Tea Baggers: Democrat Allies?

One can forgive the Tea Party a certain amount of historical myopia and shamelessness. After all, this is a group whose founding event happened 237 years ago this December. And, of course, some of its members do sometimes refer to themselves, un-ironically, as “Tea Baggers.”

So when far-right Republican Senator, John Thume, R-S.D., recently appeared on C-SPAN’s “Newsmakers” with news that the Tea Party may splinter from the Republican Party if it fails to, in Thume’s words, “govern according to our principles and … follow through on the things we say we’re going to do” in November, we should take it seriously. We should embrace the possibility that the Tea Partiers will be their own party by 2012, following in the proud tradition of electoral futility laid forth by the Bull Moose and Reform parties before them.

And I must say, I tentatively like the idea. Nay-saying conservatives have responded to the news by pointing out that such a third party would divide Republican votes, force the mainstream Republican Party to alienate moderate voters by competing for the Tea Party’s base and be ill-equipped to compete with the relatively more ideologically sound parties.

I do not disagree with any of those assessments, but I also want to see the Tea Party do some damage to the Republican Party before finally fizzling away. That is, the left should welcome the news for the same reasons that the right is worried about it.

While it is never easy to guess what America’s political climate will be like in two years’ time, we don’t have any reason to believe that the antipathy toward President Obama and Democrats in Congress will abate before that. This is because the resentment many Americans feel towards Democrats, and especially President Obama, is foundationally irrational – a mixture of racist paranoia, perceived economic marginality and old-fashioned stupidity.

This is not to say that there are no valid critiques of the Democratic Party or of President Obama. It is only to say that, to date, nobody on the right is advancing any such critiques.

If the Democrats want to stay in office in 2012, they’d do well to support a split in the Republican Party, especially a split involving a group as damaging as the Tea Party.

The Tea Party is not sustained by sophisticated critique and its members often use a jackhammer when a toothbrush is appropriate. Over the past decade, Republicans have done very well for themselves by playing to their base while not losing moderate support, but the Tea Party has done what seemed impossible and mobilized a base even further to the right than the average Republican.

And because Tea Partiers are much less savvy than the average Republican (which strikes me as more of a human tragedy than anything else), moderate Republicans would no longer be able to publically espouse “moderate” positions with a mere wink-and-a-nod to the hyper-conservative base. No, with an independent Tea Party, each Republican would be required to publically demand a copy of President Obama’s birth certificate on pain of losing key voters.

Already Tea Party candidates have brought down established Republicans in several states. The cartoonishly racist and sexist Carl Paladino won the Republican nomination for governor of New York only to fall dramatically behind in the polls. Then, there was the great mess of Christine O’Donnell in Delaware, who brought down established Republican Mike Castle before enjoying a similar trouncing at the polls.

Now, I must reiterate that my support for this move is very much tentative and tongue-in-cheek, and I am only supportive insofar as there is potential for the American right to shoot itself in the foot. And, as progressives, we cannot be content to let the Republican Party and the Tea Party hurt each other; we must become more actively involved in hurting them.

We must engender more political will on the left so that we are no longer on the margins of political debate. We need to roll up our sleeves, put on our thinking caps and boldly counter the vulgarity that is Republican domestic and foreign policy. If the Democratic Party embraced its own potentially radical base of feminists, communists, queer activists, immigrants and people of color, who have split into several failed third parties in the past, there might be a chance for a real progressive movement in America.

James Bliss is a fifth-year political science, women’s studies, and African-American studies major. He can be reached at jbliss@uci.edu