Rise of the populist right

Nationalist parties are growing in Europe and maybe here

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It has not yet found a voice in the United States but a political phenomenon in Europe, called by some observers "right-wing populism," certainly exists in America and may well be a political force waiting to be harnessed and ridden to change this country.

Europe has seen a rise in populist political activism and some electoral success by parties in Austria, Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Denmark, Finland, France, Greece, Hungary, the Netherlands, Sweden and Britain.

These are not mainstream parties yet, but that is part of the point. They represent what may be a significant and growing point of view within their countries that is looking for a voice and looking for a party or spokesperson to represent it on the national, governing level.

Here is what they have in common. They believe they have an important point of view, and perhaps even represent the majority opinion. But they know they are also thoroughly out of power. Not only that, but they believe they have no chance of achieving power because the route to control of their countries is firmly blocked by the people already in power who either are or are supported by moneyed interests.

Their reaction is to hearken back to the days when they imagine it wasn't like that. In the 28 European Union countries, and especially in the 17 eurozone countries, they feel particularly the heavy, not-subject-to-much-influence hand of the EU and eurozone. The populations of these countries are subject not only to their national laws and regulations but also to those applied by European authorities. They understand well the advantages of the euro and some of the beneficence of EU aid, but they also recall well when their money and their stamps had their own national heroes and heroines on them.

EU and eurozone rule might have been acceptable when it brought only benefits, but now it brings with it as well painful budget austerity and pesky immigrants -- competitors for their jobs -- from Bulgaria, Poland and Romania. And so they start squirming around to see if there is some political means for them to try to bring what is happening to them -- the new life and the loss of the old -- to a halt.

It is hard to put a name on the separate political movements. They are to a degree populists, nationalists and in some cases racist at the core. They don't appear to work together across borders. Some observers try to put them in the same box as the American Tea Party, but the European groups are not all white, male, rich or particularly religious. Nor do they tend to nestle inside and try to control major political parties, as the Tea Party does with the Republicans.

To the degree that these European parties tend to be intensely nationalist, they do not work particularly well with America. They are principally concerned with their own countries and do not tend to look for outside allies or financing. The only foreign policy issue they show any particular interest in is immigration. They are against it, both within and outside the EU, definitely from Arab and African countries.

Now, how did the European and American governments and mainstream parties find themselves in the position of being hated and assaulted by portions of their populations from this more or less common point of view?

Both Europe and America are ruled for the most part by cliques of rich people who have pretty much dealt the mass of the middle class -- not to mention the working class, which hardly anyone in the United States mentions anymore -- out of the governing process. The rich finance and control most of those who govern through campaign contributions and just plain corruption.

The tools at the command of the rulers are now clearly way beyond anything ordinary people can do anything about. National Security Administration surveillance is now at the point in the United States where no one has any reason to believe that he can even criticize the government in the privacy of his own home without running the risk of the information going into a file somewhere to be used against him at some point.

Then the question becomes, how far and how sharply can a government herd the ostensibly powerless sheep before they figuratively run off the cliff in a destructive -- or self-destructive -- extreme act of resistance? Europe hasn't found out yet. Nor has America. Someone may figure it out before our "shepherd" political parties self-destruct, if -- if -- we really wish to avoid that.

Dan Simpson, a former U.S. ambassador, is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (dsimpson@post-gazette.com, 412-263-1976).

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