Bachmannstein: or, The Modern Icarus

by , under All categories, Barachiel

A Finnish friend recently asked me why I chose to take an American angle with my inaugural post here on Migrant Tales, “Of Birds and Feathers: The PS, the Sweden Democrats, and Their American Bedfellows. What could political trends in America tell us what we don’t already know about the phenomenon of the PS and their counterparts across the European Union?

I submit that American (and foreign) political goings-on, especially in recent times, can help anti-racists and immigrants defeat forces such as the PS with the right amount of cunning and patience. And being an American who has studied the far-right in my home country since my teenaged years, I know a lot more about the PS’ Yankee friends there than Finland-centric contributors at Tales. Not that the other contributors aren’t knowledgeable themselves in their own right. But if you want to understand people like the PS, you may have to look at outside of Finland to succeed in doing so.

As you may recall, at the start of Obama’s presidency, the United States went through a wave of right-wing populism engineered by a collective movement called the Tea Party. With its uncompromising rhetoric, xenophobic hostility, and politics of resentment, it was something of an inspiration to the far-right parties that sprung up in Europe at roughly the same time. I have often heard European populists, sometimes during personal interactions, compare themselves to the Tea Party. And vice versa. Which may be problematic soon, the Tea Party is not doing so well.

Despite the Tea Party’s projected successes in the 2010 mid-term elections – big enough that they inspired left-wingers to write excessively pessimistic op-eds like, say, this – those successes were somewhat limited in the final result, and nothing has gone right for the Tea Party since. Obama was re-elected. Gay marriage, something the Tea Party staunchly opposes, is poised to become legal, or at least more likely, in the U.S. The constantly changing racial makeup of the American electorate threatens the relevance of the Tea Party’s “angry white male” power base.

Fox News and Glenn Beck, the Tea Party’s main cheerleaders in the media, have destroyed their mainstream credibility and, in Beck’s case, have migrated to the outermost fringes of American political discourse. Most Tea Party candidates were either defeated or unseated in 2012. Sarah Palin is about to disappear as a national figure, as is Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN), whose disastrous presidential campaign and subsequent public appearances have exposed the extent of her avarice. The doom and gloom among the American left has proven premature in the case of the Tea Party.

If we chart the decline of the Tea Party with the decline of European populists, a pattern emerges. Geert Wilders, the Dutch politician who in many ways inspired Islamophobia to take root in parliaments across the continent, saw his party lose half its seats in the Dutch parliamentary elections last year, not long before the Tea Party defeats of 2012. Since April 2011, the PS has consistently performed poorly in elections despite its high poll numbers. Remember how the PS’ polls went as high as 19% before the municipal elections, yet they only got 12% of the vote – half of both what the pollsters predicted and the 2011 election result?

If the Tea Party and European populists have anything in common besides rhetoric, it’s the fact that they are banal and self-destructive. I could compare both to the Greek mythological figure Icarus, who got nifty artificial wings but was too arrogant not to fly too close to the sun. The Tea Party had a chance to set the U.S. agenda after the 2010 elections, but they were so self-absorbed and uncompromising and narrow-minded that they squandered it. The PS is in the same position, and may (and likely will) go out the same way. Same with the Sweden Democrats, which is in a more precarious position than it lets on.

So if you are an immigrant or ideological opponent of the PS, I don’t think you should fret quite yet. The PS looks powerful now, but like the Tea Party before it, it does not truly appreciate the democratic process and thus cannot adequately function within it – the party’s poor election returns are partly a testament to that. The worst enemies the PS has are not the immigrants or the leftists, but the egos of its own members.

It’s two-and-a-half years until the next election. Two-and-a-half looooooooong years. Long enough for the PS to make a mistake that it cannot sweep under the rug.

  1. Mark

    Very informative post Barachiel. Welcome on board.

    Do you think the Tea Party are going to change the narrative on immigrants now that the Right seems to have accepted that there is no way forward without the Hispanic vote?

    How do you understand the split between populists and nationailsts? I see elements of fascism in both strands. What do you think?

  2. Barachiel

    Very informative post Barachiel. Welcome on board.

    Do you think the Tea Party are going to change the narrative on immigrants now that the Right seems to have accepted that there is no way forward without the Hispanic vote?

    How do you understand the split between populists and nationailsts? I see elements of fascism in both strands. What do you think?

    I think I forsee some schisms among the Tea Party with regards to the Hispanic vote. Some will try to attract Hispanics, who they believe are religious and patriotic enough to buy their message (though this may be wishful thinking on their part). Yet other Tea Party folk will stick to the anti-immigrantion line.

    Perhaps the best example of the dualistic treatment of Hispanics by the Tea Party and its ilk is how Fox News dubiously covers Hispanic issues. Fox News has been trying to cater to the Hispanic community with Fox News Latino, a website that positively covers such things as immigration reform and the “pathway to citizenship.” But Fox News also operates Fox Nation, which caters to a suspicious white audience and comes up with some pretty racist angles in covering those exact same stories.

    What specifically do you mean by “populists and nationalists”? Are we talking about the Tea Party, the PS, or both?

  3. Mark

    Mostly the PS. Nationalism seems to be a thread that has more resonance in the EU than the US, though ‘patriotism’ can of course be a cover for nationalism. In Europe now, nationalism has once again taken on nuances of ‘cultural superiority’.

    In the context of PS, I’m interested to know how the old split between the ‘rural populists’ and the ‘neo-fascist nationalists’ is playing out. I would say Soini is in the populist camp, playing mostly as he does off the ‘elites’, while Immonen and Hallo-aho etc. is in the neo-fascist nationalist camp. But I’m interested to hear your take on the ‘schisms’ in PS.

