesday, Republican Senate candidates Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, John Boozman and others won their races after decrying deficit spending and promising action.
“We’ve come to take our government back,” Paul said in his victory speech. “There’s a Tea Party tidal wave and we’re sending a message to [Congress] … . We are in the midst of a debt crisis and the American people want to know why we have to balance our budgets and they don’t.”
That’s an old message that has its adherents in every cycle. That it’s the dominant message as developed countries claw their way out of a global recession should not be surprising. Americans fear that government is spending their money just as Europeans (wedded to their larger social welfare benefits) fret about immigrants taking their jobs.
Conservative politicians who have held the reins of power this year have taken steps to safeguard their economies hand in hand with measures that cater to the far-right.
In France, President Nicolas Sarkozy spent this year fighting to ban burqas in public, and to reform his country’s pricey pension guarantees.
In Germany, Chancellor Angela Merkel raised the retirement age and announced that “multiculturalism has failed.”
Whether U.S. President Barack Obama reacts to Republican gains and specifically the Tea Party’s influence on the right by tacking from left to center remains to be seen.