Back in 1997, when several of Japan's political parties were breaking up and regrouping, Masaru Uchiyama decided it was the time to move on tax reform. So he devised a pledge that asked politicians to promise they'd never increase taxes again. He targeted dozens of local lawmakers, offering support if they signed on, and many did.
If the pledge sounds like a copycat of Grover Norquist's famous (or infamous) Taxpayer Protection Pledge, that's because it is. Uchiyama's taxpayer advocacy group, "Japanese for Tax Reform," even mimics the name of Norquist's group, Americans for Tax Reform, which has sponsored the U.S.-based pledge since 1986.
Today, as questions loom in the U.S. over whether the recent fiscal cliff negotiations show Norquist's pledge is dead, the conservative anti-tax activist's signature document is proving its tenacity by spreading its tentacles of influence to another unlikely place: Europe.
A group called Tea Party Italia, inspired by the tea party movement in the U.S. and by Norquist's pledge, created a similar taxpayer contract it is pushing ahead of the country's general election next month. The pledge says politicians won't raise taxes and will work to reduce the country's debt, which the Associated Press reports hit a record $2.64 trillion in December.
"They liked the pledge, so they came up with their own," Norquist tells Whispers of the pledges in Japan and in Italy, which he recently endorsed. "I'm excited."
David Mazzerelli, a co-founder of the Italian tea party group, tells Whispers that getting supporters hasn't been a problem. The group has hosted 200 mostly well-attended events over the last several years, he says. But getting politicians to sign on to the pledge might prove more of a challenge.
"Candidates in the U.S. want to sign this pledge because they have to do a difficult and hard campaign," he says. Italian candidates, on the other hand, are chosen by the party and don't go through a campaign season. "So it's very difficult to find [politicians] that believe in our ideas in Italy."
But the pledge already has several signatures, according to Mazzerelli, and with so many political parties in Italy—more than two dozen at the national level—there's likely to be a few easy targets.
The pledge may also get a boost from another transplant to Europe from Norquist's bag of tricks: his well-known "Wednesday meeting."
The weekly gathering of center right leaders, launched by Norquist in 1993 to help organize against President Bill Clinton's healthcare plan, has since become the "Grand Central station of the conservative movement" in the U.S., according to conservative columnist John Fund. During the last decade, the gatherings have spread across the world—with Wednesday meetings now held in Japan, Canada, the U.K., Spain and Sweden. A Wednesday meeting has also been held in Rome for years, and this election season the gatherings will start in Milan as well.
Norquist says his next stop is Brazil, where Americans for Tax Reform will work with center right groups there to launch the Wednesday meeting and to pitch the pledge.
(Photo of Uchiyama and Norquist courtesy of Japanese for Tax Reform)
"We say 'Here's several tools that we find help us in the U.S.,. [including] the taxpayer pledge. Will this work for you?'" says Norquist of his approach to evangelizing his message around the world. "You never want to do tell someone else how to run the politics of their country," he says. "But I think [Tea Party Italia] is going to have great fun."