  4. Barachiel

    Mostly the PS. Nationalism seems to be a thread that has more resonance in the EU than the US, though ‘patriotism’ can of course be a cover for nationalism. In Europe now, nationalism has once again taken on nuances of ‘cultural superiority’.

    In the context of PS, I’m interested to know how the old split between the ‘rural populists’ and the ‘neo-fascist nationalists’ is playing out. I would say Soini is in the populist camp, playing mostly as he does off the ‘elites’, while Immonen and Hallo-aho etc. is in the neo-fascist nationalist camp. But I’m interested to hear your take on the ‘schisms’ in PS.

    Besides right-wing racist and homophobic groups, I cover anti-vaccine pseudo-science groups on my Facebook blog. There was recently a big blowup on one of the main anti-vaccine propaganda organs, a horrid little website called Age of Autism, where a young anti-vaccine campaigner pretty much turned against his older and more experienced bretheren over what he believed was their kid-glove treatment of the purported “autism epidemic.”

    A Skeptic blogger covering the whole brouhaha noted that there are two branches of the anti-vaccine movement: the “academic” branch that tries to hide the crackpottery of its ideas behind a veneer of moderation and credibility, and the “activist” branch that has no filter and will go wild with the lunacy at the first chance. The young campaigner could be lumped into this latter camp, and he tore ass through Age of Autism because he had believed its members were stymying the “movement.”

    I think you could see the same basic organization in the PS that I have seen in the anti-vaccine movement. Soini and his populists are the ones who are trying to moderate the PS’ message and make it consumable to the public, while Halla-aho and Immonen and Hirvisaari are the ones trying to fire up the PS faithful with more uncensored rhetoric. The two sides of the PS may be allied, but by no means is that alliance stable. Halla-aho and his ilk are time bombs that could destabilize the PS, much like the young anti-vaccine campaigner destabilized Age of Autism.

    From my general experience so far, that is the division I see.

  5. Barachiel

    Besides right-wing racist and homophobic groups, I cover anti-vaccine pseudo-science groups on my Facebook blog. There was recently a big blowup on one of the main anti-vaccine propaganda organs, a horrid little website called Age of Autism, where a young anti-vaccine campaigner pretty much turned against his older and more experienced bretheren over what he believed was their kid-glove treatment of the purported “autism epidemic.”

    A Skeptic blogger covering the whole brouhaha noted that there are two branches of the anti-vaccine movement: the “academic” branch that tries to hide the crackpottery of its ideas behind a veneer of moderation and credibility, and the “activist” branch that has no filter and will go wild with the lunacy at the first chance. The young campaigner could be lumped into this latter camp, and he tore ass through Age of Autism because he had believed its members were stymying the “movement.”

    I think you could see the same basic organization in the PS that I have seen in the anti-vaccine movement. Soini and his populists are the ones who are trying to moderate the PS’ message and make it consumable to the public, while Halla-aho and Immonen and Hirvisaari are the ones trying to fire up the PS faithful with more uncensored rhetoric. The two sides of the PS may be allied, but by no means is that alliance stable. Halla-aho and his ilk are time bombs that could destabilize the PS, much like the young anti-vaccine campaigner destabilized Age of Autism.

    From my general experience so far, that is the division I see.

    Does this answer make sense for you, Mark?

    • Mark

      Yep, it does. From what I’ve seen of PS and its members, there are individuals who simply do not know jack shit about immigrants or immigration and are not particularly interested. They feel like big fish in a small pond and even a little intelligence gets you very far in PS, provided you understand the basic dynamic, which is feeding off the sense of ‘them and us’, whether it’s us vs. political elites, academic elites, corporate elites, urban elites or just Finns vs. immigrants, as long as you get the sense of those that belong and those that don’t, you’ll be fine. Some of them are there because they have joined the ‘grass roots’ through loneliness or trying to make friends and they have taken on a particular issue at the behest of the party organisers. They swallow the party line and are active in trying to communicate that, but their understanding of issues tends to be pretty superficial.

      It reminds me of brainwashing cults – where they don’t really care what mumbo jumbo you spout as your grievance with mainstream religion, as long as you are not happy, you are vulnerable. If you are angry about something and show passion, they’ll go out of their way to sign you up. Then you are slowly ‘engineered’ so that all your grievances align correctly with the party line. Person gets a ‘community’ and the ‘community’ gets a body.

      Interesting that the anti-vaccine community are big on the idea that it’s all a big conspiracy. This idea of being part of an oppressed minority who are only ‘telling the truth’ certainly has ‘religious’ overtones.

  6. Barachiel

    Does this answer make sense for you, Mark?

    All complex groups are like that: religions, political parties, NGO’s, and more that are probably not popping up in my head. It’s all part of the herd mentality human beings instinctually have. I don’t really care if someone finds a sense of a community in a group, as long as that does not come at the expense of other peoples’ well-being. If the PS didn’t rely on exploiting people’s fears and pitting them against each other, I wouldn’t dislike that party as much as I do.

    The anti-vaccine movement is a lot like intolerant movements who hold a simplistic, anecdotal view of the world. They believe that vaccines gave their children autism because they first showed symptoms right around the time their kids had their shots. No amount of legitimate scientific studies or amount of reminding that “correlation does not always equal causation” is going to dissuade them from what they think they witnessed. You’re right, is this the kind of superficial understanding that the fringe feeds on to survive.

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