Recent U.S. primary election results were read, by and large, as a victory for mainstream Republicanism over Tea Partiers. But that was true only on the most superficial level.
Democrats held a U.S. Senate majority two years ago only because wacky and/or weak Tea Party-sponsored candidates won Republican primaries over their more centrist Republican rivals and, then, lost to vulnerable Democratic incumbents — most notably, Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada.
The Tea Party, it could be said, saved five Democratic Senate seats.
Karl Rove, former political strategist for President George W. Bush, and other GOP pragmatists mobilized this year behind more centrist, more electable Republicans. In all cases this past Tuesday, these candidates beat their Tea Party rivals in primaries. That puts Republicans in better position to control both the Senate and U.S. House next January.
Will Tuesday's primary losers be sore losers and sit out the November election? A few will but, historically, that has not happened in even the most divided political parties such as, for instance, the 1948 and '68 Democrats who were split by emotional issues of race and war and peace.
History also tells us that third party and factional movements, from the early 20th century progressives to followers of Henry and George Wallace and Ross Perot, usually, and within a short period, get subsumed within the two major parties and their platforms. More importantly, what is happening in both the United States and Western Europe is the emergence of populist movements which are expressing their impatience with economic stagnation and immigration and their frustration with governing elites who are not interested in middle- and low-income citizens.
In Europe, the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis has led to forced austerity and shrinking welfare-state benefits. Slow economic and employment growth have fallen most heavily on those least able to deal with them. The ensuing populism has come with a dark side, marked by resentment, especially of immigrants from Muslim countries and eastern Europe. Moderate, centrist governing coalitions are weakened.
Here in the United States the slow economic recovery also has hit hardest those least able to cope. The wealthy and big investor classes have benefited generally from the recovery which has taken place. But middle- and low-income American workers continue to be victims of shifting labor markets and technological change.
Democrats have believed that existing demographics will ensure electoral majorities for them over the next decades. But that presumes that voting groups maintain their present allegiances. The outlook appeared similar in 1965, after huge Democratic victories in the '64 presidential and congressional races. But come the late '60s and '70s, blue-collar and middle-income voters fled the party, becoming what are known as Reagan Democrats. Few saw it coming.
The point: Don't presume that the future will proceed in a straight line from the present. Stuff happens.
The danger, here as in Europe, is that working politicians will play to the fears and discontents of the disaffected in this rising populist era rather than offering agendas that address economic and social problems in a positive way. We see this happening now in the Republicans' continuing attacks not only on government programs such as Obamacare but on government itself. Democrats, for their part, are using race, gender and class as wedge issues in dangerous ways.
No extreme right wing, race- or foreigner-baiting movement appears close to gaining power in Europe. But politicians are making hay with attacks on the European Union, the euro, moderate governance and institutions, and people who were broadly supported before the 2008 crash.
Neither Europe's nor our own economic and financial systems have regained sufficient stability to generate political stability.
We've seen what can happen when populist anger rises and the center does not hold. Europe in the 1930s gave rise to Nazism and extreme nationalism. The United States, led by a skillful President Franklin Roosevelt, had a near miss as significant parts of our population rallied behind totalitarian movements of Far Right and Left. FDR, at one time, said he "might be the last democratically elected President of the United States."
Tea Party anger and populism should be seen not just as something Republican mainstreamers fought back against this month. The Tea Party movement, per se, has been weakened. But anger and populism are still on the rise and bear watching.