Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Tea Parties Should Work within the GOP

The Poli-tea blog has an interesting post (h/t Chris Johansen). The blog argues that Tea Party activists should avoid working within or infiltrating the GOP:

"Infiltrationist strategy plays right into the hands of the ruling political establishment: filling out the apparatus of the Democratic-Republican Party political machine is literally exactly what the ruling political establishment wants you to do!"

It is unlikely that the Tea Party will ultimately constitute a major party. The reason is its inability to find a national leader. My good friend Phil Orenstein is a likely candidate who seems to have been overlooked. Otherwise, there has been so much confusion that one of the groups claiming to be the Tea Party had Sarah Palin as their keynote speaker.

There are several reasons why a third party will not work. First, Americans have been committed to a two party system almost since the first Congress. Initially, partisanship was considered unseemly, and politicians did not consider it appropriate to volunteer to run--they ought to have been asked, they thought. Washington was concerned about the formation of independent political clubs. Nevertheless, by 1790 two discernible parties had formed, the Democratic Republicans of Jefferson and the Federalists of Hamilton. Although after Jefferson's election in 1800 there was a twenty-something year respite from parties (the "era of good feelings") partisanship reasserted itself when Andrew Jackson took several aggressive stands, especially against the Bank of the United States. In response, Henry Clay formed the Whig Party. The Whig Party was the forerunner of the Republican, but it broke up just prior to the Civil War and was replaced by an all-northern Republican Party that included abolitionists.

If you look at the history of the parties they were all started by charismatic or special leaders: Federalists-Hamilton; Democratic Republicans-Jefferson; Democrats-Jackson; Republicans-Lincoln. Who is the charismatic leader of the Tea Party (besides Phil Orenstein)?

Second, there is a long history of third parties playing a prodding role in American history. In the 1850s The Anti-Masonic Party pushed for some nativist platforms in the Whigs. In the 1890s, the Populist Party pushed for inflationist and "Progressive" platforms among the Democrats. I believe that the 1980 election of Ronald Reagan was in part due to prodding by the Libertarians.

The major parties have been good at integrating insurgent interests. In contrast, insurgents have been generally poor at building independent parties. The Progressive Party, founded by the redoubtable Theodore Roosevelt, spoiled the 1912 election and had an effect in the days of Progressivism and social democracy. But it never gained power. The same for Ross Perot. Perot was an almost-successful leader. But the proof was in the pudding. The failure of his party to generate a continuous organization shows how difficult it is to start a new party. Even a leader of Perot's caliber was unable to do it. I don't think Phil Orenstein can either (although he never said he was forming a third party--he's an active Republican).

In sum, the difference in difficulty of working through the GOP and starting a new party is the difference in difficulty of sending someone to the moon and sending someone to Mars or Venus. So far, I am not convinced that the Tea Party knows which end is up, much less whether it can start an independent party.

Infiltration of the GOP is possible. This is what happened to the Populist movement. When the Democrats ran William Jennings Bryan in 1896 as the inflationist/populist candidate, it had just seen four years of libertarian leadership by Grover Cleveland, a "Bourbon Democrat" from New York. Bryan lost to McKinley, who was a pro-tariff Republican who supported sound money. But within forty years, Franklin D. Roosevelt adopted most of what Bryan had advocated (in 1896 and in two subsequent failed presidential runs). In other words, the Populists transformed the Democrats.

That is a more fertile strategy for the Tea Party than to start a third party. I worked with the Libertarian Party in the 1970s and know that third parties are very difficult without charismatic leadership. And if Orenstein keeps refusing the job of leading the Tea Party, I'm not sure who is going to do it.

1 comment:

d.eris said...

Interesting points. Here's a link to my response: On Political Independence.