Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Party "purity" over power? The Tea Party's Rise, the Republican Party's Fall

Once upon a time, when the so-called "Tea Party" first began, some political commentators noted that the Tea Party was something different from mainstream politics. It was not a party of the right or left, but it represented "real" America. At the time, I dismissed such commentary as such nonsense was invariably being said by conservative commentators alone.

This fairy tale of the "mainstream" so-called "Tea Party" has been largely exposed for what it is in fact. The Republican Party has been called by some the party of angry white men. If so, then the most angry are in the Tea Party.

That the Tea Party is anything but mainstream seems fairly clear from the races we have seen thus far. For example, we hear again how Tea Party supporters have come out in their droves to unseat Republican establishment favourites. (The BBC covers the latest headlines here.) Some may point to the fact that the defeat of establishment-supported figures is evidence that the Tea Party represents "mainstream" America. This is wrong. The evidence? Well, can you think of a single case where the Tea Party defeated a Democrat establishment-supported to figure to win the Democrat's primary in order to stand against a Republican Party candidate? No? Neither can I. The fact is that all along the Tea Party represented both Republican Party members and non-party affiliated members of the public who would most often vote Republican. It does not and has not represented the rest of us who aren't Republicans and would not normally vote Republican. So much for the claim to being mainstream.

Some also think that the Tea Party is a new movement. In many respects, this is not true. Over the last 20 years or so, there has been a movement within Republican Party-supporting circles to ensure that the party is more "pure" in its commitment to certain conservative doctrines, often doctrines relating to sex and sexuality such as abortion or same-sex marriage. There is nothing new about this nor the doctrines held by many so-called "Tea Party" candidates in recent election campaigns.

The longstanding political problem with this movement is that however cherished these doctrines may be, they are often minority positions in public opinion polls. Only a minority of Americans oppose legalizing abortion, but not so it would seem of Tea Party supporters.

The genuine political problem for the Tea Party is that it may actually help crush election hopes for the Republican Party this November, as well as lead to a real decline in the Party's longstanding future. The BBC's Mark Mardell states the problem well:

"Delaware tells you something important about the febrile state of US politics. It might even tell you something about the next presidential election. Republicans could win big, but some conservatives would rather have purity than power.

This was Vice-President Joe Biden's Senate seat and it should be safe Democrat territory. But Democrats are so unpopular that polls indicated that if old-school Republican Mike Castle had won the nomination, he might have whisked it away from them.

Both the polls and senior Republicans suggest that Tea Party favourite Christine O'Donnell hasn't a hope of winning the seat. But the Republican voters wanted her as their candidate nonetheless.

So when people tell you that Sarah Palin will not win the nomination in 2012 because she cannot beat President Obama, remember it is grassroots Republicans who make that decision, not party strategists or commentators."

The problem facing the Republican Party is that Tea Party candidates may make winnable contests out of reach all in the name of party purity. Some of us welcome any movement that makes the Republican Party less attractive voters and I'm trying not to smile while I write. However, the Republican Party -- and perhaps even American politics more generally -- would do well to find a new way of engaging their current base or a radical alternative. This alternative would be to better embrace the fiscal conservativism while dropping any strong commitment to social conservativism.

Whether or not this alternative could be palatable is another question, but the Republican Party's longterm future may depend upon it. Not that I want it to succeed.

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