IN 1773, Sam Adams led the Boston Sons of Liberty, thinly disguised as Mohawk Indians, onto three British freighters, seized their cargo of imported Indian tea and threw it into the harbor. They were afraid that the tea, unexpectedly cheap because it had been exempted from the usual British reexport tariff, would tempt Massachusetts consumers to abandon their principled resistance to taxation without representation. A later historian jokingly referred to the event as the “Boston Tea Party.” Today, anti-big-government agitators are channeling their ancestors’ ire as they build a Tea Party movement of their own. Some pundits speculate that the group could end up forming a new political party for the first time in well over a century, to rank with the Democrats and Republicans. They too must be kidding. Everything we know about political parties tells us that the Tea Party is not one and is not going to become one.
For the last year and a half, indignant citizens have been holding rallies around the country to protest the bank bailout, the stimulus package and the health-care bill. At a massive Washington, DC rally on September 12, 2009, and at a Nashville conference this February, Tea Party demonstrators denounced big government, swelling federal debts, financial rescue for failing homeowners and creeping socialism. They carried pictures of President Obama, sometimes in the guise of Hitler, sometimes in that of Che Guevara, which suggests an equal-opportunity approach to hating big government. Posters of the clenched fist and references among spokesmen to Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals, on the other hand, hinted at an affinity for the more libertarian and anarchic side of the sixties-era New Left. Few of the demonstrators voiced positive political ideas, however, contenting themselves instead with old bromides like “Don’t tread on me” and “Just leave us alone.” In April, a press statement from Minneapolis announced the formation of the National Tea Party Federation (NTPF), a center dedicated to countering misinformation in the media. It emphasized the variety and decentralization of the groups it represented and made no claim to be the voice of a new party.
To be effective, a political party needs to be strong at the center and strong in the grass roots. So far the Tea Party’s members are scattered all over the map, geographically and on the issues. Different groups have different preoccupations and react with varying degrees of annoyance to government projects. Few have even a local structure or discipline. Indeed, Sarah Palin, the Tea Party’s pinup girl, denied that membership in the new movement was incompatible with membership in the GOP.
Still, some activists seem to be hinting at the possibility of a new departure. Palin herself had harsh words for big-government Republicans and she endorsed challenges to several incumbents later in the spring. She also intimated that the national Tea Party was something more than a mere ginger group reminding the Republicans of their libertarian heritage. What does it want, and what does it tell us about the relationship between ideas and parties in American politics? Why, moreover, is it certain to fail?
THE TWO-party system in America doesn’t take kindly to newcomers. Nascent political movements find it difficult to get started and even more difficult to transform the initial impulse into durable election-winning organizations. When an important issue emerges, and when its advocates try to make it the basis of a new party, either the Democrats or Republicans—sometimes both—adjust their posture to preempt it. Political parties are vote-winning and power-wielding organizations, moving with the times, adjusting their principles as necessary. They speak the language of high morality but concern themselves with the gaining and holding of office.
America has lived through any number of episodes of political elbowing, partisan machinations and factional learning experiences to get to our present stable party system. In the early days of the Republic, several political groupings learned that making a stand on principle can be disastrous. One was the Federalists. They enjoyed every advantage in the 1790s. With George Washington at the helm, they bore the glamour of the successful fight against Britain, but after his death in 1799 they did not learn to change with the times. In the new century, the states began rapidly to reform their constitutions by extending the franchise, achieving something pretty close to a one-man-one-vote democracy. Yet many of the Federalists reviled democracy—President John Adams dreaded it and wrote that he deplored the drunken riotousness of election days, while Massachusetts Representative Fisher Ames wrote: “Our disease is democracy. It is not the skin that festers—our very bones are carious, and their marrow blackens with gangrene.” The Federalists’ inability to embrace democracy in the early nineteenth century, and the confinement of their influence to New England, led them to rapid extinction.
