“A cautionary tale for the Tea Party”
The evening air was brisk; fall came early to Houston in 1964. Carol welcomed John into her home as a new guest for the lectures which usually drew around 25 attendees. The lecture series was on “Objectivism” and the guest speaker tonight was the ever present Sony reel to reel tape recorder. As usual, on the tape was the voice of noted author Ayn Rand speaking on the philosophy of “Objectivism.” The guests listened with a reverence usually reserved for clergy. I came to refer to these people as “Randroids,” which was about as deep as I was capable of thinking as a 17 year old male. I lived in Carol’s home and attended the lectures. I was Carol’s son. Later, my Mother would marry John and he technically would be my step father, but I was living on my own long before then.
I maintained a friendship with a number of the lecture attendees. Within a few years, several of these people moved to the Denver area. Colorado was a natural draw for fans of Ayn Rand as her best-selling novel, “Atlas Shrugged” centered around a conservative Utopia based in Colorado. All “Objectivist” males thought they were Hank Rearden, the hero of the novel and of course, all “Objectivist” females thought they were Dagny Taggart, Rearden’s love interest. It was a sort of intelligent, conservative Rocky Horror Picture Show. It was on a visit to the Denver home of one friend, and Objectivist lecture attendee, that I first heard of a new political party which was forming. They had already decided on a name; “The Libertarian Party.”
Libertarianism as a small “l” philosophy had been fully embraced by the Objectivist crowd and I freely admit I was, and am, in total agreement. However during this visit, the focus was on how to distinguish the Libertarian Party philosophically from the Republican Party. It was obvious from the discussions that libertarianism as a philosophy was fully consistent with the ideals of the Republican Party. What was also obvious to everyone in the room was that too often Republican leadership failed to live up to these ideals. If the Libertarian Party was to be a successful third party, that is to replace the Republican Party in the number two spot, they would need not only to distinguish themselves from the already well established Republican Party, they would have to draw strength from the Democrat Party as well. These discussions were tactical, not philosophical.
As most of the people in the newly forming Libertarian Party were “young adults,” and the war in Viet Nam was still raging and being badly mismanaged, there was a natural, although conservative, anti-war sentiment. Although conservatism supported defeating communism, even if war was required to do so, it abhorred governmental micro-mismanagement of the war effort. The social issues of abortion rights and gay rights were not yet part of the political landscape. These would come decades later. By embracing the anti-war movement but using fundamentally conservative reasoning, the Libertarians hoped to pull enough Democrat peace activists to weaken the Democrat Party. They also hoped to attract enough young Republicans to establish a growing Libertarian Party which would absorb the Republican Party while drawing enough Democrats to become America’s majority party in a short period of time.
The initial jolt was impressive. They even claim to have taken one Electoral College vote. This however is more spin than reality. The Elector went against his own pledge to cast a Libertarian vote and therefore revealed himself as willing to sacrifice personal integrity for a political stunt. Over the years, the Libertarian Party has had a few successes in local races when the Republican contender was not particularly strong. But over the decades, the Libertarian Party has sunk deeper into irrelevance serving only on rare occasions to give victories to Democrats in extremely close races.
So it is with “third parties.” They always adversely affect the party with whom they have the most in common. Gains in Green Party support yield defeats for Democrats but no victories for Green Party candidates. My flirtation with the Libertarian Party was short lived. The few ant-war Democrats they were able to attract brought their left wing philosophies with them. The Libertarian Party did not wind up to the right of the Republican Party as many of us had hoped. In spite of their billing they did not become a centrist party either. They look more like Palestine with populations on the far right and populations on the far left. Predictably they look like a nutty party with no philosophical consistency.
It is the wisdom of the Tea Party which has kept them from a similar fate. No third party has been successful (capable of actually winning office and forwarding an agenda) in the United States. A successful presidential republic will almost always have a two major political party structure. Multiple parties are the result of a parliamentary system. Although, early in its early formation, the Tea Party welcomed both Democrats and Republicans, the Democrat Party unequivocally rejected Tea Partiers. There should be no surprise here as the left rejects the Founders values. The Tea Party is a re-Founders movement. Success for the Tea Party will be measured in their ability to affect Republican Party politics. The Republican Party was the first re-Founders movement.
Tactically, the Tea Party needs to do two things. The first, “March in and take over the Republican Party” as Dick Army suggested. This will not be as easy as it sounds. Patients and time will be required for this. Entrenched elected Republican officials will not embrace this change nor will their cadre of establishment Republicans. Term limits? Pa-lease. But rank and file grass-roots Republicans and dependable Republican voters welcome the change. Tea Party Republicans will have to be elected to office and pushed to the fore of Republican Party politics.
Second, and over time this may also be difficult, the Tea Party must maintain its autonomy. The Tea Party may recruit Republicans into their ranks and then march them right back into the Republican Party with renewed commitment to conservative principles. But the Tea Party must also maintain enough structure to meet off site and strategize and develop programs to move the Republican Party back onto its proper foundations. Within the Republican Party there may be too much resistance especially in these early phases. The Tea Party must maintain the standards by which the Republican Party is measured. By maintaining off-site autonomy, the Tea Party can avoid the pitfall of bringing in the contrary influences which destroyed the Libertarian Party. By maintaining autonomy, the Tea Party can avoid irrelevance. If 2012 brings a Republican victory, only Tea Party influence will keep it on track. We need the Tea Party now more than ever.