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Opinion

Tea party activists: Don't confuse them with independents

Tea partyers are are disgruntled social conservatives aiming to take control of the Republican Party. Independents are the antiparty force, trying to restructure the partisan political system. 

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That coalition was so strong that in 1999, at its convention in Dearborn, Mich., Perot’s choice for party chair was defeated by a candidate backed by Ms. Fulani and Jesse Ventura. Fulani won 45 percent of the vote for vice chair.

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The Perot clique was desperate for an immediate counterrevolution. Enter Pat Buchanan, a luminary in the social conservative enclave, which had animated the Republican Party, though its influence was waning with the rise of Bush and the neocons. He joined the Reform Party and began campaigning for its 2000 presidential nomination (which came complete with $18 million in federal funding).

The conflict was sharp. Mr. Buchanan was a social conservative. But the Reform Party was not a social conservative party. With the influence of the Fulani networks, its radical reform orientation put it at the opposite end of the spectrum from Buchanan. Nonetheless, a deal was struck.

Fulani, her political guru, Fred Newman, and this writer, agreed to support Buchanan if he back-burnered his conservative agenda and emphasized the values of populist political reform. He agreed, but not before Mr. Newman cautioned that if Buchanan broke the deal, the left leadership of the Reform Party would bury his campaign.

Buchanan did break the deal. And Newman did make good on his promise. Though Buchanan stole the nomination (and the money) right under the nose of the Federal Election Commission, he polled a mere 450,000 votes – just 5 percent of Perot’s total four years earlier. The independent movement bid a not-so-fond farewell to social conservatism.

After the Reform Party debacle, the Fulani/Newman networks went on to create a new initiative in independent politics – without a party – organizing independents around antiparty process issues: open primaries, nonpartisan electoral regulation, and overcoming the partisan political culture.

It was clear to the independent movement that expressing the anger of its base meant opposing both major parties. In contrast, the conservative movement recognized that if it gave up the Republican Party, it gave up everything.

In 2008, it was the influence of the progressive networks that powered independents’ support for Barack Obama, enabling his primary win over Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton and his dramatic general election win over the conservative Republican McCain ticket. 

The latest polls show President Obama’s loss of support among independents. Why? Obama has, for the moment, “gone home” to the Democratic Party. Remember, independents simply don’t like parties.

The independent movement, fundamentally radical and inclusive, with a broad spectrum of Americans at its base, uses its power to reorganize the status quo, to reform the partisan way our country practices politics. The tea party movement, ideologically overdetermined and with no room for diversity, uses its power to reinforce the partisan status quo, but with a conservative twist.

Jackie Salit is the president of IndependentVoting.org, a national association of independent voters.

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