How does Wilders’ populism relate to that of the tea party? What are the differences and similarities between the tea party and the PVV [Party for Freedom]? Let us start with a short trip back in time, searching for the roots of American populism.
The first stop is 1939. That is the year in which the movie, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington,” was released — a real Hollywood classic, made by the famous director, Frank Capra, who can, for example, also add “It’s a Wonderful Life” to his name. The main character is Jefferson Smith, played by James Stewart. Jefferson Smith is the idealistic head of a boys’ summer camp in an undisclosed Western state — Montana or Idaho or Colorado. One of the two senators of the state passes away, and the governor chooses Smith to succeed him. Full of respect for his fellow senators and the illustrious institute that is the Senate, Smith arrives in Washington. But in time, he finds out that he has been chosen only because of his inexperience and naiveté, and that the governor and the other senator of his state, whom he always deeply respected, want to use him to steer a dark land transaction through the Senate.
He more and more finds his back against the wall, and in desperation he grabs for the last resort available to a senator: He starts a filibuster, taking the floor nonstop for two days. Meanwhile, there is an amorous affair going on with a sharp journalist, who is filled with cynicism about the business of politics, but gradually falls for the flat-footed honesty of Smith.
The movie is a textbook example of populism — particularly leftist-populism. Here, a simple man is portrayed who represents the good. Opposite him, evil stands in the form of a political machine that runs on monetary profit and abuse of power. All honest, hardworking Americans think that in Washington their interests are being guarded, but in reality it is a place full of ruses and layers. “I wouldn’t give you two cents for all your fancy rules if, behind them, they didn’t have a little bit of plain, ordinary kindness — a little looking out for the other fella, too,” Smith calls out during his filibuster.
We travel to 1891. This is the year of the formation of the People’s Party, the largest and most important populist party the United States ever had — a party that was mainly supported by cotton farmers in the South and small grain farmers in the Plains states. These farmers had a hard time and felt oppressed by larger powers like banks and railways.
The party became influential for two reasons: During the presidential election of 1892, they played a role of significance in the campaign because of several famous speakers, such as Mary Lease from Kansas, who encouraged the farmers “to raise less corn and more hell” and who told her audience that America was no longer governed by “a government of the people, by the people and for the people,” but by “a government of Wall Street, by Wall Street and for Wall Street.” It made the 1892 campaign a very turbulent one and yielded the presidential candidate of the People’s Party almost 10 percent of the votes.
The second reason why the People’s Party was a significant force: Four years later in 1896, the party renounced its own presidential candidate and supported the man who possibly could be called the biggest populist in American history — William Jennings Bryan, a Democratic representative from the agricultural state of Nebraska, still a young man then and one heck of an orator (on par with Barack Obama or maybe even a class higher).
Bryan was a fervent proponent of the silver standard, the theory that the American currency should only partially be pegged to gold, so an enormous amount of money could be printed that would all end up in the hands of the little man. He considered himself an enemy of the banks and large companies and was a convinced opponent of the evolution theory. His followers called him the Great Commoner, the big man of the normal people.
Bryan was also a very energetic man. During the 1896 campaign, he traveled more than 30,000 kilometers and gave about 600 speeches — but to no avail. The East Coast establishment did everything in their power to block him; most newspapers saw him as a weird guy from the West. The New York Times called him an “irresponsible, unordered, ignorant, prejudiced, but pathetically honest odd man.” The Republican McKinley won the election. And four years later, when Bryan once again gained the Democratic nomination, he again did not make it. But his enormous group of followers was an omen.
So far our journey has been to the past. Of course, I could have selected other destinations, but I have mainly chosen these two examples — Frank Capra’s movie and Bryan’s candidacy — because I want to indicate that populism in the U.S. does not only, nor in the first place, have a rightist background. Because of the present-day tea party and because of the character of populist-set parties in Europe, many are inclined to think that populism comes from the right, but at least in the U.S., that is just partly the case.
Let there be no doubt: The tea party is a predominantly right-populist movement. But it has so quickly found resonance, because in America, a broad foundation of populist sentiments exist that is fed from both the right and the left. Those sentiments regularly flare up in the political mainstream as well. Even politicians who already spent half their lives in Washington are capable of pretending in a reelection campaign that they immensely abhor the political game in the Capitol and that they will mainly use their next term to firmly shake things up there. That is a message that is always accepted by large groups of voters.
That tradition is much weaker in the Netherlands. Of course, we once had Hadjememaar, the Amsterdam bum who managed to gain a seat in the Amsterdam City Council with the Rapaille Party. The NSB had populist features — and according to some historians even the SDAP had populist features in its early years, just like the SP later. There was Koekoek with his Farm Party. But populism has really only flourished with the PVV.
How does Wilders’ populism relate to that of the tea party? Let me start with the similarities:
Anger over what is considered the loss of classic norms and values. That anger translates into a large distaste for and suspicion of everything that is leftist and progressive. In both the tea party and the PVV, the feeling exists that a progressive elite is in power, whose members permanently bounce the ball between themselves and consistently keep outsiders away.
In line with the above, internationalism is also viewed as evil. That same elite does not really put American or Dutch interests first, but is set on an international order in which the national identity fades.
Both the PVV and the tea party are anxious about the arrival of immigrants, but their motives do not run completely parallel. In America, it is illegal immigration and the resulting pressure on the labor market that arouses most anger, mainly in states that border on Mexico. The Dutch PVV wants to strongly rein in all immigration, especially from Islamic countries.
Those are the similarities. But there are also clear differences:
The tea party is a much looser movement than the PVV, which is clearly centered around its undisputed leader, Geert Wilders. In America, you could actually better speak of tea parties — mainly but not exclusively linked to the Republican Party. In almost every state, the accents are different. And there is certainly no undisputed leader. Sarah Palin has a prominent role, but even her admirers in the tea party doubt whether she would be the ideal presidential candidate.
The tea party is characterized by a strong distrust of the government, particularly the federal government. It has overgrown its powers; it has deeply indebted itself; it often hinders citizens in the development of initiatives. Obama’s reform of health care, Obamacare, is socialist interference. This anti-government sentiment is almost completely lacking in the PVV. Actually, the PVV embraces the welfare state, and it does not want social services to be meddled with — see the discussion on the AOW.
Religious criticism the way the PVV operates it — mainly against Islam — hardly plays a role in the tea party. They probably are not too fond of Islam, but religious freedom is paramount. Besides, it cannot hurt to mention that the tea party is also largely free of racism. It is without a doubt a predominantly white movement, but whatever you want to say about various tea party personalities, you cannot say that they express themselves contemptuously about certain racial groups.
Finally: the difference in idiom. This is a slippery terrain, because we are also dealing with general cultural differences here. In America, the political game is historically played hard. Yet, I see the concept of a “head frazzle fee” not quickly getting accepted by the tea party. Maybe it is also a difference in sense of humor.
A salient American populist text is the TV commercial that a conservative group launched against Howard Dean, the governor from the liberal state of Vermont, where a mundane lifestyle was emerging, in 2004. Dean campaigned for the Democratic nomination then. In the commercial, he gets the following advice from an “ordinary” American voter: “Take your tax-hiking, government-expanding, latte-drinking, sushi-eating, Volvo-driving, New York Times-reading, body-piercing, Hollywood-loving, left-wing freak show back to Vermont, where it belongs.” It is hard to explain, but this makes me laugh more than “head frazzle fee.”