Is this 1854?

For all the comparisons between 2010 and 1994 or even 1982, the correct comparison may be to 1854. The fascination with third-parties is longstanding, but the U.S. has always been a two-party system. Political scientists from Anthony Downs onward will tell you that the two-party dominance is largely driven by our electoral system: when the vote is majority-take-all, parties move towards the center to gain votes, leaving little room for a new party to emerge. And while third-parties have had some limited success throughout the years, not since the emergence of the Republican party in 1854 did these parties ever gain sustained national prominence.

But is the time right now? There is significant unhappiness with both of the parties, and the public are especially supportive of a third party option, more so than in recent years. Youth who flocked to the Democratic party during the “Obama election” of 2008 are less likely to self-identify as Democrats. ¬†Finally, the Tea Party’s successes in Republican primaries may be indicative of the receptiveness of voters for a different option.

So what can we learn from 1854? The original Republican party’s success came about when they brought a new issue to the front of the agenda that both parties were ignoring: the expansion of slavery. In 2010, the ignored issue seems to be financial restraint. Democrats’ faith in government’s ability to solve problems – such as their stance on health care or cap-and-trade would indicate – makes it difficult for them to realistically cut spending, although they have been trying and Clinton helped proved they can reduce the deficit. And Republicans’ firm stance on tax cuts for everyone, which almost all economists believe will expand our national debt, makes their claim to financial austerity laughable.

So if the Tea Party renounces some of their extreme elements (a la Christine O’Donnell) and focuses on this issue of the debt, I think they have the potential to prove influential for many years to come. People are angry about the state of the economy and unhappy with both parties on this issue. And while financial restraint may not be a “sexy” topic, I think politicians can make it so and are trying to do so by talking about the effects on our children. So will 2010 be remembered as the 1854 of the Tea Party? It remains to be seen, but the potential is there.


6 Responses

  1. Clinton helped proved they can reduce the deficit

    Actually, Clinton was dragged, kicking and screaming to a balanced budged by a Republican congress when Newt Gingrich was the Speaker of the House. His first two years were almost as disastrous as the past two years have been (without the deep recession).

    Now, Clinton and the Democrats bragg about how he left Bush with a balanced budget – which the Republicans squandered when Dubua was Pres., and consequently lost their majority in both houses of congress.

    That’s why the Tea Party people are disgusted with both parties – and why they are running against “sure to win” Republican establishment candidates.

    • I ran across this website in thinking about issues regarding the deficit and spending. Looking at these figures – admittedly, compiled by someone else – certainly seems to suggest that Republican presidents, more so than Democratic presidents.

      Now, there could be a lot at play here. As you note for the Clinton era, the figures don’t address whether Congress and the Presidency are controlled by one party, although that hasn’t happened much since WWII. Republican presidents have also been much more common since WWII, so maybe they are just swept up in a national trend of a rising deficit.

      However, the numbers themselves are at least suggestive. The point that the author of the website makes is that neither party is that effective at cutting spending, but Democrats are less compelled to make promises to cut taxes. And that’s a fair point, as those are two potential solutions for the deficit.

      As for the Tea Party and the American public, I think there’s a lot to be upset about in terms of the federal budget and the deficit, which leaves open the opportunity for a party to take a stand and gain some support.

  2. […] to America” attempts to co-opt key issues Posted on September 27, 2010 by Emily In my previous post, I suggested that although the current iteration of the Tea Party lacks a uniform agenda, the […]

  3. I think that both of you are right. The current Tea Party benefits from a desire for “change’ of any type, but suffers greatly from a lack of coherent purpose, as this article demonstrates:

    However, some of their claimed “core principles” according to this article – fiscal responsibility, limited government and free market enterprise – certainly seem reasonable and ones that aren’t truly addressed by the current parties. They sound like old Republican ideals, but as the Republican party moves to focus on social/value issues and tax cuts, they may not be seen as representing these points.

    Of course, if they actually get successful at gaining voter interest, there’s always the possibility that the parties will do what they do best – move to take over the issue themselves.

  4. Great Article! I think the primary thing people are looking for is a CHANGE from the downward direction this country is headed. Look at the 2008 election… CHANGE was numero uno. Look at the Tea Party… Unhappiness may describe it, but they are looking to CHANGE the situation.
    I find is strange, inspiring, and somewhat sad that Jon Stewart is hosting a Rally to Restore Sanity. I find it great that people with “middle” line thinking are coming together. But I find it sad that it takes a comedian to put this together and make it happen.
    The state of politics in our country is simply becoming an state of expontential entropy. Naturally, things become polarizing and fall into chaos as more components are added.

  5. Was the early gatherings of the Republican party filled with as many different ideas as the Tea Party? I feel like if you went to a meeting of Tea Party supporters, asked them “What should we do about the deficit?” I would get back as many different answers as attendees – followed by what I’m sure would be a ‘rational’ debate amongst them about which idea is better. . . what I perceive as the only unifying thing among them is that they are unhappy. I doubt that is enough of a foundation for which a new party can be formed.

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