Saturday, August 28, 2010

Tea Party of the North? Or Reform Party of the South?

Tea Party bears marks of Reform Party influence

CNN actually has the question backward: is the American Tea Party a Reform Party model?

The parallels are, admittedly, startling: each started out as a revolt against the perceived failures of the established conservative politicians of the day, and each to confront the looming excesses of the left.

Each has faced similar challenges: a membership speckled with individuals with troubled histories, vapid accustaions of racism from a left threatened by their ideas, and limited involvement by individuals whose racial attitudes invite such suspicions.

Each has produced figures whose policies were judged to be extreme by who considered themselves to be mainstream political figures. In many cases such individuals were shocked with an unwelcome dose of reality -- that these allegedly extreme positions are actually shared by more people than share allegedly "mainstream" positions.

Most strikingly, the Tea Party has a need it shares in common with the Reform Party: a need to reach out to their fellow conservatives. Depending upon the circumstances, this can be extremely challenging.

"It's hard to reconcile them all," says Reform Party founder Preston Manning, speaking of his experience trying to unite Canadian conservatives who were divided by minor political differences. "The argument we used is that you all need each other. You do agree on a whole bunch of other things."

As Manning points out, there's a danger in allowing such minor differences to divide conservatives.

"I argued they were not philosophically incompatible," Manning explains.

Some never came around to this line of thinking. Former Prime Minister Joe Clark never did. Would-be Progressive Conservative kingmaker David Orchard most certainly didn't. Garth Turner flirted with this line of thinking just long enough to get elected as a united Conservative Party MP before being cast out of caucus.

Manning stresses that open and inclusive debate remains the key to building strong coalitions among individuals who favour differing "flavours" of conservatism. In Canada alone, conservatives need to find consensus among seven distinct sub-groups: fiscal conservatives, social conservatives, democratic populists, British tories, libertarians, progressive conservatives, and paleo-conservatives.

This makes democracy and open debate within the party especially important.

"If we can't apply democracy to reconcile these differences within the party, then why should the public believe we can do this on a larger scale?" Manning asks.

Manning suggests that political circumstance may hamper the ability of the Tea Party to affect change within American politics.

"These people are trying to build a coalition in a political culture that tends to favor polarization," he muses. "That does make it difficult, because people want to go to their corners rather than come together in the center of the ring."

Of course, this may have overlooked the detail that many of the Republican Party's leading candidates are either strongly supported by the Tea Party, or subtlely allude to policy influences from the Tea Party.

In the face of policy over-reach by the administration of President Barack Obama, the right in the United States is already uniting. A few figures, such as Senator John McCain, remain divisive for American conservatives. But Republicans don't seem to be rejecting the Tea Party out-of-hand; nor does the Tea Party movement seem to be rejecting the GOP.

If the Reform Party truly influenced the Tea Party -- and it seems clear that it has -- it isn't the first time the Reform Party influenced American politics.

In fact, Republican braintrust Newt Gingrich very publicly acknowledged Manning's influences on his own politics.

There's a reason why so many in the Canadian left seem to genuinely fear the Tea Party: in it they see the echoes of a movement whose ideas they feared, and they see an American left trying -- and failing -- to use the same culture war tactics that they resorted to, and failing.

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