Reading the Tea Leaves: The Tea Party must brew a new path forward

While both Democrats and Republicans fear the Tea Party, all have sought to exploit it throughout the 2010 election season. However, many in the unstructured, seemingly chaotic grassroots movement want it to stand alone. They dream of becoming the third great American party, but accomplishing this feat will require counteracting history in a way many have attempted but at which very few have succeeded.

Claremont McKenna Government Professor Andrew Busch explains that third parties have two primary origins. Those built around a specific ideology tend to be “long-lasting, have very little effect overall, and maybe from time to time succeed on a small-scale.” Think Green Party. The other iteration is a “short-term burst party,” which, like the Tea Party, arises “out of intense reactions against specific policy.”

Whether or not its members agree, the Tea Party is essentially a far-right economic movement. Lacking a concrete platform or party organization and comprised of an amalgam of individuals with vastly differing social views, the party as a whole has no discernible stance on non-economic issues. The movement’s many splintered factions may hinder its sustainability, turning it into a “short-term burst party.”

Only few die-hards cling to “short-term burst parties.” Ever heard of the Peace & Freedom Party? It emerged in the 1960s espousing pure opposition to the Vietnam War, peaking in 1968 when it nominated the Black Panther-leading, soon-to-be drug-using, Reagan-supporting Eldrige Cleaver for president. It died out quickly.

What about the U.S. Marijuana Party or the American Nazi Party? Both are exactly how they sound. One supports California’s Prop. 19. The other, which cropped up in the mid-1960s after the Civil Rights Act’s passage, supports… nothing in particular; it just hates nonwhite people.

Does this model bode poorly for the Tea Party? Busch elaborates that “short-term burst parties are only around insofar as their issue is relevant with the people.” With the economy as their main concern, the Tea Party message will “likely reduce with the recovering of the economy, but it probably won’t do them in altogether.”
But the Tea Party is not espousing novel, time-sensitive ideas; it is essentially a rebirth of several former libertarian third parties, including the Constitution Party and American Party, among others. The American Independent Party carried ten million votes in 1968, largely as a response to Lyndon B. Johnson’s “Great Society Program.” Their goal: to cut spending and reel in “big government.” Sound familiar?

And the Libertarian Party, founded in 1971 in reaction to Richard Nixon’s regulatory policies, essentially stands against government; its members rant in Glenn Beck-style about the government stealing everything from your unborn babies to your soul. It peaked in 1980 with 1.1% of the national vote and later faded into relative oblivion, usually garnering between 0.3-0.4% of the presidential vote.

The Tea Party may reach its peak this election. Some of its candidates have already defeated incumbent Republicans throughout the country. If Tea’s success halts, however, it may become the much-dreaded third party that siphons votes from the bipolar Democratic and Republican hegemons. In that case, they will likely cease threatening Democrats and actually harm Republicans.

In the future, the Tea Party has two options: it can attempt either to become its own party or (more likely) to sway the GOP. If the Tea “movement” takes the blue pill, it will follow a long history of parties evolved out of single issues and fade into comical oblivion by the time the economy recovers and people start cashing in on the new healthcare legislation. If it takes the red pill, however, it might succeed in pulling the Republican Party toward an actual Republican mantra rather than just “fiscal conservatism.”

Quinn Chasan is a junior government major at CMC. Last semester, he worked as an intern on the Hill as part of the Washington Program. Being Jewish, he's always right. Before you take issue with the above article, remember that fact. Then call him or email him @

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