Geert Wilders is the Ted Cruz of the Netherlands. Both have great hair and a powerful command of oratory. And both are incapable of closing a deal on the most basic task of any government: making a budget. Wilders leads one of the largest parties in the Dutch House of Representatives, but he has no power. His Party for Freedom backed a ruling coalition with Dutch conservatives until April 2012, when budget talks stalled and he pulled out. On Oct. 11 a new coalition of two parties reached agreement with three minority parties. The Netherlands got its budget, without Wilders. On Oct. 14 reporters asked Olli Rehn, the European Union commissioner for Economic and Monetary Affairs, what he thought about the budget stalemate in Washington. “Perhaps it is now the time for the U.S. policymakers to go Dutch,” he said.
As stock markets in Europe swung with every setback in the negotiations in Washington, statements from European politicians began to move closer to panic. Speaking on Bloomberg Television on Oct. 10, Christine Lagarde, French head of the International Monetary Fund, curtly described the consequences of a possible default as “very negative” and made a plea for “leadership.” John Bruton, the former Irish prime minister, is less diplomatic. “A bond, after all, is a promise,” he writes in an e-mail. “Military might is not much use if you gain the reputation of not keeping your promises.” Former German Finance Minister Hans Eichel says he’s “speechless that a global power behaves in such a manner, and that there’s such a schism and hate in the system that it can steamroll over the interests of that global power and the rest of the world.”
Like others on the continent, Eichel is both livid and bewildered. How, Europe asks, could America have screwed this up so badly? Easy. European countries know how to absorb obstreperous new minority parties into politics without letting them paralyze the government. Washington has no history of doing to determined obstructionists what the Hague did to Wilders.
Political parties mirror a country’s enduring divides. The U.S. splits along the Mason-Dixon line. The U.K. splits along class and Switzerland along every valley. In a multiple-party democracy—which describes most of Europe—unless a single party wins an overwhelming victory in an election, all parties have to play a game of coalition-building to reach 50 percent of the seats in a parliament.
Coalitions settle a couple of questions, says Catherine de Vries, a Dutch-born professor of European politics at Oxford. Both parties know who got more votes. There is no question who is the senior coalition member. And coalitions must agree on a platform before forming a government together. Voters in coalition-run countries are familiar with this process and more amenable to compromise as the price of power. “I’m not saying this always works perfectly,” De Vries says, “but you see the harsh edges of political parties go off when they’ve been in formal coalition negotiations.”
There are Tea Parties everywhere. Finland has its True Finns, France its National Front. Germany has a brand-new Alternatives for Germany party. De Vries refers to these as “issue entrepreneurs.” They seize on questions that have been ignored by major parties—such as immigration and the pace of European integration—and win enough votes to matter. To get into a coalition, these narrowly focused parties have to accept that there is more to governing than immigrants, or taxes, or global warming. If they’re hostile to compromise, they’re stuck on the outside, left to agitate for their ideas with no power to enact them or even to throw sand in the gears.
Brooks Newmark, a Tory member of the British Parliament, says the Tories were lucky in the last election. The extreme right wing of the party broke off to form the U.K. Independence Party. Had they stayed within the fold, he says, “UKIP-type members of Parliament could have held us hostage” just as the Tea Party is doing to the Republicans. Without them, Newmark adds, the Tories still have been able to pass austerity budgets.
In the U.S., members of the House and Senate allied with the Tea Party have the support of some percentage of voters for their unyielding stance on fiscal policy. But because they hold power as Republicans, rather than in a coalition alongside the GOP, it’s hard to tell how many Americans believe they were right to shut down the government and threaten default.
America has never done more than flirt with the idea of a third party. Those that gained a modicum of recent support rose up around the appeal of a single person, such as Ross Perot or Ralph Nader. Like new parties in Europe, the Tea Party seized on an issue—public debt—that both major parties had agreed to ignore. It’s shown staying power that eluded other attempts to form lasting third parties. Yet the true test of its strength and legitimacy will come only if it leaves or is ejected from the Republican Party that now uncomfortably hosts it. Running candidates for office under its own banner would reveal the depth of its popularity. And it would force the party to decide whether it wants to make laws or throw rocks.
There’s at least one person who’s been inspired by the current, crippled Washington: Benedetto Zacchiroli, a city councilor in Bologna, Italy. Both President Obama and the Republicans are to be admired, he says, for holding firm to their ideals. He sees in their fight something rare in Italian politics—a battle not over positions and privileges but ideas and policies. “It’s obvious to me that the Republicans are playing a losing game,” he says. “But even they have positions that are coherent.”