In those days, politicians felt uneasy about the very concept of parties (hitherto known, pejoratively, as “factions”). They assumed that none could possibly govern virtuously in the interest of the whole population; all would be narrowly self-interested. Under these conditions it was possible for new groups to emerge even while denying that they were parties. Opposition to “King” Andrew Jackson, for example, was the rallying point of the Whigs in the early 1830s. They depicted themselves as the guardians of republican virtue standing up to the national demagogue who, they said, had ignored the Supreme Court over the fate of the “five civilized [Indian] tribes,” ravaged the economy by destroying the National Bank, and shamelessly rewarded his relatives, friends and cronies with patronage appointments.
Historians describe the politics of the 1830s–1850s, when the Whigs faced off against the Jacksonian Democrats, as the era of the “second party system.” The Whigs’ success was short-lived, however; the deepening sectional divide over slavery in the 1850s tore them apart. Waiting to pick up the pieces was another new party—the Republicans, a bundle of interest groups with little in common apart from an aversion to the spread of slavery into the West; some were old Whigs, some abolitionists, some anti-immigrant “Know-Nothings” and some Free-Soilers. Their wrangling convention in 1860 finally came up with a candidate for president, a rustic onetime ex-Whig congressman named Abraham Lincoln.
THAT WAS exactly a century and a half ago. Since then, no party has been able to displace either the Republicans or the Democrats. Each party learned how to adapt to changing political, social and economic circumstances, to discard its positions whenever necessary and to absorb the main ideas of new challengers. The closest approach to a successful new contender came with the People’s Party of the 1890s. In those years, Midwestern and Plains farmers were being squeezed by railroad companies that charged high freight rates for taking their crops to market and by high storage fees levied by elevator operators. They were also trapped in a deflationary vise as the rate of population growth outstripped the money supply. Each year their crops brought less money on the market and they became chronic debtors. Southern cotton farmers faced a similar cycle of debt, dependency and deflation. The Farmers’ Alliances, a coalition of agrarian-oriented political groups, grew up in response to these problems, became a political party in the early nineties and scored some local successes, getting a few of their representatives elected in the farm states. Central to their demands was an inflationary monetary policy, “free silver.” By 1896, a presidential election year, the People’s Party loomed large on the national political horizon.
By then, however, the entrenched parties had learned how to co-opt challengers’ positions. The Democrats headed off the Populist threat by nominating William Jennings Bryan of Nebraska, a rising farm-state politician, as their presidential candidate. He accepted his party’s nomination with the famous “Cross of Gold” speech, which, in phrases easily misunderstood today (“You shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns. You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold.”), blended the rhetoric of evangelical Christianity with advocacy of free silver. In effect, the Democrats had adopted a crucial plank of the Populist program as a way of holding on to large numbers of voters who might otherwise have checked their ballots for the newcomer. That maneuver left Populist organizers in an agonizing position. To vote Democrat would be to abandon the movement they had struggled to build in the foregoing years. Not to vote Democrat was to court the near certainty of defeat for their third party. They made the worst of a bad situation by nominating Bryan as their presidential candidate, a nomination he repudiated. Sure enough, the Populists lost badly and quickly vanished from the political landscape.
This technique of co-optation continued throughout the twentieth century, with the two main parties beating off every challenger. They adapted as necessary to new circumstances and never let principles get in the way. This is why the identity of both parties has changed beyond recognition. At the start of the twentieth century, for example, a new “progressive” mood began to affect politics. Citizens’ dissatisfaction with the power of monopolies, the corruption of city government and bribery in the U.S. Senate led to political insurgency movements against “Old Guard” politicians. In 1912 a charismatic ex-president, Theodore Roosevelt, organized the new Progressive “Bull Moose” Party, with himself as presidential candidate, to give it political expression. In response to this alarming threat, both of the established parties shifted their ground. All three presidential candidates that year (incumbent President William Howard Taft, along with Woodrow Wilson and Roosevelt) claimed to be the real progressive, even though they had shown little interest in the concept ten years before. Because Roosevelt’s candidacy split the Republican vote, Wilson, the Democrat, ended up the winner.Image: Pullquote: Campaigns and candidates that insist on sharp distinctions and clear ideas usually lose. Look at Barry Goldwater.Essay Types: Essay