Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Elephant Dung #30: Majority of Republicans, including even more Tea Partiers, support new third party

Tracking the GOP Civil War

By Michael J.W. Stickings

(For an explanation of this ongoing series, see
here. For previous entries, see here.)

There may be something to be said for a third party in American politics, or even for the American system to become a multi-party system, but the reality is that it's a two-party system (i.e., a system with two dominant parties and some tiny ones that never win anything) and that third parties have generally failed to capture the public's attention.

In the recent past, there has been talk of a third party emerging in the center to capture independent voters -- and, in generally, those who are economically conservative and socially liberal/libertarian. Think back to Ross Perot, for example. It was never clear to me how such a centrist party would survive, but the frustration with the two-party status quo that drive those movements was certainly real.

But what about a third party on the left or right, a third party that could actually challenge the dominance of the two parties while taking a significant chunk of support away from one of them? Given how conservatives tend to unify around the Republican Party, it seemed that a third party of this kind would most likely emerge on the left, a party of progressives and disgruntled ex-Democrats, a party that was fed up with the centrist and even GOP-leaning inclinations of the Democratic Party establishment, a party that would promote both social justice and something other than the barely-regulated capitalism that is embraced by both of the main parties.

But maybe not.

A new Gallup poll shows that support for the establishment of a competitive third party is particularly strong on the right, among Republicans and more significantly with the Tea Party:

A majority of Republicans said for the first time that a third party was needed in American politics, according to a Gallup poll released Monday.

Fifty-two percent of Republicans, and an even stronger number of Tea Party supporters, support the creation of a major, third political party, underscoring the occasional tensions between grassroots conservatives and the GOP establishment.

An overall majority of Americans, 52 percent, said that a third political party was needed; the most profound shift has come among Republicans.

The number of Republicans who said that a third political party was necessary was at an all-time high since Gallup first began tracking opinion on the issue in 2003. And while support for a third party has crept steadily upward in the GOP, for the first time, it represents a majority opinion.

Supporters of the Tea Party are even more likely to back a third party, the poll found. Sixty percent of Tea Party supporters back a third party, while 32 percent say the existing two parties are adequate. By contrast, 47 percent of Tea Party opponents said the bipartisan system is adequate, and 44 percent favored a third party. 

It seems unlikely that a Tea Party-ish third party would ever emerge on the right to challenge the GOP, and to divide conservatives, not least given that the GOP itself has moved steadily to the right in recent years and has come to embrace the Tea Party with open arms. And yet the Tea Party, or rather the multitude of groups that together make up the loosely-linked Tea Party, continues to wage war against insufficiently conservative (that non-Tea Party) Republicans. Targets include John Boehner, Richard Lugar, and Orrin Hatch, long-time solid conservatives and loyal Republicans who, despite their electoral success and political standing, have failed to embrace the new Tea Party GOP agenda with the fervent absolutism the Tea Party (and, more and more, the new GOP establishment) demands. And, indeed, the Tea Party has shown again and again that it is prepared to suffer at the polls for its absolutism, helping to select unelectable Republican nominees (like Sharron Angle) and, where they fail, throwing up their own candidates to divide the conservative vote. It's better to be "right," it would seem, than to win.

And so I wouldn't put it past the Tea Party, or some elements of it, to break from the GOP and create some right-wing party that adopts an extremist agenda, carves off a significant chunk of the conservative vote, and leaves the Republican Party unable to win even relatively safe seats.

Maybe that's more my hope than a prediction, but it's telling that the Tea Party, which helped the GOP take back the House last year, is increasingly prepared to go it alone.

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