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Mark Bennett Opinion

October 24, 2010

Mark Bennett: Will ‘enthusiastic discontent’ give rise to a new political party in America?

TERRE HAUTE — Autumn overwhelms our senses. Golden, falling leaves. Cool air. Bonfires (prior to the open-burn ban, of course). Cornstalks rustling in the breeze.

And a tirade by the Rent Is Too Damn High Party guy.

Yes, this political season is a free-for-all swirl of venting voices. In the race for governor in New York, a debate last week included not only the two major party candidates — Democrat Andrew Cuomo and Republican Carl Paladino — but also five relatively unknown people running for that seat. That group included a guy named Jimmy McMillan, wearing black gloves and a striking gray beard, who reiterated his single-issue campaign that rent (apparently in general) is too damn high, hence his party’s name.

Though the New York forum was more circus than debate, McMillan’s candidacy reflects the current atmosphere. Forces outside the traditional two-party structure are attracting attention (McMillan’s debate performance went viral on YouTube) and, in some cases, exerting influence on the Republicans and Democrats. In 2010, anger is contagious.

Even Cuomo, trying to follow McMillan’s rent rant at the debate, joined in by conceding, “Jimmy, the rent is too damn high.”

Of course, it should be noted that, according to the Wall Street Journal, McMillan isn’t paying exorbitant rent, and, according to the New York Times, he may not be paying any at all. But, in this moment, that detail may not matter.

Today’s motto: I vent, therefore I am.

In essence, American politics could morph into 300 million parties — the My Taxes Are Too Damn High Party, the My Teenager’s iPod Is Too Damn Loud Party, the My Diaper Is Too Damn Tight Party, the I Want A Mustang For My 16th Birthday Party, etc. This weekend, the dual rallies by “The Daily Show” and “The Colbert Report” commentators Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert — the Rally to Restore Sanity (Stewart) and the March to Keep Fear Alive (Colbert) — in Washington, D.C., were rooted in parody but sound almost plausible.

Obviously, the largest force is the tea party movement, which isn’t exactly a third party in the same sense as Ross Perot’s Reform Party in the 1990s. Rather than appearing on ballots, the tea party rallies across the country have served as forums, in general, for advocates of smaller government, lower taxes and the defeat of President Obama’s initiatives.

“It’s enthusiastic discontent,” said Walt Stone, political science professor at the University of California-Davis.

Undoubtedly, the discontent will play a significant role in the Nov. 2 midterm election, which includes congressional contests and battles for control of states’ legislatures and several key governors’ seats. Some favorites of the tea party movement appear on the Republican ticket in many races for U.S. House and Senate seats, even though the GOP was in power in Washington when the seeds of the recession were sown. Both major parties are bending their campaign rhetoric to appeal to the discontented, although the Republicans, for now, more closely fit the description of agitated outsiders because Democrats, for now, control the White House and Congress.

But when the 2012 election arrives, will the tea party fervor still be present? Could it evolve into a third party, such as Perot’s Reform Party, which spawned professional wrestler Jesse Ventura’s 1998 victory in the Minnesota governor’s race?

It depends, Stone explained in a telephone interview from California last week.

The tea party could become an organized alternative to the Democratic and Republican parties, “but I think it’s unlikely,” Stone said, “and I say that because it’s not distinct enough from the Republican Party. It would have to coalesce around a leader.” A new Perot, perhaps.

Another scenario could turn the tea party into a full-fledged third party by the next presidential election. “That could happen if the Republicans win both chambers of Congress [this fall], and then — from the tea partiers’ perspective — they blow it,” Stone said. In other words, if the GOP sweeps Congress, then fails to change what Republicans say they’re outraged about, tea party backers may withdraw their support and opt to field their own presidential candidate.

Given the tea party rallies’ emphasis on limited government and low taxes, it seems more appropriate for tea party-favored candidates for Congress and gubernatorial seats to run on the Libertarian ticket — the nation’s largest third party.

But along with small government and low taxes, the tea party movement also embodies some social conservatives, whose stances may clash with those of Libertarians, said Dan Lee, a political scientist at Michigan State University who specializes in third party politics.

Also, a tea party-backed candidate may realize, “If I want to win — and most politicians usually want to win — then the Republicans are the only answer,” said Stone.

Wes Benedict, executive director of the Libertarian National Committee in Washington, D.C., sees the Republicans as appeasing the tea partiers simply to win votes.

“The tea party is an emotionally charged movement based on fear and outrage,” Benedict wrote in an e-mail response to the Tribune-Star. “Few tea partiers are brave and calm enough to face the fact that cutting government spending significantly requires cutting military, Social Security and Medicare spending. I imagine for many tea partiers, it is much more comfortable to join a crowd of Republicans who will tell them what they want to hear, rather than man-up to reality, like Libertarians.”

Even if the tea party trend dissipates or blends into the GOP, discontent and irritation with the ruling party — a sentiment which also helped get President Obama elected — won’t vanish.

“I think it’s always there in one form or another in our culture,” Stone said.

Look out for the Lattes Are Too Damn High Party.

Mark Bennett can be reached at (812) 231-4377 or mark.bennett@tribstar.com.

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