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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Sarah Palin, America’s newest conservative movement leader, seems to be aiming for a takeover of the GOP. Don’t walk away from the Republican Party, she counseled the “tea partyers” recently, even if some candidates turn out to be a disappointment (read: moderate). And don’t form a third party, she argued, saying, “The Republican Party would be really smart to start trying to absorb as much of the tea party movement as possible.”

With that, Ms. Palin highlighted something that politicians, if they want to make waves in the upcoming Senate elections this year, or the presidential race in 2012, must understand. 

Contrary to some of the spin, the tea party movement is not part of the independent movement. Anyone playing the political game, from the president, to the politicians, to the pollsters, confuses them at their peril.  

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As the country becomes more and more dissatisfied with the two parties and anger and disappointment among Americans grow, it’s important to see the ways these two movements are diametrically opposed and seek to accomplish different things. That’s how Americans will come to understand the difference between a tempest in a teapot and a broad-based movement to dramatically reform the political system.

The tea partyers are disgruntled social conservatives aiming to take control of the Republican Party, while independents, the antiparty force, are seeking to restructure the partisan political system. As the percentage of Americans – it’s now 42 – who consider themselves independent grows, understanding the route the independent movement has traveled will be critical to future elections. 

Social conservatives set their sights on the Republican Party in 1964 when Barry Goldwater won the GOP nomination but was defeated by Great Society Democrat Lyndon Johnson. They captured the White House 16 years later with Ronald Reagan, compromised with George W. Bush and the neoconservatives in 2000 and 2004, but were swamped in 2008 by the rise of a new movement – the independents – when America elected its first black president.

Bursting onto the scene in 1992 with an outpouring for Ross Perot, the independent movement began as largely white, leaning center-right. While the movement was quintessentially anti-establishment, left-liberals wrote it off as hopelessly right-wing.

But a network of unorthodox independent leftists with a base in the black, Latino, gay, and progressive communities, reached out to forge a populist coalition with the Perotistas. Appealing to the need to bring all Americans together against a self-dealing, corrupt two-party arrangement, a new coalition took root inside the Perot movement, which led to the creation of the national Reform Party. 

At its founding meeting in Kansas City in 1997, the 40 black delegates in the room, led by the country’s foremost African-American independent – Lenora Fulani – represented the first time in US history that African-Americans were present at the founding of a major national political party. 

Though cast as either centrist or conservative, the Reform Party was neither. It had become a left-center-right coalition shaped around an agenda for populist political reform.

While issues of immigration, trade, and the debt continued to interest many independents, this independent coalition turned to the need to reform the American political process as its fundamental concern. Nonpartisan reform of elections and up-from-the-bottom democratic control became its operating principles locally and nationally, while the movement grappled with how to move beyond Mr. Perot.

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.

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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